Touchdown in the Philippines:
Stranded, alone, a clueless foreigner in a foreign land, I sat on the plastic chair with no idea where to go next. Teardrops of perspiration gathered on my forehead in the relentless sun as I waited, silent, gazing at the unfamiliar tropical trees in the airport parking lot while a kindly airline agent tried to track down my local contact.
The day hadn’t started out so complicated. I’d awoken that morning to the sight of my backpack beside me on the Manila airport floor, where I lay on the $4 pool mattress I’d inflated the previous night behind a statue of Jesus.
“Ma’am,” a voice called from somewhere above, “time to move. We’re starting mass.” I rolled over to see an officer’s face floating over me.
Mass at the airport? Apparently, religiosity held a more central role here than I’d expected.
One flight later, I arrived in another Filipino city only to discover that I had no way of contacting the ministry I was supposed to be staying with. My emails had stopped going through, the phone numbers I had weren’t connecting, no street address was listed, and I hadn’t thought to ask for one early enough.
So, there I sat outside the airport, feeling oddly at peace for one in such a predicament. When I did notice my knee start to shake, I reminded myself of how many times God had vividly demonstrated His faithfulness to me on this trip already and thanked Him for this new opportunity to trust Him.
Eventually, the airport agent pointed me to a nearby hotel. Exactly when I was about to book a room, I heard a voice behind me:
Spinning around, I faced two girls I’d never met before. They rushed over and hugged me, explaining they were from the ministry, which the airport staff member had somehow managed to call. They’d tracked me down just in time to see me walk away from the airport with my massive neon backpack!
As we rode a pedicab—a small taxi built around a motorbike—to home base, I learned that I’d be staying in a house full of campus ministry leaders and university students! So, when they invited me to join them for a prayer walk around two universities the next day, I leapt at the opportunity.
Spirituality on Campus—First Impressions:
Off we went on foot, past a vivid bougainvillea tree, along a street streaming with pedicabs, and under strings of pennants still bedecking the street from a recent festival, to arrive at a walled campus. Inside, I ascended a flight of stairs, turned a corner, and did a double take in the hallway.
There were Bible verses posted on the beige walls!
Did I mention that this was a State university?
“You’d never see verses posted like this in a public university in Canada,” I commented.
“Look in here,” replied one of the students, pointing to a nursing classroom doorway. Obediently, I peered through the window—and saw this displayed in the front of the class:
“I helped put that up,” the student smiled.
While I didn’t notice it until a few days later, a portrait of Jesus also hung above the sign-in booth adjoining the main gate to campus. Back in Canada, the only times I’d seen depictions of Christ on campus walls were for Bible study invitations or, as described here, in cartoons mocking Christianity. So, what made the Philippines different? To start finding out, I interviewed two girls from the education faculty: one, a second-year student, and the other a graduate-turned-student-ministry-leader.
Understanding Religion, Cults and Superstition in the Philippines
“In the Philippines it’s easy to evangelize,” said one of the girls as we sat visiting over a bowl of boiled jackfruit seeds. “because the people here are Christians by name. But the thing is, we are separated into different Christian religions. We’re looking to our denominations instead of to who Jesus is. So, when I share the gospel with my classmates, they often think that as long as they do good works, they are saved.”
Later, another graduate who now worked as a nurse and full-time campus ministry leader collaborated this.
“Many of my classmates were ‘Christians,’” she said, emphasizing the word with finger quotes as she sat leaning toward me on a bamboo bench, “but sometimes their beliefs contrast to our biblical worldview. This wasn’t just the case on campus, but also—especially—with my parents,” she continued. “When I accepted Christ, they thought that I had converted to another religion, and so, was not respecting them. So, every now and then, they’d scold me for my faith. My family really affected my growing as a Christian.”
“So, when you became a Born-again Christian, they thought you had joined a cult or something?” I asked.
“Yeah, something like that. Because they are Catholics, they have a different view. It’s a challenge for me when I’m staying at home.”
“Do you think many Christian students might experience similar things here?”
“Yeah, I believe so. My church is encouraging me that it’s part of being a Christian. I was really crying at the church, telling them that my family had been discouraging me because of my beliefs.”
