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Everything (Even Evangelism) Is More Fun in the Philippines

Filipinos have a well-deserved reputation for fun-loving ingenuity. Whatever the challenge or obstacle, they find a way to get around it with a smile on their faces and a joke to lighten the mood. There’s a reason that the best-known tourism slogan for the country is, “It’s more fun in the Philippines.” It’s true in countless ways, often despite a squeeze on resources. If you are visiting the Philippines it is best to learn this kind of friendly flexibility right from the get-go. Fortunately, the volunteers that turned up in the Philippine province of Palawan in July for an Adventist-run mega medical clinic and subsequent evangelistic campaign seemed to have gotten the memo.

“We just kind of MacGyvered everything and got it done… somehow it worked out,” said Steve Lee, an ENT physician from the Loma Linda, California area, referencing the unconventional, problem-solving TV action hero as he summed up his experience at the July 9-11 Palawan LifeSource International Medical Clinic. Lee’s attitude was typical of the organizers, clinicians, patients and preachers I talked to at the clinic and the Palawan for Christ province-wide evangelistic series which started on July 13 and concluded on July 28.


Mega-clinic advertising.

Both events were sponsored by Adventist World Radio and its global mission initiative, Total Member Involvement, who worked with local partners in the North Philippine Union and Palawan Adventist Mission. The AWR Mega Medical Clinic was a joint effort by AWR and LifeSource International Medical Clinics, a humanitarian organization that is affiliated with the Adventist denomination.

The mega-clinic was an ambitious endeavour in which local and international, medical and completely non-medical Adventist volunteers aimed to treat 6,000 patients over the three-day event in the city coliseum of Puerto Princesa, a touristy, coastal city in Palawan. It was set up on the coliseum floor with stations for child and adult medical consultations, minor surgery, optical services, dental care, laboratory tests, a pharmacy, and even counselling services. People waited patiently in line at the various stations, often for hours on end, some standing, others in stadium seating.

About 100 foreign volunteers came to serve alongside scores of local clinicians and support staff for the mega-clinic. It drew an incredibly diverse volunteer crowd. Some had been planning for the event for months.

Others, like Adventist Frontier Missions volunteers Justina Thomas and Carrie Hann, had gotten wind of it more recently. “We heard about it yesterday,” said a cheerful Thomas when I interviewed them in the dental section of the coliseum floor. The two nurses had endured a 2-hour hike from their mountain mission posting to the lowland, followed by a 40-minute drive to an area called Brooks Point, and then a grueling 4-hour shuttle to Puerto Princesa. Undaunted, they told me that they were having fun and were staying all three days. As I spoke to them they were sterilizing dental equipment. They told me their task was so easy that even avowed non-clinicians like me could handle it.


From Left: AFM volunteers Justina Thomas and Carrie Hann.

Dermatologist Robert Granger from Bunbury, West Australia was dealing with a bit more of a headache. “As a clinician working here I basically have to guess and hope I get it right,” said Granger, describing the lack of treatment options and medications that he had at his disposal to handle patient skin conditions.  

He touched on what was quickly emerging as the biggest challenge so far for the medical clinic: communication. Granger said that on a 1-10 scale (with 10 being flawless), he’d give the current communication between clinical staff a 1, calling it “basically non-existent.” He said that “nothing intentional across areas” was being shared to avoid duplication of effort or missed treatment opportunities for patients that presented at a station with one medical problem but needed help in other areas, too.

Like the “MacGyvering” Steve Lee, however, Granger was quick to improvise: “We sort of go fishing and find people with skin problems and invite them over,” he said.

His fishing was working. By the time I talked to Granger on Day Two of the clinic, he had treated more than 90 patients with a long list of skin conditions and had done numerous surgeries for suspected skin cancers, cysts, and nodes. “I’m personally not making a dent,” said Granger when I asked him what kind of an impact he felt he was having. “As a clinic I think we possibly are.”


The mega-clinic stations on the coliseum floor.

I asked him what he thought of the religious side of the medical clinic. Every day at about noon, a health lecture was delivered by Dr. Lela Lewis, CEO and founder of LifeSource International and Pastor Kyle Allen, a vice president at AWR, gave a sermon. Granger said that he liked the programming and felt that patients did, too. “It [the religious programming] shouldn’t come as much of a surprise,” said Granger, pointing out that the clinic was clearly advertised as being organized by the Adventist Church. He admitted, however, that if you tried the same approach in Australia, “people would walk out.”

