Grace Triumphant - Chapter 8 - Beginning Our Missionary Work

Beginning Our Missionary Work

“And, behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest…for I will not leave thee, until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of.” (Gen. 28:15)

Landing for the first time in a strange land is always an interesting experience.  As soon as our ship cleared quarantine a stream of people came aboard.  Among them was Mrs. Wightman (Mr. Wightman was abroad just then) and Mr. Jesus Alvarez, a young brother in the assembly in the Walled City.  He had previously been a law student, but after he really came to know the Lord he decided to give his life to the Lord’s service.  He was helping in the work at the Walled City when we arrived.  Later he went to seminary and returned to his previous denomination in which he finally became a bishop.

The first evening, December 20, 1922 (which would have been my parent’s 36th wedding anniversary), we went to the prayer meeting at the hall in the Walled City.  There we were warmly welcomed by the believers and for us it was a great joy to meet them.  When we complained of the heat, they informed us it was winter! So we dreaded the hot season, but it wasn’t so bad for we became acclimated as the temperature rose.  Really the difference is not so great for the temperature does not vary much more than thirty degrees Fahrenheit throughout the year.

Perhaps this would be a good place to digress in order to tell about the beginning of the work here among those known as Brethren.  I quote from an “Echoes Manual” that I wrote in 1929.

“More than one has had a part in the commencement of the work here along Scriptural lines, but the first who started such an assembly was Mr. William Averyt, who writes of his coming to the Philippines, thus,

“ ‘On July 8, 1911, in my room about one o’clock in Jonesboro, Arkansas, God, through His Son, spoke peace to my soul…. He soon thrust me forth away from human props out into the harvest field. To the Philippine Islands I was sent to be stationed in the 13th Infantry at the Cuartel de Espana and afterwards at Ft. McKinley…I was very definitely led by the Holy Spirit among the high school students in the Walled City.’

“Soon after his arrival, or early in 1912, he began to visit these students in their rooms. Among the first to be saved was Sulpicio Guillen and his cousin. (Mr. Guillen was for many years a linotype operator with the Manila Daily Bulletin. After his retirement he moved to Kapatagan, Lanao del Norte where he had some farmland. He passed away a few years ago but we still correspond with his widow who is now in her mid-eighties and quite frail.)

“A little later a Bible class was started in a room on Calle Victoria, Walled City, and about that time Major (then Capt.) Moses T. Barlow was temporarily transferred from Albay and met Mr. Averyt. They enjoyed much fellowship together over the Word of God. Later, in 1913, Major Barlow was again in Manila and here I give his own account of those days:

“ ‘Bro. Averyt was a great help to both Mrs. Barlow and myself. He convinced Mrs. Barlow that she should obey the Lord in believer’s baptism and baptized her in Manila Bay. He also helped me to understand many truths.

“ ‘Bro. Averyt informed us that he had been teaching these students, and that practically all of them had made a profession of being saved and had been baptized. He told us that he had been working up to a point where he hoped to begin a regular assembly, meeting in God’s appointed way each Lord’s Day around His table in faith, knowing that He is in the midst in fulfillment of His promise. It was while we were in Manila that the meeting was begun. Mrs. Noronha and daughter were also convinced that that was the proper place for them and used to gather with us. Our understanding was imperfect, but we just took the Scriptures, and the Lord honored our request for understanding and graciously opened His will to us, as we trusted Him to do so. Those meetings in that student's room on Calle Victoria were the most godly meetings any of us attended. There was a spiritual warmth there, an earnest seeking after God and a certain unmistakable presence of the Holy Spirit as the result. I doubt if I shall ever attend more spiritual meetings until we have the Great Meeting with our Savior in the air. The assembly at that time numbered eight or nine in fellowship.

