A miracle of grace in Cubao, Philippines
One afternoon five young men armed with knives robbed a Jeepney in Cubao. It wasn’t the first time, but for at least two of them it was to be the last. The robbery went badly wrong for them when police warning shouts and bullets arrived at the same time.
Shortly after, two men lay dead in the street. Joseph fled the scene but ended up in hospital with a wounded foot. Some years later, and a few hundred metres from where the robbery took place, Joseph limps down the aisle of our church building to give his testimony. He smiles as he stands before a packed congregation and begins to tell of how God has changed his life.
This morning I cried when I woke up. We’ve been doing the drop-in centre among the poorest in Cubao for six years now and it’s been hard work. There were times, particularly during the first couple of years, when it was enormously difficult and left us physically exhausted and emotionally and spiritually drained.
We don’t need baptisms to know that our efforts weren’t wasted. But to be honest, it does help! Today’s baptism of Joseph is a day of celebration and rejoicing at the amazing grace of God.
Joseph’s story is a familiar one for our homeless contacts. A broken family left him with his grandfather, and after the grandfather died Joseph was taken in by a different family. Despite being ten years old, he says he was often beaten severely even for the smallest things.
Three times he ran away and experienced life on the streets, sleeping in a Jeepney and finding his food in rubbish bins. Twice he was returned ‘home’ to further beatings but the third time the family was gone.
Joseph eventually ended up on the streets and was soon sniffing glue and snatching wallets. ‘When I sniffed glue’, he told me, ‘even if someone pushed me or slapped me on the back I didn’t feel it. I didn’t feel hungry and I felt so powerful’.
He was first arrested when 18 years old for the ‘crime’ of vagrancy. Since then he has been arrested 20 times for various charges, once spending 18 months in prison.
In all my Sundays in Cubao I can’t ever remember the church being fuller. Christian Compassion Ministries (CCM) social workers invited many of the sponsored teenagers to attend and around 50 are here, along with about 30 from the drop-in centre.
Pastor Ismael led the service, explaining each aspect. Then Pastor Mon preached a simple, clear gospel message. And now Joseph is giving his testimony.
I think it’s fair to say working with Joseph has never been boring! Over the years, we’ve visited him on the streets, at the police station and in prison. He’s attended the drop-in centre, Monday night Bible studies, and a CCM training programme; he’s worked at our livelihood project and stayed at our half-way house.
His life has been so up and down, evidenced by the many cut marks on his body. When he first started attending our church he was a drug addict and stability has only come with great struggle. I remember one week sitting with him in church as he told me he wanted to become a pastor. Then some small problem arose and the next minute he was sniffing glue on the street corner.
After one prison spell, Joseph decided to stop stealing. ‘I was just in and out of prison and it felt like my life would never change’. But the drugs didn’t stop.
The first time we met him was in 2003 when we started going out on street outreach. We were in a busy road handing out tracts and had gathered a group of homeless people to preach to them.
Not long after, Joseph started coming to the drop-in centre. ‘I came for the food’, he tells me with a big smile. ‘It was free!’ ‘I enjoyed coming with my friends, but I was hard-hearted and although the things taught went in, they went straight out again. But little by little it affected me’.
Joseph thinks he was converted whilst staying at our half-way house and working on our livelihood project. In our eyes that project was nearly a failure. And yet God had his purposes.
Through our connections with a new street magazine (Filipino equivalent of the Big Issue), Joseph has been able to find employment and for the first time in his life is earning enough to rent a room for his family.
Joseph steps down into the baptismal water and stands next to Pastor Ismael. Joseph is a big guy and for a brief moment I wonder whether Ismael is going to be able to pull him back out of the water. Baptised and martyred in the space of five minutes!
Sometimes the voice of pride whispers. But quickly that gets blown away as I’m reminded again of God’s amazing grace.
Five men rob a Jeepney – two shot dead; Joseph escapes. We had no control over that.
Thousands of people have been invited to the drop-in centre – many haven’t come; Joseph did. We could not control that.
Many sit each week hearing the Bible messages and the majority do not respond. Joseph did. It has been God’s sovereign and undeserved grace.
‘God has been good to you’, I tell him after the baptism. ‘It could easily have been you who was shot dead’. He nods and tells me there have been many other times that God took care of him – for example, when his street companions were ‘salvaged’ (a phrase used for the disposal of undesirables!).
‘It’s good that you changed,’ he and his friend were once told by a policeman. ‘Or you’d have been next’.
I sit next to Joseph at the end of the day as he is welcomed into church membership. It’s been a good day. And yet making the public profession and commitment through baptism is only the start. Joseph is going to have some tough battles ahead.
His wife has many problems and he still has lots of ‘baggage’ to deal with. ‘You know I’m writing a prayer letter about you’, I tell him. ‘What would you like me to ask people to pray for?’
‘That God will strengthen me; help me fight against sin; do well with my responsibilities for my family. And, most of all, be a faithful servant of Christ’.