Filipino congregation not so different after all

Published 12:00 am Sunday, January 17, 2010

It was just like church services at home: a capella singing from the Old School hymnal, prayers, a sermon and dinner on the grounds that included not only home cooking but also boxes of KFC.

The difference was that the service was half a world away, in the Philippines. The Filipino church was Primitive Baptist, and the message preached and the songs sung were the same one would hear at the local congregation, Shiloh, on Warriors’ Trail.

Even the preacher was the same. Elder Charles Holden, pastor of the Warren County congregation, recently made his first trip to some of the denomination’s churches in the Philippines.

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There are about 20 congregations in the island nation, he said, and they aren’t connected to one another other than through mutual beliefs. He visited six of them and preached in several.

Holden was one of about a dozen men who visited the churches in the South Pacific in early December. Also going from the Vicksburg church was Dr. Reid Bishop. There were others from Arkansas, Georgia and Alabama. It took 22 hours in the air to get there, Holden said. They had five days to visit the churches.

The Americans weren’t the first of the denomination to make the trip. Interest began about 15 years ago when some Filipino ministers saw the Web site of an Ohio Primitive Baptist preacher, got in touch and asked if someone from the United States could come. They understood the Calvinistic doctrine of the Primitive Baptists but wanted to learn more.

Several responded, including Elder Gus Harter from Atlanta. He has been a guiding presence with them, Holden said, but Harter’s health has been failing, so he has urged other ministers to help.

The group that Holden accompanied spread out so that all the churches could be visited. They are widely scattered, and Holden said one he went to was reached only after an 11-hour trip over rough country roads in a car driven by a man “who would have qualified for NASCAR.”

Gordon Cotton is an author and historian who lives in Vicksburg.

He found the people cordial and caring and was humbled by the respect for the Americans which they showed, “even the little ones, by taking your hand and pressing it to their foreheads.” Their services concluded with the traditional hand shake. Most of the congregations were small in number, only about 30 or 40 people, but though the nation is poor, the churches are self-supporting. They ranged in style all the way from one with murals painted on the walls and equipped with Bose speakers to a group that met in a carport.

“I was amazed at the enthusiasm of the people,” he said, many of them walking for miles — and they wanted to hear more than one sermon. Holden joked that one of his messages was on the total depravity of man, “with which I’m personally familiar.”

The Filipino ministers are like their American counterparts in that they are expected to provide for their own livelihoods rather than depending on the congregations. Their theological training is through individual study and learning from other ministers, which is the ancient Greek system.

Though the Filipino churches are basically like those in America, there are a few differences. One is the dedication of children to which they object but which is required by law if the children are to receive public education, “something hard for us to understand,” Holden said, “as we’re used to doing as we please.”

The national hero of the Philippines, Holden said, is a boxer, called a contender, and he took the opportunity to use the Scripture admonishing Christians “to contend for the faith once delivered unto the saints.” As a youth, Holden tried boxing, he said, so he could relate there, too, though he admits that he gave it up after a few bloody noses.

Many from other faiths attended a seminar held in Manila on the doctrine of grace, he said, and when an official of the city invited one American minister to his home, there were 22 there who wanted to hear him and question him.

The trip wasn’t Holden’s first preaching journey. Last year he went to Mexico and met with several Primitive Baptist congregations. Though an American, Holden grew up in Mexico City and speaks fluent Spanish. He also has a personal connection with the Philippines, he said, as his step-grandfather was Filipino.

Though Primitive Baptists are often dubbed “anti-mission,” Holden said that is a difference in interpretation, that ministers are “to feed God’s sheep, not make sheep.”

 Holden paid for his trips, he said, with the help of friends.

It was a hectic week with little time for sleep, but he would like to go again, or maybe back to Mexico.

He gauged the trip a success, he said, because of the eagerness of the people to learn.