“ ‘I left Manila for the U.S.A. on December 15, 1913, and returned June 2, 1914. While in the United States, I had been admitted to fellowship in the assembly at San Francisco and had learned many things. The little meeting was still in existence, but meeting in the home of Mrs. C. H. Noronha, Malate. I was surprised and thankful to find that my company was stationed right in the city of Manila. It was only a little over a month until it was moved elsewhere, but I frequently went into Manila, and the meeting continued in Mrs. Noronha’s home after we finally left the Philippines on June 19, 1919.’ ”

Mr. and Mrs. George Wightman, having been compelled by certain Mexican laws to leave their work in Tehuacan, Mexico, were exercised before the Lord about another field of service.  Having been put in touch with Major Barlow, they learned of his prayers for someone to carry on the work after his return to the United States.  Mr. Averyt had also returned to the U.S. where he took employment on the staff of the Chicago Tribune.  In March 1929 it was my privilege to have lunch with him there on our first furlough.  He went home to be with the Lord three years later.  Believing it was the Lord’s will for them, the Wightmans came to the Islands in May 1919 arriving just a month before Major Barlow and his family left for the U.S.

Realizing the opportunities afforded among the students in the Walled City, and the absence of other work there, they rented a hall.  This hall, directly opposite the Roman Catholic Cathedral, was opened in July 1919 and used for two years.  Then a move was made to the corner of Victoria and Magallanes Streets, also in Intramuros.  These buildings had to be renovated to make them suitable for meeting places.  There were then about 14,000 people living in that section of the city.   Many of the old-style Spanish residences were occupied by large numbers of students.  But there was a strong Roman Catholic influence with several of their churches and institutions in that area of a little over a square mile.

Major Barlow was an active worker, and he encouraged the holding of services in the barrios around Fort McKinley.  This was where the Filipino enlisted men and their families lived.  In the spring of 1920 a simple bamboo structure was purchased in Masilang and the Wightmans continued the work there.  This was about six miles from the city but easily accessible by an electric streetcar.

There were two problems opposing building up a permanent work in both the Walled City and Masilang.  One was that both students and soldiers are transient.  The students would move away from the Walled City generally when they had completed their studies and started to work in other places.  The soldiers were either transferred to other places or were discharged.  The other problem was that of language.  Both of these groups came from different parts of the Islands and from different language areas.  The services in the Walled City were in English as students were studying in that language.  At Masilang it was mostly Tagalog, though many who attended were not fluent in that language.

Upon our arrival in Manila, while I was clearing our baggage through customs, I was approached by a Filipino in plain clothes.  He surprised me by asking if I had a license to carry a gun.  “No,” I replied, “I never owned a gun in my life!”  He then wanted to know what I had in my hip pocket.  With a smile I said, “That is not a gun—it is a sword!”  He was rather nonplussed when I produced my pocket Bible.  Of course, he wouldn’t have understood what I meant by a sword.  He still entertained his suspicions for when I went to another building to get my hold baggage, he showed up again and insisted on opening the cases.  Perhaps he still hoped to find some weapons!

Since the services were in English I was immediately put to work.  The last day of 1922 was a Lord’s day, just eleven days after our arrival.  As I was asked to preach that morning, I prayed that the Lord would bless that first Gospel message in my new field of service.  It was my request that in His will He would grant the salvation of a soul to confirm that He had called us to the Philippines.  How good of the Lord to graciously answer that prayer.  After the message a young man by the name of Joaquin dela Cruz accepted the Lord as his Savior.  He had had some previous knowledge of the Scriptures, but he surprised us by asking to be baptized that day.  The senior missionary was not there; it was up to me to make a decision.  My training and experience had never included examining a candidate for baptism.  It was my idea, however, that converts should wait awhile in order to prove the reality of their conversion.  Joaquin was not to put off in that way.  He clinched the matter for us by saying, “Tomorrow is New Year’s Day.  I want to start the New Year in newness of life.”  So that evening a group of us went to the waterfront at the site of the present Manila Yacht Club.  In the bright tropical moonlight we had a little service and I had the joy of baptizing the first Filipino convert in my service for the Lord.

