On Saturday, Feb. 4, a sailor disembarked from a ship as the sun fought its way through the haze and humidity that filled the air in Manila Bay. He hurried away from the docks, eager to make his way to Philsports Arena, where thousands of people waited outside for a ticket to the one-year anniversary episode of the popular game show Wowowee. If he was lucky, he might even be one of the fortunate few to win a cash prize of up to 2 million pesos (about $38,500)–a fortune for the 40 percent of Filipinos who survive on less than $2 a day.
The sailor started to make his way across the city, first walking through historic Rizal Park, named after the hero of Filipino independence. But he was distracted by the commotion of 82,500 people, mostly children, crowded in front of the park’s grandstand for the Metro Manila Franklin Graham Festival children’s program. Intrigued, he paused to watch the performers on stage: one with yo-yos, another with puppets, and a group of martial arts experts breaking boards to demonstrate how God eliminates sin. The performers talked about Jesus, His love and the way to receive His gift of salvation.
As a ship’s horn sounded in the bay, a man came to the stage and explained that God loves each person so much that He sent Jesus to earth to pay the penalty for the whole world’s sins. And all He asks in return is that they put their faith in Jesus.
The speaker called the children forward: “If you would like Jesus Christ to be your Savior and Friend, come to the front of the stage.” Thousands of children rushed forward, and the speaker reminded them not to run, push or shove. “There’s plenty of time and plenty of room for everyone,” he said. “Just take your time.”
Moved by this simple message meant for children, the sailor walked to the front of the stage and asked Jesus Christ to come into his heart.
Before the sailor could leave the park and resume his trip to the game show, word of a tragedy reached Rizal Park. Just outside Philsports Arena, a panic somehow had spread in the crowd of 30,000 people who were desperate for a chance to get rich. In the ensuing confusion, dozens of people were crushed to death against the gates. The sailor shuddered to think that he might have been among the dead outside the arena–if not for the interruption that God had put in his path.
No Such Thing as Hopeless
The Philippines has faced hard times since gaining its independence from the United States in 1946. Filipinos believe that their country, rich with natural resources and well-educated people, could join Singapore and South Korea as one of the most prosperous republics in the world. But political instability, a war with terrorists in the southern islands, poverty and widespread corruption have held back progress. As a result, the Philippines is a nation of paradoxes.
Called the only Christian nation in Asia, it ranks near the top of Asia’s most corrupt countries. Skyscrapers in the financial districts of Manila, the nation’s capital, rival those of any other world-class city. But only steps away, homeless people work busy street corners begging or trying to sell goods to commuters. City parks are filled with the destitute. The poor, who are considered squatters by many, have built entire communities on government property throughout the city.
Christians like Kumar Abraham, a Sri Lankan evangelist who trains Filipino evangelists, understand that the Metro Manila Festival is a unique opportunity to reach out to the Philippines.
“[Filipinos] need another reason to live,” says Abraham. “They need to see that Christ can provide for them, that Christ can bring contentment. Since the Festival was announced, the [Church] unity is unprecedented in the history of the Philippines. I’m not sure whether it’s going to happen again. … And if the Church doesn’t grab the opportunity, we are not thinking right. Jesus said the harvest is ready, the harvest is ripe.”
Bishop Fred Magbanua, former president of Far East Broadcasting Corporation, chaired the minister’s committee for the Festival. He was a counselor for Billy Graham’s one-day 1956 Manila Crusade and a vice-chair for his 1977 Manila Crusade. Magbanua says that the Philippines had about 5,000 evangelical churches in 1977. That number has since grown to about 51,000, and Magbanua believes that the 1977 Crusade was one of the major catalysts.
“At the 1977 Crusade, the country faced great problems and was under martial law,” Magbanua said. “I believe that the proclamation of the Gospel was used by God, because the people had nowhere to look except to the Lord. And that presentation of the Gospel brought a tremendous response.”
