Roughly two weeks after the Celebration of Hope in the Bicol region of the Philippines, leaders continue to praise God for the amazing outcome–even as they anticipate how this event will change their nation forever.
Will Graham, who has preached for the past five years in nations around the world, calls the April 28-May 1 Celebration “one of the most unique events I’ve seen and one of best things I’ve ever been a part of in my life.
“I am grateful I got to see what God was doing not only in the region of Bicol, but in the whole country of the Philippines,” says Graham.
It all started when the churches of the Bicol region, made up of six of the country’s poorest provinces, asked if Franklin Graham would come,” his son explains. “Because of commitments at that time, he could not. They praised God for an answer to prayer and said they would wait for God’s timing and the right person to lead an evangelistic event there. When they were told I was available, they invited me to come.”
Organizers, together with the nearly 100,000 people who made their way by any means possible to Pili Freedom Stadium that weekend, testify that the event did indeed come at just the right time —and they had, without a doubt, found the right man for the job.
For over three decades the seeds of the Gospel have been scattered again and again in the Philippines. In 1977 it was Billy Graham himself who brought the message of salvation to the people there. And then, in 2006, Franklin Graham drew over three hundred thousand to a Festival in the country’s capital of Manila.
Meanwhile, Operation Christmas Child has reached out to this population with hope and gifts to children for over 10 years. On the occasion of the Celebration of Hope, God determined to again visit the Bicolanos, ravaged by disaster, stricken with poverty, and deeply divided along denominational lines.
A Time of Harvest
It was time, says Danny Azana, a local attorney and Executive Chairman of the Bicol Celebration. The event, he says, was a “time of harvest,” with God using the Christian Life and Witness (CLW) classes to draw together believers from different backgrounds and using Will Graham to speak to more than 97,000, many coming from remote areas, many young and spiritually hungry.
As many as 21,756—about a quarter of those present—made decisions for Christ. The result was life changing for young and old alike and nothing short of revolutionary for area churches.
During the months prior to the Celebration, 696 churches in the Bicol region met together for CLW training in witnessing and discipleship. Azana says of the classes, “It was the very first time I’d ever seen Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians and Pentecostals together—united— in one room.”
Will Graham echoed Azana’s excitement saying that the “supernatural unity” he witnessed in Bicol and throughout the Philippines was his favorite memory of the Celebration.
“We saw churches and Christians from all over the Philippines, especially from the city of Manila and from the Bicol region, working together like they’ve never worked before,” says Graham. “And now they continue to work together.”
Impact on Youth
It follows then that at the Celebration of Hope, tens of thousands of young people were also witnessing the unity of the Body of Christ for the very first time.
Their first obstacle, however, was just getting to the venue. Transportation was one of the most challenging tasks in organizing this regional event. To address this issue and to accommodate demand, it was decided that there would be two Kid’s Celebrations. The first took place in Legazpi and the other in Pili Freedom Stadium.
“There was a huge response of young people,” reports Graham, who says a total of nine invitations were given at the Children’s Celebration in Pili Freedom Stadium, as children continued to arrive by bus throughout the service. As many as 14,200 decisions for Christ were made at that time, says Bicol Resident Celebration Director Derek Forbes.
Just as significant, according to Forbes, are the youth—teens and young adults—who witnessed this “coming together of the denominations” at the Bicol Celebration. He believes this experience will have a long-term effect on churches going forward as these young new believers commit themselves to building on the unity that has been established.
Azana recalls, “I observed some high school students as they sat together and listened to Will Graham. When he made an invitation to Christ, every one of those teens responded. I thought to myself, ‘This man is anointed. He is able to speak to these young hearts. God sent us Will Graham.'”
Just the Beginning
But as Azana and those who participated in the CLW classes now understand, “surrender is just the beginning.” Azana says area pastors are continuing their CLW training with a vision of building strong church leaders for the next generation. “We must labor together to build disciples who can then become disciplers.”
Reflecting on the Celebration, Graham says he marvels at how far God brought the churches of Bicol as together they focused on the prize—the salvation of souls. “In the beginning they were afraid of this enormous challenge,” says Graham. “But God showed them He would meet their needs and do something far greater than they ever even imagined themselves.”
It is a lesson that the young men and women who witnessed this miracle will carry with them as they step up to take leadership of a stronger, more united church in the Philippines.