The tropical island of Cebu—and its namesake city—with its blue waters, beautiful coastline and balmy climate, has been called many things. "The Queen City of the South," the birthplace of Catholicism in the Philippines, the site of Ferdinand Magellan's landing, and—ultimately—his death at the hands of warrior chief Lapu Lapu.
Pastor Trifon Brady had another description. He called it a hard place, especially for someone like Will Graham.
"This is one of the hard places in the Philippines in terms of evangelism," he said. "They're religious in a sense that they're trying to follow religion, but they don't have a relationship with Christ.
"When we talk about Mindanao, which is in the southern part of the country, they've experienced revival. There was a time when Lausanne, they experienced revival. We are still waiting for this place to be really open."
Into that spiritual climate, and on the heels of a two-day evangelistic outreach in neighboring Tacloban, evangelist Will Graham arrived for the Cebu Celebration of Life, March 27-29.
The Celebration featured a special event for children on Saturday morning, along with three nightly programs comprised of music, dramas, greetings—including one from Cebu Mayor Mike Rama, whom Will visited earlier in the week—and evangelistic sermons.
The three-day Celebration, which saw more than 60,000 in attendance—more than 30,000 just on Sunday—was held in a wide expanse of open field known as SRP. Mere days before the event, however, the spacious and clean concourse was an overgrown jungle of brush, furrows and biting ants.
The old cliché "it takes a village" was appropriate in this instance as support from a variety of fronts completely transformed the wasteland to a place of worship.
People came out and cut down acre after acre of coarse weeds by hand using shears. The provincial government offered the use of graders, large pieces of machinery built to smooth out the uneven ground.
The need arose to hire an additional piece of equipment, but when the owner learned that it would be used for the Cebu Celebration of Life, he refunded the money and told Celebration leaders that they could use the machine as long as they needed.
"It was just inspiring," said Jeff Ferris, who moved to Cebu with his wife Megumi to help guide the efforts and planning for the Celebration. "God's hand is on this piece of property. If you could see where it was and where it is now, it's a miracle."
They came decked out in bright blues, reds and yellows—dancing girls in flowing dresses and a drum team in crisp uniforms. Many were driven to the field at SRP, but a large number could be seen walking in along the dusty road on foot, coming from the nearby slum.
Regardless of their originating locale, they all came smiling.
Long balloons cut arcs through the air as a row of beaming kids waved them frantically above their heads in anticipation of the program designed just for them.
It was time for the Children's Celebration!
A parade of groups made up of both children and adults entertained the audience, singing praises to Jesus. The FEBC Children's Choir, Korean children the same age as many in the audience, was a particular hit as they twirled and spun in their matching costumes.
As the festivities progressed and the music faded, a live-action dramatic presentation began to play out on the stage. The main character was a bully who was mean to those around him. When he fell asleep, he began to dream of animals that represented the sins in his life: lust, anger, meanness and greed.
The man woke from his dream in sorrow, but ultimately found the One who could take away that sin and make him a new person—Jesus.
When the children in the audience learned that they too could have hope and eternal life in Jesus, they rushed forward to begin a new life in Him.
"When they came forward, I was overjoyed," said Tina Abong of Christ Commission Fellowship as she wiped tears from her eyes. She helped lead the efforts that culminated with the Children's Celebration. Months of her life had gone into planning and preparing for this event, and she was finally watching it all come to fruition in the sea of children in front of her.
"God is really a promise keeper. He loves the Philippines, and He's working here right now. I know in my heart that He's working among the children."
'Salvation's Name Is Jesus'
Tens of thousands rode buses, trucks, motor bikes and modified passenger vehicles called "jeepneys" to the field, before finding a spot to sit in one of the rows upon rows of plastic chairs. The sticky, humid air was diluted by a gentle breeze that carried welcome coolness from the the Philippine Sea.
Following passionate music from a variety of local praise bands and worship leader Mark Christian, Will Graham took the stage and stood behind a beautiful, locally crafted bamboo podium, along with his Cebuano interpreter.
"You can't buy salvation. You can't earn salvation. All you can do is receive it as a free gift," Graham called out. "To receive Christ freely, you have to come to Him.
"Salvation is not some type of work or ritual. Salvation is not church membership," he continued. "Salvation is a person. Salvation's name is Jesus."
Each night as the invitation was given, people jumped from their seats and crowded the open space in front of the stage. Rich or poor, young or old, they responded to Christ. About 16 percent of those in attendance, around 9,700 people, made a decision for Christ.
Reinhard Dano, himself a young man, had the opportunity to counsel a pair of boys that came forward.
"There were two of them. They were the grandsons of a lola (grandmother) who invited them to come here," Dano said. "They have no experience with church but their lola is a member of Maranatha Church. It was just here that they've heard the Good News."
He grinned broadly and shared, "It was awesome!"
Leila Jaji, who has worked in the Celebration office and was not planning to be a counselor, was pressed into service following the overwhelming response to the invitation.
"Actually it surprised me because I'm not supposed to be there, but there's a lot of women that needed counselors so I jump out of the fence so I could counsel them," she said.
The two middle-aged women to whom she ministered worked together at a dried mango factory, and were invited by another coworker.
"Their hearts were touched and they believed that Christ did this for us. They just didn't know how it is done. You actually receive Jesus Christ into your heart," said Jaji, sharing that the two women poured tears as they committed their lives to Christ. "They felt really blessed. They said that they don't have much time on this earth, and they said they want to experience the Lord before that time."
On the final day of the Cebu Celebration of Life, Graham took a moment to think about the thousands who responded to the gospel message, and a smile crossed his face.
"The response brings me joy," he said. "I'm seeing a miracle take place. I'm seeing that which was once dead made alive."
He added, "I see the faithfulness of God. When God's Word is preached, God's Word does not return void. And He calls people by name. I always sit in amazement to it, because God is faithful in the preaching of His Word and in allowing people to respond to it."
He asked that people continue to pray for those who came forward.
"We've seen God do some amazing things," said Graham. "Just continue to pray for the people that made decisions here; that they'll be followed up in the local church and they'll grow in their new relationship with Jesus Christ."
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