The Table of the Lord

One of the joys of serving in a worldwide church is that I have the opportunity to meet and learn from pastors and laity around the world. Seven years ago, I met Pastor Max Maregmen at the 2012 General Conference in Tampa. We were in the same legislative committee and had many stimulating conversations, including around human sexuality.

Max and I have kept in touch over the past seven years, and Gary and I have helped to support some of his ministries. As soon as I knew that I was attending a meeting in the Philippines, we arranged to extend our trip to visit Davao City, a large city on the southern Philippines island of Mindanao where Max is the pastor of First UMC.

Max and his wife Myrna met us at the airport in Davao City with the church van because their car stopped working last year, and they don’t have money to fix it. Throughout our time in the Philippines, we met a number of United Methodist pastors, many of whom live and serve with minimal salaries and parsonages that are not always adequate to support their families. In addition, they do not always have designated vacation or days off. Nevertheless, like clergy the world over, pastors in the Philippines view their ministry as a call from God, not merely a job. Their passion for training and equipping laity and sharing the love of Jesus with everyone they encounter is an inspiration.

On our first day in Davao City, we visited Cathedral UMC, a “flagship” church in the heart of the city that is pastored by a young woman, Theresa Barrientos. Theresa, who has a one-year-old child, is like so many of the young Filipino clergy that we met last week: intelligent, deeply committed to Christ and the church, and learning how to navigate the “unwritten” practices that are unique to local churches. Theresa explained that many of those who attend church at Cathedral are transient. The congregation has vital ministries to their neighborhood, but, like other churches, struggles with upkeep of a large building.

We spent that evening at First UMC, which has a large recreation area/gym and also a school, for which Pastor Max serves as chaplain. We participated in the weekly prayer service, where twenty or so members gathered in the sanctuary to share their joys and concerns. Prayer undergirds the lives of Christians in the Philippines as well as disciples around the world. The prayer requests were heartfelt, faith-filled, and hopeful. I was especially touched by a prayer for a loved one who had been killed. Knowing that Davao City is under a travel advisory for terrorist activity, it reminded me of the courage that many Christians around the world demonstrate as they stand up against evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.

I was also moved by the prayers specifically directed the pregnant and nursing mothers in the congregation, knowing that not all Filipinos have access the health care that they need. As I shared words of hope and encouragement to those who were present, I also confessed to God my own wealth and luxury in the midst of the poverty in so many parts of the world. After the prayer service, others joined us for a feast of traditional Filipino food. It was truly the table of the Lord, filled with exotic, strange, and wonderful food for mind, body, and spirit.

The next day, we took a twenty-minute ferry ride to nearby Samal Island where First UMC has another worshipping community, the Babak Mission. Cathedral UMC also has two worship sites on the island. The ferry docked at Island Garden City, where a Korean Methodist Church (not UMC) was started sixteen years ago. Eight years ago, church leaders decided to close the church and sell the building to First UMC, Davao City. It is now called the Babak Mission.

The associate pastor of Davao City First UMC, Warren Alfeche, has been the residential pastor of the Babak Mission for the past three years. Warren is a provisional elder and may be ordained as a full elder at the upcoming annual conference. In addition, Julievee Tapic is a UM deaconess and the head teacher for a kindergarten class of thirty children that the operates out of the church. She leads other ministries in the congregation as well.

Davao City First UMC financially supports Warren and Julievee, and once a month, parishioners take the ferry to the island to worship with their sister church. An average of 30-35 adults and 20 children attend worship at Barak Mission. There are four public school teachers in the church, and 80% of the parishioners are fishermen.

The Barak Mission is focused on outreach at Island Garden City, where many people make a living by fishing and most are very poor. A primary ministry is to the sea gypsies, who are the poorest of the poor and originally lived in floating houses. Many of the gypsies are indigenous people from the southern islands of Mindanao who found their way to Samal Island to avoid being killed by ISIS.

