Amid the war on drugs in the Philippines, Danga United Methodist Church in Calumpit is seeing its membership grow.
The 28-year-old church in the province of Bulacan used to have 20 to 25 attendees each Sunday; now, 70 worshippers are in attendance most weeks, thanks to a new program aimed at former drug traffickers and addicts.
The Rev. Mienie N. Tolentino, Danga’s pastor, is among clergy who responded to a call from municipal Mayor Jessie de Jesus to join in his reformation program, called “Banyuhay.” The program offers spiritual enlightenment to those involved with illegal drugs in an effort to help them start “a new chapter of life.”
The Banyuhay program is part of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s controversial anti-drug campaign Oplan Tokhang, which was implemented across the country after his election in 2016. Derived from the Cebuano words “Toktok-Hangyo,” meaning knock and plead, Oplan Tokhang involves visiting drug traffickers at their homes to persuade them to stop their illegal activities and surrender themselves to take part in government-run recovery programs.
The campaign was suspended in 2017 amid public outcry over extrajudicial killings but was relaunched in early 2018 with a new set of guidelines for police.
Tolentino said she prayed before responding to the request.
“Lord, you brought me here because you want me to do something for you. Here I am to fulfill my utmost and best through your help. I commit everything that I can and can’t do,” she said.
For three months, the church offered weekly Bible studies with seven participants attending. After the program ended, five of those joined the church, along with their families and neighbors. They now attend worship services and Bible studies regularly.
Tolentino said that she didn’t expect to see church membership grow when she agreed to take part in the program.
“I never thought that it was the start of having them all in the church. The wives said they joined because they saw the big change in their husbands.”
Danga church members are grateful for Tolentino’s leadership and the opportunity to help those in need.
“We are really amazed by the efforts made by Pastor Tolentino when she was able to convince five out of many surrenderees to recognize and accept our Lord Jesus Christ. It is a miracle because their families and neighbors are with them,” said Florencio Santos, church council chair.
“It is incumbent of us to give guidance and to help others to live a better life,” Santos said.
Janice Garcia, outreach ministry chair, said those involved with drugs are now sharing their stories for the betterment of the church.
“They have been so blessed by the Holy Spirit. They even learned how to give their testimonies and have become so willing to get involved in our church activities,” she said.
Tolentino said that during the orientation for the Banyuhay program, clergy were asked to serve as spiritual counselors, working in partnership with government officials.
When the program concluded due to a lack of resources, Tolentino said the church hosted a “boodle fight” for participants and their families. The military-style meal was presented on long tables piled on top of banana leaves and eaten with bare hands as a sign of camaraderie.
“We did the boodle fight because it was our farewell gathering. Their wives and children joined the common meal,” Tolentino said, adding that many of them have now joined the church.
The pastor recalled another incident in which the niece of one of the participants was ill and the family asked for prayers. “After a couple of weeks, I got so surprised when the niece and her whole family attended the church worship,” she said.
Tolentino finds joy in the words of those who have been reformed.
“I like Methodist and I am proud to be a Methodist,” said Ryan Ablanez, a participant who found a job outside of Calumpit after completing the program.
He mentioned in a Facebook post that he found enlightenment from The United Methodist Church and learned a lot from the program. “Here, I was led to change my ways and character for my family,” he wrote.
Aby Sacro, the wife of another participant, said that joining The United Methodist Church has had a huge impact on her husband. “Because of the church, he has changed his ways and all of his vices are gone.”
Sacro said her family has become closer in the midst of the worst circumstances.
“As for being husband and wife, we started to have bonding with our family because of the church. We went through a serious trial when our youngest child died. Thanks, indeed, for the church because they are our strength,” she said.
Tolentino remains in ministry with the participants and their families. She continues to pray for them and visits their homes regularly “to chat about anything under the sun.”
She tells them, “Aside from being your pastor, I am also your friend.”
Mangiduyos is a communicator from the Philippines. News media contact: Vicki Brown, news editor, email@example.com or 615-742-5470. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.