I woke up in the wee hours this morning, remembering almost two weeks ago -- Wednesday, March 28th, the first day of our two-day seminar in Bacolod. Looking back at my blog, we never told the story of that day in much detail. It's worth remembering.
We got up before daylight. Monday and Tuesday had been the adrenaline rush of our first GAT seminar, in Iloilo. Tuesday evening we tried to get to bed early. Wednesday: Up before dawn, checked out of the hotel, and whisked away in two taxis to the Supercat ferry dock where we hauled lots of baggage on to the ferry for Bacolod. I had high hopes for a smooth, sunny crossing so the team would get to see sunrise over the amazing beauty of the Philippines. Mostly our views thus far had been concrete urban landscapes with an occasional coconut palm thrown into the mix. Instead of blue skies over emerald green forested mountains set in a turquoise sea, that morning low clouds covered the landscape and kept everything gray. The trade winds came from the northeast, the worst possible direction for our ferry crossing through the channel between Panay and Negros. The crossing was a rough hour plus, and Ronald, Vic, and Sharon were all feeling the effects by the time we reached the other side. To make matters worse, the movie shown in the main cabin was an oppressive vampire flick with lots of black leather and blood. Julie C. was only exaggerating slightly when she called it "violent porn." All of us, including Dr. Benie Sy and Ralph Lumo from the National Alpha Organization who were traveling with us, were glad to get off the boat.
We arrived in Bacolod, where Ronald's brother met us at the ferry with a small van. We piled luggage and people into every available space and drove off to the conference center where we'd present our seminar, and where we would sleep that night. We got checked in to our rooms and found them adequate, though the plumbing looked a little iffy. Water heaters in the Philippines, when you find them, are usually a metal electrical box on the wall of the bathroom, often inside the shower itself, that uses high voltage current to heat water. More often, the high voltage current is there to make tourists nervous, and it doesn't actually change the water temperature at all. The only times I was cold in the Philippines was in the shower.
Time for breakfast. We walked a quarter mile or so past a beautiful park, a couple fruit stands, and the ubiquitous tricycle drivers and taxis, to find breakfast at a restaurant called "Chow King." On the walk there, it started to rain. We ordered a variety of combinations of rice, a little meat, and maybe eggs -- standard Filipino breakfasts -- and of course coffee or iced tea. When we were ready to return after breakfast, it was pouring, and we had to flag down a taxi for the short trip back. He made two trips, taking half our group each time.
In the Conference Center, Peachy and Lyn (Ronald's daughter and wife) had been working tirelessly to prepare our seminar space. A local crew was preparing food in the back of the room for snacks and lunches. Lyn and Peachy had set up space for our team, space for the resource table, and many other details. Ronald worked with the Captel people to find us an LCD projector, which had been promised but not delivered to the conference room. I cannot overemphasize how much Ronald and his family did to make these seminars successful. Not only did they work so hard to take care of every detail and to make sure we were fed and cared for -- it was amazing, every time we turned around, how they were feeding, tending, and watching out for us -- but in addition, it struck me during the week just how much of his own reputation Ronald had put on the line for our sake. If our team turned out to be a disappointment, or if Alpha was not a useful tool, Ronald's reputation would suffer in serious fashion. Just one example: he had made, personally, six trips -- twelve times on that rough ferry crossing -- to Bacolod to promote this seminar, to encourage pastors to bring teams, to arrange details for food and facilities, to smooth over conflicts and disunity among the local evangelical churches. If people attended this seminar and it was a bust, Ronald's credibility would suffer more than anything else. He put a lot on the line for us.
Here are a couple photos -- first of our location before attendees arrive, and then the attendees at the beginning of the seminar. Both were taken by Peachy:
Again, we had an amazing worship team to kick us off. (The evangelical churches we worked with excel in worship. They are really, really good at dynamic contemporary worship. More than once we talked about bringing a worship team back with us, the music was that good.) Ronald introduced us, using some of his Bacolod connections (he grew up there) to build relationships with the crowd. The seminars went well. We had learned a lot from our first run-through in Iloilo, and the Bacolod seminar was relatively smooth. Our attendance was down a bit from what we'd expected -- we had about 180 registered and the first day we had about 120 attending. Part of this may have been due to some miscommunication; partly it's just the reality when you don't charge people to come to a seminar, they are free not to attend if something better comes along at the last minute. Those who came, however, were engaged and seemed eager to hear about Alpha and to consider how they might start running the course.
Each of our team nailed their presentations. It was exciting to listen to each one and notice how they were more comfortable, more effective, with better eye contact and a better sense of how to communicate with Filipinos, how to talk to people for whom English is a second language. In addition, it was amazing to watch relationships develop between the participants and various members of the team. Little conversations throughout the day grew and grew. At the end of the afternoon, participants started bringing up their Alpha books for us to sign. We quickly realized this was not so much like signing autographs as it was like signing someone's yearbook in high school. The Filipinos kept calling it "remembrances." They wanted a few words in the book, or a photo, or both, or maybe a bunch of photos, to remember this seminar. It was a little overwhelming.
By the end of Wednesday's seminar (about 4 pm) we were all tired. Between a rough ferry crossing and torrential rains throughout the day, plus the grind of packing up, checking out, checking in, setting up, dealing with some of the ongoing health issues from seasickness to intestinal uncertainties that plagued a few of us, it had been a long day. That's not even to mention the presentations, questions, and new relationships. When the participants left, we looked forward to a couple hours' down time.
