Picture a group of 7,107 tropical islands stretching 1,150 miles from north to south in the south Pacific Ocean, so numerous and yet so tiny that on some maps the country is just a name printed over a group of dots. That’s a bird’s-eye view of the inviting Philippines.
In this lush, tropical Christian land, 40 million Filipinos cheerfully cope with the 20th century problems of any developing nation. One example of their commitment to progress is their literacy level, which is 78 percent, the highest in Southeast Asia, and their desire for education is so strong that parents and family members often make numerous sacrifices to help family members become educated. The population of the country has doubled since it received its independence from the United States in 1946; the birthrate is 44.7 per thousand, and the average number of children per family is 7.7.
The Philippines is the only Christian nation in Asia, resulting from over three centuries (1521–1898) of Spanish government. The nation is also the third largest English-speaking nation in the world—after the United States and Great Britain—which results from being a possession of the United States from 1898 until 1946.
These religious and linguistic surprises are only the beginning of the Philippines’ wonderful variety. A Filipino can readily be a Chinese, an American, an Indian, a Spaniard, or a blend of each, with the strongest single influence being Malayan. In this mixture of oriental and occidental cultures, with 87 ethnic groups speaking eight major and 80 minor languages, one finds, not racial or social tension, but a national tradition of hospitality and generosity. These people are gentle, friendly, musical—and ready to listen to the gospel message.
When Elder Gordon B. Hinckley of the Council of the Twelve rededicated the Philippines for the preaching of the gospel in 1961, he said, “We invoke thy blessings upon the people of this land, that they shall be friendly and hospitable, and kind and gracious to those who shall come here … that there shall be many thousands who shall receive this message and be blessed thereby.”
Today some 20,000 Filipino Saints represent the happy results of diligent missionary efforts; and with monthly baptisms mushrooming into the hundreds, one realizes the fulfillment of the dedicatory prayer in this fruitful field. Two thousand new members, nearly all complete families, came into the Church between July 1973 and June 1974. Recently a branch president came from the outlying city of Balintawak to tell the mission president in Manila that he had 35 investigators at Sunday School. The whole branch shared his excitement. If current growth rates continue, there may be more members of the Church in the Philippines in five years than in any other place in Asia.
The Philippines Mission opened in 1967 and seven years later, in 1974, was divided into two missions. A stake, now the Manila Philippines Stake, was organized in 1973, with Augusto A. Lim as president. Membership in the stake is now 4,200, with five wards and four branches.
The Philippines Manila Mission, under President Raymond L. Goodson, flourishes with four districts, 18 branches, and 13 groups and looks forward to forming another stake from its members.
Four Church-owned chapels are within the boundaries of this mission, and three remodeled buildings are also used as meetinghouses.
President Carl D. Jones of the Philippines Cebu City Mission has four districts, 30 branches, and 12 groups forming a strongly organized mission. Comprising the southern half of the former Philippines Mission, the mission includes over 6,000 islands, among them the ten major islands that support most of the 16 million population. (Only 700 of the more than 7,000 islands in the Philippines are inhabited.) Property for chapel-building has already been purchased in this mission.
Twenty-one health service missionaries also serve in the Philippines, teaching nutrition, sanitation, dental hygiene, and family and home care to members and nonmembers.
While obtaining experienced leadership is a natural problem in the expanding Church, another limiting factor is language. Outside Manila, at least half of the people are not fluent in English. Consequently, as the Church expands into less urbanized areas, it may require the organization of branches in which local dialects will be spoken.
Yet perhaps the most serious problem facing members of the Church is economics. Even some of the educated and college trained have difficulty finding adequate employment, a serious limitation for a people anxious to progress. Between 20 and 30 percent of the Church membership is unemployed. The average annual income of all Filipinos in 1970 was only $372, about 20 times less than the average American income. The consumer price index increased 44 percent in 1974, indicating one of the highest inflation rates in Southeast Asia.
Despite economic hardship the members of the Church do not feel sorry for themselves. On the contrary, they are grateful for membership in the Church and willingly make great personal sacrifices so that others may rejoice in the gospel with them. The Saints have responded enthusiastically to President Spencer W. Kimball’s call for local missionaries.
Elder Reynaldo Sanchez is a worthy example. A recent transfer sent him to Silang, where four full-time American missionaries had labored diligently for five months with no converts. With his warm enthusiasm and knowledge of local customs, Elder Sanchez taught and baptized ten people the first month and eight more a month later—this in spite of the fact that he was a zone leader and could proselyte only 2 1/2 days a week, with no contacts left by the former missionaries.
Elder Sanchez gave up a golden opportunity to continue his studies at Brigham Young University—Hawaii Campus, to return to his homeland and preach the gospel, knowing that he might never have another chance to return to school. His dedication and response are typical of the Filipino missionary.
Brother Romeo Oller, a convert of two years with a mellow singing voice and acting talent, auditioned many times for movie parts, hoping to help his parents and family financially. Despite his talents, however, he never received a part. Later he felt he discovered why: when a member of the Council of the Twelve visited the Philippines, he shook Brother Oller’s hand and said, “You look like a missionary.”
Oldest of nine children in a family where only two are members of the Church, he gave up three good-paying jobs in show business because of the unwholesome environment and being required to work on Sundays. It was a difficult decision for him because he wants to help his family, but he has no regrets. He now works long hours in a bakery to earn money for his mission. “I’m willing to pay the price to become a missionary as soon as possible,” he says.
The Gerardo Villanueva family, recent converts, believe that “the Church is not only a religious institution—it is a perfect way of life as well. Because this is so, we are willing to do whatever the Lord asks of us.” They are helping their two teenagers prepare for missions; and, though both parents are employed, they do not work on Sundays any more, because “we have learned that we should honor the Sabbath day, and we want to become missionaries to our own children first.” They bear testimony that “there seems to be more than enough of everything now, which is unlike before, when we had to work very hard and could hardly make ends meet.” Such is the character and faith of the Filipino Saints.
As a body, these Saints have been greatly blessed by the seminary and institute program. Beginning with nine teachers and 100 students four years ago, it now includes 2,000 students all over the country and more than 100 teachers. This program is a wonderful source for local missionaries: Sister Minerva Garcia’s institute class will see ten full-time missionaries in the field by the end of the year. “This has given me much food for thought,” says Sister Garcia. “While I thought teaching institute was enough, all of a sudden I realize how much the Lord is relying upon each of us to bring the gospel to as many as we can.”
As members mature in the Church (80 percent have joined within the last four years), home teaching and family home evening will become equally significant programs.
Love and family solidarity are gospel themes that find instant echo in the hearts of Filipinos. In the small La Union Branch in a northern province, new branch president Baltazar Federico felt that the key to a healthy and active branch was family home evening, so he went out with his family two or three evenings a week to hold family home evenings in the homes of inactive members. His counselors did the same with their families. It was not long before the attendance increased from 45 to 125—and there are only 135 baptized members in the branch!
Sister Federico is a school principal and mother of six, yet she also teaches an institute class of 21 students. She and President Federico feel that responsibility is an important lesson, so each child cares for his own pig and chickens. From what they earn, they pay tithing and save for their missions.
Efforts like these have become a part of Latter-day Saint life in the Philippines. The blessings of the Lord promised to those who open their hearts to the gospel are coming to fruition with the members of the Church there.
(A more extensive article on the Saints in the Philippines appears in the January 1975 Ensign.)