A group of motorcyclists, the Word Riders, under the auspices of the Bible Society of South Africa, get together once a year for a week-long tour when they distribute Bibles to Grade 7 learners at schools in some of the poorest areas of our country. Inspired by this initiative, the Philippine Bible Society now also has a Word Riders group doing similar outreach work. Founder and organiser of the South African Word Riders, Francois Sieberhagen, and Word Riders veterans, Tony de Melim and Manfred Haarde, joined the Philippine Word Riders during a tour to the north of the country in November. Francois shares their experience.
As Manila becomes visible from beneath the clouds outside the airplane window, I realise with a shock that this is a very big city. After exiting the airport it takes us another two hours and 30 minutes to get to the Bible House situated in United Nations Avenue. It is a Saturday and the traffic is a nightmare – a situation neither I nor my two travelling companions expected in the least.
The heat and severe humidity is something that we have not encountered anywhere in South Africa. We are no strangers to heat, but the added humid conditions have us downing litres of water. Still we struggle to quench our thirst.
We have some time to explore the city and surroundings before we leave on the Word Riders Philippines tour. On Wednesday, 16 November, at 02:00, we set off to meet the rest of the Word Riders. Our destination today is Vigan City, some 400 km north of Manila. We saddle up and start the tour at 04:00 in an effort to escape most of the traffic congestion. We depart from a petrol filling station in Quezon City, which borders Manila. These two cities flow into one another, much like Pretoria and Johannesburg.
Two highway-patrol police officers escort us out of the city through heavy traffic. They stick with us all the way. The driving conditions are tough – not only it is still very dark, but it has also started to rain. We are still getting to know the three loan bikes, but apart from that the BMWs are behaving.
In the countryside, we now weave through the traffic. We literally break every single traffic law in the book, but the police are leading the way and we need to keep up. The road surface is good, but the roads are very narrow. Having to dodge the locals with their small and slower motorcycles and side car motorcycles makes riding even more strenuous. You can't relax for a moment and to top it off we need to get used to riding on the right side of the road.
The Philippines was a Spanish colony for many years and in Vigan City the Spanish influence is still very apparent. Our first stop is one of the local schools, Ilocos Sur National High School. The school has just over 6 000 pupils and close to 200 teachers. It is thus no wonder that we need two sessions to distribute the 1 500 Bibles to the Grade 8 pupils.
We spend more than two and a half hours with the children. Each child receives an English Bible of their own. Those who are Catholic are handed a Bible which includes the Deuterocanonical books, whilst the Protestants receive a standard Bible. Both are softcover Bibles.
It is clear the children enjoy interacting with us. The Word Riders and volunteers are just as excited to share the experience. The children are asked to look up passages in their Bibles and then have to answer questions. We also give them a little booklet, Help, how should I read my Bible? and teach them how to use it to help them find their find in the Bible.
It is hot and stuffy in the basketball hall but no one seems to mind. The young people are chatty, for many of them it is the first time they have a Bible. The children are thankful and we three South Africans enjoy seeing how the Word Riders seed is growing and has already borne fruit in the Philippines.
Friday, 18 November. We set off before 05:00, our destination is Laoag, some 100 km north of Vigan City. It's not far, but it takes a while to get there, even this early in the day. The three of us welcome the breakfast at McDonald's, giving us a break from the rice we've been eating since we arrived.
At Ilocos Norte National High School in Laoag we are greeted by a group of cheering children. We will be distributing 800 Bibles here. The procedure is the same. Manfred and Tony seem to be a hit and the children jostle to get autographs from the two burly blokes.
After that, we head off to Paoya where we visit the Catholic Church. The cornerstone had been laid in 1704 and the church consecrated in 1896. Sitting in the pews, we watch a woman start to rehearse Pie Jesu. It's a special moment that affects all three of us deeply. We sit and listen, fascinated. We are exceedingly grateful for God's grace and thankful that we can be part of something as dynamic and life-changing as the Word Riders. We are also excited that this project has grown beyond the borders of our country allowing more children to reap the benefits from this Bible Society of South Africa initiative.
The next day we return to Manila. We know it is a long way and that the traffic will be heavy – but really, how long can it take to travel 500 km on a motorcycle? Twelve hours! As we dismount we are glad the long ride is behind us, but even more grateful that the whole group is safe.
In March, the local Word Riders will again take to the road to distribute Bibles in some part of South Africa. We hope to welcome a couple of our Philippine Word Riders brothers on this trip so that they can also leave their motorcycle tracks where they it is needed most.