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Bayanihan: Filipino sense of community

A feature story based on an interview with Joel and Amy Navarro upon their return to the United States after living in the Philippines. Christians in the Philippines and U.S. can learn from each other.

In Tagalog, which is a major dialect in the Philippines, the word bayanihan carries great significance. Originally it referred to neighbors carrying a hut or house to a new location. People now use it to describe an outpouring of community spirit-as people give their all to the common good, without expecting recognition or personal gain.

You might say that same spirit of cooperation and hospitality inspired the Navarros to accept the call to a new life in the United States. They moved to Michigan in 2001 so Joel Navarro, an internationally known choir conductor, singer, and composer, could teach music at Calvin College.

"We have been very close to a lot of ex-pats and missionaries in the Philippines. Our burden was to help them understand Filipinos. Moving here was our way of expanding Christian awareness of what it's like in Asia. There are lots of things to be learned across cultures," says Amy (pronounced Ah´-mee) Navarro, whose career path has included college teaching, consulting, and financial management.

Recently Anne Zaki talked with the Navarros about what Christians in the Philippines and U.S. can learn from each other. Zaki, a global resource development specialist for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, leads workshops on how churches can become more intentionally international.

The following questions and answers are adapted and excerpted from her extensive interview with the Navarros.

Did you both grow up Protestant?
Joel: I did. Amy grew up mostly Catholic and converted a year before we got married. The Catholics form 85 percent of the population.

Describe your church.
Joel: The first Christian Reformed Church (CRC) we attended was a house converted into a gathering place. There was a small pulpit, a small wooden cross with no figure on it or behind it, and a pump organ on the side. There were maybe ten rows of folding chairs, five on each side. The church really grew out of the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee's work among the poor. Only 10 to 20 percent of Philippine CRCs work among the affluent. The professionals came into the church much later because of CRC links with the local InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, with whom I had long exposure. That's when Amy and I came.

Sequence of events? 
Joel: You usually have the opening greeting, "Peace and grace be to you, you who come and enter the house of the Lord," followed by an opening hymn and an opening prayer, then the reading of scripture, then maybe a special number by the choir or solo, then the sermon, which is the focal point of the whole service, then the offertory followed by a final hymn, and lastly greetings and final announcements.

Congregational participation in the service? 
Joel: The choir is usually a mix of people as old as 60 and as young as 16.
Amy: Pastoral prayers happen spontaneously. People stand up where they are and share, sometimes for a long time. Pastoral prayer is a very important way to learn what's happening with each other, and that creates strong bonds. Also, the pastor often asks a few people to read scripture.

Sense of community? 
Amy: We used to have healing time right after the service. Deacons with the gift of laying on hands and healing would pray for healing from physical and emotional sicknesses. It was really effective.
Joel: We even had some pastors who had the gift of casting out evil spirits.
Amy: The Philippines is an old country with a few surviving pagan practices. I sincerely believe there are evil spirits in the world, and it's mentioned in the Bible. So we had to have that ministry. For me, this kind of service takes care of a person's unspoken, un-verbalized needs. The CRC in the U.S. is very intellectual. Everything needs to be verbalized in eloquent sentences. But the Bible says there are things that only the Spirit knows, and we can't find the words to say them. When I first arrived in this country, my emotional needs were so deep that I couldn't even begin to say what I was experiencing. Often I would just cry. Many people have that kind of need.

Freedom of expression? 
Joel: Filipinos are not afraid of expressing emotions. It is common to find women and even men shedding tears during sermons.
Amy: Also, we lift our hands with our palms facing up during singing or praying, because this posture helps us worship. You find this in most churches, and even now it's starting to happen in Catholic churches whenever they sing "Ama Namin," The Lord's Prayer.

Tell me about freedom of physical contact?
Amy: Very free. We always hold hands.
Joel: Generally we are not afraid to touch. I suppose it's influenced by the culture, and the climate being warm, also the sense of community spirit.
Amy: Possibly also the Spanish influence, because the Spanish were in the Philippines for nearly 400 years.