As one of the last surviving leaders of the 1977 Crusade, Magbanua hopes to hand a similar legacy to the next generation of the Church.
“The Philippines is at a threshold of either going to the left or to the right,” he said. “People are getting hopeless about the political situation, the economic situation, the moral problems. But of course, to us as Christians, there is no such thing as hopeless. … Christian leaders and the Body of Christ are praying that there will be another real outpouring of the Spirit and that a revival would again spur the Church into a greater growth, because it is our belief that in these last days, the Philippines will be used by God for the spread of the Gospel all over Asia and many other parts of the world.”
This vision could be realized soon. Each year hundreds of thousands of Filipinos become contract workers across Southeast Asia and the Middle East, mostly in service jobs or in oil fields.
Christians are praying that as churches renew their evangelistic fervor, these workers could be reached with the Gospel before they leave for contract work. Some of those who made commitments to Christ at the Festival could be proclaiming the Gospel throughout Asia and the world in the coming years.
Spreading the Word
As the Festival dates approached, it became clear that many Christians were doing as Kumar Abraham had hoped–they were grabbing the opportunities the Festival presented to proclaim the hope of the Gospel. And they were exceptionally creative about how they invited people to attend.
By most estimates, the Philippines is the text-messaging capital of the world. Because sending a brief text message from one cell phone to another is much cheaper than making a call by cell phone, Filipinos send tens of millions of text messages every day. It seems that everyone–from businesspeople to street vendors–uses messaging to conduct both personal and business communication. So it was natural for Christians to use “text message blasts” (a message sent to multiple phones at the same time) to tell their friends, neighbors, family members and even business associates about the Festival.
Others used a more time-honored approach to spread information about the Festival.
“Filipinos are fond of gathering and hearing stories,” said Bishop Leo Alconga, executive area director for the International Bible Society and a member of the executive committee. “There is such a thing as negative gossip, but this time it was gossip about the Festival.” For instance, Alconga says, a Christian would say while getting a haircut or while shopping in the marketplace, “You know, there is a gathering in Rizal Park, called the Franklin Graham Festival. I am interested in going because there will be a message about hope.” Typically, other customers overheard the conversation and discussed the tidbit among themselves. Often, someone would ask for information about the Festival, and the Christian would gladly tell all of the customers how to attend. Even drivers of public transportation, such as the colorful and ubiquitous jeepneys (a Jeep converted into an open-air bus), spread word of the Festival to their passengers.
Perhaps the most far-reaching plan was implemented by a group of women who prayed that God would show them how to reach Manila with the Gospel. Jeena Manaois, chair of the women’s committee, said that as a professor of English at the University of the Philippines, she had no special expertise to guide her in organizing the Christian women of Manila to reach their neighborhoods. “I read, I study, I work with ideas,” she explained. “I don’t mobilize people.” And the task was particularly daunting when she considered the 12 million people who live in the 395 square miles that compose Metro Manila and span many economic and social levels. How could her team of five women reach so many?
When the committee began its work in July 2005, not many women responded to invitations to meetings. But the committee kept praying that God would send women who would be willing to go into their neighborhoods to pray with their neighbors, explain the Gospel and eventually invite them to the Festival. God met the need in the coming months as some 12,700 women visited more than 451,000 homes throughout the Metro Manila area.
“We still believe that this is nothing else but the Lord’s doing,” Manaois said. “Five women sitting down in an office, asking the Lord to send more women, and at the end of it all, 12,700 women–how does that happen?”
The Operation Andrew program, in which Christians list the names of unsaved family and friends that they will pray for and invite to the Festival, inspired many Christians to share the Gospel even before the Festival.
“In Operation Andrew alone, we are seeing lives changed,” said Bishop Efraim Tendero, Festival executive chair and the national chairman of the Philippine Council of Evangelical Churches. “People in ordinary walks of life have gained new confidence in terms of being able to stand before others and share their faith, to not be intimidated, but to have the courage to testify about their relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ.”
