03404_000_007Whether the weather’s stormy or clear, young Filipino Latter-day Saints rejoice in the gospel.
The sky is still black when 15-year-old Jossie Comandao and her father, Domingo L. Comandao, awaken. They get up every school day at about 4 A.M. “When the alarm rings,” Brother Comandao explains. “I have to use an alarm clock.”
The Comandaos live in Tatalon, one of several relocation areas in Manila, capital of the Philippines. “We don’t have any running water,” Brother Comandao explains. “So after breakfast I must go fetch water so Jossie can take a bath.” Jossie wants to be bright and fresh for her seminary class. As soon as she’s ready, she and her father begin the one-and-a-half mile walk to the stake center.
Manila is a modern metropolis, a city that imitates New York with its multi-windowed offices, superhighways, high-rise apartment complexes, and its suburbs full of glistening homes. But at the same time, it is a city where housing is at a premium, and many residents live in run-down relocation areas while they wait for better dwellings to become available.
Manila is also a city where hundreds of young Latter-day Saints like Jossie get up early each morning to come to seminary. The students in Jossie’s class come from all kinds of neighborhoods and from all kinds of homes. Some have been raised all their lives as members of the Church. Many others are recent converts, with all or part of their families sharing in the blessings of the Restoration. They meet in a modern, white-brick chapel at 52 Rosario Drive in Quezon City, northeast of the downtown district.
Jossie’s regular school classes don’t begin until 7 A.M., and her father doesn’t have to be to work until 8 o’clock. “So we have plenty of time to walk,” Jossie says. “And I enjoy talking to my father.” They both carry their scriptures with them, and gospel discussions are common.
Friends smile and wave as the Comandaos arrive at the church. While Jossie visits with her friends, her father rests for a moment before turning to walk back home.
“I am very grateful for the seminary program,” he says. “It has been most worthwhile for my daughter. Seminary has helped her to be more industrious and to learn to prepare assignments on time. It has also helped her to make many good, strong friends. It has also helped us as a family.”
He pauses. “My wife is not yet a member, but perhaps as she sees Jossie grow in the knowledge of the gospel, she will realize how important the Church is to all of us.”
Inside the classroom, Jossie and her fellow students are eager to share their own appreciation for early-morning seminary.
“I enjoy seminary because I feel myself and the members of this church being blessed through it,” Jossie says. “I know that if we prepare ourselves and become worthy people, we will receive great blessings at the Second Coming of Christ.”
“I get up early too,” Raoul M. Fajardo, 15, says, smiling. “Why? Because I enjoy seminary! I learn more about Church history, and I know that this church is true. Seminary helps me prepare for the day, helps me start on a spiritual note. I go on to school remembering all about my Church history.”
“The seminary program has made a big difference in my life,” says Christine Orquiola, 15. “I know more about the Church than I did before. I have a deeper understanding of Joseph Smith now. It’s hard to find time to study for seminary, but you have to find time, because your time is not yours. It’s given to you by God. So you have to find time for him, not just for yourself.”
“I’m a priest,” says Jeremiah Pineda, 16. “And seminary is one of the best ways for me to be getting ready for a mission. It strengthens my testimony and helps me prepare spiritually and emotionally. It helps me know how to answer my friends’ questions at school. Last week I told some of them about the plan of salvation. Now one of my friends wants to come to church with me.”
The discussion stops so that Irma Mae Santillan, the seminary instructor, can lead the students in a scripture chase and present a lesson about the city of Nauvoo. “The most enjoyable part of teaching for me is testimony-bearing time,” she says. “I love to hear them share their testimonies.”
The lesson ends all too soon. Following a closing prayer, Jossie and the other students walk out to the parking lot and linger for a moment, talking and savoring seminary’s happy spirit. The gospel light is rising, like the sun that is now greeting the radiant morning. A moment later, Jossie is running to catch a bus that will take her to school. It’s a direct route—she doesn’t even have to transfer.
A day or two later in another part of town, storm clouds brew like steam, then darken to a smoky gray. Soon the rain pelts another group of teenage Latter-day Saints who are visiting the American Cemetery at Fort Bonifacio. Here tile murals depict invasions, attacks, and counterattacks; names are chiseled on marble memorials; and row after row of crosses and Stars of David mark graves of known and unknown soldiers. For now, the rain has chased the group back to cars to head for home, but what they’ve seen has sobered them.
