I was brought to the Philippines by OMF Literature, the largest Christian publisher there. They import some of my books from the U.S. do some translations into Filipino languages, but mainly they do their own English publications of paperbacks, which they sell for less than $4.
I was their very first U.S. author tour, and they were quite nervous. Man, did they work hard. I appeared in three cities, and each one had a large committee that met weekly for months to plan promotion, coordination, venue preparation, etc. The cities were all strategically marketed, with large banners at the major “jeepney” (weird mini-buses built on a Jeep chassis) stops, and some radio and even TV promotion. They were especially pleased that the churches all worked together on the committees. In Davao City, for example, six different Christian schools planned everything, and had musical groups participating, the first time they’d worked together on anything. There are rich Christians in the Philippines, and they got behind this tour impressively. We stayed in the home of a shopping-mall owner in Davao City who had bodyguards, maids, and a staff of ten to run the house. (I’m not used to bodyguards climbing into the back of a vehicle with submachine guns, but terrorism and kidnaping are real threats here.) He sponsored a luncheon at which 22 of 27 city councillors showed up, along with the mayor and vice-mayor, to hear me talk about The Jesus I Never Knew.
In every single case without exception, response exceeded all expectations. They sold tickets, at a nominal fee, to get some idea of turnout, and always had to go back and reprint tickets. If they expected 1000 initially, 2000 would show up. As an example, on Sunday in Manila I spoke in three different morning church services with 2000 at each service, then another Chinese meeting at night. Some of it was truly “combat speaking”: one venue was in a shopping center mall, and I spoke in a large vacant lobby next to a multiplex movie theater. They rented a couple of thousand chairs and arranged them in this concrete tunnel-like area, with people milling in and out and onlookers dropping in. Another meeting was held at the University of Manila, where my talk was preceded by four of the loudest rock bands on earth and the emcee was a local DJ whose e-mail address is “theJesuschick.” I was warned to expect heckling from atheists and Marxists, and received a lot of questions about atheists and why God allows suffering and do Muslims go to heaven, but polite treatment overall.
When you’re used to the jaded “business as usual” American church, it’s refreshing and buoyant to be in a country still in the “honeymoon stage” of faith. When people get a Gospel tract on the street, they actually read it; when invited to a Christian meeting, they actually go. Pop music stars get converted and talk openly about their faith; evangelicals write columns in the daily newspaper; it’s cool to be a Christian in the Philippines. One church where I spoke in Manila has 5 services on Sunday; the first, at 5 am (YES!) has 2000 in attendance. People are very fearful because of a Muslim uprising in the south, a weak economy, and a corrupt government; they see the Christian church as the one beacon of hope.
Each place I went, at least one person came up and told me they had ridden on terrible roads at least nine hours on a public bus to attend the meeting. In every case my books had reached their little village. It was very humbling, let me tell you. One such person was a widow who had just lost her only son at age 24. I felt guilty much of the time because the Philippines is in such a buoyant phase of faith, and my books are so often a corrective of the excesses of the church. But, then, churches in developing countries often get the excesses of the excesses of the U.S. church, because a lot of missionaries are pretty weird folks. (Don’t get me started…) Fact is, no one is addressing questions like “Where Is God When It Hurts” and “Disappointment with God” in such places. Sermons tend to be very formulaic, stiff, and abstract—either that or a rollicking Prosperity Gospel. So I heard many touching stories from readers. They haven’t learned yet that Americans don’t have all the answers. I was amazed at the sophistication of readers also. They look up the sources I cite and read them in the original.
Lest I paint too rosy a picture, this was indeed a developing country. Meetings rarely started on time, neither the thermometer nor humidistat ever dropped below 85, traffic and air pollution were unimaginable, the microphones often didn’t work, cell phones went off constantly during the meetings, banquet food was inedible, the people crowded around me suffocatingly for autographs after each meeting. Mainly, it was exhausting. The Philippine publishers will need to learn a few things before hosting other authors. I had asked for a detailed schedule of all my assignments beforehand, and approved them. But when I got here, ten new events had been scheduled, mainly meetings with sponsors, donors, and VIPS. Typically, we’d have an evening meeting, I’d sign books until 10 p.m., then we’d go out to dinner with the VIPs. Next morning would be breakfast at 6 a.m. I don’t think I could survive these trips without my ever-energetic, extroverted wife who takes over the socializing after I’ve finished the public role.
Even on the two scheduled “off-days,” one to a beach resort and one to Corregidor, the site of the famous WWII battle, we had to leave the hotel before 6 a.m. So we stayed in a state of extreme sleep deprivation. Asians, hospitable to a very great fault, cannot understand that Americans want a few minutes to themselves each day; they schedule every second (and in the Philippines, that means every tardy second). Then, of course, just as you’re feeling sorry for yourself, or perhaps noble, you meet some guy who supervises 157 pastors out in the remote villages, and rides Jeepneys four to five hours every day…Copyright © 2000 by Philip Yancey