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!”