On Sundays, church folks often go to the gypsy homes with clothes, sleepers for the babies, bread, and rice. They also bring gifts at Christmas. Most of the sea gypsies are uneducated and do not have legal ID’s. The children have no birth certificates, do not always know their birth dates, and beg for their food. One of the ministries at the Barak Mission is to facilitate registering these children with the government. There are other ministries as well.

  • Once a month, church members pick up garbage and plastic from the beaches.
  • They plant trees on a regular basis.
  • Pastor Warren majored in local governance in college and is collaborating with the city government to ensure that the poorest of the poor are not forgotten.
  • They are initiating a job training program.
  • The church is sponsoring an upcoming benefit concert, where 80% of the proceeds will go to help “out of school youth,” those teenagers who are not going to school. The other 20% will support ministries of the church, especially music. The concert is a show of solidarity by reaching out into the neighborhoods and making a difference in the community.
  • Pastor Warren hopes to make the ministry of the Barak Mission an advanced special of The United Methodist Church.

Walking with Warren and Julievee through the gypsy area along the shore, we sought a deeper understanding of the way of life in Island Garden City on Samal Island. The challenges of their ministry are tremendous. Yet, just as in other areas of the Philippines that we visited, The United Methodist Church is committed to living in solidarity with the poor, sharing Christ’s love through word and deed, and growing churches that are committed to embodying the love of Jesus for all people.

As Pastor Warren, Deaconess Julievee, Pastor Max, Gary, and I sat outside the church and enjoyed conversation over fresh coconut juice, I could not help but reflect again, “This is the table of the Lord, open to everyone. Whether it is in Des Moines, Iowa, or 8,000 miles away in the Philippines, whether it is filipino pandesal or sourdough bread, whether it is coconut or grape juice, this is the heavenly banquet: the bread of life and the cup of salvation for all. Thanks be to God!”

Love Never Ends, For God is Love

“You can travel in a way that brings people closer together and builds understanding, or you can travel in a way that exacerbates the differences between the rest of the world and us.” Those words are from a 2011 interview with well-known travel writer and Christian, Rick Steves. I am writing this blog as I fly home from the Philippines after ten days of fruitful meetings, prayerful encounters, and transformative spiritual experiences. As a bishop, I am on the road more than I’d like to be, but every time I leave home for another adventure, I remember Steves’ insight, “I believe in traveling as a way to get to know God’s family. God made this great creation, and it’s peopled with all sorts of interesting cultures and ways of life.”

The purpose of this trip was to meet with representatives of various groups in The United Methodist Church around the creation of a General Book of Discipline. It is hoped that the GBOD will contain the essential beliefs and practices that apply to the entire denomination, leaving the other parts of our doctrine and polity able to be adapted to specific contexts.

What a beautiful experience it was to worship and dialogue with United Methodists from across the globe about what binds us together as people of faith with a common Wesleyan heritage. At the same time, we celebrated the uniqueness of different ethnic and spiritual traditions.

After several days of meetings in Manila, Gary and I had the opportunity to connect with United Methodists in different parts of the Philippines. In this and next week’s blog, I hope to share with you the embodiment of a sign in the chancel area of a United Methodist church high in the isolated mountains of northern Philippines, “Love Never Ends, for God is Love.”

Everywhere we drove, we saw the familiar cross and flame of the United Methodist Church. The names of the churches were unique, among them Solid Rock UMC and Blessing UMC. What a wonderful sense of how our mission outreach extends to the far corners of the earth!

It also reminded me of a favorite travel quote from Maya Angelou, “Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.”

Methodism was introduced to the Philippines after the Spanish-American War and the beginning of US colonial administration. The first Methodist Episcopal worship service was held on August 28, 1898 for US soldiers. United Methodism has grown over the years because of the commitment of Filipinos to evangelism and church growth. Other areas of Southeast Asia are home to autonomous Methodist churches.

