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A letter from Paul Matheney in the Philippines

November 2012 (#2)

Ministers’ Retreat in Mindanao

Paul with two of his best students (Carmel Villar-Paet and Bobby Alguso), attending the retreat.

Last week I joined over 750 United Church of Christ of the Philippines (UCCP) church workers on a retreat in General Santos City in Mindanao.  This was the first time in the history of the UCCP that its pastors and church workers have retreated together.  For many this was the first time that they have left their homes to travel to another part of the Philippines.  And they met in one of the least Christian cities in the Philippines, General Santos City, the homeland of many radical Muslim organizations.  Foreign Christians are often kidnapped here and there is substantial support for the more radical MILF and other anti-government organizations.

The reason for the retreat, however, was not political, but rather spiritual.  For the first time the church workers of the UCCP met to retreat and grow spiritually as a denomination.  Two activities were at the heart of the event: a spiritual journey and sports.  The spiritual journey was led by a nun who is known for her skill in leading church communities in their spiritual lives.  The focus was on becoming true disciples as Christian leaders.  The sports was a non-competitive competition between the different areas in games that our ministers love, especially basketball.  Both events were great fun. 

I was fortunate to be there.  The retreat was led in such a way that the Scriptural passages chosen became catalysts for group discussion and prayer, as well as individual direction.  At the heart of our work together were three of my favorite Biblical passages: Genesis 12:1-9, Mark 10:17-31 and Galatians 5:13-26.  These passages have been an important part of my own journey, so it was especially meaningful for me to spend time with other ministers who also were inspired by the challenges they entail.

The discussions rapidly led to personal stories detailing the vocations of each person involved. I was assigned to a group from an area of the Philippines I knew little of, rural Mindanao.  There were 10 of us.  I soon found that all of the ministers came from very poor and difficult backgrounds.  They shared stories checkered with pain and redemption.  The husband of one had been murdered, the career of another lost due to criminal behavior, the life of another radically transformed by the loving intervention of another.  Each person inspired us by their faithfulness in the face of suffering.  The love of Christ shared by those serving as ministers was contagious and renewing. 

Church workers getting ready to play basketball.

The sports events as always here were very important.  Everyone wanted to win, but no one minded that they lost.  What mattered was the effort and the skill.  I was especially excited by the basketball games.  Basketball is taken very seriously here.  Each team had its heroes and everyone who wanted to, played.  My team faced every challenger with energy and good teamwork.  They play together often, so they knew how to pass and move the ball.  We lost the championship, but the final game we played was very exciting.  The winner was in doubt until the final bell.  It was a great game. 

On Sunday we travelled to local churches to lead worship and connect with the ministry of the area.  I joined others at a small church that was experiencing dramatic growth in the middle of an isolated community that was predominately Muslim and Catholic.  It was a very inspiring morning.  The church celebrated a newly completed building and a healthy relationship with the peoples of their context.  The animosity that had long dominated this area was not found here.  All wanted a prosperous and safe future.  Brokenshire Hospital and College, long connected with the Presbyterian Church, had partnered with the village by initiating and funding a number of health prevention programs, such as a safe water campaign.  The spirit of friendship was contagious and bodes well for the future of these very faithful people.

I was very fortunate to be there for this retreat.  I was the only non-Filipino minister there, but I never felt a stranger.  The gospel has a way of bringing us together, doesn’t it?  For the UCCP pastors who were there for this historic event, this was a first time for something very important, an event that brought us all together as disciples of Christ and as the UCCP.  Events like these can and ought to be celebrated by all Christians everywhere.  They make us who we are, believers in Christ and followers of His way.

In Christ’s name,

Paul Matheny

The 2012 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 203
The 2013 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 211

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