For a country in Southeast Asia, the Philippines is quite unique in that most of the population is already Christian, the majority Roman Catholic. Sharlene Yvette Reyes, an Adventist piano teacher from Puerto Princesa who helped organize registration and patient flow, felt that the religious programming was not an issue for patients. She said many faiths were represented in the crowd and that “even Muslims… appreciate being prayed for.”

Other factors were more challenging. Reyes said the culture clash between foreign volunteers and locals can complicate communication. The Western communication style is very direct and Filipinos, she said, sometimes feel bullied even if foreigners do not mean to sound aggressive. To complicate matters, even if they are offended, “Filipinos won’t tell you,” she said. “Filipinos have a tendency to idolize people from America. Americans might enjoy that.”

Marvie Phodaca-Ramirez, a local Adventist dentist and the head of the mega-clinic’s dental team, elaborated on this intercultural dynamic, saying that locals “dance to the tune… if they [foreigners] are so direct, the Filipinos are very tolerant.”

As I looked around at the crowd of waiting patients each day, it was clear that tolerance and patience were in good supply. I spoke to Lyra Teodoro, 15, who had a kidney problem, and Junard Namoco, 18, who said he needed help with a heart condition. I asked them what they learned at the event. Teodoro told me she had learned to be patient. Namoco, who described the religious programming as OK, good-naturedly told me that he had learned to “arrive early.”

I was curious about how those that came for treatment felt about the Adventist Church. Anselmo Edep, 34, came to have a stomach pain checked out. When I talked to him he had been waiting seven and a half hours for treatment but was, all things considered, in good spirits. A Catholic, he told me that the Adventist faith was a “good religion” and that, depending on his schedule, he might even attend the Palawan for Christ meetings that were starting later in the week.

Gerardo Bermas, 43, a local tricycle (a motorcycle with a sidecar) driver was recovering from the removal of a cyst on his chest when he spoke to me. Also a Catholic, Bermas summed up Adventism as “the same God, different religion,” pointing to differences in diet that distinguish it from Catholicism.


Tricycle driver Gerardo Bermas.

Part of the reason for local awareness of the Adventist Church is the denomination’s very prominent presence in Palawan. One in 24 Palaweños is an Adventist. There are 10 Adventist elementary schools, three senior high schools, and one hospital in the province. Palawan Adventist Hospital sits close to the center of town in Puerto Princesa. It’s an impressive, multi-story structure, impossible to miss.

Positive associations with Adventism aside, it was unclear how this awareness translated into daily engagement with the religious programming at the mega-clinic. On the final day of the event, Lewis and Allen were speaking and the backdrop was chaotic. Alongside the preaching, lunch was being distributed, people were eating, babies were crying, people were openly chatting, and others were napping as thunder rolled outside. The atmosphere could not have been more distracting when Lewis and Allen made their final appeal on Thursday afternoon: “Today Jesus is calling you, there might not be a tomorrow,” said Lewis to the crowd. Then Allen asked for everyone who wanted to be in heaven to stand. The response was impressive. The entire crowd of more than 1,000 stood to their feet as the presenters invited them to the evangelistic meetings that started the following day.


AWR's Kyle Allen and Lela Lewis appeal to the mega-clinic crowd.

On Friday night, I headed over to the Adventist church on the hospital campus to get my first taste of the preaching. When I arrived I was told the site had pushed the launch until Saturday night and that if I wanted to catch an actual campaign meeting I should head over to the Puerto Princesa SDA Central Church across town. The programming was well underway when I finally got to the central church and about 100 people were in attendance.

Dorrel McLaren, a volunteer speaker from Maryland of Caribbean descent, was talking about Nebuchadnezzar’s statue and its prophecy implications. She told me later that despite 25 years of experience on medical mission trips, this was her first stab at evangelistic preaching of this kind. We shared a laugh as, despite her lack of experience, she had landed the biggest Adventist church in the region as her two-week preaching hub. “I told my husband, ‘Do you believe that I am going to be speaking at the largest church in Palawan?’ and he said, ‘What?!’”

Charity Caagbay, a member at Puerto Princesa Central and head of the congregation’s music ministry, told me that a key to the outreach that Central had done was smaller “care groups” that reached out to prospects, nurtured relationships, and made invites. “We don’t talk about it but yes, there is an expectation at the end of the two weeks that there will be baptisms,” said Caagbay. “We believe that there will be many.”


Friday night launch of Palawan for Christ at Puerto Princesa SDA Central Church.

After attending the central church on Friday night and Sabbath morning, I headed back to the hospital church on Saturday night where another 100 people were in attendance.

