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The Reformed Conference in Manila

Category Articles
Date March 8, 2002


Over the years the conference has proved a tremendous catalyst for change, introducing men who would otherwise never have heard them to the doctrines of grace

I am only now beginning to feel human again, having left Manila at 11p.m. local time on Sunday. I was already tired after preaching twice and sitting through a rather emotional fellowship meeting where too many kind things were said for my good. I then flew home via Dubai, two legs of eight and half hours with a three and a half hour stop-over, during which time I hardly slept. Since landing on Monday I have been exhausted but happy at a blessed and spiritually profitable visit.

How can I give you a feel of life in Cubao? I stayed at the home of Gilbert MacAdam. He lives in 10th Avenue, a side street off a busy thoroughfare called P. Tuazon. During the days when I was not actually teaching or preaching I tried to prepare lectures in his living room. Because of the heat, my papers were continually blown this way and that because a large electric fan was stationed a few yards away. Work was punctuated by countless noises from outside, the snarling roar of motorised tricycles at all times of day, the calls of food vendors after dark, especially that of the man selling balut (a snack consisting of a boiled duck egg containing a partially developed embryo) and the chatter of the teenagers coming and going from Roosevelt High School. As in many Filipino homes, you occasionally see small lizards called geckos emerge from behind the sideboard, darting at crazy angles across the walls. These harmless little creatures are always welcome as they help keep a check on the prolific insect life. Bugs of all sorts and sizes thrive in the tropics. On one or two occasions I woke sporting sizeable bites which I was told were the work of cockroaches. Word had evidently got round the cockroach community that someone who tasted a little different was living at Gilbert’s place.

The walk from Gilbert’s home to Cubao Reformed Baptist Church takes about 15 minutes (though after lecturing for five hours on some days it took me rather longer to get back) . The first thing you see, on the corner of P. Tuazon, is a large bank with half a dozen armoured cars parked outside it. At 8:30 each morning, a squad of heavily armed security guards can be seen waiting to make payroll deliveries in these vehicles. At some times of the day, you would see them in a playful mood engaging in boyish horseplay but first thing in the morning all is solemn as they stand at ease, heads bowed, as their commander leads them in prayer. P. Tuazon itself is the first of several obstacles. Crossing a busy road in Manila is an exercise in nerve and quick reactions only slightly less testing than white water canoeing. If a gap in the onrushing vehicles emerges that is ten yards or more, you make a dash for the middle of the road and then wait for another gap to take you across the other half of the carriageway. Alternatively, if the road is completely choked, you thread your way between the bumpers of almost stationary jeepneys, buses, cars and FXs (the FX is a kind of super taxi produced by Toyota) . Here and there white lines marked on the tarmac indicate a zebra crossing of sorts but they are only notional as pedestrians do not have priority and motorists sail across them with gleeful abandon.

At this point, we find ourselves in between two air-conditioned shopping malls. On the left is the local branch of a spreading national chain known as “Shoe Mart” often abbreviated to SM while on the right is the “Ali Mall” named after the boxer Muhammad Ali who fought Joe Frazier in the nearby Araneta Coliseum at the famous “Thrillah in Manila”. It is tempting to walk through the malls themselves as by now, 8:45 or so, it is already as hot as a July heat wave in England and the malls are cool and inviting. This will however, mean passing an armed security guard who is required to check the contents of any bags that you might be carrying. (For a Briton, used to an unarmed police force, the sheer number of firearms in evidence in the Philippines is alarming. Even the local McDonalds will have an armed heavy at the entrance in a smartly pressed uniform. He will greet you politely and open the door for you but it is hard to ignore the pistol in the holster. The guard at the local bank may well also carry a pump-action shotgun or something even more menacing.) A right then a left turn, each potentially involving more precarious jay-walking in between onrushing jeepneys, eventually brings us to Aurora Boulevard, the main thoroughfare in Cubao.