The use of arts in worship? 
Amy: We like to dance as a people, but not in the church service. However, even though we don't have specialized liturgical dancers, in contemporary worship, you can clap, dance, sway, and move.
Joel: Our best popular singers in the Philippines are overtly Christian. More than half their repertoire is Christian songs. You see a whole coliseum of people dancing and swaying, whether they are Christians or not. Catholic churches now are experiencing a worship renewal, with many songs borrowed from Protestant churches. This cultural phenomenon is bringing the churches together from both sides. Of course there are conservative fundamentalists, Catholics and evangelicals, who want nothing to do with this change.

What is the seating arrangement?
Amy: Families generally sit together.
Joel: Sometimes, sadly, you'll find separation in seating not according to gender, but rather according to class or wealth. More than half of the time you would find the richer section on one side and the poorer section on the other side. More progressive Filipinos break away from that tendency.

Scripture reading? 
Joel: We always stand up whenever scripture is read. Normally people bring their own Bibles. They're even encouraged to make notes in their Bibles.
Amy: Everything is provided here in the U.S., so you don't have any ownership of the Bible. It's just there in the pew. It's a convenient culture.
Joel: Many churches in America may be called "churches of the unresponsive reading." Listen to how a responsive reading is read, for example, "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son..." Oftentimes, it sounds as if it is just read, not felt. That doesn't seem to have ownership of the Word.

Joel: While Filipino is used as the lingua franca, it is very distinct from the language of the streets. Once in a while you will hear Filipino allusions in high poetic language referenced in conversational Filipino. There are pockets of communities in the urban areas where Filipino is not even spoken and it is very hard for them to read and understand the classical Filipino translation of the Bible. The Filipino translation of the Living Bible is more accessible and is used in many Philippine CRCs. More affluent Philippine CRCs refer to and use English versions like the NIV and the NASB.

Percent of churches worshiping in English? 
Joel: Most Christian churches in the urban centers-both Catholic and Protestant-use English in their liturgies. In the rural areas, dialects or regional languages are used. Protestant churches tend to use English. It's a function of the church's socioeconomic and educational demographic.

What have you found most challenging or shocking as you worship here?
Amy: I still wish I could move more. When nobody else is moving, that situation inhibits me.
Joel: The opulent use of technology and massive performing forces in worship in your mega-churches is always a cause for culture shock. Beyond that, I miss hearing a broader mix of music. Churches need to be politically and culturally sensitive to the makeup of their congregations. I hear music from Mexico and Africa being represented, but I have yet to hear music from Asia, the Middle East, or Eastern Europe. Being committed to welcoming people of color is a good thing, but housing the culture of people of color is a higher commitment. Churches need to decide: "Even though we are the dominant color here, we must show preferential treatment for people of color. Christ incarnated himself to become one with the poor, the alien, and the alienated."

What does that mean in practical steps?

Joel: White people need to identify with non-white people, to engage themselves more in the culture of the emotions, the perspective of the heart, and the perspective of relationships. The diversity I seek is not just in terms of color, but also in educational background. Language from the pulpit doesn't always have to be profound. We do yearn for the eloquent from time to time, but sometimes we need to hear the language of the poor and the uneducated, as a way of engagement. The Jesuits have a term for this - preferential option for the poor.
Amy: So to be preferential also means covering topics that are significant to immigrants, like establishing one's identity, discovering one's role in this community, and carrying out the purpose for which God has brought that person to this new community.
Joel: We rarely see a person of color in the pulpit, challenging people in very plain language. I wonder how many of us internationals are invited to homes of white people. Many churches ask international people to speak in Sunday school on random mornings. How about inviting them to speak in the pulpit?
Amy: Even just once a year, or once a quarter, invite non-whites to give their testimonies. The choice of topics and speakers should reflect the church's commitment to diversity.

What has been instructive that you wish to recreate back in the Philippines?

