Power Corrupts

MarcosI have just finished reading a brilliant volume on the Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Imelda, The Marcos Dynasty: The Corruption of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos. I have always had an interest in Philippine history and was pleased to see that the author, expert in Southeast Asian modern history, Sterling Seagrave, took great pains to present at the very start the context and place in time of the nation: its struggles under colonial rule of Spain then the United States, its national heroes, politics and civil and foreign battles, and its strategic importance in Asia and the Pacific.

What presented an intriguing aside throughout the book was the ongoing interactions between the Filipino Leadership and American Presidents, Generals, Diplomats and Secret Service agents, especially surrounding the Japanese invasion and the aftermath of World War II. Truly, as one critic praises it, this book reads like “a fast-paced thriller” and displays “an underlay of thorough investigative work.”

Very few come out looking good.

In fact, Seagrave challenges the popular history that was largely written by the powerful figures at play in this drama and paints a picture of the corruption of the power structures of both the Philippines and the United States, and the stealth by which the CIA and its agents were involved in a multitude of critical political and business decisions in the region during the course of the 20th century. Men who were thought to be heroes, great military leaders and global freedom advocates turn out to be weak, indecisive, and abusers themselves.

The adage is true: Power corrupts, and Absolute Power corrupts absolutely.

Time and time again, the opportunity presents itself to govern wisely and compassionately, and personal gain is chosen over national interest.

  • Billions of dollars was divested from Government accounts into Swiss accounts in the name of Ferdinand, Imelda or any of the Marcos children or companies.
  • Bribes were paid by companies seeking to do business in the Philippines and this money went not to the nation but into the hands of its leaders.
  • Lucrative and over-priced government contracts were awarded to the President’s family, friends, or those who could afford to pay the necessary ‘taxes’ into the Marcos’s personal accounts. Corporations with family ties were given exclusive rights to mining, oil drilling, sugar cane and pineapple plantations and logging.
  • Family members were given plush positions of authority from ambassadorships to provincial governorships, with all the salaries and perks appropriate to such offices.
  • Extravagance was king. From Imelda’s bulletproof bras and huge shoe collection to private jumbo jets with gold fittings and personally-owned hotels, highways, casinos and clubs, no expense was spared.

But this all started as an honest attempt at being a compassionate and patriotic Filipino and having a desire to not only see the nation gain its independence from its colonial rulers but to also grow to be a world leader and influencer in the region.

*  *  *  *  *

I am reminded how this follows the same pattern that many have chosen—or fallen into, not often intentionally but over time, in many small steps, and often with the best motivations.

In Government, a politician will perhaps start off as a local council member. She will delight in helping her community grow, her constituents succeed, and the residents prosper. All her time will be spent working for the people who elected her. Until she starts moving up the ladder of success to state level. Suddenly, so it seems, she is in Federal Parliament/Congress and has a large staff, huge budget and allowances, and spends little, if any, time in her constituency. Rather, lobbyists wine and dine her. Corporations start courting her vote by depositing large amounts into her election campaign. She takes extravagant first-class trips overseas (or ‘study tours’ as they are called). She starts using the nations funds to pay for private parties, flights and holidays for her family. Corporate bodies court her vote on legislation. She ends up betraying the trust of those she represents and selling out so enlarge her own profits and prospects of employment post-politics—if she makes it that far without a corruption scandal.

A young man decides to attend seminary because he is so passionate about Christian community and wants to invest his life in helping folks just like him to grow spirituality and as a community of faith, making a positive impact in their city. He graduates and secures a Youth Pastor position in a small church (often considered the first step in any ministerial career). He loves his job and the kids more than anything and sinks hours of time and immense portions of his life into nurturing and supporting them through all the ups and downs of teenage life. He marries and has a few children. By now he has accepted a call to a larger church as an Associate Pastor and, what seems like such a short time, becomes Senior Pastor. The Church starts growing in numbers and assets. He hires his friends because ‘why not?’ if they are good for the job. He slowly gets rid of the naysayers in the organisation and, before long, the board is populated with those who agree with his ‘vision’ for the church and who will rubber-stamp anything he puts forward. He starts writing books that become bestsellers. His church expands which results in a new multi-million-dollar high tech campus—or two or three. By now he is much in demand as a speaker at conferences around the world. He is at his own church perhaps half of the Sundays in a year. He buys a bigger house, better cars, spends much of his time on expensive holidays none of his parishioners could afford and, eventually justifies a private jet and commands large ‘love offerings’ wherever he speaks. He looks forward to the time he can retire—if he can keep that indiscretion quiet or that affair on the hush-hush long enough.

