By Jess Paras, BCBP Cagayan de Oro
Breakfast Testimony during NAC37
Good Morning brothers & sisters.
Today I rise on a matter of personal and collective privilege. No longer in the halls of Congress, where I once represented the first district of Bukidnon, but in the halls of the BCBP NAC 37 breakfast. Yes,I am here to talk on a matter of personal and collective privilege, on the subject of transforming business with Christ.
In Genesis I, verse 29, 30, God said: “See, I give you every seed-bearing plant on all the earth, and every tree that has seed bearing fruit on it to be your food; and to all the wild animals, all the birds of the air, and all the living creatures that crawl on the earth, I give all the green plants for food.”
And here is where my story begins.
Sometime in 2001, together with my siblings, we bought a couple of hectares of land in the foothills of Mount Kitanglad in Bukidnon. It is located in Dahilayan, one of the poorest barangays of Don Manolo Fortich, Bukidnon. The place is about 4,500 feet above sea level, with temperatures ranging from 14 to 25 degrees centigrade. The area was practically bald, being logged over in the 60s. Soon after, the locals continued to cut the growing trees left, and sell them for firewood and lumber, as this was their only means of livelihood.
After buying the land, we employed the locals to plant pine trees, instead of them continuing to cut the growing indigenous trees. We just kept on planting over the next 5 years. Before we knew it, the pine trees were more than 20 feet tall already. As a result, we were able to cover the property with pine and other indigenous tree species.
Then in 2009, my brother Elpie, decided to build a zipline. This decision, I would say was the spark that triggered the development of Dahilayan.
At that same time, Nena and I planned to start building our summer home, a place where we hoped to go on weekends and during summer to relax and enjoy the cool weather. And as I was assisting the foreman in laying out markers for the location of our summer home, my wife Nena practically screamed at me and yelled STOP! Oops, what did I do wrong, I wondered. Then she explained–“We cannot build that house in the location you want.” WHY, I asked?
She replied “This place is so beautiful. The view is awesome. We cannot have and keep this place only for ourselves. We have to share it. This is God’s gift to us, we have to share it with everyone.”
So that started the creation of Dahilayan Forest Park. The center area, instead of our summer home, became the main family playground of the park. Under the pine trees, we placed picnic tables where families could bring their own baon, or buy food and drinks from the café at very reasonable prices.
Development of the area came as the need arose. There is no master plan, really. We did not hire an architect to plan out the park. We were just guided by the Lord as to what to do or how to do it. The Lord was our master planner and architect.
Before we developed Dahilayan, on a normal day, you see people by the side of the street either drunk or just loitering. The barangay captain was always busy settling disputes between spouses or quarrels between neighbors. Their front yards were unkempt and dirty, their houses dilapidated and about to collapse. The road, if there was any, was muddy, that we would walk most of the time or get stuck in the mud even with 4 wheel drive vehicles.
Today, after six years, there is a total transformation in the community. You no longer see people loitering or drunk in the streets. They are all working or have livelihood activities that keep them busy. Now their front and backyards are well kept and full of plants and flowers, which they also sell to park visitors. Their houses are now fixed and corrugated GI sheets have replaced the rotting nipa shingles of their roof. Some have even converted their homes into small inns to cater to the need for more accommodations in the area.
Dignity is now restored in their lives because of the jobs and opportunities that they now have. The barangay captain is now busy with projects for the barangay as their revenue allocation has substantially increased. Other than the business and income taxes, we pay amusement taxes to the provincial government where the barangay also gets a share. It is no longer one of the poorest barangays. The once muddy and impassable road is now a fully paved road, thanks to the national government thru the Dept of Tourism and DPWH.
Being a remote place in the mountains of Bukidnon, we had to rely on the locals to work for us. Today, almost 80% of our employees come from the barangay or the nearby barangays. We pay all our employees the right wages and give them the benefits as mandated by the government. Before, they would walk a few kilometers from their homes to work in Forest Park. Now they own motorbikes which they ride to work or let their relatives bring them to work and then let them use the motorbike to earn additional income as habal habal operators. Indirectly, we have provided livelihood for the community.
My other brother Benjie used to rent out horses to our visitors but gave it up to the local farmers for their livelihood. Today their daily income as farm workers can now be earned in a 10-minute horseback ride. We let the locals sell fruits and vegetables, plants, flowers and local products and made it a point not compete with them. We even provided a selling area for their stalls.
