Right before the Christmas vacation of 1993, my father, who was assigned as the Pastor of Roxas UMC at the North Central Philippines Annual Conference, told me to attend this gathering of church youth. I was 11 then, one year short of the official age of an official member of the UMYFer.
I didn’t know what the Christmas Institute was all about but right after Christmas day, I chose the nicest clothes from among the gifts I received that year. I watched as jeepneys and tricycles full of youth arrived at our church. I knew some of them—friends I met through cluster fellowship events of the church.
As the days progressed, Ates and Kuyas from Roxas UMC invited me to sit with them inside the church to participate in the activities of the CI. As a Pastor’s kid, I have had lots of practice sitting down inside the church, but the joy of the youth attending the event was so infectious that I found myself wanting to join in the fun.
For most youth in the United Methodist Church, the year is not complete without participating to the Christmas Institute. We learn more about our faith through the Bible studies, lectures, and group dynamics. We meet new friends through the small group interactions and the games we play. For young hearts, we even find childhood crushes and eventually, life partners.
Discovering a well-spring of faith and a community
In those last few days of 1993, when I discovered the C.I., I met Christ in a more personal way and made a commitment during the Revival night. I still have photos from that night sitting somewhere in my room in my parents’ house in Isabela.
I also discovered the bigger community of youth who modeled for me a way to serve Christ through the church and its various ministries. I remember meeting Kuya Fido, Manang Au Serquina, Ate Jane Cayaba, and many other leaders of the district and annual conference UMYF. It was fascinating to see young men and women leading other youth in a deeper dive into our Methodist faith.
That marked my official entry into the world of the UMYF and the broader world of the United Methodist connection. After about 2 years, I got elected as the Information Department Head of the Isabela Central Mountain Province District during a district fellowship and gathering at San Francisco UMC in Cauayan, Isabela.
Those were the days before mobile phones and the ubiquitous Internet. But when we agreed on a place and time, almost everybody would show up at the tricycle or jeepney terminal in Cauayan, at a bakery of a town, or in one of the churches in the district. That’s a far cry from today’s “On the way na ‘ko” SMS or Facebook message, which may actually mean that they have just finished taking a shower.
Mentored and supported for leadership
Throughout my High School years, I learned the art of writing letters for church leaders in our district, met with district superintendents, attended meetings with adult leaders of the district, and even attended annual conferences!
I learned to follow in the footsteps of the long line of UMYF leaders who gave their time and money to serve. I remember waking up very early in the morning with Kuya Michael Bergado to clean and arrange the pews and chairs at Bagong Tanza UMC, in Aurora, Isabela. I also remember leading songs and sessions while being in front of hundreds of youth in Camaal UMC, Roxas, Isabela which everyone teasingly called as Lariosa UMC because a lot of their delegates had the surname of Lariosa.
On that C.I., I remember clearly one of the conversations I’ve had with Kuya Richard Lariosa and Pastor Randy dela Cruz. I’ve forgotten the other topics of our conversation then, but Kuya Richard told me “if you said ‘yes’ to God, God will honor that commitment and he will lead you to it.”
By age 16 as a High School senior, I served as the district President. The year was 1998. I was at the helm of organizing the CI at Eden UMC in San Manuel, Isabela. Through the help of Pastor Emilio Bala Sr. (deceased) and his son Kuya Stephen, we had a Praise band and a mission team from South Korea. We got to experience what this contemporary worship that people were talking about. It was a blast!
Christmas Institutes, the UMYF and the church in general, gave me the training to overcome my shyness and speak to many people both young and old. With the responsibilities entrusted to me, I learned the skills of organizing, coordinating efforts, delegating, and leading. It had such a profound impact on my life.
I have had missteps and mistakes as a young leader. But I never forgot the lessons I learned. They were so important in my development as a person of faith, and as a leader in the United Methodist Church.
Confronting Some Realities
There are many others like me who are the products of CI and the church’s commitment to develop young people’s faith and leadership. Pastor Luther Oconer, a historian and Wesley scholar, reckons that the first Christmas Institute started in 1921. That is indeed a long history and tradition.
As we continue shaping young people’s faith and develop them as leaders in the church and society, we may also need to strengthen and modify the CI.
In a conversation I had with former NorthEast Bulacan District Superintendent Rev. Francis Fajardo, he joked that the fire and passion young people get from the C.I. has an expiry date: February 12, to be exact. That is about 6 weeks after the CI.
It’s true. A lot of young people who may have found a spark of faith during the CI are at a loss when they go back to their local churches. How can we empower those who made a commitment during the Christmas Institute? How do we nurture the flame that was kindled in young people’s hearts?
In my case, I found a nurturing community–in the district, in the local church, in the lives of the UMYF friends that I have known, and in the church workers and adults who invested in my life.
Opportunities for service at the district and local churches can help as do intentional programs for young people. But what is even more important is for passionate young people to have nurturing and mentoring relationships in the local church, in the district, and in the communities where they belong.
When we invest on our young people, we help them grow in their faith, leadership, and life. As they grow, we also empower the church today and in the future. Don’t worry if they don’t become pastors and deaconesses, God calls all of us in different kinds of ministries–within the church structure or outside of it.
This piece was originally published in the October-December 2017 issue of The Filipino Methodist.