At Abraham Vallega’s church, Blue Ridge Bible Baptist, dozens of new Christians were baptized before the Festival. Vallega, after attending a class to qualify to teach the Christian Life and Witness Course, trained his church for personal evangelism. His congregation followed his lead. When he launched Operation Andrew, about 100 people signed up, and they planned to bring 700 adults and 200 children to the Festival.
“I got revived [by the CLWC training] and put more interest in evangelism,” Vallega explained. “The result was that our people were also revived. They caught the fire … and have been bringing people to our church. We have 35 people lined up for baptism, and we have baptized 35 already.”
Erlyn Cabriza, a member of Vallega’s congregation, invited more than 100 people to the Festival and filled three jeepneys with guests. Before the Festival, she brought everyone on her street to church.
“I want the Lord to use me more and more,” the 30-year-old said. “I want to serve Him until He comes. If you are available, He will use you, because we are supposed to serve.”
In the months before the Festival, attendance at the church doubled from 250 to 500. Vallega anticipated greater growth after the Festival and trained 26 men to mentor these new Christians.
As the Festival kicked off on Feb. 2, it was evident that the more than 2,500 cooperating churches were taking the call to evangelism personally. The crowds grew larger each day as Christians continued to proclaim the Good News to Manila.
What Will It Profit a Man … ?
On Saturday night, Franklin Graham asked the crowd for a moment of silence for the injured victims of that morning’s game show stampede and for the families of those who died.
“We realize how fragile life is,” Franklin said, “and how important it is that we are ready to stand before a holy God.”
In his message, Franklin told the story of the rich young ruler, found in Matthew 19:16-30. The young man asked Jesus what he had to do to receive eternal life. When Jesus told him to sell all he had, give it to the poor and follow Him, the young man was unwilling to pay the price.
“Tonight Jesus is saying the same thing to you,” Franklin said. “For this young man, his money was his sin. The Bible says, ‘What good would it be for a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his own soul?’ (Cf. Mark 8:36). This young man loved money more than he loved his own soul.” Franklin pleaded with the audience not to make the same mistake.
“This young man chose the wrong way. … He would not obey. He turned his back on Jesus … and walked right off the pages of history into the flames of hell. God loves you and wants you to be in heaven with Him for eternity. But the only way you can come to God is through Jesus. … He’s here tonight. He’s here for you.”
It was a fitting message on a day in which dozens of people had lost their lives in pursuit of a cash prize. Nearly 2,500 responded to Franklin’s call to receive Christ that evening.
Overall, more than 33,200 made commitments to Christ during the four-day Festival. Two young women were among those who came forward to pray for salvation. The 18- and 19-year-olds were sisters who were hearing the Gospel for the first time. They asked through tears, “Why is it only now that we are hearing about salvation?”
A homeless woman living under a breakwall in Manila Bay attended the Festival because someone gave her a Festival flier. She accepted Christ and asked for prayer for her children from whom she was separated.
A 26-year-old janitor walked into the park after work. He arrived as Franklin was giving the invitation and watched people respond. Curious about the event, he asked the man seated next to him, “What’s this religion thing about?”
The man, one of the Festival’s more than 6,000 trained counselors, explained the Gospel to the janitor and asked if he’d like to receive Christ. The janitor said yes, and prayed: “Lord Jesus, I’m sorry for my sins. … I have lied. I have stolen. Please forgive me of my hatred and anger for my father, who did not take care of me when I was young. Forgive me because many times I have forgotten about You.”
The counselor then led the man in a prayer to receive Christ.
On Sunday evening, some 125,000 people crowded into the park. As the meeting came to an end, the counseling area in front of the stage filled with inquirers. Many counselors prayed with more than one inquirer and had to move into the seats just to find room to complete decision cards and talk to the inquirers.
Bishop Tendero looked out at the scene and said, “God is awesome. He is at work, and He has called people to come to Him. … We can see thousands and thousands of men and women coming out crying. That is God’s work, and we give Him the glory!”