Editorial Consultant, Writing Coach, Freelance Writer
by Steve Murrell (with Walt Walker)
Tear Gas, Riot Police, and Summer Missions
When the team of sixty-five eager American summer missionaries landed in Manila in June of 1984, the Philippines was in the middle of a national crisis, ablaze with student protests and riots which were quickly growing into a popular revolt. The event that ignited the wildfire was the August 1983 assassination of former Senator Benigno Aquino on the Manila International Airport tarmac as he returned from a three-year, self-imposed exile. Aquino was the iconic leader of the democratic struggle against President Ferdinand Marcos. Marcos had held onto dictatorial power with the help of martial law since 1972. (The Marcos regime was eventually overthrown without bloodshed during the 1986 People Power Revolution.)
Anti-government outrage sparked by Aquino’s assassination was sweeping over the general populace. The economy was in a state of collapse as investors pulled money out of the Philippines to invest it in more stable countries. The erosion of capital had even begun to elicit protest from the usually passive business community. But nowhere was the revolt more intense than among students attending universities along C.M. Recto Avenue, known as Manila’s University Belt or simply U-Belt.
After meeting for two weeks at the Girl Scouts Auditorium near U-Belt, we leased the basement of the Tandem Cinema, a rundown movie theater located in the middle of the largest concentration of colleges and universities in the Philippines. That basement could easily seat about 250 people, but sardine-style we could pack in 400. No air conditioning, no windows, and no fresh air to breathe. The smell was horrible. Sewer pipes from the cinema ran across the low ceiling. Some of them had been leaking for years. Tear gas occasionally drifted in from the Recto Avenue riots, adding to the unforgettable mix of aromas. It was like being on the bad end of the Deuteronomy 28 promise—the promise of blessings and curses. A massive cleanup effort made the room minimally bearable. Starting off in a place like that left nowhere to go but up.
These U-Belt campuses were the places where leftist, communist, and anti-Marcos movements had gained footholds. Almost every day, thousands of activist students with clenched fists and the standard red banners would march down Recto Avenue past the Tandem Cinema on their way to the presidential palace. At the barricades along the foot of Mendiola Bridge, the students confronted the army and the riot police. The tension in the confrontations increased each day.
We had been conducting evangelistic meetings every day, sometimes several times a day. Our drama team was out on the streets with their mime productions. (Hey, before you laugh, remember we’re talking about 1984.) Others would gather crowds on the campuses for preaching rallies. There were hundreds of one-to-one gospel presentations and invitations to our meetings. That summer we saw a lot of angry students shouting, chanting, and running from water cannons, riot police, and tear gas. But we were finding that behind that anger were open hearts, hungry for God and ready for a change. Culturally, Deborah and I were a long, long way from Starkville, Mississippi. If we had known the chaos we were getting into, we might have chosen a different summer mission trip—maybe to Jamaica, Europe, or Australia. But what looked like the worst of times turned out to be God’s perfect timing. The Holy Spirit began to work in that situation, and by the time the outreach team left we had the beginnings of a church with about 165 new Filipino believers. Most were poor students from the provinces; many were political protesters; some were radical leftist student leaders.
Compelled by Compassion
For the first two weeks, nightly meetings were held at the Girl Scouts Auditorium, but because the auditorium was not available on weekends, we held our Sunday morning worship services at the Admiral Hotel on Roxas Boulevard. It was in the Admiral Hotel ballroom on our third Sunday that we held our first communion service in the Philippines. It was by far the most significant communion service of my life.
It would be hard to describe how tangibly we sensed the presence of the Holy Spirit in that meeting. We were all on our knees praying when something extraordinary happened. Though I am a rather stoic individual who was raised to think that real men do not cry, I have to admit my eyes were sweating profusely—gushing like broken water faucets might be a better description.
I have been a believer since I was sixteen and a pastor/preacher for thirty years. In all those years, there have only been three times when I know God has spoken directly to me with undeniable clarity. The first time was a sense that Deborah was to be my wife. Fortunately, she agreed. The third time “I know that I know” that God spoke to me was several years later. It had to do with the first church property we bought in Manila. I had no idea what was about to happen to the Philippine economy, but I just knew “God said” we were to avoid debt and pay cash. Soon afterward the Philippine peso crashed, and interest rates soared to thirty percent. Had we used debt to purchase that property, we would have been in big trouble.
That morning in Manila’s Admiral Hotel was the second time I know I heard God’s voice. Kneeling by my chair, the Spirit was putting a supernatural compassion in my heart for the Filipino people that was greater than any vision or dream I could have conjured up on my own. It was as if God switched something on inside of me. The apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthian church, “Christ’s love compels us” (2 Corinthians 5:14). My involvement in the church that would become Victory–Manila was birthed in that moment, not out of a great vision or some sense of destiny. From the beginning, we were motivated or “compelled” by compassion for lost people. Vision gradually grew out of that.
You might think that such a certain sense of God’s calling would answer many questions and clarify lots of details. That was not the case with us. Nothing has more potential to complicate your life than a clear calling from God. Before that Sunday morning, the plan was one month in Manila, one month in South Korea, and back to normal life in Mississippi. Now I knew that God wanted me to stay in the Philippines. But what did that mean—another month, a year, or the rest of my life? I thought long and hard about how to present this to my wife. To the extent that my missionary career was accidental and my leadership reluctant, Deborah’s was far more. She grew up in an Assemblies of God church and had prayed to marry a pastor, but now it looked as if that pastor was about to become a cross-cultural missionary. Living in Asia was not part of her plan. In time, as she gave her life to serve and disciple Filipino students, she became as convinced as I that we were supposed to be in the Philippines.
Leading and Leaving
As the day of the American team’s departure drew near, there was a growing concern about what to do with our fledgling student church. The sixty-five American summer missionaries had been challenged to reproduce themselves by discipling a Filipino new believer to fill their places. Unfortunately, there was no time for a lengthy training school. Because we saw ourselves as temporary missionaries, we had to quickly train Filipinos in basic ministry skills. In just a matter of weeks the Filipinos would be the ones to pray with others to receive Christ, explain water baptism, pray for them to be filled with the Holy Spirit, and take them through basic spiritual foundations. We all felt the urgency to equip, empower, and get out of the way. This forced the team and the new Filipino believers to look to and trust in the Holy Spirit.
Because I scored close to zero for spiritual gifts related to evangelism, we began working as hard as we could to do what we could. For me, that meant discipling and teaching foundations to young Filipinos who had so decisively accepted Christ as Savior and Lord. Everything we did in that extra month in Manila was motivated by the concept I had heard over and over at the Mississippi State University campus ministry: Work yourself out of a job. Years later someone commented on the scores of young leaders who continually emerge from Victory–Manila. They were wondering aloud why American churches by comparison produce so few. Deborah’s response struck right at the heart of the matter. “From the very beginning,” she said, “it was never about creating a position or a ministry for ourselves. We were always leading with the idea of leaving.”