We think with fondness of the flood of converts that came into the Church in England with the apostles first missions there in 1837 and 1839, so many that by 1853 there were more members in England than in the Salt Lake Valley.
Oh, to be there, to see the Spirit leaping from soul to earnest soul until multitudes were aflame and became the ancestors of so many of us in the Church. Those were the days.
What we are sometimes slower to understand is that a few nations of the world today experience that same astonishing flood of belief. The Philippines is one of those, moving from a handful of Filipino converts when the land was rededicated for missionary work in 1961 to 630,000 today, with two temples and soon-to-be 16 missions. The miracles of the early Church continue today.
The sense among the Filipinos, where the gospel flourishes, is that they are the cradle of the gospel for the rest of Asia, that they are the place where the gospel will be rooted and grounded and then turn and influence a continent that is much slower to respond. They are the stronghold, the foothold.
How do we explain this phenomenon that has happened in the Philippines, and what does the Church look like in its process of maturing as new converts take hold and begin to understand?
We talked with Elder Dallin H. Oaks, who served while an a apostle as Area President in the Philippines from 2002-2004, his wife Sister Kristen Oaks, Elder Keith R. Edwards, current Area President and Leni Pilobello, Philippines Public Affairs director and a variety of stake presidents and bishops about this question, and their answers shed light on the growth of the Church everywhere across the world.
Why did our gospel flood pour over the Philippines? It is the only Christian nation in Asia and has been since Magellan sailed here in 1521 and put up the cross. Its 400 years of Catholicism meant that when the missionaries introduce the gospel of Jesus Christ to them, the idea of a having a Savior is not foreign.
Else where in Asia, the journey to conversion comes from a much more distant place because as Buddhists or Hindus, they do not believe in Deity, let alone the Savior. Ask many in Asia about Jesus Christ and they give you a fairly blank stare in response. They’ve hardly heard of him, or if they have, it is only in some vague and distant way.
Filipinos are also very family-oriented. The family is the cornerstone of their lives and so belief in family as an eternal unit feels right and important to them.
Some things about the gospel are also natural to the Filipinos. Sister Oaks noted that it is easy for them to obey the first two commandments of loving God with all of your heart and your neighbour as yourself. In addition to being a remarkably beautiful people, they have this gift that is intuitive, natural and easy of giving love. It is a felt reality amongst them.
As their neighbor you are noticed, acknowledged, loved and cared for. This bounteous and most important attribute, which so many of us, elsewhere, work for, and are sometimes clumsy at, seems to come as a gift for them.
If we’d like a crash course on charity, we would come and live with the Filipinos for a time. They are also sponges for learning the gospel; they are humble and want to be taught. They are eager to obey.
Research that has been done in Asia points to the Philippines as the happiest people in the region. This is particularly interesting given the fact that they are extremely impoverished — and this is not only true for the nation, but for the members as well.
Area President Edwards said, however, “I’ve been in Africa and I’ve seen poverty, and this is different. There aren’t very many Filipinos that miss a meal. They may not have the greatest assortment of food, but mostly they do not go hungry. In Malawi, we were striving as a Church to make sure that all of our members had one meal a day.
“You look out the back window beyond the temple wall, and there are slums. They live a completely different standard of living than most of us do. However, we do an injustice when we try to impose our standards on the people because these people are a happy people. They don’t have to guard their possessions. They are not out disregarding everybody else trying to make a buck. We don’t want to impose the same economic strife on them that so much of the world feels.
“To be happy and to care for your neighbor is the Christian standard, which they do so well. We can take that away from them by saying you need to get rich or that it is more important than being happy. That’s Satan’s standard; it has never been God’s standard. I have friends back home who have worked themselves right out of the Church trying to get rich. The Filipino standard is more godly. They do not chase money so that it becomes their god.”
Despite this natural tendency toward goodness, however, some things are hard for Church members. Poverty does play into it. Member retention is often difficult and one of the main reasons is that visiting and home teaching is hard for them. They often do not have the means to contact each other or the fare to make a journey for a visit.
Without adequate fellowshippng, people fall away. Members do spend much of their time in trying to survive, and reaching out to a new member seems like an extra duty — just more than they can do.
Public affairs director Leni Pilobello also noted that many Filipinos move away from home looking for greener economic pastures, and that drains leadership away from the Church.
These obstacles aside, the Church has steadily matured in the Philippines, and that has been because of the devotion and vision of so many — including the inspiration of the First Presidency to send an apostle, who was well-schooled and powerful in insight, to be the area president in 2002. Elder Oaks said that his efforts represented just one person among the thousands who have made the steady miracle of the Philippines happen, but, there is little doubt that it was a boost for the country to have an apostle here for two years.
“Before 2002 when I came to be Area President,” Elder Oaks said, “I had been on assignment here perhaps 13 times before. I remember that in 1986 at a meeting, there were 30 stake presidents and when I asked if any of them had served full-time missions, only about four raised their hands.
“Now there are roughly 80 stakes, and I would suppose that 75% would be returned missionaries. That is a demonstration of increased faithfulness and commitment and the maturity of the gospel in the Philippines that would make this possible.”
The future also looks bright with this maturing leadership. In the 16 Philippines missions, now almost 70% of the missionaries are Filipinos to number 1638 native missionaries.
What’s more most of these missionaries are paying some part or all of their mission expenses, which Elder Oaks said greatly increases their spirituality and the meaning of their mission to them — especially because it is almost always a sacrifice.
Elder Oaks noted that the Church has a general missionary fund, which outside of the United States and a handful of other countries, pays entirely or in large part for the missionaries’ expenses. It’s a way of letting them serve a mission when they couldn’t otherwise.
