A Sojourn to the South – MCGI’s International Thanksgiving in South America, 2014 (Part 2)

News, Events and Second Glances

The first day of the International Thanksgiving to God of the Members Church of God International came to a close.

Outside the Convention Center in South America, the afternoon sun gave a golden halo to everything it touched – the tents, the beautiful multi-color sand, and most finally, the brethren who traveled to see Bro. Eliseo Soriano on his 50th year of service.

The whole day felt a little like standing in the middle of a beautiful ocean while staring at the biggest sunset you’ve ever seen. You then welcome a friendly, crashing wave with outstretched arms and wait for it to slowly and gracefully vanish behind you and at the same time, around you. You then smile contentedly.

There was beauty, joy, excitement, and finally as nighttime drew nearer, there is a peaceful calm in our neck of the woods.

It felt a little like this, only better – only more indescribable.

At Nighttime

Before I slept, I prayed and hoped hard to get the opportunity to be able to see Bro. Eli up close and be a recipient of his smile. I wanted to hold a conversation with him, no matter how brief. I wanted him to feel how much he is missed not just in New York, but also in all places.

And though I knew in my heart that I already have been greatly blessed with just the opportunity to travel to South America, I prayed for the chance to hold Bro. Eli’s hand and give him my greeting in person.

I remembered my older brother, who asked that I hug Bro. Eli for him. And I prayed and wished to be able to do so – for my brother, family, loved ones and the rest of the brethren who weren’t able to travel to South America.

I prayed for that one chance. Timidly and with the knowledge that I do not deserve it, I prayed that night.  I made my wishes known to Him who knows it even before I say it.

The Second Day

After a quick meeting with the rest of the Photoville International photographers a little after 5 a.m., I made my way to the Convention grounds.

The Photoville International members of various countries pose for the first shot of the second day ITG. (Mark Ilutin, PVI Australia).

The Photoville International members of various countries pose for the first shot of the second day ITG. (Mark Jail Elutin, PVI Australia).

The choir members were already doing their vocalizations; prepping their vocal chords for the songs of praise that they will be leading the congregation in singing.

After the congregational singing and the heartwarming trilingual prayer, Bro. Daniel stood by the pulpit, to pick up from where the topic left off the day before. Bro. Daniel spoke in Portuguese and Filipino to carefully explain the topic to the brethren.

As I sat there watching Bro. Daniel speak fluent Portuguese, a certain feeling of pride settled in my heart. A Filipino preacher stood in front of thousands of South Americans, speaking a language that was not his own.

He would speak, and patiently await the corresponding translations before moving on to reading and explaining a verse. He would pause to ask if the congregants understood his point — which was delivered in various languages.

And based on everyone’s reaction, anyone can tell that he was well understood.

Portuguese and Spanish-speaking brethren cheer as MCGI Vice-Presiding Minister Bro. Daniel Razon explain the first part of the topic during the International Thanksgiving to God celebration's second day. Pol Arellano, PVI NY

Portuguese and Spanish-speaking brethren cheer as MCGI Vice-Presiding Minister Bro. Daniel Razon explain the first part of the topic during the International Thanksgiving to God celebration’s second day. (Pol Arellano, PVI NY)

A short recess was announced so that the brethren can have their lunch and also listen to the Yearend A Song of Praise song entries. The sun was high and the heat was a far cry from what I had to battle this time of the year in chilly New York.

As I stepped outside, I was greeted by a happy group of Teatro Kristiano, choir members and brethren volunteers who formed a line between the makeshift kitchen area to the convention center for the speedy delivery of food to the brethren indoors.

Bro. João Paulo Chaves, a Teatro Kristiano member from Rio de Janeiro helps in the speedy delivery of food to the brethren in the Convention Center.

Bro. João Paulo Chaves, a Teatro Kristiano member from Rio de Janeiro helps in the speedy delivery of food to the brethren in the Convention Center. (Pol Arellano, PVI NY)

Despite high temperatures, Teatro Kristiano members and other volunteers stood outside and made a human line connecting the kitchen to the convention center.

Despite high temperatures, Teatro Kristiano members and other volunteers stood outside and made a human line connecting the kitchen to the convention center. (Pol Arellano, PVI NY)

Learning from the Learned

In the early noon, to the delight of the crowd, Bro. Daniel called upon Bro. Eli Soriano to the stage.

It was a beautiful experience.

It was the second day of the three-day affair but I still wasn’t able to get over the fact that I was there, seeing Bro. Eli animatedly and powerfully discuss biblical points in person.

Bro. Eli Soriano speaks in Portuguese, Spanish, English and Filipino in delivering the topic during the ITG's second day. (Pol Arellano, PVI NY).

