Girls get married and have children young in this rural hillside village. Seventh-day Adventist Church leaders here hope that tradition will change for some within a generation.
Their expectation follows a two-year trend in which several ministers of other Protestant faiths in the lush, highland farming villages have converted to the Adventist Church. Members who joined with them could gain access to the denomination's schools if sponsors can be found. Soon, local families could push their 12 and 13-year-old daughters toward education instead of early marriage, Adventist leaders say.
Though it has limited resources, the Adventist Church in the southern section of Mindanao island is trying to increase support of new Adventist congregations. Across the territory of the denomination's Southern Mindanao Mission, a remarkable 45 ministers have converted in the past few years through the work of Adventist missionaries and local Bible workers, as well as former classmates and professors, who have since converted. Most say church doctrines, such as the seventh-day Sabbath observance and an emphasis on healthful living, convinced them to switch.
Many members of their former congregations have converted along with them -- nearly all in some congregations, about half in others. More could still convert, depending on how they view the intentions of their new denomination, Adventist Church leaders say.
"Some switched immediately, some took their time, some are waiting to see if they get benefits or if the missionaries are trying to get benefits from them," said Romulo Tuballes, Communication director for the Southern Mindanao Mission, a region home to nearly 60,000 members.
Other religious groups have previously come through the T'boli region making promises of support that never came, he said.
"We aren't making big promises," Tuballes said.
Still, leaders have informed congregations here of a proposed Bible school for lay preachers they are determined to start next month. Leaders only told villagers, however, after a sponsor was found earlier this year.
Most pastors here, like their members, are corn farmers. The denomination doesn't want to create dependency, but Tuballes says he also hopes to aid new pastors and members in more practical ways, such as providing some basic farming tools.
"Their hope could get stronger because they know someone cares," Tuballes said during a 20-minute hike down a steep, narrow dirt path back to his vehicle along the main road one recent Saturday morning. He had just visited a thatch-roofed church for the third time since its roughly 30 members became Adventists in September.
The trend of ministers finding the Adventist faith is also seen around Lake Sebu, about 20 miles away. A day earlier, several recently converted Adventist ministers met for ministerial training at a church in the district. One of those ministers was Arvin Dulay, who established 62 congregations for One Way Outreach, a church-planting movement
Dulay, 35, said his friends were surprised when he became Adventist, asking "why?" He said told them he saw more biblical truth in the Adventist Church after having been visited by a missionary and studying the Bible with a local lay member afterward. Five other ministers became Adventist along with him, he said.
Elizar L. Abas, a former Baptist minister, became an Adventist in August. For 20 years, he had read books written by Adventist Church co-founder Ellen White on health and family life. He is one of several new Adventist ministers serving in the nearby province of North Cotabato.
Mission president Roger Caderma has implemented a goal of at least one baptism a month for each of the 46 pastors working for the mission. The biggest recent increases in membership, though, are the result of work done years previously, as members of other congregations follow their minister into the Adventist faith.
"It's amazing, we're baptizing here by church, not just individually," Caderma said.
The children of many new members could soon have the chance to attend Matatum View Academy in the town of Tupi. The boarding school is named after the nearby mountain, which looms above the surrounding pineapple fields and palm trees. Several hundred students from five tribes attend the school, and nearly half receive significant tuition assistance with a work/study program.
That Friday night at a vespers service in the campus sanctuary, a 14-year-old freshman named Mariby sat in a chair on the sanctuary platform behind a singing group. She said she hoped to one day become an accountant. Seated next to her, a 16-year-old junior named Ernie said he wanted to become an electronic communication engineer.