The Gospel Hall was the only Protestant work in the Walled City.  The services were in English and attended mostly by young men who were students.  Besides the missionaries there were only two married couples but no young women.  Being newlyweds, Anna and I felt that was not a satisfactory situation.  Those young men would look for female companionship elsewhere and we would lose them.  But getting young women into the services in those days was no easy matter.  They were carefully chaperoned and did not go out alone.  A young man and young woman never went out together without someone else with them.  The girls who came to the city to study would promise their mothers to remain true to their church.  They lacked the venturesome spirit of the young men.

We talked with a missionary friend about this problem.  He felt that there was a weakness in student work in regard to building up a permanent work.  It was necessary to reach the families, for when the parents were won the children would probably follow.  Our efforts to attract young women to the services proved rather futile.

Since there was no Sunday school, we began one and got some of the children of the neighborhood to attend. In this, Tagalog was needed so our part was limited to teaching the children to sing choruses and to memorize verses in English.  Others helped us with the teaching and one of these was Joaquin, even though he was a Visayan.  The Lord worked in the hearts of some of the older children, and we had the joy of seeing some of them trust in Christ for their salvation.

Somewhat later we invited two teenage girls to spend a few days in our home.  One night they had gone to their room and I was working at my desk on the other side of the thin wall.  The girls were having a discussion.  One said that after you are saved you will not sin any more and the other was disagreeing.  I couldn’t help overhearing them.  To prove her point, one girl pointed to me as an example saying that I was saved and I didn’t sin!  In our devotions at the breakfast table next morning, we endeavored to straighten them out on that theological matter!

Very soon we realized that we needed to learn Tagalog.  While English is widely spoken because all education then was based on English, knowledge of Tagalog, the principal Philippine language, was essential to get closer to the people.  However, there was no language school and very few grammars or dictionaries.  Mrs. Guillen, one of the believers, helped us with conversational Tagalog.  For a while we paid an elementary school principal to give us lessons on Saturdays.  It was not very satisfactory as she was not prepared and did not understand the problems facing a non-Filipino in learning the language.  One day after she had given us some rules and some vocabulary, we asked her, “Can you give us some rules on the formation and structure of sentences?”  After pondering it a bit, she said, “Whichever way sounds best!”  None of it sounded best to us!  Yet she was right, for Tagalog is a euphonious language and there are ways which do sound best.

We were fortunate to have acquired a couple of old grammars and an old dictionary which had been left behind by Major Barlow, but a language cannot be learned simply through books.  We needed to get away from Manila where English was widely spoken and where there was a multiplicity of languages.  Though Jesus Alvarez was a Bicolano from Camarines Sur, he arranged for us to go to Camarines Norte, the southern limit of the Tagalog-speaking area in those days.  First we rented the house of a Chinese merchant in Daet, the capital, for two months.  This gave us a base to look around for another place in that province.  During our two months there, a fire nearby burned down a number of houses.  Awakened by the shouting we saw the fire was across the street at the back of the property.  Hastily we threw most of our few belongings into trunks and suitcases and loaded them on a carabao cart in the yard.  We were ready to evacuate if the fire leaped across the street.  Beside the cart was a warehouse made of galvanized iron.  I wondered why the Chinese were putting wet sacks on the roof.  Later we learned it was where they stored their stocks of gasoline and kerosene!  The fire was brought under control by tearing down some shacks in its path and by a vigorous bucket brigade bringing water from the river.

We located a house in Indang (now Vinzons) and rented the upstairs floor for ten Pesos ($5.00) a month.  We hoped to be able to rent the lower part for a Gospel Hall but the owner had rice stored there.  Soon we learned that this attracted rats, and we got used to seeing rats running along the rafters over our heads at night.  A mosquito net wasn’t much protection but fortunately the rats were sure-footed!  Traps didn’t do much good, but one evening a rice snake disposed of one rat.

There was no evangelical work in Indang and to our knowledge only one man who claimed to be a nominal Protestant.  The community was under the control of the parish priest.  Every day the church bells tolled for a wedding, a birth celebration, or a funeral.  A minimum charge of P25.00 for any of these was a burden to poor people.  So often we were asked for a contribution to help.  One day our laundry woman wanted to know where I had gone.  Anna told her I was out in the barrios selling Bibles.  The illiterate woman said the priest told them the Bible was a bad book and they shouldn’t read it.  She also averred that the priest had made himself rich at their expense but still they went to him to confess.  Yet she admitted he was not a good man because he had daughters of his own living in the church house.

