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Ambushed by a Vision

   

September 3, 2011
- by Jenna Grubaugh

Davao City, Philippines — It’s a story that seems so impossible, you can’t really believe it, even when you hear it for yourself.

A 36 year old nurse by profession, Hon. Shirlyn Macasarte comes from a family that has been heavily involved in politics since she can remember. Her mother was the president of their Catholic parish, her father repeatedly ran for the Mayor, in some cases running against his own daughter, Shirlyn’s sister. Shirlyn herself was elected as a legislative board member for their province of Cotabato at the age of 23, just a few days after graduating college.

But these positions of power have come with a price.

***

The youngest of nine children in a Catholic family, Shirlyn grew up in a world of memorized prayers and absentee Bibles. Shirlyn was already a successful woman with two young daughters and a strong leadership role in the community when her brother, a former drug addict and “black sheep” of the family, brought a group of missionaries to their home in Dec., 2006. Here, Shirlyn was confronted by a God who wanted a personal relationship with her. With the help of the missionaries and the support of her brother, Shirlyn became a Christian at the age of 31 on December 15, 2006. She hasn’t looked back since.

Even as a new Christian, she knew that God would bring her through trials but that these would make her stronger. After going through the deaths of both her brother and uncle at the hands of rebel ambushes, Shirlyn told God she had had enough challenges to last a lifetime. But her biggest trial still lay ahead.

On December 28, 2008, Shirlyn was asked to travel to Manila for a business meeting. Because of the tension between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the government in her home area at the time, she asked her father to recommend a safe route.

With three extended family members along for the ride, Shirlyn hesitantly began the journey.
Rounding a curve in the road revealed trouble: more than fifty armed MILF soldiers stood on both sides of the road. She immediately instructed her driver to accelerate as quickly as possible to get through the ambush. The soldiers surrounded the vehicle as it passed, shooting from every possible angle.

Driving through the barrage, Shirlyn felt a bullet hit her in the back. She yelled to the driver that she had been hit but to keep moving past the shooters. The vehicle stopped about fifty meters past the ambush site, disabled by shots to the tires and engine. Shirlyn watched the rebels move in to “finish them off.” Though the vehicle was severely damaged, she knew that safety lay just a bit further down the road. Instructing the driver to try starting the car, she prayed that God would make it possible for them to drive. The car miraculously started and they spluttered ahead for another five-hundred meters.

Shirlyn sensed her life slipping away. She prayed that God would accept her into heaven and that her two daughters would be taken care of. But as she closed her eyes, the near-death bright lights of heaven many people experience didn’t appear. She opened her eyes and realized that it wasn’t her time, that God wasn’t accepting her into heaven that day.

It was then that she heard a voice and saw a vision so clear that it had the power to shape the rest of her life: Reconciliation.

The word, which Shirlyn had heard but barely knew the meaning of, repeated itself, implanting its vision in her brain. As the soldiers again approached her vehicle, she heard God speak two sentences to her: “Get out of your car. Introduce yourself.”

With no movement left in her lower body, Shirlyn opened her door and dragged herself out of the car. As the MILF soldiers reached the vehicle, she asked them straight out, “What did I do wrong?” Slowly, the soldiers recognized her and realized they had made a brutal mistake: this woman was not their enemy! They knew Shirlyn as the nurse who had done community outreach in their area, helping equip their own people. In tears, they apologized for their grave mistake, reassuring her that this was a “case of mistaken identity.”

A Muslim man from that area approached Shirlyn. “He told me that he would carry me to a nearby truck that would take me to the hospital, and that he would turn his back toward the soldiers in case anyone fired at me.” It is this man who represents for Shirlyn the importance of a balanced understanding of your “enemy.” She was attacked by Muslims, but she was also saved by one.

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woman in a wheelchair looking out of a window
Hon. Shirlyn Macasarte

View or download full sized image.

   

After a 24 hour journey that included being turned away by two hospitals without the capacity to treat her, Shirlyn finally reached Davao City where she received surgery on her spine. Miraculously, the bullet entered and lodged in her spine less than 1mm from her spinal cord and between two vertebrae so that there was no fracture. Much to the amazement of her surgeon, although the entry point and endpoint of the bullet were obvious, the bullet’s path toward the spine was invisible, making it impossible for them to remove it without risking further damage. The bullet remains in Shirlyn’s spine to this day, a constant reminder that God has a plan for her life.

While her family gathered around in support during her recovery, Shirlyn feared her brothers and father were already planning to avenge the attack. She convinced her brother, a prominent military leader, to stay with her during her recovery, hoping this would prevent him from taking revenge. She constantly reminded her brothers and father that revenge wasn’t in God’s plan for this event, insisting that they offer help instead of harm to the attackers.

Through intense pain, not only from the gunshot wound but from shrapnel in her feet and face, Shirlyn found peace only when her siblings read to her from the Bible. After a slow recovery, Shirlyn finally left the hospital with a new realization of God’s reconciling purpose for her life.

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Shirlyn says the first step in the reconciliation process was the most important: forgiving her attackers. When I asked her whether the forgiveness was immediate or if it took a while to come, she answered that she forgave her attackers almost instantaneously. There was, however, a stipulation. Shirlyn made a deal with God, saying, “I will forgive them right now only if you make yourself known to them even more fully than you have to me.” She went even further, visiting some of the perpetrators in jail, and with the help of her brother, posted bail. Shirlyn maintains that facing her attackers has been an integral part of her trauma healing process.

So what does reconciliation mean to her now, 2 1/2 years after the event that changed her life? “A lot of work!” she says with a laugh.

She not only had to reconcile herself with her attackers, but to God’s mission for her of promoting the gospel message of forgiveness. She is now an advocate for her Muslim neighbors, stressing to other Christians that generalizations about people who are different from you are never appropriate and only serve to divide communities further. As part of her community outreach, she also works with a group of pastors who minister to MILF rebels, and appears every Sunday on a radio show called called Tinig Ng Pagasa (Voice of Hope).

Shirlyn believes that we need to measure peace successes by counting the number of people whose attitudes have been transformed by education, not by counting the number of people killed through violent confrontation. By understanding the power of reconciliation between conflicting groups and the possibilities through resource sharing, Shirlyn believes that the vision of reconciliation that God gave her can be real to everyone.

Jenna Grubaugh is a Mennonite Church Canada peace worker in the conflicted Mindanao region of the Philippines.