Bro. Eli Soriano speaks in Portuguese, Spanish, English and Filipino in delivering the topic during the ITG’s second day. (Pol Arellano, PVI NY).

 

He would patiently, lovingly go over one major point, showing his audience of different nationalities the deeper wisdom behind such beautiful Scripture.

He would face the Filipino-speaking brethren and relay a point in the vernacular as Bibles would open, and pens would scribble. He would wait for the translators to relay his statements to the other side of the convention center, where the Spanish and Portuguese-speaking brethren sat.

He would often ask the audiences if they understood him. He would encourage brethren to speak up, to let him know that they understood him.

He would ask questions. At one point, he announced that whoever gets the answer right would get one sack of rice as a prize, with a good-natured laugh. He would ask that a microphone be passed around for the brethren to give their answers or pose their questions.

He was careful in choosing which words to use in explaining biblical facts – he was particular, he was exact.

Numerous times did he spot and correct mistranslations even from the native speakers of Spanish and Portuguese, and they would concede with a smile or a shy laugh, for they knew he was astonishingly right.

It was there that Bro. Eli’s standard of fairness and equality shone.

He wanted everyone to understand what he has understood.

And so aside from the blessing of the wonderful topic I’ve written down in my notebook and heart, I was given the blessing of learning how Bro. Eli wants to impart what he’s learned.

How his love for all and for his God-given duty compels him to have patience, to be careful, to have a strict sense of equality in everything that he does.

Simply Indescribable

After the closing prayer, holding my thirteen-year-old Bible, I made my way in front of the stage. I didn’t know what to expect. I just hoped hard.

I saw Bro. Eli walk on stage from the right a few heartbeats later. Bro. Daniel followed him, together with his security personnel. Those who saw him immediately gathered below the stage, wanting to see him up close.

Bro. Eli stood by the edge of the stage and leaned forward to hold the outstretched hands of the brethren just below him. I found myself raising my right arm, and saying Bro. Eli’s name softly. The voice I heard didn’t sound like my own.

He looked at me and with a large grin, held my hand. He gave it a slight squeeze, and the first thing that registered in my mind when our eyes met and his hand held mine was “thank you for celebrating my 50th year of service with me.

I stood there in disbelief. I couldn’t put my hand down. He shook other brethren’s hands and shook mine again. It took me a moment or two to take everything in. Then, with misty eyes, I captured the moment.

Bro. Eli leaned towards the brethren below the stage to hold their hands. Pol Arellano, PVI NY.

Bro. Eli leaned towards the brethren below the stage to hold their hands. (Pol Arellano, PVI NY.)

To give way to other brethren, I moved towards the side. It was then that I saw a line forming on the left side of the stage. I moved fast and got in line. The line ended where Bro. Eli and Bro. Daniel stood.

From afar, I saw those in front of me hugging Bro. Eli and Bro. Daniel.

I waited for my turn.

Breathless. Lawrence Espano, PVI Canada.

Breathless. (Lawrence Espano, PVI Canada.)

I exchanged excited smiles with those behind me. The line grew longer, and I thought to myself, after a full day of preaching and tending to our needs, Bro. Eli and Bro. Daniel made time to greet everyone who came.

It was finally my turn, and Bro. Daniel greeted me first. “Hello po kuya,” I found myself saying, and he greeted me with a smile and a gentleman’s hug – not at all tight yet respectful and warm. It was the perfect older brother’s hug.

And finally, I faced Bro. Eli.

I moved closer, smiled, and said “Happy birthday po, Ingkong.” He answered “Salamat,” or “thank you,” with a sincere smile.

The last thing I saw was Bro. Aaron Romero, one of the workers who kept things in order, and he gave me a slight nod and moved his eyebrows up and down, and I could almost hear him say “Go, this is your chance.”

And it was.

I closed my eyes.

Dividing a split second, my thoughts went to my prayer the night before, my family, my loved one, and the rest of the brethren who weren’t able to come see Bro. Eli in person that night.

I hugged Bro. Eli. I rested my face on his right shoulder. It was soft, and it felt like coming home after a long, arduous journey. I made that moment last for as long as I could. I hugged my Ingkong ever so tight.

The blessed chance. Rovic Balunsay, PVI Philippines.

The blessed chance. (Rovic Balunsay, PVI Philippines.)

We both let go of the hug, knowing that behind me, another thousand or so brethren stood in line. As I walked down the stage, I found myself sobbing uncontrollably out of sheer joy.

Though I did not and I still feel that I don’t deserve it, God answered my prayer. And there will never be enough words, in centuries past or in years to come, to ever describe the joy I felt that night.

My friend Apple saw me going down the stage. She asked me if I hugged Bro. Eli, and I nodded yes. She hugged me and told me how happy she was for me, which prompted me to cry a little bit more.

On that blessed night, hugs became one of my favorite things in the world.

