ONE of my columns here in the Manila Times where I recounted the fate of Hermano Puli’s Cofradia during the Spanish colonial period caught the attention of Iglesia ni Cristo (INC) spokesman Edwil Zabala who, before the day ended, immediately sent me a note telling me that by reading my column, he appreciated further the freedoms we are enjoying today. He sent the article to the office of Ka Eduardo V. Manalo, the Executive Minister of the church and asked me if I wanted to meet their leader.
As my friend, the professor Van Ybiernas said, you have more chances of seeing the President of the Philippines than the INC executive minister in the flesh. His appearances, although numerous, are unannounced and mostly for the members of the church.
January 30, 2018 was what was known at the INC central Offices as “Balikbayan Day.” Every so often, the executive minister finds time to meet with migrant Filipinos and their families. I was told that this was also the case during the incumbency of his father, Ka Eraño “Erdy” Manalo, as executive minister. Ka Edwil and my professor, Dr. Vicente Villan, came to accompany me.
As Ka Eduardo came out and strolled right to the waiting line, shaking hands and chatting with each one, some would hand him gifts, others would give letters. When my turn came, he approached me and before I was even introduced, he called out “Prof!” I told him that it was such an honor to meet him since most of my relatives on my father’s side were members of the church. We exchanged gifts and I told him, “Salamat po, Ka Eduardo, sa paglilingkod niyo sa bansa sa pamamagitan ng pagtataguyod niyo ng Iglesia.” (Thank you, Brother Eduardo, for your service to the nation with your stewardship of the Iglesia.”)
The following Saturday, Ka Edwil invited me and professor Ybiernas to come and watch Ka Eduardo give a “teksto” (preaching) at an early morning service at the Mindanao Avenue locale. This was beamed live to various other locales around the country. What struck me was the power of the executive minister with his words and presence to strengthen the bond of teary-eyed members by telling them to hold on to the promise of the Lord as they go through the different trials in life, especially in these “end times.” After the service, he lingered to give a chance to most of those who attended to shake his hand and greet him.
A few days after my two encounters with the executive minister, on February 15, news came out that President Duterte had appointed him as his special envoy for overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) concerns. This is more or less an honorary position, recognizing that he already has influence over those concerned and that, despite not being paid by government, he has the means to go to them and act in behalf of the president in listening to the concerns of overseas Filipinos. Some thought that this was payback for the INC for electing the president by block voting.
But to me, after seeing what transpired two weeks ago, and the knowledge that the executive minister goes out of his way to make pastoral visits to countries where members reside, the appointment makes a lot of sense. Of all personalities in the country, except for movie stars, Ka Eduardo has the moral authority and gravitas to fulfill this work. A work he really doesn’t need to accept because he is doing it already anyway.
One doesn’t have to adhere to the doctrinal tenets of the INC to see its role in the continued building of the nation. Despite Christian Protestantism coming to us from the West, the INC’s founders had appropriated it to make a religion truly from the Philippines—privileging Filipino concepts such as kapatiran, a concept the Katipuneros and even our early ancestors recognized, preserving and nurturing our culture. Dr. Jovy Peregrino, in his book Verbo Sakramentalisasyon ng Wika: Diskursong Iglesia ni Cristo pointed out that their exclusive use and meaning, making of words from the vernacular such as diakono (deacon), bautismo (baptism), kapatid (brother or sister) and many others, is the key to the unity and identity of the Iglesia ni Cristo.
But not only that, as Ybiernas pointed out. They have become a major exporter of Filipino culture. I would say, second only to the OFWs themselves, because even outside the country they institutionally insist on the use of Filipino. In Ka Eduardo’s preaching to other nationalities, he will speak in Filipino and will be interpreted for those who don’t speak the language. With this, despite the diaspora, the INC continues to foster unity and belongingness to the Philippine nation inside and outside the country.