In May 2013 I lost in my re election bid as congressman for the 1st district of Bukidnon. I was so down-hearted, I went into depression. I spent most of the time in Dahilayan to get over it. I kept myself busy working and implementing God’s design for Forest Park. Aside from that He wanted me to implement a design for His business, which was to build a church for the barangay. Our barangay has a dilapidated chapel, which could accommodate 50 people, with benches only and a makeshift altar.
In my prayer time, I sensed that God was telling me to build his church. Mind you, brothers and sisters, not a chapel, but a church. “How will I do it Lord?” His answer: Bahala ka. “Ang tindi mo naman Lord. Nag de-depression na nga ako, bibigyan mo pa ako ng ganitong trabaho.”
The Lord answered me…”Kaya mo yan.” So I relented. “Ok Lord. Basta tulungan mo ako.”
So I talked to the parish priest of Our Lady of Lourdes in Camp Phillips, that covers Barangay Dahilayan. I asked permission to rebuild the chapel and also asked if we can solicit for donors, to which he readily agreed. I then contacted a local architect to come out with the design. Another renowned architect from Manila who was visiting us came to know about our plan, so both architects collaborated to do the plans for a 250 seating capacity church, pro bono. Sabi ko na nga ba, si Lord ang architect.
Sometime in 2015, for fund raising to build the church, I thought of setting aside 5 pesos per person from the entrance fees that we collect in the park. I basically made a business deal with the Lord. I said, “Lord, for me to raise the funds, you have to send a lot of people who pay entrance fees to enter forest park.”
Truth to tell, God has sent large numbers, even busloads of people, for the last 2 years. And so far we have raised more than 1 million pesos. When Nena celebrated her 60th birthday last September 3, 2016, instead of gifts we asked our guests to donate for the church, and we generated more than 300 thousand pesos.
We ground broke last August 2016. And as funds were literally exhausted 2 months ago, a good friend whom I have not seen for several years came to see me.
I showed him around Dahilayan including the church that we were building. Without my asking, he donated P 1,000,000 pesos for the construction. Wow hulog ng langit! Today we are we are about 40% done with construction.
God is good!
I am confident that the Lord will continue to bless us as we continue to be his stewards. We have touched so many people as we have shown that preserving the environment showcases the beauty of nature, His creation. We have provided jobs and livelihood opportunities to the poorest of the poor. We have learned to share God’s blessings to those that have less in life. And even among us siblings who are doing business in Dahilayan, we have learned to do business independently but at the same time not compete with each other.
So many lessons learned. God has shown us that business is more fulfilling if you are doing it with Him and according to to his plans.
More than the income that the business gives us, it is the smiles and joy of the families that we see, the minute they enter Forest Park. In Forest Park you see the joy and happiness of the young and old alike, all walks of life, rich or poor, Christian or Muslim, all gathered together playing, eating, bonding, and having fun in one place.
I would boldly say, I liken it to a foretaste of paradise.
Anyway I have conquered my depression because of the plans that I had to implement upon orders of the Boss. As He said in Jeremiah 29: For I know what my plans for you are; plans to save you and not to harm you; plans to to give you hope and a future. This passage was first given to me by the late Tatang Manny Banigan, when I had my first bout of depression over 20 years ago.
I have had my share in government service and I know I can still continue to serve the country now as a businessman. And at the same time serving God thru the guidance of the BCBP. Thank you BCBP for being my constant guardian angel since I joined BCBP CDO 26 years ago.
And as I end my sharing, I would like to also thank two women in my life. One is my mother, Nanang, who together with my Dad brought up and nurtured us 10 siblings, to be good, God fearing and upright persons. She just celebrated her 96th birthday last Feb 25, still healthy and strong, still takes care of the plants and flowers of our gardens in Dahilayan. And of course the other woman, the woman behind the man, yes, she is always there behind me, encouraging and pushing me forward whenever I falter—mi amor, mi vida, Nena. Yes, thru thick and thin, for richer or poorer, in sickness, and in health, she is always there for me. We just celebrated our 40th wedding anniversary last March 31.
Last but not the least I would like to thank my business partner, my boss, the one who has been directing my life all these years, no other than my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Maraming salamat Po. Daghang Salamat.
God bless us all.