Amy: I appreciate very much the Sunday when we remember victims of abuse. Until now in the Philippines, physical and emotional abuse is a topic that is rarely spoken in the pulpit. I think it's so beautiful to dedicate a whole Sunday service-liturgy, music, and prayers-to that issue.
The practice of Communion at Church of the Servant CRC moves me profoundly-the music we sing as we gather around the elements, and as the bread and wine are passed from communicant to communicant. I also find its liturgy excellent, thoughtful, and carefully prepared. The use of the liturgical calendar is especially helpful.


The Philippines is the only Christian nation in Asia. Ferdinand Magellan, the first sea explorer to lead an expedition around the world, introduced Catholicism to the island nation in 1521. Sacred and folk music after this era demonstrates Western and indigenous influences.

The Spaniards ceded the country to the U.S. after the 1899 Spanish-American War. Presbyterian and Methodist missionaries—who entered along with American soldiers—brought the English language, English hymns, and Protestantism. The Philippines is now the world's third-largest English-speaking country.

According to the Filipino National Commission on Culture and the Arts, both Protestant and Catholic churches began to introduce more congregational participation and local dialects into liturgical music.

“We developed our own hymnody around the 1950s and 1960s, with words and music composed by Filipinos, yet the melodies are very similar to Western melodies in structure and harmony,” Joel Navarro says.

With so many sub-cultures scattered across more than 7,000 islands, Filipino folk music includes indigenous instruments such as bamboo beating sticks, xylophones, nose flutes, and gong sets. But Amy Navarro says that while these may be used in places such as the Asian School of Music, Worship and the Arts (one of many places where Joel taught), churches don't generally use indigenous instruments.

Instead most church musicians accompany songs with guitars and, sometimes, a tambourine.

“Instruments are becoming accessible to churches in urban centers, so chances of finding a piano are greater than before. Generally, only bigger, more affluent churches can afford a piano and several other instruments. Much bigger churches will have a keyboard, a synthesizer, and a few more instruments. Far less than one percent of the churches will have a pipe organ, and these are most wealthy churches. The last church we used to attend in the Philippines just bought a $300,000 pipe organ,” Joel says.

“I think it sends a bad signal when they go and buy something like that especially because of the poverty in the Philippines,” Amy says.

Joel agrees: “Even the American missionaries were against the idea. But that is what happens when you get a lot of donors—CEOs of Shell and other petrol industries, World Bank executives, and wealthy ex-pats—who are able and willing to give money to hear that kind of music in church.   Doesn't it grab you that in this Philippine church, the Filipinos are still second-class citizens and that much of the decision-making authority rests on the multinationals?”

They recommend Of Songs, Words and Gestures: Rethinking our Filipino Liturgy by Evelyn Miranda-Feliciano (see fifth item under Publications), a slim book that critiques borrowed forms and styles of church worship in the Philippines and presents indigenous concepts for worshipping with more cultural sensitivity.

Amy notes that Filipinos started writing contemporary Christian music in the 1970s, when a Christian broadcasting company began sponsoring an annual songwriting festival and contest.Jesuit music meditations are also very popular with both Protestants and Catholics. Some Filipino groups such as Hangad and Bukas Palad also produce music videos.

Filipino churches today sing “a mix of hymns and contemporary songs. Whether we use hymnals or overhead projector is dependent on the wealth of the church,” Amy says.      

“The transplantation of America is evident in mega churches where you find thousands of people congregating on Sunday and worshipping in English. These are the more affluent churches, with about 20 musicians, a set of drums and percussion, several woodwinds, brass, and about five keyboards on stage” Joel says.

“Some of these worshippers are Filipinos who have been in America for a while. They bring back with them the influence of their American worship experience. In general, there is an unfiltered adoption of the American worship music experience. This has also reached the smaller churches in the provinces, but to far lesser degrees,” Amy adds.

Joel feels ambivalent about this influence.

“As a classically-trained musician who also respects the music of our traditional peoples, I confess to some discomfort at the total assimilation of contemporary popular culture. However, as a person of faith, I look at music simply as a tool. No matter how much I love music, world music cultures, and the musical heritage the Western church has given to the world, music will still be, and must be for me, a means for bringing, enriching, and nurturing a people of faith,” he says.