 

That concluded the second day of the International Thanksgiving in South America.

A Sojourn to the South – MCGI’s International Thanksgiving in South America, 2014 (Part 1)

News, Events and Second Glances

 

The Genesis of an Exodus

Armed with a little bit of caffeine and a system-full of adrenaline plus a copious amount of excitement, we prepared to brave the skies with heavy bags – both in our hands and eyes.

We were part of the New York delegates of the International Thanksgiving to God celebration of the Members Church of God International (MCGI), and we traveled to South America for the first time to witness biblical history unfold.

The night before our journey had been hectic; with last-minute preparations, there had been no chance to lie down and rest. Not that we wanted to. In reality, we were too giddy to sleep, even after a full day’s worth of working.

Several hours later, I found ourselves sitting by the waiting area of our first flight’s designated gate. At 12 p.m., less than two hours before our flight, we joined the community prayer on UNTV 37’s Radio La Verdad via the network’s mobile app.

We joined the community prayer at 12 a.m. PHT via the UNTV radio app. Because we were taught to pray before each undertaking.

We joined the community prayer at 12 a.m. PHT via the UNTV radio app. The UNTV app is free to download on iTunes and the Play Store.

A sudden hush fell over every corner and crevice of the airport as the prayer started. At least it had for my friend Eunice and I.

In that moment, the small gap of time between wiping away warm tears from closed eyes and saying “amen” in my mind – I knew our journey had officially begun – because everything that has led to this blessed opportunity had started with a prayer.

And as I closed my eyes during take off, I thanked God silently. I lost track of how many times I’ve uttered my gratitude to Him who made this possible.

Because it is nothing short of a modern-day miracle: a relatively cash-strapped girl from New York traveled thousands of miles to be with her Ingkong once more.

Take off. Self-portrait. April 2014.

Anticipation, a self-portrait. New York, NY. April 2014. Pol Arellano, PVI NY

 

Bogota, Colombia

Our trip consisted of a 12-hour stay at Bogota, Colombia.

We arrived in the wee hours of the morning.

To pass the time, we walked around. Though on a strict budget, we were able to eat and even drink amazing Colombian coffee, because thankfully, prices in Colombia were not as steep as New York’s. We napped.

We ran out of things to do, and time went by slowly. Numerous times did we wish to speed it up a bit so we could get to our special destination faster.

Colombian coffee. Bogota, Colombia. April 2014.

Colombian coffee. Bogota, Colombia. April 2014. Pol Arellano, PVI NY

 

A bit over an hour before we left Colombia, we found a group of people who made us re-think our wishes about time even for just a few more minutes.

It was there that we met the Colombian delegates who were accompanied by Filipino Church workers. As fate would have it, we were sharing the same flight from Colombia to our final destination.


PVI_PArellano_2014 (19 of 586)

Our Colombian and Filipino brethren pre-departure. Bogota, Colombia. April 2014. Pol Arellano, PVI NY

They all greeted us with firm and friendly handshakes and warm hugs. In my excitement, I forgot that there was an issue of me not knowing enough Spanish to let them in on what I was feeling at that time.

I wanted to let them know how thrilled I was to see native Colombians – non-Filipinos, who are the fruits of God’s calling in that foreign land.

I wanted to tell them that there are thousands upon thousands of Filipino brethren who would be ecstatic to see our Spanish-speaking believers in that part of the world.

I wanted to explain the tears of happiness that fogged up my square glasses.

But everything that I wanted to say seemed to have already been said in an unspoken manner after every smile, handshake, and hug were exchanged. And for this language of love, I am deeply thankful to God.

A little fun before boarding the plane. Bogota, Colombia. April 2014. Pol Arellano, PVI NY

A little fun before boarding the plane. Bogota, Colombia. April 2014. Pol Arellano, PVI NY

And as we were on our final flight, Filipinos and Colombians alike,  I napped with a smile etched on my excited face thousands of feet up in the clouds.

 

When and Where Dreams Came True

As we made our way towards the airport’s arrival area, a group of brethren from different countries such as Oman, United Arab Emirates, Dubai and the Philippines were already there, waiting for us with welcoming smiles. We all traveled together to our final destination.

KNP Bro. Bong Bodeña welcomed the Colombian brethren and the rest of the delegates at the local airport. April 2014. Pol Arellano, PVI NY

We all felt that we were finally near the place of our common dreams.

Almost there. South America. Pauline Arellano, PVI NY

Almost there. South America. April 2014. Pauline Arellano, PVI NY

 

And it was when the bus finally stopped I felt my heart race the most.

The skies were lit up by the moon and numerous stars when I first stepped foot on the venue, and reality struck the wind out of me, leaving me breathless with glee — I was really there. It was really happening, I thought.