* *  *  *  *

In the end, the Marcos Dynasty ended in shame when, after the blatant murder of Benigno ‘Ninoy’ Aquino (Marcos’s foremost critic) by Marcos’s henchmen, and the final corrupted election (1986) where Ninoy’s wife, Corazon, was overwhelmingly swept into power. Ferdinand, Imelda and their children were forced to flee Malacañang Palace and the Philippines under allegations of immense corruption and scandal. They took with them an estimated $5-$10 billion that rightfully belonged to the Philippine people. Corruption that occurred during the Marcos’s era of dictatorship is still evident in the nation and will continue to have a ripple effect in the region for years to come.

Whether a position of power is ‘earned’ or ‘granted,’ we must be very cautious in using it. It can just as easily turn into abuse and manipulation, a distrust of everyone as a possible usurper of our rightful authority, and a beast that will end up destroying our soul. And the question we must always remember is this: “What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and  lose his own soul?”

My Last Night in the Philippines (Philippine Adventure, Part 5)

Litex2It was already dark as we made our way down the narrow, winding streets of an area the locals called Litex, a barrio on the outskirts of Quezon City.

I was seated on a motorcycle behind the driver. No helmets. As he slowly weaved around parked pedicabs and crowds of people heading towards the market, a helmet would have been overkill. Dad was seated in the sidecar, rather calmly taking in the surrounds: a market with the accompanying crowds and the smell of fresh fish for sale, crowded jeepneys politely sounding their horns as they weaved in and out of traffic, local kids kicking a ball and chasing it down a side alley . . .

Down one narrow street, squeezing past a jeepney packed with workers on their way home. Sharp right, uphill a few metres then a sharp left, down an even narrower alley. Bumping over cracks in the road, another few unusual turns into crowded lanes. We finally stop.

We follow one of the local pastors down an alley bordered by concrete houses with rusted tin roofs, some with small dirt yards full of chickens, dogs, and clothes hanging out to dry. Not much light.

We’re walking downhill. Groves have been molded into the rough-laid walkway to help drainage in the wet season. This is the dry season, so it’s hot and the air is heavy with humidity. We continue walking, more carefully now, turning a corner as the alley narrows and we enter an area where there are no lights.

“We’re here,” Manuel says.

A tin door opens in the darkness and we enter what seems to be an entry way, down a steep concrete step and into another open door, Five more high steps down and we’re in a living room. In the middle of the floor a mother cat is nursing her three kittens, a dog barks from behind a low concrete enclosure in the corner. In the dim light we see the room contains a sofa and chairs which had seen better days, a dining table, old refrigerator and a computer.

And lots of chairs, stools and other seating arrangements.

Over the course of the next 10 minutes, 30 or more people arrive, and cram into this small room. The neighbourhood children sense this is unusual–maybe it’s the “Americanos” that spark their curiosity. They find seats on the alley side of the unscreened windows and take in what is happening below.

Everyone is here. One young man pulls out a guitar and starts strumming and a girl starts a rhythm going on a “beat box”–a unique instrument that contains strings inside to reverberate different sounds depending on where the box is struck. People start singing:

This is the night,
This is the night that The Lord has made . . .

I look around and amazed by how many are here, and how many generations. Sunny, an 84-year-old from Davao is sitting next to me (four of us squeezed into a three-seat sofa) and claps along. Across from her is beautiful little Jewel, the grand-daughter of the local pastor. There are teens, twenty-somethings, mothers and fathers. All are joyously join in the song:

This is the time,
This is the time that The Lord has made . . .