“Music itself can not exist for its own end; it is not the Way, the Truth and the Life. Jesus is. Music is one of those things that will bring you closer to God. Just as you have different kinds of people, you have different kinds of music. There is room in the kingdom for them, if one claims that every inch of creation belongs to God. The bottom line for me is transformed lives, unified communities of faith, decent and humane societies, and the redemption of culture.”

“My sense is that churches who have congregations that are fairly new in the faith will take to contemporary music readily. But people who grew up in the faith tend to look in traditional or newly composed hymnody lyrics that are more substantial and which have a timeless appeal. Some of the traditional hymns are now reinterpreted in a contemporary fashion.”

Since moving to the U.S., the Navarros have experienced similar re-setting of hymns to contemporary sounds at LOFT, the Calvin College Sunday evening service.

“The words are still as rich and stirring. I am all for it, especially when I see so many of my Calvin students at those services singing these re-interpreted hymns with their whole being. The whole experience moves me so very deeply that it sends back profoundly moving memories of my college years with InterVarsity. So again, I see this contemporary worship music experience in the context of music as a tool for inviting, informing, and inspiring people in their walk with God,” Joel says.

Learn More

Get a brief overview of the Republic of the Philippines. Listen to music popular among Protestants and Christians, including contemporary music by Bukas Paladand Hangad. Read a review of Jesuit meditation music or order a CD.

Join Joel Navarro for a class on Reformed worship worldwide, to be held July 7-26, 2005 in the Netherlands. To see or hear Filipino music in Navarro's library while you are on the Calvin College campus, contact him ahead of time.

Visit or pray for a Christian Reformed Church in the Philippines. Experience an interdenominational, English-speaking congregation in Manila. To read basic English and Tagalog phrases, check out Ethnic Harvest.

Find English- and Filipino-language resources on how Filipino Christians are working toward economicpeace and justice.

Many North Americans are surprised to learn that Filipinos are the second-largest Asian group in the U.S. "Our culture is not the type to draw attention to ourselves," Amy Navarro explains. The Navarros recommendUnderstanding Ambiguity in Filipino Communication Patterns by Melba Padilla Maggay (see sixth item under Publications), a slim book for people who want to understand differences in Filipino and American communication styles.

An essay in Multicultural Review offers tips for U.S. teachers who want to be more sensitive to Filipino-American students and parents. Philippine News Central will help you learn where to experience Filipino-American culture.

Trace the growth of Filipino Christian communities in Toronto and British Columbia. Connect with Filipinos in Calgary through this ethnic newspaper.

    Start a Discussion

    These questions will get members talking:

    • In your church or sub-culture, what is the nearest equivalent of the Filipino concept of bayanihan? Do local people outside your church view your church as contributing unselfishly to the common good?
    • Which people at your church were born in another country? How often do your services deliberately refer to their interests, music, prayer traditions, or other cultural aspects?
    • How often do your leaders ask members from other countries to share their stories from the pulpit? Do you ask these international members about their favorite songs or musical instruments?
    • Does it surprise you to learn that Filipinos make up the second-largest Asian group in the United States? Where are centers of Filipino culture in your city or region? Does your church have any ties with churches that serve or reach out to Filipinos?
    • Joel Navarro explains that churches in the Philippines use Bible translations and speech styles in ways that show a "preferential option for the poor or less educated." In what ways does-or could-your congregation exercise this option?

      Share Your Wisdom

      What is the best way you've found to help worshipers from other countries experience their place within your congregation's story?

      Whether you do these or any other things, we'd love to learn what works for you:

      • Did you discuss cultural practices or sacred music in a church education class?
      • Did you brainstorm creative ways to use visual symbols or tactile elements from other cultures, so that people gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be part of a worldwide church?
      • Have you identified ethnic sub-cultures, whether of immigrants or refugees, in your area? What have been the best ways for your congregation to get acquainted with these international groups?
      • Have you surveyed your congregation to find out what members would most like to learn from people with close ties to other countries?
      • Has your church library begun to build a collection of books, magazines, music, and videos in other languages?