In recent years, the Philippine Islands have been among the most fruitful fields in the world for gospel preaching. Jesus said, “The harvest truly is plenteous, but the laborers are few” (Matt. 9:37). The great harvest of which Jesus spoke began in Palestine but soon moved to other parts of the world. The gospel spread like wildfire in the 1800s in America — gospel papers regularly carried the reports of dozens of baptisms from place to place. While there is still a harvest of souls here in the U.S., and we need to work as hard as we can here, the harvest is more bountiful in places like the Philippines, and we need to work as hard as we can to help harvest souls in such places! “The laborers are few.”
Through the joint efforts of the Filipino brethren along with Jim McDonald, Andy Alexander, and Ron Halbrook, over 300 people were baptized into Christ during our recent preaching trip (March 27-May 4). New churches began and established churches grew stronger. The three of us left Houston, Texas together on March 27, and Andy returned to the U.S. on April 13, Jim on April 28, and Ron on May 4. This was Jim’s tenth trip to the Philippines, Ron’s sec- ond, and Andy’s first. We traveled and preached together at times, went separate directions at times, and worked in perfect harmony at all times. “God gave the increase. . . . For we are laborers together with God” (1 Cor. 3:6, 9).
Who Are the Philippine People?
Of the 7,100 islands in the Philippines, about 800 are inhabited and only about a dozen are of significant size. This archipelago stretches 1,500 miles north to south and 600 miles east to west. The Philippine Republic approximates the size of Italy. The weather is tropical since the location is only between 5 and 22 degrees north of the equator. The earliest known inhabitants likely came from the neighboring island of Borneo; their descendants are called Philippine Pygmies or Negritos. Other ancient immigrants came from Malaysia, Indonesia, India, China, and Japan. Arab traders long plied the Philippine Islands and finally in the 1300s-1400s Muslim invaders established sultanates on the southwest islands of Sulu and Mindanao. The Philippines became a Spanish colony in the 1500s, but came under U.S. control as a result of the Spanish-American War of 1898. Commonwealth status was granted by the U.S. in 1935 and full independence in 1946. The Philippines is celebrating 100 years of freedom in 1998.
In religion, the Philippine Republic is officially Roman Catholic. While Catholicism is most widespread, we at times encounter the primitive and idolatrous practice of ancestor worship, Eastern religions, Islam, most U.S. de- nominations, and indigenous denominations. Filipinos are naturally friendly and hospitable, and are typically very cordial toward Americans. There is a deep hunger to learn more about the Bible, though the average Filipino does not own a Bible. Opportunities to teach God’s word abound on every hand.
Eighty dialects have been identified in the Philippine Islands, but English is taught as a second language in the schools. They often communicate across dialects by using English. Filipinos understand enough English that we most often simply preach a full lesson in English, and then someone who speaks the local dialect may “summarize” the lesson and fill in gaps where he thinks the audience might not have grasped certain points. When we speak to the tribal peoples who speak less English, the sermons are translated.
From Luzon to Palawan
Our work began on the island of Luzon. Our plane landed in Manila on Saturday night (March 28), where Ben Cruz was our host and where a group of brethren greeted us. Sunday found us preaching separately at half a dozen places in Manila and within a 2-3 hour drive of Manila. Metro Manila has a population of 10 million people, so there is always much work waiting to be done there. Ben and a half dozen other men conduct a very effective radio program on a strong station for an hour and a half every Saturday. The format includes preaching and call-in questions. They are also doing effective work in the prisons for men and women. Andy preached in the maximum security ward to men imprisoned for life.
Monday we flew southwest to Palawan, one of the poorest of the islands. March 31 we conducted an all-day lectureship at Puerto Princesa City, where Fred Agbisit preaches and where William Lagan lives. William concentrates his efforts among the minorities in the outlying areas. The minorities, or tribal peoples, are at the bottom of the economic ladder in a third world economy, but their hearts are open to the gospel. As is typical, about 40 preachers attended this all-day study, and a number of women joined the audience. Denominational preachers studying with our brethren often attend such gatherings.
Wednesday, April 1, we visited seven churches on Pala- wan, and at least eleven others had wanted us to come. Palawan is a long, narrow island and this sweep carried us many miles from Puerto Princesa City, which is centrally located, along the eastern coastline down to the Brooke’s Point region. There are 24 congregations scattered along this line of travel, including nine churches among the minorities in the mountains. In appreciation for our visit to the tribal people where Samson Dalit preaches, a blowgun which shoots a poisonous dart for hunting was presented to us. Platon Mabunga, who preaches for the Seaside church of Christ, traveled with us in the Brooke’s Point region. We met ladies in the churches at Puerto Princesa City, Seaside, and elsewhere who avidly teach God’s word to the children and who plead for any kind of teaching materials. Often, these requests are made with tears.