For a long while the passengers are quiet. But by the time they arrive back at the Fernando Gomez home, they are once again laughing, talking, and telling jokes. Towels are passed around so everyone can dry off.
These young Mormons have come to the Philippines from other lands. The Gomez family, for example, came to Manila from Mexico when their father was transferred by his company. Sandy Birch’s family came here from Brazil, where her LDS father was principal of a Catholic elementary school. And Shaun Endecott’s father works for the U.S. Embassy. Originally from Portland, Oregon, Shaun was baptized in Australia while his father was on government service there.
“My family was relieved when we found the Church here,” Shaun says. “It was nice to know we had someplace to go to have instant friends. I’m a deacon here, and I help pass the sacrament. There are only two deacons, so I’m half the force!”
Morgan Davis, the deacons quorum president, moved to Manila from Centerville, Utah. “It’s hot and humid here,” he says, “and the city’s bigger than what I was accustomed to, but being here has helped me with my testimony. There are so many religions here that I’ve learned to appreciate other people and their beliefs, so it’s made me more tolerant.”
Susie Gomez, president of her Young Women class, agrees. “Living overseas is hard,” she says. “You’re in a new place and it’s different. You don’t know much about it, so first you turn to your family. But soon you learn a lot about where you are, the people and the culture, and it becomes a part of you. The Church helps you a lot because it’s the same wherever you go.”
Susie’s brother Fernando loves the Philippines. “People here love to have fun and so do I,” he said. “If a friend from Mexico came to visit, I’d take him all over the place!”
Later in the week, many of the same young people will meet to plan activities for the Makati Villages Branch of the Makati Philippines Stake. Makati is the business district of the metropolitan Manila area, with its skyscraping offices lining Ayala Avenue and other major thoroughfares, with shopping malls and residential districts sandwiched in between. It is at the home of Branch President Dennis M. Davis that the planning meeting takes place.
“The Young Men and Young Women presidencies get together and talk about the different activities we want to do; then we schedule one of these meetings to coordinate our plans,” explains Brock Johnson, 16, secretary for the Young Men. “We’re starting to rotate the responsibilities so everyone gets a chance to serve and be involved. We come up with our own ideas, mostly, but the adults are here as advisers.”
“I’ve gained a testimony from working with other members of the Church,” adds Sandy Gomez. “We learn about the Filipino culture and they learn about ours. People here are nice. People you’ve never met before will walk up to you and ask you to tell them about your country. And everybody has a big smile.”
On another night of the week, miles from Makati, smiles as bright as sunshine fill the cultural hall at the building where the Cainta Taytay Ward and the Angono Branch hold their meetings. Farther from the population center, this area of Metro-Manila is more rural. The young people from the ward and the branch have gathered for a Filipino cultural night.
One wall of the cultural hall is open, letting in the cool night air. Palm trees surrounding the building are silhouetted against the night sky. The program, dedicated to President Spencer W. Kimball, features hymns like “Hope of Israel”; songs like “I Am a Child of God” (performed in Tagalog, the official Filipino language) or “I Am But a Small Voice but I Am Free to Sing to Everyone” (written by a Filipino); and traditional tunes like “Bahay Kubo” (“Bamboo Hut”).
During the presentation of a series of folk dances, audience members are called forward to join in the tinikling, or bamboo dance. Long poles are bounced on the ground, then slapped together as the dancers insert and remove their feet at just the right moment.
Many of the cultural night participants are dressed in native costumes, and everyone is eager to sample the variety of traditional foods. Bowls are filled with steaming sotanghon, a soup made with chicken, dried shrimp, garlic, onions, and noodles. A refreshing chilled drink, gulaman, made from gelatin, seaweed, and palm fruits, is poured into glasses. And everyone heaps plates full of puto (rice cake filled with white and yellow cheese), lumpia (egg rolls with pork, carrots, onions, and garlic), and barbecue (pork and chicken roasted on sticks).
Besides the food and entertainment, there is a serious side to the program as well, as the young people take time to share the feelings of their hearts by bearing testimony.
Iya Gopela, 17, has been a member for two years. She talks about her conversion. “I was a housekeeper for the sister missionaries. I admired the American sisters because they treated me just like a sister and made me feel I mattered to them. Both of them tried to share the gospel with me, but I wouldn’t let them. I guess I got nervous when they spoke English so well. But then the Filipino sisters taught me in Tagalog. I needed to be taught in my own language.
