Cuadra, first Muslim turned Christian bishop
FROM THE STANDS - Domini M. Torrevillas (The Philippine Star) - August 20, 2019 - 12:00am

With time on my hands these past days, I’ve scoured my high pile of unread books, and found documents on the interesting story of the first Muslim boy to become a Protestant minister, and later, bishop. My interest was further piqued by the story’s having been written by the legendary Frank Charles Laubach, an American who with his wife sailed from New York to the Philippines in 1915 as missionaries of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. Laubach’s evangelistic work among the Muslims of southern Mindanao took him to Dansalan (now Marawi City), where he developed an effective learning system for the Maranaos that gave birth to the “Each One Teach One” principle which was later introduced in other countries with similar success. Laubach’s influence as an educator led to the issuance in 1984 of a US postage stamp in the Great Americans series in his honor.

Laubach’s account was printed in the publication The Muslim World, Volume 19, Issue 2, pages 115-124, April 1929. (Some details are provided by the family historian Maria Vidallon Cuadra.) Laubach’s account begins with a long retelling of Spain’s struggling with the “Moros” in far off Mindanao, a struggle lasting for almost 400 years. Then comes the Americans, who introduce the planting of flowers in Zamboanga, a relationship resulting in the Moros’ telling Laubach, “We don’t like Christians, but we do like Americans.” Laubach comments, “And Americans love the Moros too. For however bloodthirsty they may have been, they are real men, and have in them the making of a great race.”

Mohammad Bayrulla Sanulla, then six, studies under an American teacher assigned to Siasi, Sulu.  It’s not told how a German Jesuit comes to Siasi, but he watches Mohammad with eager eyes, and untold circumstances has him taking the boy on a boat to Sandakan, Borneo, without the knowledge of his mother. Mohammad finds the mind of the Jesuit “far better trained than any he had ever encountered…” By the time they reach Borneo, the boy is repeating the prayers and the words of the mass. Soon he becomes a sacristan, as the assistant in the Catholic mass. Suddenly just before the outbreak of the World War, the priest fled to Germany, leaving Mohammad by himself, and walking in the streets of Sandakan, Borneo. He found work, and spent his first earnings on purchasing the Bible which the priest had forbidden him to read. Laubach says Mohammad told him, “I was much surprised to find that it was all good.” 

Some months later he took a boat bound for Zamboanga. At the pier he saw David Lund, a Danish missionary “with a kindly face,” distributing out spiritual materials. The boy looked lost, and told Lund he was being trained for the priesthood; he exhibited his Bible and said, “It is a wonderful book and I want to study more of it.” The missionary cried delightedly, “Come with me and we will study it together.”

The Lunds took the boy into their home as their own son. “It was they,” said Mohammad, who first aroused in me a burning desire to serve my people.”

He was baptized on Easter Sunday of 1914, with the name Ramon Cuadra; but he chose the name Matias, after the disciple Matthew. He continued his studies and graduated valedictorian.    

Led by God to take up ministry, he was sent to Manila to study at the Union Theological Seminary; then to the University of the Philippines for his bachelor of arts degree, and Gregg Business College – as a pensionado. He married a deaconess from Ellinwood Bible School for Girls named Maria A. Vidallon.

At his ordination as minister of the Gospel, ministers of all denominations, attended by Dr. Laubach, Rev. H.K. Higdon and American missionaries in Manila in 1920, he could not read the statement he had prepared, he was full of tremendous emotion, so the chairman took the paper and read it aloud, and every man in the circle was moved, and the chairman himself stopped every few minutes to regain control of his voice.

The couple moved to “Moroland,” opened a little portable organ on the streets of Jolo and began to sing until children gathered. Soon older Moros gathered on the outer edge, and Matias told them stories about Abraham, Isaac, Moses and David. An old Moro said, “You must not tell these sacred stories on the street. Come over into the mosque.”

So, Matias and Maria Cuadra entered the mosque, followed by the crowd. “For two nights,” he told Laubach, “we could not sleep, for the people insisted upon Maria singing until she was hoarse, and my telling Bible stories.”

Matias’ fame spread over all Sulu, writes Laubach. He knew more about the prophets and could talk about them better than any of their priests. The governor called upon him as interpreter, and the senator sought him for advice. Every Moro was proud of him. His mother learned about the “great Moro,” and found that indeed he was her long-lost son. 

Then Matias, his mother and his wife sailed off to see his father in Siasi. As their boat was threading one of the passages between the islands, there suddenly shot out from the shore a dozen vintas full of pirates. Matias saw that they were armed with guns and bolos.

“They’re going to kill us,” he said. “Let’s sing.”

“Don’t sing, just before you are killed,” cried his mother.

“They may think we have money in this little organ,” said Matias. “Let’s show them what it is.” So, Maria opened the organ and began to play, while Matias sang the Twenty-third Psalm, which he had translated into the Moro dialect. Maria joined in the song – their voices blending beautifully. The pirates slowed down and then stopped. Music in their own language? What could it mean?

“Are you Moros?’ called out the leader. “Yes sir, we are,” answered Matias. “Where are you going?” “To Bas Nonok.” “Whom do you know there?”  “Bapa Sahid.” “Why, “exclaimed the pirate leader, “He’s my uncle.” “And he’s my cousin,” replied Matias. “Then we’ll go with you.”

So, the 12 vintas gathered about the boat with the organ, and they talked and sang all the way to Bas Nonok.

The homecoming of Matias Cuadra was like the return of a conquering king. The old father gripped his son’s shoulders and looked him straight in the eye with undisguised pride.            

(To be continued)

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