Why I am an American Baptist


A Testimony From a Son of Missions, in Celebration of Baptist Heritage Sunday - May 17, 2015

The first question asked of anyone in the Philippines when they are introduced for the first time to others is invariably, “Where are you from? Who is your mother, your father? Whose grandson are you?”

I am a 4th generation Filipino Baptist, a product of American Baptist missions. Christianity had already been on Philippine soil for almost 400 years before the first missionary from the American Baptist missionary arrived. Christianity and its Roman Catholic expression were brought to the Philippines by Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century primarily as an instrument of imperial colonial policy. The three generations before me in my family were brought to the Baptist faith by the lives and witness of missionaries of the American Baptist Foreign Mission Society.

The very day after Pearl Harbor was attacked, the Japanese Imperial Army invaded the Philippines. They knew that the Philippines was the only Christian nation in Asia. They knew that one of its greatest strengths was its faith. Imperial oppressors share familiar ways. One of the things they all do to a people they intend to dominate and oppress is to first destroy their stories, eradicate their poetry and literature, erase their memory of who they are. And so one of the first things the Japanese Imperial Army did was they went house to house in towns and villages and confiscated every copy of the Bible that they could find. They then took these Bibles to the town plaza and burned them. But the nights that followed – dark as they were – were illuminated by the deep faith of the great women in my family. My grandmother and grandaunts would gather the children at night (my father and siblings and cousins) and recite to them scripture passages they had memorized. They required the children to memorize them as well in the belief that they were to never see nor read a copy of the Bible ever again. They thought that with the Bible burnings and the destruction of the war, a great famine of God’s word was to cover the land, and so they made sure the children’s spiritual storehouses were well-stocked! Whenever I remember them, they remind me of Ruth and Hannah who never lost their trust in God even in the midst of great tribulation.

When I remember them I am reminded of the power of story-telling in the sustenance of our spirituality, and how important it is for the vitality of our faith for today that it is nourished by the memory of our roots. This is especially crucial in our time, for we live in a materialistic and utilitarian culture that for the most part eschews stories.

My grandfather on my mother’s side was orphaned at a young age. He was mentored by American Baptist missionaries who established early on a vocational school for orphan boys. He later on became one of the first graduates of the seminary that grew out of that vocational school that ABC missionaries established in the Philippines. After he graduated he went back to the foothills of his birth and there founded a church. He had a fierce faith, like Gideon. When the Japanese Imperial Army overran that part of the country, 11 ABC missionaries fled towards the hills where my grandfather was pastoring. He helped them find a hiding place. They found a location at the bottom of a deep ravine surrounded by lush forests. They called the place Hopevale. There they built a chapel made of stones and adorned it with a make-shift wooden cross. They called it “The Cathedral in the Glen.” A replica of that cathedral can be found today at the American Baptist Assembly grounds in Green Lake, WI. He and his family and his congregation provided the missionaries companionship, protection, food, and fellowship for almost two years until the Japanese Imperial Army found them. The Japanese Imperial Army was on retreat at that time. They had orders to take no American prisoners. The order was issued to execute the missionaries.

The plaque listing the names of the martyred ABC missionaries, located at the Centennial Memorial on the campus of CPU.

One of the 11 was Dr. James Covell. He was an ABC missionary educator to Japan during the war years but later on was moved to the Philippines with his wife and family when he became a danger to himself and our Baptist partners in Japan in the way he openly and fiercely opposed the militarization of Japan. He and his wife spoke fluent Japanese. In beautiful Japanese, he begged the platoon commander to spare the group, indicating that they were missionaries and were not part of the war. He was almost successful in persuading the platoon commander but his orders from higher command were inflexible. When it became absolutely clear that death was to come, Dr. Covell asked for a time to pray. They were given all the time they needed and after almost an hour they came back to the soldiers hand in hand singing a hymn and then Dr. Covell said on behalf of the group, “We are ready.” Then they were led, two by two, to different spots around the top of the ravine and they were executed. To this day, it is this memory of sacrificial service that inspires many pastors of the Convention of Philippine Baptist Churches to serve with passion even in the midst of daunting challenges and abject poverty!

My great grandfather on my father’s side was a carpenter. His name was Alejo Familiaran. He was an accomplished furniture maker. After he came into the Baptist faith he was commissioned to build the first Baptist church in his town. He was stricken with Glaucoma and became blind during the construction of the bamboo church but - with help of his apprentices - he finished the structure with the feel of his hands. And so whenever I hear the word, “church builder”, I think of my great grandfather Alejo. He “felt” the church, not as brick and mortar – or in his case, bamboo, timber, and coconut leaves – but a fellowship of Jesus people propelled by a fiery mission.

Baptists in general around the world share some fundamental convictions. Perhaps one of the most defining of these – and formative to its very identity - is Religious Freedom or, as it is sometimes known, Soul Liberty. Throughout history, the foundational belief that God has given every person the dignity and the gift of freedom has permitted Baptists of every persuasion to respond freely to the world around them, and appropriate their faith in light of their own understanding of Scriptures. It is this bedrock ‘Baptistic’ belief that has given rise to the variety of Baptist traditions today. The Baptist family has many “offspring” and, therefore, many expressions. And so the question, ‘Why am I an American Baptist?’ is best answered with the prior understanding that ‘Baptist’ and ‘American Baptist’ identities are not necessarily one and the same. It has been said that American Baptists have never been one thing, but many - and therein lies much of our distinctiveness. At the heart of the American Baptist self-consciousness are its powerful history, its passion for social justice and missions. Who American Baptists are today is, therefore, only the contemporary expression of a long history of particular persons who have responded to Christ’s call to missions in the world in peculiar ways.

And so my identity as an American Baptist is not rooted only in organizational structure, or confessional and propositional statements. Rather, beyond all of that, my identity as an American Baptist is grounded in the lives and ministry of particular people who have responded to God’s call in a particular way. It begins with my own family history, with three generations of Filipino Baptists before me who were brought to the Baptist faith by American Baptist missionaries. This faith produced in my family church builders and pioneers who formed my own Baptist faith. And then farther out into the vast panorama of that Baptist history I see Obadiah Holmes, Roger Williams, Benjamin Randall, Mary Webb, John Mason Peck, Lott Cary, Luther Rice, Charles Journeycake, Joanna Moore, Dong Gong, Adoniram & Ann Judson – to name a few pioneers who represent my wider American Baptist ancestry. In more modern memory more saints crystallize this identity for me - Walter Rauschenbusch, James and Charma Covell, Helen Barrett Montgomery, Martin Luther King, Jr., Orlando Costas, Jitsuo Morikawa, Delfin Dianala, Howard Thurman, Margaret Prine, George Peck, Moley Familiaran, Prathia Wynn – to name a few, but saints and all! Why am I an American Baptist? The answer lies in the mighty stories of faith embodied in these people. For me, their lives and ministries have carried forth the American Baptist ‘DNA’ through the generations, and it is their ‘genes’ that continue to stir in my soul.

To celebrate Baptist Heritage Sunday, may we seek to understand deeper who we are as American Baptists and "re-member" - reconnect, reintegrate, reclaim - into our journey the peculiar and powerful story of our Baptist heritage so that we may live with utmost clarity about the role we play in bringing to bear God's kingdom of love here on earth.

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