“I felt so happy when I was baptized, overwhelmed by the feeling that the Church is true. Since then I have grown a lot. Reading the scriptures and praying, I feel relieved to know that God is with me. I’m not scared. When things are going well, living the gospel makes them even better.” Iya, like many of the LDS youth throughout the Philippines, is the only Church member in her family.
Jaime Briones, the ward Young Men president, tells the teenagers about his love for the priesthood. “Through the priesthood I have learned the best way to make decisions. I think about the problem, come to a conclusion myself, and then pray. I’m sure I’ll get the answer about whether it’s the right thing to do.”
Then he talks about Church growth. (Current statistics estimate 1982 membership in the Philippines at 55,000 members in 16 stakes.) “Some parts of the Philippines know about the Church and how big it is,” Jaime says. “But other parts have never heard of it. I met some of my relatives, and they didn’t know about the Church. But they do now!”
Myrna R. Tamayo, the ward Young Women president, also offers some advice. “Before I was a member I’d look at my problems and say, ‘There is no solution to these.’ Now I know that by faith I can find answers, that problems are to help me grow. There are lots of opportunities for young men and women to go the wrong way. But by applying the principles of the gospel you can be saved.”
Jocelyn Tolentino Timbol, 17, came to the festivities despite opposition. “Just this morning I didn’t feel too good,” she says. “But I tried my best to come. I have to persevere. I want someday to go to the Manila Temple. But I must be worthy, study the scriptures, pay a full tithing, and help build Zion. That means persevering even when it’s rough.”
After the closing prayer, while everyone is mingling and cleaning up, 17-year-old Chilton Sisinio Tutor, Jr., sitting in a wheelchair, shares his story. “I’ve been a member now for six years. First my mother was baptized, but it took me a year to decide. The missionaries always seemed happy. There was something different about them. I wanted to know more about the gospel.
“We hadn’t been very religious up to that time, because before my father died we spent every Sunday at the beach. When he died, we moved here. I was 12. Like Joseph Smith, I wondered what church was right.
“I haven’t been handicapped all my life, but I was only six months old when I got polio. It’s fairly common here. As I learned about the gospel the bitterness about my disease melted. It’s all gone now. Sometimes I think I’d rather be like this than able to walk. Maybe this has been a blessing in disguise, because it’s helped me to think about the Church more, to think about life more.”
He smiles and laughs. “When I first started coming to the ward, there were only 16 people. Now there are more than 600. The Church is growing fast here in the Philippines.” Then he talks about how Church activities have helped him develop reading and speaking skills. He just won first place in the stake speech contest.
“I’ve had lots of good examples in my life,” he continues. “But the man I admire the most is Joseph Smith. He had strong faith and courage to ask which church is true. I think he showed a lot of people how important it is to ask God.”
For the young Latter-day Saints in Quezon City, Makati, Cainta Taytay, and Angono, life in the Philippines is a life of contrasts. They know that in the tops of remote outer-island mountains some aborigines still live in tribes, while in the tops of modern office buildings in Manila executives plan international marketing ventures. In the streets, flashy motorcars and horse-drawn kalesas (carriages) travel down the same lanes. In private conversations 87 dialects are spoken, but in public, English and Tagalog (ta-GAL-ag) unite the people.
In the city, brightly painted jeepneys (taxi buses) rush commuters to businesses and markets where thousands of people crowd the streets. In the provinces, a farmer plowing behind a carabao (water buffalo) might spend the whole day without seeing another person, and by the ocean a beachcomber can wander for miles all alone.
The Saints here have seen contrasts in life, too. Chilton knows that his father’s death led his family to move to the area where they met the missionaries and found a new life. He is convinced that his childhood affliction has molded his character and helped him to rely on the gospel. Myrna has known the frustration of groping in ignorance and the joy of learning by the Spirit. Raoul doesn’t like to get up early but loves to go to seminary. Susie misses Mexico but loves her new home.
They live in a land where summer sparkles and winter brings monsoon rains. It is a land where wars and occupation once thwarted a people who love freedom and peace. It is a land that has bred a people full of optimism and courage, who firmly believe difficulties are only opportunities looked at from the wrong direction.
The Philippine Islands are a land of sunshine and rain, a land that hopes to weather storms and challenges to arrive at a bright tomorrow. Young Latter-day Saints who live here know that by living the gospel and sharing it with their friends, they will lead the way.