Confirming these accounts, I later learned that according to CIA statistics, the Philippines are about 80% Catholic, 8% Protestant and 6% Islamic.1 However, some of the students explained that because Filipinos are so open to spirituality, many cults are also strongly active here. In fact, almost as many households belong to one of those cults, a powerful organization known as Inglesia ni Christo (2.4%),2 as to Evangelical churches (2.7%).3
While the Philippines are therefore largely “Christian in name,” another nursing student explained how religious practices here are often mixed with traditional animistic beliefs and superstitious rituals. People constructing a building, for instance, may commonly sacrifice a chicken or pig to consecrate the building’s foundation, expecting the animal’s blood to protect the building against unwelcome spirits. Other superstitious beliefs include the idea that mounds of dirt, especially in forests, are the dwellings of woodland dwarves. To avoid trampling on or otherwise offending the dwarves, passersby may chant certain syllables to advise the creatures of their presence.
And Yet, Not Everyone Believes…
Beneath the spiritualistic surface waters of tradition, belief and ritual in the Philippines, however, there nevertheless may flow an undercurrent of skepticism. As one campus ministry leader relayed in a telephone interview:
“There are a lot of challenges to campus ministry. Although Christianity is already known and popular in the Philippines, because it’s popular, there are also people who are passive about Christianity. They’re religious, but don’t have a relationship with Jesus Christ. Others are skeptical, and don’t believe the truth of the Bible; they think it’s human-made.”
Similarly, a Christian nursing professor I spoke with mentioned that humanistic influences are also gaining sway in the Philippines.
“How is that happening?” I wanted to know.
“There’s a lot of Western influence in the Philippines,” she replied. “When a foreigner is speaking, Filipinos really have a hard regard for them and tend to buy into their perspective.” This can especially be the case, she explained, when the speaker sounds intelligent, well-educated and scientific. “So,” she continued, “I’m starting to see that we’re becoming humanist in the sense that God is no longer being talked about. It’s more about humans; human ability is being magnified compared to God, who is the source of everything.”
Ultimately then, a mixed pallette of religious, superstitious and humanistic influences colours the Philippine’s spiritual climate, creating a unique image of the challenges and opportunities which Christian students here face. On the bright side, the popularity of Christian-tinted spirituality makes Filipino campuses fruitful grounds for evangelism and discipleship. The darker elements of such widespread religiosity, however, can include family conflict for Evangelical students, strong cultic influences, and popular apathy toward the real Gospel. As another campus ministry leader whom I interviewed via telephone summarized:
“Mostly, everybody knows about Jesus and believes in God. But they practise many different traditions which can hinder them from really knowing who Jesus is, the true Gospel. So, when we share, we explain that salvation is not by works but by faith. Many students here do have doubts about Jesus, though, and don’t care about faith.”
Before this campus minister hung up, I asked if there were any final words he wanted to share.
“As a campus missionary, I want to challenge the church to really think about campus ministry,” he answered, “Because if the church neglects it, the church will be lost.”
I pulled the crackly mobile phone closer to my ear, straining to hear above the background voices where I sat on campus.
“Did you say lost?”
“Yes,” he affirmed, “lost. Do you remember Judges 2:10?”
I didn’t know the Scripture offhand.
“It says that after Joshua – the Israelite’s leader – died,” the campus minster explained, “another generation rose up that neither knew God nor everything He had done for Israel.”
“Now that’s a good point,” I recognized. Sure, the specific challenges which Christian students face on campus will be different in different cultures. But whether in the well-churched Philippines or the post-Christian West, the same call to action urges Christ’s family make disciples and disciple-makers of a new generation. The religious climate of the next generation depends on it.
- A Canadian news story about this cult is available here https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/filipino-man-claims-death-threats-from-members-of-powerful-christian-church-1.3590301, while an open-access academic paper (1999) on Filipino cults is available in PDF when you search for its title online: The New Cult Phenomenon in Philippine Society, Gerry M. Lanuza, Philippine Studies vol. 47, no. 4 (1999): 492–514