At 4:30, just after we settled in for a short rest, our contact from HisLife Ministries in Bacolod, Pastor Armin, showed up downstairs. We had understood he was supposed to pick us up at 6 pm. After a little debate, we insisted that we needed some rest time and asked him to come back. A few minutes after 6, we were in another van en route to Hotel Planta, a gorgeous high-end hotel on the south side of Bacolod where HisLife was planning to start a new worshipping community on Easter weekend. We walked into a lobby with 30-foot ceilings, ornate chandeliers, and marble staircases. The Philippines are full of that kind of contrast; you go from barely adequate plumbing to five-star accommodations in a heartbeat. Poverty and wealth rub shoulders all the time there.
Our gig that evening was to connect with HisLife's leadership team. Pastor Joebert Ramos (JR) had asked me to come speak for roughly an hour about Martin Luther and the principle of "sola scriptura" from the Protestant Reformation. Knowing this was a group of church leaders who were serious about planting a healthy church, I'd prepared an in-depth talk focusing on how Luther leads us to a high view of scripture, and how important that is for the contemporary church. I had four or five pages of notes in my journal, concluding with a concise summary of four principles for those who want to build on the foundation of scripture in their ministry.
We walked into the room and my heart sank. Including our much more elderly team (average age for our team is over 40, let's just leave it at that), the average age in the room was maybe 26. These people were young. And I realized immediately that they weren't going to connect with an in-depth analysis of Luther's views on scripture. We were welcomed into the hubbub before the meeting, and we slowly made our way to the front of the small room. Chairs were set up in rows, three on each side, with a center aisle. Sharon, Julie C., and Vic sat on the right side of the front row (always the front row, it seems) and Julie K. and I sat on the left. The event was supposed to include supper, and we'd all avoided eating at the conference center in order to save our appetites. We were hungry. There was no food in sight.
My bigger concern, however, was my talk. I leaned over to Julie and said, "Nothing I've prepared for this group is going to work." I was near panic, thinking just how badly I was about to bomb. It wasn't going to be pretty. "What do you mean?" she asked. I explained about the talk I had prepared and how it wouldn't fit this crowd at all. "So I have to figure out something else," I lamely concluded. "But I don't have a clue what that would be." Mentally I was still alert, but I was fried enough after three solid days of presenting and travel that I couldn't change gears that fast and pull a brand new talk out of my hat.
Julie and the Holy Spirit saved me. She leaned over and said, "I don't know the answer, but if anybody can do this, you can." With that kind of encouragement, I started to focus. I prayed and thought. What connects for twenty-somethings? Julie continued. "Just pretend you're talking to Erica and her friends." Funny thing, that's about the age group we were dealing with. What connects? Stories connect. I'll tell stories. I love to tell stories.
So I got up and told stories for half an hour about Luther's upbringing, his discovery of the gospel as he was preparing lectures on the book of Romans, about how he grew into this solid foundation of scripture over the next several years until he finally stood before the Diet of Worms and uttered those immortal lines, "Unless I am convinced by scripture and plain reason, I cannot and will not recant. Here I stand, I can do no other. God help me. Amen." Thirty minutes screamed by, and then it was time for supper. We ate enormous hamburgers, laughed and talked with the crowd, and then it was time for the second half hour, which was dominated by question and answer time. I told the story of Luther's marriage to Katherine Von Bora, and some of his other adventures. I admonished this earnest group of church planters that the Roman Catholic Church is not their enemy, just as it had not been the real enemy for Martin Luther. (This animosity toward the Roman Catholic Church is all too common in the evangelical churches in the Philippines. In their defense, it's worth saying that the RCC in the Philippines is an authoritarian juggernaut of political power that dominates nearly every facet of life. Also, the everyday Catholicism of the Filipinos often gets mixed with all kinds of practices that are not officially sanctioned by Rome. The evangelicals are a tiny percentage -- maybe 5% -- of the population, and the Catholics look like Big Brother sometimes. It's easy to get resentful.)
JR thanked us profusely and joked that maybe they should call this church plant, "HisLife Lutheran Church." He took over and talked a bit about their plans for the church launch on Easter weekend. As the meeting broke up, Armin came and offered us anything we wanted for supper. What? We just had those enormous burgers. He said if we wanted anything, he could get it for us from the hotel -- steaks, anything. We asked for a few small things -- decaf coffee, a salad, maybe. (Salads are hard to come by in the Philippines, for some reason, and they're often suspect when you do find them because you never know what kind of water was used to wash the lettuce. Be careful.) We felt drained and just a bit pampered.
By the end of the evening, it was time to go back and sleep. We walked down the marble staircase and Armin drove us back to Captel and we settled in for the night. It had been a long day; tomorrow we'd present the second day of the seminar, wind things up before 4 pm, and catch the last ferry to Iloilo.
That was our "hump day," the longest and hardest day of our week of seminars. It's amazing looking back, all that went into that one day. It's also amazing to me to think how many different factors could have derailed our work that day -- seasickness, intestinal stuff, monsoon rains in the middle of the dry season (the Filipinos were absolutely amazed), unavailability of an LCD projector, attendance being lower than expected, exhaustion, miscommunication, or even just having prepared the wrong talk -- but none of those difficulties were able to inhibit the work of God's Spirit. He is faithful, even when things seem overwhelming. It's his work, you know. We just get to help along sometimes. What a privilege!