On Palawan, we began to hear more about the 8-9 month drought which has severely afflicted the Philippines. Filipinos call it “the El Nino effect.” The effects could be seen in the dry, hard, baked appearance of the fields and surrounding terrain. There were many pleas for relief, and we shared what benevolence funds we could, but this did not make a dent in the need. The help we gave was made possible by the generosity of brethren all around the U.S. who entrusted funds to us for this very purpose. From that time until now, we have discussed what could be done to provide at least some relief to our suffering brethren.
There are only two churches north of Puerto Princesa City, in a region stretching for many miles. A radio pro- gram from one of Puerto Princesa’s stations could reach all the island’s population of one million souls, extending the gospel northward. Is someone interested in helping provide the needed funds?
From Cebu to Negros Oriental and Mindanao
Next, we flew to Cebu City on the island of Cebu, where a lecture hall was rented for the lessons presented April 2-3. Another 35-40 preachers were present for these studies, which included morning, afternoon, and evening sessions. Area brethren attended at night, filling the hall. Question periods and open forums are effective teaching tools in these sessions. Jonathan Carino, who supports himself in the insurance business, freely gave of his time to help us get around in Cebu City and make our travel connections. It was also a pleasure to be with his father, Ramon, and to discuss spiritual matters with this aged soldier of the cross. Cipriano Carpentaro of Manila, who preaches for the church in Cagayan de Oro City (Mindanao), joined us in Cebu. He summarized and translated for us there, and continued with Andy and Ron on the next leg of their trip.
On Saturday, April 4, Jim proceeded to the island of Mindanao, while Cipriano accompanied Andy and Ron via ferry to the island of Negros. In southern Mindanao, Jim preached at Cagayan de Oro City and studied with a liberal preacher there. He then proceeded to Pagadian City where he held another well-attended lectureship, working with Jun Apatan and Ramon Carino. Cipriano, Andy, and Ron spent April 4-9 in the Negros Oriental region (southeastern part of Negros). They worked with Josue Abueva at Dumaguete City, then he took them on to Santa Catalina and Bayawan. Hepilito Flores works with the latter church, where lectures were held the last two days with overflow crowds including a mixed audience of gos- pel preachers and alien sinners. Loud speakers carried the messages throughout the neighborhood and people stood in the street listening to the lessons. Exchanges with two men from the Worldwide Church of God denomination helped us to project the gospel with even greater clarity.
Josue had been studying with a District Evangelist for the Methodist Church named Asingcreto Cabugnason, who came to hear us speak on Monday for the brethren in Santa Catalina where he also lives. He invited us to preach in the Methodist Church across town on Tuesday, which we did. That night he brought all his family together to study with us, and seven of them were baptized including Asingcreto. He is now teaching the truth to the three Methodist churches which he had established, and also teaching other Method- ist preachers under his influence. The Methodist Church in Santa Catalina is now the church of Christ, and all the brethren in town have joined hands to meet there.
As the second week of our trip was ending, five islands had been visited by our combined efforts and about 70 souls had already obeyed the gospel. Much work remained to be done and the three of us worked in separate areas for a time. April 10-12 Andy labored on Luzon with Lordy Salunga near Tarlac, Tarlac and at Angles City, then flew back to the U.S. from Manila on Monday. Those same three days, Ron was on the island of Mindanao, working with Juanita Balbin in Davao City. On Sunday Jim and Ron reunited briefly and then parted ways, Jim going to General Santos City to work with Johnny and Jesse Julom. Emileo Lumapay of Toril and others have been working with these men, who are converts from the Alliance denomination. Many souls are being saved in that region. While Jim worked in General Santos, Ron went on to Digas to work with Julie Notarte. Julie knows of only one Moslem convert but has been studying with a Moslem man (Tony Ariz) who shows much promise. Tony had already exchanged the gun in his tote bag for a Bible given by Julie, and he heard Ron’s three gospel sermons on the 13th (his first time to enter a meeting place of our brethren).
Julie took Ron on an arduous, 3-hour trip into the mountains to preach by a river near Arakan, where 150 tribal people had gathered, including saints and sinners. We carried official papers authorizing this trip into the mountains and we were accompanied by an armed soldier of the Philippine army. On that day, 57 souls heard the word gladly and were baptized. This harvest abounds to the ac- count mostly of the faithful Filipino brethren who make so many sacrifices to work among the tribal peoples.
