The simple meetinghouse by Manila’s Buendia Avenue seems a little out-of-place with its not-so-simple neighbors. Doubling as the Makati Philippines Stake Center, it is surrounded by some of Manila’s highest skyscrapers, built on what was once considered worthless swampland.
But in its basketball court, ordinary activities like the stake youth sportsfest seem to turn a bit extraordinary. Watching the Mandaluyong Second Ward basketball team, your eyes suddenly get transfixed on one young man who’s wobbling and limping his way to the hard court.
A knee injury, perhaps?
A failed slam dunk?
Not so, you find out, for the young man continues to grapple the ball with a twisted arm.
For Alvin Martinez, rising against the odds is just like turning swampland into skyscrapers. Despite having polio, which left his left arm and leg dislocated, the 17-year-old priest is an inspiration to his fellow youth.
Alvin was born healthy, and like other newborn Filipino babies he was given polio shots. But somehow, the vaccine attacked his nerves. His right leg and arm started turning immobile, while his left fingers curled up. The polio vaccine rendered his entire right side paralyzed.
Alvin often became the subject of jokes in school when classmates would see him limping his way to class.
“Hey, it’s Alvin,” somebody would shout.
“The way is straight,” another jeered, “but how come you walk crooked?”
“Alvin, Alvin pilay!”
Pilay means cripple; it was a jeer his straight-walking classmates loved to bestow on him.
The teasing wasn’t the only trial. His father suddenly died of a stroke. Struggling with his family’s loss and his classmates’ snide comments, Alvin drifted from school and church activity and found another barkada, or group of close friends.
In Manila, a barkada can consist of either buddies who can build you up or let you down. Alvin still tried to maintain his LDS standards even when friends coaxed him to smoke. “My older friends would invite me to smoke,” he remembers, “but I told them I was a Mormon.”
Alvin finally resolved to rise up despite his limitations and, like David of old, conquer his personal Goliaths. He made a firm resolve to continue schooling. His widowed mother, who now works as a seamstress, was delighted. She had patiently reminded him that his future was brighter if he had a good education.
At school, Alvin found a new barkada, classmates who treated him with respect. “All my classmates are so kind and friendly,” he beams.
But it was Alvin’s strong spirit within his rather frail frame that amazed many. After all, isn’t it the inside of a person that really counts?
A little bit shy at first but actually fun-loving and witty, Alvin also found the Church to be a home away from home. “I enjoy being in church,” Alvin says, “and I like being with my fellow young men.” And because of the influence of good Church friends and priesthood quorum members, Alvin’s testimony was strengthened and he found himself, with the help of his youth leaders, back in church. In visiting Alvin, they would often tell him not to be ashamed of his disability. “We wanted him to know that he was valued,” one youth leader recalls, “and he did feel appreciated eventually.” Alvin is grateful for the missionaries that taught his family, and he’s even more grateful for the youth leaders who helped him come back to church after going through some real struggles.
Today, Alvin is one of the most active Young Men in his ward. Being with his church friends is something he relishes. “They are not ashamed to be with me,” he brightens up, “and they don’t even joke about me.” Instead, it’s Alvin who cracks jokes with them.
And his dedication is exemplary. One Sunday, he was in a lively conversation with other young men.
“We’ve been asked to clean up the meetinghouse grounds this Saturday.”
“But we have a better activity than that,” another replied.
“But let’s do what we’ve been told to do first,” Alvin said.
Well, Saturday came, and while the other young men were yet to arrive, Alvin was already in his work clothes. And he brought his nonmember cousin, too.
Seeing all this, you can’t help but make the connection between him and his favorite scripture: “I will go and do the things which the Lord hath commanded” (1 Ne. 3:7).
Recently Alvin received a special award for perfect attendance at seminary. Seminary for Manila’s LDS youth is usually held during afternoon or early evening, and during those hours Manila’s almost unbearable traffic is at its peak. But Alvin comes right on time.
“Alvin is not that hyperactive when it comes to class involvement,” Brother Nolan Caceres, his seminary teacher, remarks, “but when it comes to actual application of the lesson, he tries his best.”
His seminary example spills into other youth activities. The ward basketball team he plays on garnered second place in the sportsfest awards. And in activity nights at the meetinghouse? “He doesn’t fail us,” Brother Caceres answers. “He’ll be there.”
And just like the towers hovering over the stake center, Alvin also has some high hopes. He dreams of having his own business. But his number one goal is to serve a mission. In school, Alvin has already, in his own unique way, attracted others to the Church because of his simple yet dedicated example. And he hopes to influence more.
“I’d like to bring back my brothers and sisters to the gospel,” he declares, and that includes his own brothers and sisters whose testimonies are still struggling.
When asked who his favorite scripture personality is, Alvin thinks for a moment, then answers, “I think Moses.” It seems to be an appropriate choice. Before Moses accepted the Lord’s call, he felt he couldn’t do it because he was “slow of speech” (see Ex. 4:10). But, despite personal inadequacies, he went on and did what the Lord expected of him, an example Alvin is following.
Many Filipinos with similar handicaps often end up in institutions or sometimes become social outcasts. Alvin is an exception. “He learned to do useful things, even though other people thought he couldn’t,” Brother Caceres adds.
Yes, useful things like playing basketball, going to school, and sharing the gospel. Alvin Martinez knows you can rise up and, like the skyscrapers in Manila, reach your potential.