From here it is only two hundred yards or so to Harvard Street, where the Church has its premises but that two hundred yards is an assault on the senses. The road itself is a river of metal and the diesel fumes are so pervasive it is difficult to lose the taste of them. An aerial railway is currently under construction and its huge pillars have restricted the available space for traffic even more. Smartly dressed young ladies who work as cashiers at the banks that line the road dash across with handkerchiefs held tightly across their noses and mouths. When the traffic is even more heavy than usual, one of the junctions in the road may be occupied by a traffic policeman, arms flailing and whistle blowing to little apparent effect. In the meantime, the cracked and uneven sidewalks are lined with vendors. The short stretch ahead of us provides room for two newspaper sellers and a “Zapatero”, a sort of cobbler and shoeshine man combined. At night these will be replaced with people selling snack food cooked on portable stoves. It can vary from the appetising (barbecued chicken, caramelised bananas, gualls’ eggs, corn on the cob and roasted
peanuts) to the less welcoming (squid balls and the inevitable balut) . Interspersed with the banks, officers and tailors shops there are evidences of a seedy side to life: a pornographic movie house, a striptease joint and a “play hotel” where rooms are hired by the hour. Praise the Lord then, that as we turn right up Harvard Street we come to the home of Cubao Reformed Baptist Church.

During my first full week there, the Church was home to the 12th annual Pastor’s Conference, an occasion which saw a daily average of 160 men in attendance and a total of 180. Most of them came Charismatic and Pentecostal churches and others from breakaway groups from the Armstrongite “Worldwide Church of God” now known as the Bereans. Over the years the conference has proved a tremendous catalyst for change, introducing men who would otherwise never have heard them to the doctrines of grace. The conference chairman was Pastor Noel Espinosa, principal of Grace Ministerial Academy. He also contributed two papers, as did Gilbert MacAdam. Keith Noldt, pastor of a Chinese Church in Sydney gave a stimulating paper on William Carey and Noel Cunanan, pastor of the Neighbourhood Church in Kalookan City gave his first conference address. My contribution was a paper on each of the five points of Calvinism. It emerged from the question time after each paper and also the open forum on the final day that many of the delegates were thinking through the implications of Reformed teaching on their ministries. American influence on her former colony has meant that the bulk of evangelical Christianity in the Philippines is strongly Arminian and decisionist in its ethos, with a strong leaven of the “carnal Christian” teaching that often goes hand in hand with it.

My second and third full weeks were taken up with lecturing at Grace Ministerial Academy on Romans. It was very humbling to find that the normal attendance of twenty or so men had been swelled to almost forty, especially when I learned that some had travelled from near Davao City on the southern island of Mindanao, having made a boat journey lasting two days. Grace Ministerial Academy is itself a powerful engine for reformation among the churches. Some of the students have paid a considerable price for introducing Reformed doctrines and orderly worship into what were once charismatic churches. All of these men were having to cope with lectures given in their second language yet their appetite for the Word, and also hints about expository preaching, was both touching and stimulating.

Some of the students live a very threadbare existence. The purchase of even quite a modest book is often beyond them, especially since the Peso was recently devalued. Many British pastors have to get by on stipends rather lower than what is normal among the people they serve but few have to consider taking their children out of school or making a choice between a slim commentary and the additional meat or fish that helps make a diet of plain boiled rice more nutritious The seminary itself copes with very slender means yet its ministry is strategic and the potential impact is considerable. It deserves the prayers of the Lord’s people.

I was also able to visit five churches during my stay, in each case renewing old contacts and building up established friendships. One of these was at the Divine Grace Bible Church in Tarlac City, a large provincial centre about three hours drive North of Manila, where the pastor is a man named Lito Manguera. I was also able to preach at a new work in a place named Tondo, very close to the old heart of Manila during Spanish colonial days. Cubao Reformed Baptist Church is currently engaged in planting a new Church there, where a young student from Grace Ministerial Academy, Mario Macalalad is emerging as a potential leader. So far approximately a dozen believers have asked for membership, some of them with remarkable testimonies to the grace of God.

Over the last few years the Church here in Lancaster has supported two children through the Educational Assistance programme of Christian Compassion Ministries. One of these, a young man named Versal Agravante, has moved away to the provinces. The other is a girl of twelve named Andielyn Guamos. I was able to visit her in one of the squatter encampments in a district called Paho, where she lives in a single room with five siblings and three cousins. Because my programme was so crowded with teaching and preaching I was only able to make one visit to the CCM home at Masinag, but was pleased to see it without the wall that had barred access when I was last there in 2000. It was a joy to sit amid thirty or so girls and give a devotional talk as two of the housemothers translated my English into Tagalog.

In conclusion I can only say that this was much the most successful of my three visits and I am very grateful that the Church in Lancaster and Ulverston felt able to let me go.

Phil Arthur.

Pastor of Free Grace Baptist Church Lancaster

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