“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.