VBS in the Shadow of a Volcano
Next, Julie took Ron on the breathtaking journey up, up, up into Mt. Apo National Park to the little community of Kapatagan, in sight of Mt. Apo, an active volcano rising 9,690 feet high (the highest point in all the Philippines). Steam from sulfur springs can be seen near the crest of the crater in the distance. Jim arrived later that same day and we spent April 16-19 in the bamboo home of Leopoldo Sarmiento, who preaches for the church there while help- ing to support himself by toiling in the fields. This gentle brother and his good wife gave of their best in every way to make our stay as comfortable as possible. Brethren Balbin, Notarte, and others were diligent fellow-laborers in this Vacation Bible School attended by 130 high school and college students, along with 50 visiting preachers, plus other brethren and sinners — over 200 gathered for intense Bible studies conducted morning, afternoon, and night. Jim had seen 37 baptized during his tour of Mindanao and we saw another 38 precious souls baptized at the VBS. The students’ questions during the open forums were very perceptive.
We studied in the open air, sheltered from the sun only by canvas sheets overhead fastened to poles. Smoke from open fires for cooking burned our eyes, noses, and throats at times. Devoted women toiled ceaselessly preparing rice with side servings of chicken, pork, or fish and perhaps some vegetable. People slept in the nearby church building, private homes, or most in a community center. Their beds were thin mats laid on the ground or the concrete floors of the community hall, and simple wool blankets kept them warm in the cool mountain air. Students walked 20 minutes to take splash baths at mountain springs at 5:30 AM, while we splashed water from a barrel provided in the outhouse or “comfort room” a few yards from the house where we stayed. This water and cooking water were hauled in five gallon containers on a cart with wooden wheels pulled by a carabao (water buffalo). Folks in the States would call our experience “roughing it,” but this is an ordinary way of life for many Filipinos, and they accept their lot without the whining and complaining which might be heard in the U.S.
Back to Luzon and the U.S.
On Sunday afternoon (April 19), Julie took Jim and Ron back to Digos, and the next day we traveled back to Davao City to catch a plane back to Manila on Luzon. No plane seats were available for the next day’s travel because political candidates are given priority, but the quick thinking of Ben Cruz provided us a taxi with an excellent driver. On the 21st, we rode twelve hard hours to Tuguegarao in the Cagayan region, where we were graciously received by Rody Gumpad. We had hoped to meet with eight other dear brethren, but, alas, our travel difficulties caused us to miss them by one day. The Metro Tuguegarao church building was filled for the services and sermons the next day. This church has elders, who seem to be quite competent. Several were baptized. We taped a TV program with Rody. Though radio is still the most popular media in the Philippines, TV is spreading.
There is much discussion in this region — as throughout the Philippines — about false doctrines relating to divorce and remarriage, and whether the Bible contains “old” and “new” testaments or just “one covenant” regarding salvation. Many questions are being studied regarding grace, faith, and the proper basis of fellowship. Do Bible concepts of grace, faith, and fellowship include brethren promoting error on instrumental music, institutional liberalism, premillennialism, the one-cup doctrine, the no-located-preacher doctrine (“mutual edification”), divorce-remarriage theories, and the one-covenant theory? We showed that the Bible answers with a resounding, “No,” but these questions are stirring throughout the islands.
Two brethren widely known and appreciated for their good work in the Philippines in past years are at the heart of this controversy. The false teaching done by Jim Puterbaugh approving eating blood, on divorce-remarriage, and regard- ing the “one covenant” has intersected with false concepts of grace, faith, and fellowship. Wallace Little has promoted and defended much of this teaching (see his exchanges with J.T. Smith, Gospel Truths, May 1997 and May 1998). These errors hold the potential of doing great damage to the cause of Christ in the Philippines, as elsewhere. Because these themes have received sufficient attention in gospel papers in recent years, we will not review them in detail here. In the context of the Philippines, suffice it to say that we do not believe Filipino brethren by and large will embrace these errors, though the danger is real and some damage has occurred. Everywhere these questions are being discussed, we urge patient study and urge that brethren focus on what the text of Scripture teaches rather than upon personal ties and friendships (1 Cor. 4:6).
On April 23-24, we traversed extreme northern Luzon as we traveled through northern Cagayan and the edge of Kalinga, then on into Ilocos Norte. Several churches were visited along the way, including one at Santa Marcela made up of Negrito people who have been forced down from the mountains by hard times and economic necessity. Some lack adequate clothing and their privations are evident in their appearance, but their joy in the Lord was even more evident as several were baptized in the briny backwaters of the nearby ocean!