Today, there are approximately 1,400 churches in three episcopal areas in the Philippines, led by Bishop Peter Torio, Bishop Rudy Juan, and Bishop Ciriaco Francisco. Within the three episcopal areas, which include seven thousand islands and fifty language groups, there are twenty-four annual conferences.

Education has also been an important gift of United Methodists to the Philippines. Last week, Gary and I were privileged to hear the President of Wesleyan-Philippines University speak. An active lay person, Judge Benjamin D. Turgano brings to his role a passion for faith-based education in the Wesleyan tradition.

We also visited Aldersgate College in Solano (founded in 1965). As the only United Methodist college in the north, Aldersgate now offers a new Master of Divinity degree as well as a Christian education program for diaconal ministers. What a privilege to speak with several students about their experience.

One of my hopes for this trip was to meet the parents of three United Methodist clergy siblings in Iowa who contribute immensely to the vitality of our conference: Southeast District Superintendent Lilian Gallo Seagren, Pastor Gideon Gallo of Gladbrook UMC, and Louie Gallo of Williamsburg St. Paul’s UMC. Knowing that Rev. Luis and Jacinta Gallo raised and nurtured three of their children to be clergy, I eagerly anticipated spending time in their home, which is located near rice fields and a river, with the Caraballo mountains in the distance. What faithful role models Pastor Luis and Jacinta are, so well respected, wise, and grace-filled.

On Sunday evening, the Blessing UMC held a vespers service in the Gallos’ home, which can accommodate about fifty people in a large room on the ground level. What pure joy it was to share God’s word with these faithful disciples! The young pastor was a wonderful presence among the congregants, and the prayers and singing were a foretaste of the God’s reign, where people from every nation will live together in peace and harmony.

A week ago today, several of us, including Pastor Luis, Jacinta, and District Superintendent Lily Bett, took a trip on a Jeepney up into the Caraballo mountains to visit a few United Methodist churches. In 1990, a 7.7 magnitude earthquake struck north of Manila, devastating villages and killing 1,621 people. Among the buildings destroyed was the Pinayog UM Church. After the earthquake, church members made the difficult decision to move across the valley and relocate the remains of their wooden church building.

 

Inside the simple building is a green sign, God’s Never Ends, for God is Love. Today Caritas UMC (caritas means charity or love) is served by a lay pastor, and Rev. Bett travels up the mountain to train other lay leaders to care for the congregation. After a recent typhoon significantly damaged the present building, church members have decided that they need a new sanctuary built out of concrete instead of wood.

The men of the church were working on the new sanctuary when we arrived, but the DS told us that progress is slow because of a lack of funds. Entire families, with many young children, came out to greet us as we arrived, and we prayed together in the church. They plan to use the old church for children’s activities after the new sanctuary is completed. It’s a huge commitment for a village where there is much poverty, and we hope to help them.

We then made our way to MACDU UMC, which is located in one of the larger mountain villages. This church is pastored by a young woman who is married to a farmer in the village and has a little girl. When Rev. Machika arrived, she had to learn the indigenous language of the village. Machika, who is clearly beloved by her parishioners, said that stewardship is a challenge at MACDU because all the farmers have is their produce. They give the produce to their pastor to take to town to sell. She gives the money back to the farmers, who then return a portion to the church as their offering.

As with Caritas UMC, everyone came outside to greet us when we arrived, and we prayed together in the church. O that those of us who live in comfortable surroundings would find inspiration from Caritas and MACDU UMC’s, located high up in the Caraballo Mountains of the Philippines.

At a time when many United Methodists wonder whether we can possibly stay together after the result of the 2019 General Conference, traveling to the Philippines has given me new eyes to see that we are more alike than different. We have the same hopes and dreams for our children across the globe, and we have the same desire to make a difference by exhibiting charity (caritas) toward one another by singing, praying, working, laughing, and worshipping together as one body in Christ.

It’s all quite simple, isn’t it? Get to know God’s family by loving God and your neighbor. There is no other commandment greater than these (Mark 12:28-31). Love Never Ends, for God is Love.