The second light bulb in the room won’t work and they can’t fix it, so one of the young men runs off and returns with a more powerful light bulb, climbs up on the table and replaces its dimmer counterpart. The room erupts in bright white light.

This is the place,
This is the place that the Lord has made.
We will rejoice,
We will rejoice and be glad in it . . .

We sing together. In English. I imagine that some of those present wouldn’t fully 2013-04-30 (19-39) Philippines 353understand, but the joy on their faces assures me that they know.

We pray together. Some in English. Some in Tagalog. Some in Cebuano.

At one point a fight breaks out in the alley. Children and adults are shouting at each other. As our host moves to put up the makeshift boards that close the windows, the woman across from me, a leader in a local church youth group, turns to me and says, “They are our mission.” I sense that she will not stop until she has been able to impact each one of these young people and all of this neighbourhood with her simple yet deep faith in Jesus.

We finish as the pastor leads us in prayer. A very loud “Amen” rises from those assembled and food is brought out. The guitarist plays and we all join in:

Give thanks with a grateful heart . . .

From out of nowhere, it seems, A feast is spread before us: rice (it is the Philippines after all), a pork and green bean soup, whole dried fish, and a case of ice cold RC Cola with the tops popped and straws in place.

We eagerly grab plates and fill them with food, being careful not to tread on the kittens which, by now, have started wandering about the room, exploring.

We are soon once again seated, eating, laughing, talking, singing. The guitarist is still strumming and a few of the young people are singing:

Glory to his name, glory to his name . . .

Sweets are served: A coconut and jelly treat which, as I find out, is easier to drink than to eat with a spoon. Homemade coconut sugar candy follows and then one final prayer before we head into the darkness.

We walk up the hill by the strange light of glowing cellphones. We pass families sitting in front of their homes in the relative coolness of the outdoors. Children are playing. Adults talking, smoking, laughing. We follow the alley back to the road and make our way to our respective homes . . .

It’s 10 o’clock. I should be tired by now. But I’m not. I feel a buzz of excitement. On my last night in the Philippines, I have experienced something I had only read about in missionary stories or heard about from those working in far-flung places. I have seen real joy, genuine community, a deeply-held faith and a love that is generous and fully without either pretense or boundaries.

I will fly out tomorrow from Manila and back across the ocean to Australia, to my normal life, my family, my work. I will leave a part of my heart in this land where I was born, with its wonderful people, on its beautiful hills and plains, and submerged in its colourful culture.

Yet I’m sure this night will stay with me and I will be hearing these heartfelt songs of praise and songs of blessing wherever I am. And every time  when I hear these songs, I will hear them in a Filipino accent, accompanied by a guitar and a beatbox, truly amazing voices that expectantly and joyfully lifts towards heaven, singing with open hearts:

I love you with the love of the Lord,
Yes, I love you with the love of the Lord.
I can see in you the glory of my king
And I love you with the love of the Lord.

The Spirit of Adventure: Doing the Lord’s Work Illocano Style (Philippine Adventure, Part 4)

I have the utmost respect for Carlos and Milagros (Mila).

In 1968, I was the ring-bearer (page boy) at their wedding in Legaspi. My sister was the flower girl. My dad was the preacher.

2013-04-27 (20-04) Philippines 239They were a young couple just starting out together with an ambition to serve God and share the gospel in their homeland.

Carlos was from the Illocos region in far northern Luzon. Mila was from Bicol (part of the large Improsso family, many of whom we encountered in our time in the Philippines). They met as they were both studying for full-time Christian ministry in Mindanao.

Fast-forward 20+ years and they moved north to Isabela province to plant a church and ended up starting a Bible School of their own. IGBI_IsabelaThey spent many years in this area and were very successful in their work. Numerous young men and women graduated from their Bible School which later became one of the three IGBI campuses of TCM (Philippines).

While the work was growing and new churches were being planted in the Isabela region, Carlos and Mila came to the decision to leave Isabela and do what they had been teaching young men and women to do for so many years–plant new churches. Our church at the time joined with them in this venture and contributed a small amount each month towards their living expenses. It was always great to see each new endeavour and where God was opening doors for them to serve.

