I am Mercy Gawason, and I am a Subanen woman. I am 26 years old and work in the Subanen Craft Centre in Ozamis City, the Philippines. I met Columban Fr. Vincent Busch in 2004, and he taught me the art of making mandalas and wooden beads. In 2007 we began making Christmas cards at the centre, and I am now in charge of mailing, packing and sending the Christmas cards we make. I have been a craftwork artist for 12 years now after leaving Midsalip, which is in a remote area in the forest and the hills where the majority of the Subanen people still live. You may ask how I came to be here so far from my forest home in the northern hill country of the Island of Mindanao in the Philippines. Well, this is my story of how I came to be one of the leading craftswomen of this centre.
My family and I lived in the hill forests ever since I can remember. Originally, my people, the Subanens, were animists. We believed that nature and all creation are alive with good and evil spirits, and these spirits governed our lives. As a result of our ancestral beliefs, we are imbued with a deep reverence for creation. We lived isolated in the forest until the decade of the 1970s when the Columban Fathers and Sisters introduced us to the Catholic faith, and our lives began to change. They presented Jesus to us as a member of a family along with Joseph and Mary, which appealed to us because Jesus, Mary and Joseph were always on the move going from one place to another, just like us. Now nearly half of the 80,000 Subanen tribal people are Christians.
Moreover, we Subanens are very shy people and we flee from conflict. This led us to retreat further and further into the forest as outsiders encroached on our land destroying it as they came. However, the Columbans taught us that God loved us and this helped me and my people to be more open and relate to others. The Columbans challenged us to accept that we couldn’t keep running forever and encouraged us to defend our lands by protesting the Government against the mining companies and all who would destroy the forest out of greed.
When I was young, I met Columban Fr. Sean Martin. My family was very poor, and Fr Sean wanted to help us. As a result of his and other Columban Missionaries’ concerns for the welfare of our people, the Columban Sisters formed a crafts group in Midsalip 15 years ago. I was invited to join.
Gradually, I gained confidence as I became more aware of my talent for art and craft making. Being a member of a Subanen craft group also helped me realise too that we as a people have a special gift that we can share with others. Eventually, the Columban Sisters encouraged me to go to Ozamis, where I discovered that Fr. Busch’s ideas of expressing concern for creation through mandalas matched my talent and deepest religious convictions. Gradually more women like me joined our group from Midsalip as the Columban Sisters discovered new artistic talent among our people and sent them to Ozamis to promote the cause of the Subanen people. Today when we produce mandalas and cards that come from the depth of our hearts and express our profound love of creation and our faith in a God who has created such a beautiful world to live in.
Now I am a professional craftsperson, and I’m proud to be a Subanen woman. Not only do I help my family, but the work I do here also helps my people gain the resources we need to defend our land and protect the forest we love.
I believe we Subanens are artists. We have a special talent for expressing our love of God’s creation in artworks which we can use to help our brothers and sisters all over the world understand they come from nature and are part of creation. I am happy that our creative talents can reflect the love God shares with all of us through nature. Next year I hope to study communications systems at La Salle University in Ozamis City. I want to communicate my gift to other Subanen people and encourage them to follow the path I have taken so that the forest will always remain our home.
This article was originally published at the Columbans Fiji website.