Gail Mitchell-Henry from Rio Rancho, New Mexico, originally from Trinidad and Tobago, was the speaker. Mitchell-Henry told me it was her third time preaching for an evangelistic campaign. Her first two campaigns were in Rwanda and the Solomon Islands. Despite feeling ill, she spoke enthusiastically and was determined to make things work. “With a willing heart God makes a way,” she said.

Reactions to the campaign meetings on Friday and Saturday were generally positive. However, I didn’t come across anyone at either church that was coming to an Adventist church for the first time or that said they were coming as a result of the mega-clinic. Of course, there may have been some at other sites and/or other days.

Ronaldo Guanco, a Bible worker at the hospital church, said Saturday night that the congregation was “happy because it is a woman assigned to our church today.”

“God is not interested if you are a woman or a man,” said Guanco. “If you are interested in sharing the word of God, God will send you. She [Mitchell-Henry] is a good preacher. Her message is very clear.”

Reporting for Spectrum at events such as these is a bit of a double-edged sword. During my week in Palawan, many were eager to talk to someone reporting for Spectrum. This behavior was particularly true of local leadership. Others, not so much. The AWR/TMI team was not allowed to talk to me. This bizarre muzzling wasn’t confirmed until I had done a number of interviews with key AWR-affiliated organizers, one of whom was given the task of telling me that senior GC leadership forbade the use of the information they had enthusiastically shared just a couple days earlier. I was disappointed but not entirely surprised. In reporting on TMI activities, I have encountered more and more transparency challenges due to GC leaders being unwilling to speak about TMI, specifically its finances.

Fortunately, things went better with local leadership. Palawan Adventist Mission President Pastor Daniel Malabad was very helpful. He summed up the mega clinic (the first event of its kind in Palawan) as “very inspiring… and challenging.” He said that the mission was approached last year by AWR, which had proposed a large medical and dental project in the area. The Palawan mission accepted the plan for the AWR clinic and evangelistic campaign and was able to secure support from local government.


Pastor Daniel Malabad, president of the Palawan Adventist Mission.

Malabad told me that Puerto Princesa’s mayor (who came in person to speak to the crowd at the mega clinic) gave the mission use of the city coliseum for free. This goodwill gesture was helpful from a financial point of view as initially the costs of the mega clinic piled up squarely on the shoulders of the mission. Malabad said that medicines, food, water, and transportation for clinic volunteers were costing the mission $20,000, not a small amount by local measures.

He made no secret of the fact that there was hope on the mission’s side that AWR/TMI would help with this cost. I asked him if there had been any assurances of reimbursement, and he replied that it had been “unclear” during the planning phases. The only costs that AWR confirmed they would cover were those of the evangelistic campaign, which stood at about $80,000, according to Malabad.

“Definitely we will pay for that [the mega-clinic costs] first and try to sit down with AWR to settle things afterward,” said Malabad. “When people come here they sponsor medical missions on their own budget.”

“We will just express our concern,” he said. “I have faith, Bjorn.”

Evidently, Malabad’s faith was rewarded. When I called him up toward the end of the Palawan for Christ campaign to see how things had gone with the evangelistic meetings, he told me that the day after I left (July 15), AWR had settled all financial matters, taking care of the full financing of both the mega-clinic and the evangelistic campaign.

“The commitment of AWR is true and honest,” said Malabad, mentioning that the mission even had a surplus now, thanks to giving from other donors.

The happy ending even extends to baptismal numbers. The goal for the campaign was 1,000 and it had been agreed that all baptisms from the start of the year in Palawan would be credited to the AWR/TMI effort. This allowance meant that 1,000 people were baptized before Palawan for Christ even started. Malabad said that 500 more baptisms were expected by the end of the campaign, meaning that 150% of the goal had been reached.

“The presence of the AWR team is indeed a blessing for us all,” said Malabad. “There was a revival among the people.”

He added that members were now involved in evangelistic programs of the church. “Even the most remote areas, island and islets, they, too, are getting involved in giving Bible studies, medical missions, even baptisms,” Malabad said. “The Lord is good, Bjorn. What we expected, the Lord surpassed it.”

 

Bjorn Karlman is an Adventist freelance writer who travels the world as a "digital nomad" living in 2-3 countries per year with his wife and toddler. He is fascinated by the diversity of culture and thought in the global Adventist Church.

Main photo:
Puerto Princesa's City Coliseum where the mega-clinic was held. All photos courtesy of the author.



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