We didn’t have enough Tagalog to conduct services but we did have classes for children in our home, where we taught them verses and choruses.  One evening as we went for a walk, just as we passed the priest we heard children’s voices in a home singing, “The best book to read is the Bible.”  We had a large blackboard on which I wrote a Gospel verse each day and placed it on a rack in front of the house.  It could be seen by all passersby and yet was out of reach of children.

The first Good Friday we were there the procession passed our house.  On every other house a candle was burning; we had the light from God’s Word which everyone read as they slowly passed by.  Among the various images carried in the procession was the town’s lone hearse.  It was the burial of Christ!  In the hearse was a coffin and in the coffin a life-sized image of Christ.  For a moment the incongruity of Christ (even as an image) in a coffin appalled us. Then led by the Spirit, I said to Anna standing beside me, “He is alive!”  The truth of the resurrection became very real at that moment.

Itinerating on foot with a bag of Scriptures had a two-fold purpose.  It was one way of spreading the Word of God, and it afforded an opportunity to hear and use Tagalog.  We not only went through the town of Indang but also covered other towns.  What we particularly enjoyed was traveling through the coconut groves or across the rice paddies to isolated hamlets.  We would carry a sandwich for lunch and buy a green coconut, a drink safe and sterile, bottled by nature.  After a while Anna had to stay home as she was expecting our first baby.  Outside of Labo was a river, so at noon I would go out of town a little to take a dip in the river and eat my lunch.  The school principal in Indang lived across the street, and he warned me there were crocodiles in that river.

It was also a way to learn about the culture of the people.  I learned that often the women held the purse.  More than one man was convinced to buy a Bible until he asked his wife for the money—then the sale was off!  Sometimes they didn’t have money so I accepted some fresh eggs or a few ears of fresh corn instead.  The people laughed at the mistakes of this crazy Americano but were good-natured and, as is customary in the Philippines, most hospitable.  They would look at the four Gospels—San Mateo, San Marcos, San Lucas, and San Juan—and want to know if I had San Geronimo or Santa Maria.  I sold more than one New Testament by showing the letters of San Pedro!

Living was primitive.  We had running water when we ran with it from the well just outside our door!  Just as we were getting up one morning I heard the boy from across the street drawing water.  The first plunk was the bucket but the second plunk must be the boy!  Sure enough the boy was down the well.  The neighbors quickly gathered and were discussing how he fell into the well.  “Never mind,” I said, “let’s get him out.”  So a long bamboo was put down and the boy climbed out and stood, dripping wet, in their midst while they scolded him for his carelessness.  Our neighbor told our helper that Americans were dirty people—he never saw them taking a bath beside the well!  She told him we had made a corner of our kitchen into a bathroom—with bamboo slat floors there was no trouble with clogged drains!  He was not impressed—seeing is believing!

One afternoon we sat in our house studying Tagalog and munching on finger-size bananas when suddenly it seemed to cloud over.  Strange, because it was not the rainy season.  We heard sounds of people shouting and running about; they were quickly covering the well.  A swarm of locusts was coming.  They covered the ground and roofs when they landed and some people scooped them up in sacks.  Some ate them but others didn’t.  The locusts had evidently fed elsewhere as we heard later they had ruined crops and even coconut palms in other places.  I was watching a long low building across the street, when for a split second it seemed the roof was levitating but really it was the mass of locusts lifting off simultaneously.

Some months later a devastating typhoon passed over that area.  In one place I later saw an area of abaca plants which had been sheared off as with a giant scythe.  In the early morning the wind was strong, lifting up the nipa thatch so the rain was soaking us.  Thinking it might be more secure on the ground floor, I investigated.  I could hardly hold my ground against the wind. The front wall downstairs had fallen outwards, so with difficulty we took refuge there, with the rice and rats!  Soon our roof was “Gone with the wind.”  In mid-morning the wind and rain stopped quite quickly—we were in the eye of the storm.  Knowing that soon the storm would hit us again but the wind blowing in the opposite direction, we took refuge with crowds of others in the bakery down the street.  It was a substantial low building and his stocks of baked goods were soon sold out.  We all huddled together there until mid-afternoon.