2013-04-29 (12-26) Philippines 323They chose a location on the opposite side of the island of Luzon, just about as far north as you can go in the Philippines, near the city of Laoag–a small barangay (village) called Caaoacan. Here they built a house with an adjacent small meeting space and started a church.

That wouldn’t be anything fantastic, considering how many churches are planted in the Philippines every year. But what makes this incredible is that Carlos is 80 and Mila is in her late 70s. And while Carlos was originally from the Illocos region and spoke the native language Illocano, it took his wife 8 years to learn it well enough to be reasonably fluent.

Dad and I took a short detour north and flew into “Laoag International Airport” (called so because, once in a while, a charter flight from China or Taiwan lands there) on a warm Saturday evening. We were met by Carlos on his “tricycle” (motorbike with a sidecar attached) and, together with our luggage, 2013-04-29 (15-17) Philippines 348crammed into his and another tricycle for the half hour journey north to Caaoacan.

2013-04-28 (17-54) Philippines 286With the expense of owning a car is beyond the reach of most Filipinos, the motorbike and tricycle are widely used forms of transport. Wherever you go, these vehicles crowd the roads and are even used as taxis. And, apart from the suspension on bumpy roads, they do amazingly well for the little amount of fuel they use.

We spent only a couple of days with this wonderful couple. We participated in their church services on Sunday and dad went with them to their Sunday afternoon meetings (I was in bed, sadly, not feeling too well).

??????????Their enthusiasm for their work was contagious. Though clearly showing signs of their age (Carlos had a heart bypass operation last year and Mila has problems with her feet and hip), they not only ran a full schedule in Caaoacan, but held services Sunday afternoon in another barangay an hour’s drive away (once again via tricycle).

They are isolated. Though they are not far from a decent-sized city (Laoag has a population of 104,000) with most of the mod-cons (McDonalds being foremost), the area in which they live has no running water, sewers, telephone lines, internet, and undependable electricity supply.

They have a young ??????????pastor staying with them who also works with the youth in the village and helps them by fishing in the nearby river (a great source of little shrimp), drawing all the water from the well (via a pump in their kitchen–no running water) to water their plants, clean and drink, running errands for them in his tricycle and helping out around the church property. He is also a brilliant guitar player (a gift many Filipinos seem to possess!).

In all their work, Carlos and Mila remain selfless, generous, and dedicated to their calling. It was a privilege to stay with them for even this short visit. It also helps that Mila is a fantastic cook!

2013-04-29 (12-02) Philippines 314Too soon it was time to say our farewells. There were tears. Mila bemoaned the fact that “Mum Jan” (my mum) and “Mum Vicki” (my wife) couldn’t have come with us. Having just seen the beautiful local beach that morning, I wished we could have stayed longer and done some more exploring . . .

2013-04-29 (17-48) Philippines 344As we flew out of Laoag, I felt a sense of sadness that we had to cut our visit short (due to flight changes out of our control). Also for the fact that we, with so much at our disposal, complain so much and do so little in comparison to what these excited and dedicated senior citizens are accomplishing. Theirs is not my calling, yet, in some respects, what they do is what we all as followers of God are called to do: to serve unselfishly, to speak the good news into every part of our lives, and to be faithful in everything.

Thank you, Carlos and Milagros, for sharing with us your adventure in ministry and showing us, with such a vibrant and gracious spirit, the joy that can be found in being faithful to your calling.

Church, Politics and Partnership (Philippine Adventure, Part 3)

The reason for my recent visit to the Philippines was to accompany my dad who wanted to catch up with his friends and former students. He had taught at IGBI in Ozamiz City in the 60s and had seen many of his students go on to become pastors and leaders in their churches (Grace Gospel Churches of Christ).

We met with so many people and I, who in the best of times struggle with remembering names, could not keep up. Many of them remembered me as ‘Jon-Jon’ (from when I was 3-6 years old). My own memories flooded back on so many occasions while talking with them and hearing their stories.

