MANILA, THE PHILIPPINES – “Come on,” a young man calls as he and a group of teenagers trek to a squatter village to teach the Bible.
As they pass an open field where several children are kicking a partially deflated soccer ball, he again calls, “Come on.”
The children stop and smile when they see who is calling them. Abandoning the ball, they follow, bare feet splashing mud. As the group crosses a concrete bridge over a drainage ditch filled with gray water and trash, the children chatter with their teachers. Filipino pastor Romy Albinius and IMB (International Mission Board) worker Dwight Fern follow.
As the group reaches the village, some young mothers carrying infants and other women drag benches under a tree and settle down on the creaky seats. The young people unfurl their song sheets, Christian lyrics carefully printed on the back of old alcohol advertising posters.
Photo by J.B. Shark
A house group in Manila prays for one another.
This is one of thousands of squatter communities in metro Manila, filled with people who moved to the city from rural provinces in search of a better life. Instead, they became part of a mass of urban poor, building shelters from whatever they can find.
Housing once meant to be temporary has been standing here more than 20 years. Work intended to be a steppingstone toward better employment has become a career. Hope for a prosperous future has faded; survival has become the daily goal.
Despite the bleak outlook they face, hope has not abandoned the urban poor. “God wants 104 million Filipinos in His Kingdom,” Fern says to a group of pastors he’s teaching.
Pastors nod thoughtfully as Fern speaks. For the past 10 years, Fern has been training pastors among the urban poor to start small house groups focused on fellowship and Bible study. More than 300 pastors now attend the training sessions he conducts every month.
“Filipinos love to study the Bible,” Fern says. “It’s the idea of church that scares people away,” although many attend mass at local Catholic churches.
Life in the Philippines is steeped in religious traditions. Nuns serve as teachers in most schools, so religious training is nothing new to Filipinos. But the idea of offering poor pastors a sense of value is nothing short of revolutionary.
As pastors study with Fern – many from homes in squatter communities – they carry back with them the hope they are finding in Christ.
“There is a hope of tomorrow being better,” Fern says. “The poor respond to Christ as they look to the promise of heaven. … This life is hard, but heaven will be better.”
Cultural norms and lack of material possessions and social status often discourage the urban poor from seeking a better life. Simple jobs require a college education, which many cannot afford; they are too busy forging a living. However, as they latch onto the training their pastors provide, they begin to understand the gospel and share the hope they receive. As they begin forming house groups, they develop a new sense of purpose.
Albinias, who has been part of Fern’s training for three years, has taken the training to heart and begun to train the young people of his church to lead house groups.
“They are the future,” he says.
Every week, a half-dozen young people parade into nearby squatter communities. Dividing up, they lead small groups of adults and children in studying the Bible and fellowshipping together.
As other villagers swig cheap alcohol and gamble a few pesos at a card game, they watch their neighbors join the Bible study and listen with mild interest to the discussion. It is a small village, after all. Everyone knows everything that happens there.
Abinius and Fern watch the squatter children’s faces, wreathed in smiles, as they sing songs about the love of Jesus. They wear faded, dirty clothes; their hair is streaked from malnutrition and teeth are black with rot.
“Nobody wants them or cares about them. Thing is, they’re just as special as anyone else.” Fern muses.
When the study ends, the children follow the teenagers down the narrow, polluted street. “Bye bye,” they shout repeatedly, waving until they cannot see the group anymore.
Albinius’ young people don’t just teach children. Their next stop is a small house where nearly a dozen adults stuff in. They spill over into the alleyway, pressing close to hear.
Rachelle Albinias, one of the young people, tells the adults how they can share the truth they have found. Using a bookmark tool created for witnessing, she reviews the plan of salvation and how they can share their faith with others. On the back are 10 blank spaces.
“This week, who will you share the love of Christ with?” she asks.
Her words hang in the air as each person considers the question. They carefully print 10 names on the back of the business-card-sized bookmark. The next week, when they meet again, they will review the names they have written and say how they told those people about Christ.
Fern estimates that through these small house groups, more than a million of Manila’s squatters have heard of Christ. Each month, when the pastors share ministry reports, countless people have heard of Christ, joined the church or been baptized.
“The day of a man just sitting in his chair in church is over,” Fern says. “We’re out to make disciples.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Ivy O’Neill is a writer with the International Mission Board based in Southeast Asia. For more stories specific to Asia, visit www.asiastories.com.)