The storm was over.  The only dry thing in our house was Leonard’s crib, which we had covered with a piece of oilcloth.  At least the baby had a dry bed.  The wooden parts of the sewing machine lay in a heap below the iron frame.  Letters from velvet texts were plastered in odd places on the walls.  A box of Scriptures which had just arrived was blown open and its contents soaked and scattered.  Not the ideal way of scattering the seed of the Word!  A friendly storekeeper allowed us to stay temporarily in a room over his store, where he also lived.  The priest was angry with him about this, thinking this was a way to get us out of town.  He also persuaded the owner not to repair the roof, until I told the owner that his rice was starting to sprout.  Then he put his own interest ahead of that of the church.  That was the only time we ever had what has been called “$1000.00 salad.”  A mentally deficient man in the town brought us the heart of a coconut tree which had blown down.  It was very delicious.  It was expensive because to take the heart kills the tree.

We had some amusing problems with language study.  There is a word in Tagalog which is used when quoting what someone else has said.  People would ask me the price of a Gospel.  “Two centavos” I would reply.  Then someone would tell the others “Two centavos daw.”  I didn’t know what “daw” meant but when I used it they would roar with laughter.  Then we repeatedly heard a word “Kwan.”

Every time we asked what “Kwan” meant we got a different answer.  It was utterly confusing until one afternoon the light dawned and I said to Anna, “Kwan” means “What-you-may-call-it” and can be used for people as well as things.  Very often we would try to talk in Tagalog (with an American accent) and it was frustrating to get the reply, “I don’t understand English.”  It was a great achievement when one day a person replied in Tagalog—he understood what I was trying to say!

Some Sunday mornings I would go to the Presbyterian Church in Daet as we had gotten to know them there when we lived in Daet.  They would often ask me to preach.  I found that sometimes interpreters would sometimes not repeat what I had said but what they thought I should have said, according to their ideas.  So it was there that I made my first stumbling attempts to preach or rather read a sermon in Tagalog.  Sunday afternoons, Anna and I would simply remember the Lord in the Lord’s Supper, just the two of us.  One day after our little service I had an unusual sense of the Lord’s presence.  Leaving the table I knelt at a camp cot which we used as a couch in the living room.  In a few moments Anna joined me there as we silently continued our worship and praise to God for all His grace.  We were overwhelmed by a realization that the Lord was with us, even though we knew of no other believer within miles.

During our stay in Indang we had to go to Manila for the birth of our first child.  There were no adequate facilities then in Camarines Norte.  On our way, we had to pass through Naga the capital of Camarines Sur.  Fortunately there was a hotel of sorts there because we were delayed there almost a week.  The ship that was to take us from Pasacao to Aloneros was in dry-dock.  In Manila we stayed with Mr. and Mrs. G. B. Cameron, agents of the American Bible Society.  Anna had rather a hard time with the birth of Leonard.  We went to the Mary Johnston Hospital shortly after five in the morning and the baby was born shortly before midnight.  Dr. Rebecca Parish was in charge of this maternity hospital—a very fine doctor and also a fine Christian.  Nowadays Mary Johnston Hospital is several blocks from the water’s edge, surrounded by slums and a harbor area.  Then it was on the waterfront of Manila Bay and the fishermen would spread their nets to dry on the sea wall of the hospital.  A lot of land has been reclaimed from the sea.

Leonard was a good baby and rarely woke up at night.  He was a source of attraction in Indang as he was the first white baby in that community.  The children loved to watch him getting his morning bath, and he delighted to splash the water over them.  When we took him out for a walk in the late afternoon, old ladies would say, “He has no hair.”  Then as they gently stroked his head and blond hair, they said, “Oh, yes, he does have hair—it’s like hemp.”