Friday, April 24, we arrived at Sinait in Ilocos Sur, where Matt Sibayan, Sr. and Matt, Jr. work together with the Kitipunan church and others in the area. Many were gathered for the sermons preached on that day and a dozen were baptized. Egdon Sabio, Paul Mangrubang, Rolando Azurin, and other good men are diligently preach- ing the gospel of Christ and harvesting souls for the Lord. A number of the women are devoted to teaching the children. About 100 churches exist in this region and these brethren are characterized notably by “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:1-6). The next day we spoke to about 200 souls gathered at Escoda where Vic Domingo preaches. On Sunday Jim and Ron went their separate ways, speaking at several appointments. Ron preached five times, including twice at Dingras where Jun Macusi lives — once before the church meeting in his home and once before the one-cup group meeting just down the road in a church building which Jun originally helped build. Remiego Bayaca preaches for the latter group but has seen the error of his way. He opened the door for me to address the one-cup error and to appeal for the two groups to reunite, which now appears likely to happen (and may have happened by the time this appears in print).
Matt, Sr. works with the church in Laoag City, Ilocos Norte. These brethren are in the process of erecting what will be one of the nicest buildings in the Philippines. Construction continues little by little as the funds become available. There are some professional people in this church and they are proudly using mostly their own funds. Individuals in the U.S. could help this effort along. Matt started preaching for this church from its beginning in 1972. It has met in nine different temporary locations within a 5-mile radius through the years. Matt is a converted Pentecostal preacher, has real ability, and has been a stable and stabilizing influence in Loaog City and the surrounding areas. The fruit of his labors along with other faithful men is evident in this region: There are over 3,000 Christians in about 100 congregations with some 65 preachers. Matt is 60 years old (as of September 14, 1998) and still going strong in spite of health problems suffered by his wife and himself.
On the 27th-28th we traveled to San Fernando (where we saw Bert Enostacion) and on to Baguio City, where we checked on the progress in the printing of song books in Philippine dialects. The next day Jim flew back to the U.S. and Ben Cruz took Ron to Tagaytay City (2-3 hours from Manila) for a planned two-day lectureship with 40-
50 brethren who had gathered there. The brethren ended up studying among themselves as Ron never was able to address them. Instead, he had opportunities to speak in a denominational building with the preacher present and then to preach again in the open air in nearby Amodao with people gathered on and around a porch area of a house. Filipino brethren have been preaching in this area for six years and finally, now, a breakthrough occurred: Sixteen announced their desire to be baptized as a result of preaching here the evening of the 29th and again the morning of the 30th. Allan Deleon, a young preacher trained under Ben Cruz in Manila, immediately offered himself as willing to work with this new church.
Results and Reflections
In all, over 300 baptisms resulted from our five weeks of joint labors with Filipino brethren. These men do the day-in-and-day-out teaching that makes it possible for us to join hands with them to bring in the sheaves of ripened grain. Denominational preachers are willing to listen and study with open minds — many of them are converted. While this season of harvest is possible, we must pray for God to send forth laborers and we must be willing to enter the harvest and work with all of our hearts. If gospel preachers will arouse themselves and put their hands to this work, good churches and godly brethren will rise up to help us go — and local churches here in the U.S. will grow in strength and zeal even for the local work through such spiritual exercise. Brethren, we can and we must do more than we have done in the past to spread the gospel throughout the world. Knowing that only few ultimately will obey the gospel does not excuse us from laboring to spread it, but rather we must work with our whole hearts to find those few precious souls! We must lift up our eyes to see the need and lift up our hands to work as never before (John 4:35-38).
Our own faith, hope, and love grow stronger when we see the faith, hope, and love of our Filipino brethren. They make sacrifices that most of us have never known, just to accomplish the simplest of tasks in serving the Lord. Their hospitality, their willing spirit, their unselfishness, and their tireless zeal lift up our hearts and help us to become better servants of the Lord. Their life is characterized by many hardships, but rather than murmur and complain, they simply press on in the work of God’s kingdom.
We can never relieve all their hardships, and they do not expect us to, but sometimes they are “pressed out of measure” by devastating storms, life-threatening droughts, and insects or rodents eating up their crops (2 Cor. 1:8). God hears their cries at such times, and he teaches us to hear them too.
Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him? My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth (1 John 3:16-18).
With this in mind, upon our return to the U.S. we immediately began to inform brethren of the nine month drought which had destroyed so much of the Philippine crops. An April newspaper account reported 50 confirmed deaths from starvation and bad water resulting from the El Nino, just on the island of Mindanao alone! In desperation, some have eaten wild yams which are poisonous, and died — including at least one gospel preacher who died this way while we were there. Our own brethren are suffering, starving, and dying as this article is being written (May 1998). If rains started today, it still would be three to four months before rice, corn, and other crops could mature and be harvested.
Because of this extreme situation, Jim and Ron deter- mined to return as messengers of churches and individuals for a short trip devoted to delivering benevolence to some of the neediest areas, June 29-July 9. Upon returning, we will be able to give reports and further information to those who may wish to follow up on the condition of our dear brethren in the Philippines. Let us “remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).