The Ati people—the aborigines of the Philippines—are marginalized, disadvantaged, illiterate, and impoverished. Traditionally, they lived in the mountains and moved from place to place foraging for food. A great number of them can be found on the island of Panay in the central part of the Philippines.
In the 1990s, as food sources dwindled in the mountains, many Ati moved down to the city of Iloilo, hoping to find food there. Unfortunately, they ended up as street beggars, living in fragile, makeshift dwellings of discarded materials. Many are consistently in poor health because of unsanitary conditions.
In 2005, while Roger and Sylvia Elosendo were taking their son to school in Iloilo City, they saw a number of Ati begging. Roger himself was an Ati, the nephew of the first Ati evangelical pastor. Interviewing a half-asleep elderly woman, he learned that she was his relative; in fact, Roger was related to several of the Ati families he had seen. This broke Roger’s heart. He promised the woman that as the Lord allowed him, he would help improve the lot of his fellow Ati.
Roger and Sylvia dreamed of establishing a community for the Ati, where they could have their own homes. They started simply, with a regular Bible study on the street. The famished condition of the Ati children deeply moved Roger and Sylvia. “Since we started our outreach to the Ati families begging on the streets in Iloilo,” Sylvia lamented tearfully, “as many as 20 Ati children have died literally on the streets due to their poverty-stricken condition.” So they soon started feeding the Ati after every Bible study.
A personal investment
Cardo and his wife, Nika, were among the many Ati families begging on the streets of Iloilo City. Exposed to the elements and with hardly anything to eat, Nika contracted tuberculosis. Every month, Roger took Nika to the hospital, where she received treatment and medicine. Cardo and Nika’s life took an even worse turn when Cardo became addicted to inhaling solvents. Their three little children died on the street from pneumonia.
One day Cardo and Nika left the city and went to another province to beg for a few months. After some time Nika returned to Iloilo City extremely weak. She started vomiting blood, and her tuberculosis worsened to the point where she had difficulty breathing.
Seeing her miserable state, Roger and Sylvia took her to the hospital. The attending doctor found Nika to be pregnant and due to deliver in about a month. But her gravely poor health endangered the unborn baby, so the doctor decided to immediately perform a cesarean section to save the baby. Nika gave birth to a baby girl. The doctor had the baby incubated and even contributed money to buy blood as she needed blood transfusion.
After giving the baby intensive medical attention for a month, the doctor decided to release her. Nika had been very weak and confined in the intensive care unit. The doctor knew that the mother’s condition was fast deteriorating and the prognosis of her recovery was grim. He had to ask her who she would give the baby to. Roger and Sylvia had shown Nika such compassion and care that she knew they would take good care of her baby. She was also aware that her relatives, who were just as poor as she, could not possibly care for her child. Without hesitation, she responded, “I want to give her to the pastor and his wife.” She signed the release papers entrusting her child to Roger and Sylvia.
Roger and Sylvia were happy to take the newborn infant, for they understood how critical it was at that point for somebody to take over the responsibility of parenting the baby. “It was also our way of thanking God for using other people to help both of us so we could continue and finish our studies,” Roger shared. They named the baby girl Miracle because, according to them, it was truly a miracle from God that the baby survived.
Baby Miracle, born 33 days premature and weighing merely four and a half pounds when the Elosendos took her home, needed special care and attention. Roger and Sylvia have lovingly nurtured her as though she was their own flesh and blood. She celebrated her second birthday on January 22, 2019. She remains in Roger and Sylvia’s custody, and when she turns five they can register her in their own family name.
A dream to help more children
For a number of years now this poor, hard-working missionary couple has cared for about 60 Ati children. It has been their dream to set up an orphanage where Ati orphans can be properly cared for in a loving, nurturing Christian setting and grow into productive members of the community.
In order to comply with the government requirement that orphanages should have a full-time licensed social worker on staff, Roger went back to school to get a degree in social work. He successfully earned the degree in 2018 and passed the board exam later that year.
Through ANM, American Christians generously provided funds toward the initial construction phase of a building that will be approved by the government to house 50 Ati orphans. Such a facility will make a huge difference in the lives of these otherwise disadvantaged, hopeless, helpless young Ati boys and girls.
The story of missions among the Ati
For a very long time the Ati had no evangelical Christian witness among them. In the late 1940s, a young American missionary named William Hopper came to Iloilo Province, on the island of Panay. He had read about the Ati tribe in an anthropology article while in Bible school, and was so fascinated that he went to the Philippines with a desire to meet them and a burden to share the love of Jesus with them. A tribal chief named Severo was the first Ati to begin following Jesus under Hopper’s ministry.
Severo couldn’t read or write, but he had a burning desire to know more about God and the Bible. So he went to Bible school, and against all odds he finished a one-year training course. Among his first disciples was his nephew, Rogelio.
Rogelio or “Roger” went to Bible school himself and became a pastor. While serving as an interim pastor at a church, he married the church’s “Bible woman,” a lowlander named Sylvia. Roger then took over the Ati church that his Uncle Severo had planted in Nagpana, a village an hour and a half away from Iloilo City. Later, they planted churches in the adjoining province of Antique. Roger also discipled Ati believers to become church workers and pastors.
The Joshua Project estimates that 12,000 Ati live in the Philippines, largely on Panay Island. Only about 1.5% of these profess an evangelical faith.