As I waited for my luggage to be brought down from the vehicle, brethren from various countries milled around me. Spearheaded by the youth ministry, several brethren greeted those who arrived from other long flights. I welcomed the feeling of deja vu.

I have seen this before and I have felt this peculiar feeling, years ago, in a place called Apalit, Pampanga.

 

Graças a Deus

On the first day of the International Thanksgiving, I stood  by the left side of the stage holding my three-year-old Rebel T3i camera. On stage stood choir members of different races donning the same signature black and white uniform. Below them, the Teatro Kristiano members of the Church danced gracefully and as one.

The Teatro Kristiano danced their praise to God, as accompanied by the Church's international chorale members.

The Teatro Kristiano danced their praise to God, as accompanied by the Church’s international chorale members. Pol Arellano, PVI NY

Choir members led the congregants in singing both lively and solemn songs of praises to God, simultaneously switching from Tagalog to Portuguese songs.

And for the first time in Church history, the solemn hymn number 50 was sang in Filipino, Spanish, English and Portuguese all at the same time.

The solemn prayer was uttered in three languages and was accompanied by the sound of helpless yet hopeful sobbing by brethren of different nationalities.

Afterwards, a colorful burst of energy and excitement flooded the stage as the different representatives of various countries paraded in front of the whole congregation. This was aptly called the Parade of Colors.

 

And after the different nations’ flags have been raised and flown, the celebrant made his way into the stage.

After several years of not seeing Bro. Eli, at the first sight of him standing amidst a sea of brethren who traveled from different corners of the world to be with him, a feeling of indescribable elation overwhelmed me. I felt light, and at the moment, I knew what happiness was.

I remember the last time I saw Bro. Eli vividly. He wore a purple barong and walked around the Ang Dating Daan Convention Center in Apalit, Pampanga in the Philippines. Back then, he was thinner, and had more energy.

As I stared at Bro. Eli, the fact that he is no longer as young as he was before was obvious. The years of hard work, of sleepless nights, of burdens that abound — is unmistakable.

With an excited and warm smile, Bro. Eli greeted the brethren in Brazil and in all parts of the world. He  was welcomed with deafening cheers and claps.

The international preacher who had been in exile in a foreign land for several years, has not been in the company of a multitude of brethren, especially Filipino brethren. As he spoke to the brethren in South America, on that very moment, his bliss, his appreciation of and his gratitude to God for this grand Church event was evident on his whole person.

Bro. Eli was happy to see the brethren once more. Tears of joy made his eyes sparkle even more than it usually does.

And when words of love, of gratitude are not enough, sometimes, a fitting song does justice — the right song speaks from one longing heart to another.

From the grateful hearts of Bro. Eli and Vice-Presiding Minister Bro. Daniel Razon sprung the desire to sing to the brotherhood. To express their love for each and everyone of the members, regardless of language or color.

The Church leaders sang Through the Years. And even though at times, their voices broke with escaping sobs and tears, the joy in their hearts were felt by the whole congregation who sang along with them.

Looking at our Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking brethren who did not understand much English, the tears in their eyes were enough to tell me that even though the song was sung in English, the spirit of the song transcends language barriers. It was enough to let me know that they understood what our preachers wanted to express.

Bro. Eliseo Soriano sang Through the Years with Bro. Daniel Razon.

Bro. Eliseo Soriano sang Through the Years with Bro. Daniel Razon. April 2014. Pol Arellano, PVI NY

Bro. Eli:

I can’t remember when you weren’t there
When I didn’t care for anyone but you
I swear we’ve been through everything there is
Can’t imagine anything we’ve missed
Can’t imagine anything the two of us can’t do

Through the years
You’ve never let me down
You turned my life around
The sweetest days I’ve found
I’ve found with you
Through the years
I’ve never been afraid
I’ve loved the life we’ve made
And I’m so glad I stayed
Right here with you
Through the years

Bro. Daniel:

I can’t remember what I used to do
Who I trusted whom, I listened to before
I swear you’ve taught me everything I know
Can’t imagine needing someone so
But through the years it seems to me
I need you more and more

Through the years
Through all the good and bad
I knew how much we had
I’ve always been so glad
To be with you
Through the years
It’s better everyday
You’ve kissed my tears away
As long as it’s okay
I’ll stay with you
Through the years

The song hit me right in the chest, and I found myself sobbing, with my camera parked at my hip, with a violent mix of emotions. 

After a memorable opening song number, in true Members Church of God International fashion, the day was filled with a Bible-based topic, delivered by Bro. Eli and Bro. Daniel.

The day flew by so fast. And before I knew it, I was making my way towards where I would rest a good night’s rest after saying thanks to Him who gave me the gift of that wonderful day.

 

And that concluded the first day of the International Thanksgiving in South America.