However, he noted, “In the Philippines, we are eager to support self-reliance. The Philippines for four hundred years was a colony of Spain and then a colony of the United States, and then subjugated to Japan. When you have been a colony for so long, you look to another country for support and that undermines self-reliance.
“What is needed in this country is the culture of self-reliance, and you need to bring the local culture along to acquire that. I felt the general missionary fund was underwriting the culture of dependency.
“While I was the Area President, we interviewed every available missionary family and said that before we authorized money from the General Missionary Fund, we want you to commit what you can do, right to the point of sacrifice. For one family it might be two dollars a month, for another five dollars. We asked them to do everything they could, and then the missionary fund would support them.
“That was a hard thing to do, and for awhile the number of missionaries fell off, and it took six or seven months, but things started to change. We also told them that when you made that commitment, you have to keep it or your missionary would come home.”
Elder Oaks said that he remembers holding his breath, but not one missionary was sent home. “Two lessons were taught,” he said, “self-reliance and the keeping of commitments. It is not the money that is involved in this, but the principle.”
Leni said, “I know now that there are more families who are saving money for their future missionaries. Families who are better off are paying for the whole cost of their missionaries, and the ward and branches are helping to support them as well.
“Many times I have been called by my bishop to see if I could help one of the missionaries.”
Elder Oaks also helped prepare people to receive another temple in the Philippines. He told the people at stake conferences, “The Lord will not inspire the prophet to build a temple that will stand empty. We have to have more titheprayers. Don’t ask us when the Lord will give another temple to the Philippines. You are not yet ready for it. You get ready and it will follow.” The number of tithepayers went up.
He said, “There will be no shortage of temple-recommend holding members to use the new Cebu City temple.”
The Filipinos have a saying called “bahala na,” which means “We leave it to God” — a cultural outlook that helps them be dependent on the Lord, but also influences them to be laid back and passive, sometimes less disciplined than is required to be a disciple of Christ.
However, Elder Oaks saw that when they understood what was expected of them, they could stand up and arise to a new level. With that spirituality has risen. One direction taught in leadership sessions was for each unit to turn their reports in on time every month. There was so much training that not long after they left, the Philippines became the number one in the world in turning in their reports.”
Sister Oaks said it was difficult for the young women to do their personal progress. She asked Leah Tesaluna, Young Women president of the Makati Stake, in the center of Manila, if they should perhaps approach the Young Women presidency about simplifying the requirements for the Philippines. Leah quickly replied, “Oh no. We would not be women of God, if we didn’t do it the proper way.’
“That’s the kind of people the Filipinos are,” said Sister Oaks. “They just needed opportunities to learn and opportunities to practice.”
Progress is made line upon line and step by step in so many other areas as well. Videos have been made for Primary, teaching how to do a sharing time, how to conduct. All they need to do is to be trained to do it right.
Sister Oaks said that this is a culture where people go to the store and buy one carrot and one cup of rice. Food storage, again, is something that needed to be learned and is.
Augmenting the welfare program, many bishops ask their ward members to bring a cup of rice, if they can, and put it in a can in the back of the church, so that those who are needy can freely take from it. “People have become so generous,” Leni said, “that the rice can in her ward is always full.”
Elder Oaks said that we should make no mistake as they emphasize this self-reliance, self-discipline and sacrifice that somehow that there is an attempt to impose the American culture on the Filipinos. “We are here not to make Americans; we are trying to make Latter-day Saints. That involves overcoming certain tendencies in the culture of the Philippines. If we were in America, we would talk about the way the American culture is deficient. We are trying to make Latter-day Saints.”
In 2003 at a president’s training meeting, he said, “Culture is defined as the way of life of a people. There is a unique Gospel culture, a set of values and expectations and practices common to all members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Gospel culture or way of life comes from the Plan of Salvation, the commandments of God, and the teachings of the Living Prophets…
“Persons who wish to be part of this Gospel Culture must be willing to change … Gospel covenants require us to make some changes from our family culture, our ethnic culture, or our national culture…
“Every nation or cultural group has some cultural practices that conflict with the Gospel culture,” he noted, and then said that one of these in the Philippines has been the tendency toward dependency.
“Growth required by the Gospel plan requires a culture of individual responsibility … It is easy to see how a culture of dependency has been fostered in the Philippines by 500 years of colonial domination and by the current poverty of so many in the nation. That is a cause, but it is not an excuse.
“The Gospel raises people out of poverty and dependency, but only when Gospel culture prevails over national culture. That is the lesson to be learned from the children of Israel, who came out of hundreds of years of slavery in Egypt and followed a prophet into their own land and became a mighty people.
“That lesson can also be learned from the Mormon pioneers, who never used their persecutions or poverty as an excuse, but went forward in faith knowing that God would bless them when they kept His commandments, which He did,” said Elder Oaks.
What is happening in the Philippines is this process as the Church matures there, Filipinos step forward to assume all of the leadership roles, and their testimonies begin to shine as they learn to sacrifice for the Gospel.
This is an area of the Church that has grown faster than any other, and at the same time has experienced growth pains that are evidenced in challenges of member retention.
President Edwards said in many areas of the Philippines, “We are the strong Church you see of the 2000’s in America. In other areas, we are like the Church was in the 1940’s, still growing and feeling our way. In some outlying areas, people do not yet understand what tithing will do for them, other areas understand.
“As the temples come, and as people see the fruits of living the gospel, the willingness to sacrifice and the total embrace of the Church is developing faster.”
Elder Oaks said, “We challenge them, and they measure up. This nation is the energy and the driver of the Church in Asia.”