2013-04-23 (19-32) Philippines 103The conference meetings were uplifting and encouraging. There were also representatives from other S.E. Asian countries and some from the U.S. It had quite an international feel.

But in its essence, it was purely Filipino. One of the best decisions, I believe, the American missionaries made in the early days, was to turn the entire work over to Filipino nationals. Everything was done from Day 1 with this in mind. (Dad left the Philippines in 1972 and was the last foreign Director of the Bible College in Ozamiz.)

And the national leaders excelled! We were both very impressed with the character and expertise of the leadership. The conference–the 55th annual such event–was run like a well-oiled machine. The delegates from all over the country were met at the airport, accommodated, fed, and organised to a fine standard. The program itself was well-thought-out with a wide range of leaders, musicians and speakers and took place in a beautiful old church building–the Elinwood UCCP Church in Malate, Manila.

Part of an denominational gathering is the business of making decisions and keeping the organisation running, and this was no exception. Whilst dad and I removed ourselves from most of these meetings (it wasn’t after all, our business as observers from Australia), we were privy to some of the goings-on in the churches.

I guess you could say that we discovered rather quickly that churches in the Philippines were like churches anywhere else in the world: aiming for a high goal with the cause of the gospel of Jesus as a primary purpose, yet often bogged down in the politics of running an organisation and supporting the various structures within that organisation.

2013-04-24 (11-27) Philippines 146Philippine churches, like ours, lose people through disagreements or differences that cannot be resolved. A few years ago, a group of churches left the denomination because they believed only an organ should be used for musical accompaniment in church services. They didn’t care for guitars or drums. Another group distanced themselves from the organisation because they came up with the idea that prayer wasn’t needed since God knows (and plans) everything.

In spite of these setbacks, the leadership has maintained a grace-filled, open door policy–and this has been rewarded with several churches rejoining the group after a short time on the “outside.”

The response of the Board is inspiring: it doesn’t matter if they are in or out, as long as the gospel is being preached. They pray for God’s blessing on all, not just those who are part of their group. In one word: grace.

The theme of the conference was “Generous Partnership,” which puts into words the character of these people: partnering together with each other in mission, as members with churches, as churches with the denomination, as the denomination with people, and the whole organisation with like-minded folk from all over the world.

And that’s the way it should be. May we be driven by the Spirit of God to the same goal of generous partnership, in all graciousness and love.

Church Filipino-Style (Philippine Adventure, Part 2)

You know you’re in the Philippines when . . .

I could complete that sentence in countless ways, but for me the most striking is this:

RoosterYou know you’re in the Philippines when you are woken up at 4.00 a.m. by crowing roosters (I found this true even amongst high-rise buildings in downtown Manila!)

So began our first day.


Seeing as we were staying in a pastor’s home, it was natural for us to go with him to his church, Litex Grace Gospel Church of Christ to be exact. The service began at 9.30 with the lively singing of choruses led by one of the “Bible Women” (in Australia we would call them “Pastor” as we do their male counterparts).

Filipinos LOVE singing, and I could tell church was no exception. Some of the choruses I knew from years ago and others were more contemporary. All were sung by all joyfully and loudly.

2013-04-21 (12-58) Philippines 023Once the preliminary songs, Bible verses and prayers were finished, we moved into the more formal worship service. Surprisingly, the same format was followed then that I remembered being used 40+ years ago: hymns interspersed with Bible Readings, prayers and announcements.

Probably most amazing cultural difference was the offering which seemed to have a much more prominent place than in Australian churches—not prominent in that money was made a big issue, but giving as an act of spiritual service was elevated by the reading of a verse, a prayer, the actual offering collection and then, as if on cue, everyone rose and sang “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.”

(Side note: I found it interesting to read in the denomination’s Ministry Handbook later that week how that they encourage their churches to charge an annual “membership fee”. Agree with it or not, it seems people place a greater value on that for which they must pay.)

Dad was the guest preacher and I was asked to sing a song before his sermon (they called it “rendering” a song). Following the message was a Child Dedication which was far more a momentous occasion than it is down under. It seemed there were numerous godparents who all had to sign the official church certificate. There was a huge banner with the baby’s picture on the stage. It was a rather elaborate service in itself and quite an honour for dad and I to witness.

