|ejoice in the Lord al-al-ways, and again I say rejoice. “Rejoice in the Lord al-al-ways, and again I say rejoice.”
I swallowed hard and stared down at the fading gleam on my leather dress shoes. Almost everyone in the congregation I was soon to preach to came barefoot, or wore only tsinelas. And close-cut institutional haircuts. And standard-issue yellow T-shirts, each imprinted with the inescapable “BJMP”—Bureau of Jail Management and Penology.
They sat closely crowded together in the stifling humidity, a sea of faces—mostly boys’ faces or those of young men. Two hundred prisoners squeezed into a space that 50 North American Adventists would find too tight and edgy. I searched the faces leaning toward the front to see if any of them noticed the apparent irony in what they sang.
“Rejoice in the Lord al-al-ways . . .” Even here. Even now. The church of Jesus Christ does not get to pick the conditions under which it is called to rejoice. The gathered saints of God are no less called to “worship Him who made heaven and earth, the sea and springs of water” (Rev. 14:7, NKJV)* if they meet in plush suburban sanctuaries or here, in this suburban Manila prison, where the 10-foot walls and twisted wire would seem to preclude all thoughts of rejoicing.
Two hundred young Adventists live here at the Dasmariñas Municipal Jail, almost all of them converts since coming to this facility. Won to Christ by patient ministry from students and faculty at the nearby Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies (AIIAS), their life together has been transformed by gospel power and presence. Each of the jail’s cell captains is an Adventist; they are under the care of a local elder, himself a prisoner at BJMP. The Sabbath worship service, simple and straightforward, is just one point in a routine that includes daily worship time, prayer meetings, and the occasional evangelistic series.
As they have for 150 years all around the world, the three angels’ messages are still changing lives and communities—and not just the ones we might expect. Once a problem prison filled with violent inmates, Dasmariñas Municipal Jail now wins awards as a model facility in the Philippine prison system.
We will need to get ourselves accustomed to more stories of this kind in the days ahead. As Adventism has moved with increasing speed—and divine nudging—beyond the mostly comfortable enclaves where it has flourished for a century or more, the church looks less and less like the Western, middle-class fellowship many North American Adventists have known—and more like the people it is meeting and winning. This is hardly news to those who have served the church’s mission in developing nations for decades. But it will require new attitudes and new flexibilities from North Americans who have unthinkingly expected believers in emerging cultures to one day look or dress or talk or live or “do church” as they do.
God’s church will gather where He forms it—in the “barrio,” in the township, in the commune, in the jail. And guided by His Spirit, it will form a life together appropriate to its needs and ministries. It will not always be doing the same thing in every place: the concerns and policy decisions needed to operate an Alabama church board would sound more foreign than even English does to these believers.
The Adventist inmates of Dasmariñas do not spend much time wondering how their witness will be received when they ring their neighbors’ doorbells. Crowded 40 or 50 to a cell, sleeping in shifts, the Adventism they know is inescapably communal, basic, and real. One copy of a tract or book may get a hundred readings—hand to hand, faith to faith. What rejoicing they do is often focused on the fellow inmate who is pardoned or paroled, now free to share his faith in a wider, unwalled world. The hope they prize may not include the unrestricted liberties we cherish, but fixes on that day when Christ will open every prison door.
Pray for the church—God’s worldwide and still surprising fellowship of faith. Lift up the ones whom you may never meet until the kingdom—men and women living toward the kingdom with a fervor we could wish we knew. Confess the beauty of His body—even when, especially when, it does not look like us.
*Texts credited to NKJV are from the New King James Version. Copyright ” 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Bill Knott is editor of the Adventist Review.