2013-04-21 (13-27) Philippines 017After the 2-hour-plus service was finished (with the traditional singing of the fourfold “Amen”), and after the photo taking of anyone and everyone present (“One more, for Facebook“), chairs were pushed to the side and lunch was served. They do this every Sunday so I was told. Rice, chicken, vegetables, sweets, all cooked and prepared in an open kitchen behind the church. Filipino hospitality shone once again and we enjoyed chatting over good food.

2013-04-21 (11-05) Philippines 066Impressed as I was by the excitement and joy of those attending the Litex Church that morning, I was even more impressed by the genuineness of those present. These were mostly young people, and an assortment of singles and families. They had a very real sense of who God is and of their place in God’s mission in their world. They spoke of mission as if it were a given (not an option that is so often the case in Australian churches). This was reflected in the stories I heard about how people came to be together in this congregation and how they came to faith in Jesus.

Whilst I see a high level of professionalism in our congregations and the way we do church here, there is so much we can learn from this grassroots faith community and the way they are the Church in their corner of the Philippines. Certainly cultivating a greater heart for mission/purpose and a greater focus on “coming together” rather than finely choreographing that gathering are key points from which our churches here can take a lesson.

That being said, no church is perfect and I hope to unpack elements of this in a later post.

Now I can’t really see how this all translates into our own context–or if, in reality,  it should–but I do know that participating with these dear folk showed me how grace, love and joy can easily cross any national, linguistic or cultural barrier and bring together people under a common banner of being the people of God together.

(to be continued . . .)

A World Away (Philippine Adventure, Part 1)

2013-04-21 (13-04) Philippines 027It was like we were walking into a wall of humid heat as we left the terminal at Manila International Airport. We made our way out of the door and into a world so far removed from our own—a world in which brightly decorated jeepneys, roadside sari-sari stores and crowded streets were the norm.

I had jumped at the chance to accompany my dad to the Philippines to catch up with his former students and to attend a Conference with many of them in Manila. Having spent the first seven years of my life in Legazpi City (Southern Luzon) and Ozamis City (Northern Mindanao), I welcomed the opportunity to travel to the place closer to where I began my journey.

It was amazing to see how my distance from my birthplace had coloured my memories. I didn’t recall the humidity being so oppressive. I didn’t remember eating rice every meal. I didn’t seem to be able to call to mind crowded streets filled with cabs, buses, jeepneys and tricycles (motorbikes or bicycles with covered sidecars).

It didn’t take long for these things to jump back into my mind with a vengeance.

But my memory did serve me well with regards to the people: warm, welcoming, caring, considerate. Hospitality is a part of their nature.

Meeting us at the airport was Manuel, one of dad’s former students—now a pastor and supervising minister in the Grace Gospel Churches of Christ in the greater Manila area (He arrived in Manila 25 years earlier and had seen 14 churches planted around the region in that time).

It took us 2 hours to traverse the 27km from the airport to Manuel’s home in Quezon City. The early evening came alive with markets along the road, people returning on the train, buses and jeepneys from their day’s work, and the sounds of children playing. . . .

Every turn in the road brought a new sense of wonder. I must have looked like a typical “Americano” tourist with wide eyes and camera going full-pelt.

We arrived at the house around 8 where we were treated to a lavish spread of rice, chicken, salad and conversation liberally sprinkled with laughter, memories, and a few Cebuano phrases (at least the best dad could remember them!)

My dad was in his element, reminiscing about the “good old days” of mission trips into the mountains, riding carabao on muddy trails, Bible College days and many other such experiences. Manuel, also, told stories of his time living with our family in Legazpi, walking me to Kindergarten every day, then moving to Mindanao to attend Bible College.

I was reminded how, though we may be worlds apart in many ways, yet here we were at this table sharing food, talking as if 41 years hadn’t even passed, celebrating God’s goodness, however we conceived it to be in our own surroundings.

(to be continued . . .)