Opening Gates

When God is your customs agent

Trust Sayi
Opening Gates

“We are sorry, Mr. Sayi, but we can’t allow you to board your flight tonight,” said the immigration officer at Manila International Airport. Those were tough words to swallow. I was silent, not sure what to do. Lord, you know I can’t miss my flight, I’m going for your service. It was you who called me for this mission!

Invitation, But No Documents

About a month before, in a program of the African Theological Forum at the Adventist International Institute for Advanced Studies (AIIAS), I had presented an academic paper with my good dentist friend Mthandazo Mlilo. After our presentation, which had a global audience of diverse Adventist Church leaders, I had chatted with Hopeson Bonya, vice president of the Southern Africa-Indian Ocean Division. Dr. Bonya said he was grateful for the presentation and that he believed Adventism in Southern Africa would benefit from the insights presented from our academic paper. 

A few weeks later I received an e-mail from Dr. Bonya, inviting me to be a guest speaker in Johannesburg, South Africa, during an international convention of the Adventist-laymen’s Services and Industries (ASI) organized by the Southern Africa-Indian Ocean Division. I was to prepare seminar presentations on media and digital evangelism. I gladly welcomed the invitation and started preparing for this convention.  

I had been serving at an Adventist university in the Philippines as a volunteer instructor for the Visual Communication program, but my missionary visa had expired. Philippine immigration law does not allow a foreign passport holder to exit the country with an expired visa. That didn’t stop me from moving forward with my preparations. Was it crazy faith? I don’t know. A few days before my departure from the Philippines to South Africa, I called one of my coworkers, who served as a Philippine immigration liaison officer. I inquired about the chances of flying out with an expired visa. She said, “I’m sorry, Mr. Sayi. That’s impossible. The Philippine Bureau of Immigration is very strict on that. You will first have to pay all your fines and get an exit clearance before you can board your flight.”

Mission Impossible

The complication was that I didn’t have any funds; even if I were to find money now, I would need almost a week to complete the process. My flight—paid for by the division office in South Africa, which had also booked my hotel in Johannesburg—was in 24 hours. They were expecting me at the convention in less than 48 hours! 

I started to question everything I had ever believed in. “Will l make it in time for the convention in South Africa? Did God really call me for this mission? If He did, why didn’t He provide funding for me before all this?”  

I found encouragement through my friend Nicola, who asked me questions that were hard to answer. She said, “So you think God can’t take you through Philippine immigration? Are you seriously questioning that God called you for this mission? It’s not your call; it’s God’s call. Just let Him handle it.”

At the Airport

At the airport in Manila the immigration officer glanced at my passport for the second time then continued, “Sir, your visa is expired. Please see our chief supervisor in that office.” 

My feet felt heavy as I walked toward the supervisor’s office. I knocked and was invited to enter. The middle-aged officer asked how she could heIp. I quietly handed her my passport while she signaled me to have a seat. After looking it over, she said, “Mr. Sayi, you can’t board your flight tonight. Your missionary visa is expired, and you need to get it renewed before we can allow you to exit the country.” 

Lord, help me.

I was about to speak when another officer entered. Then I said, “I’m sorry, Ma’am. I understand very well the Philippine immigration laws, and I’m not here to try to break them. My main issue is that I don’t have money to renew my missionary visa. I’ve been serving as a volunteer instructor for more than a year now. I handed my Missionary Teaching ID card to her. 

“I came to study in the Philippines in 2011, and I’ve not exited the country since. After my graduation I started to pursue my graduate studies, while at the same time I served as a volunteer instructor at one of our Seventh-day Adventist institutions.”

Both officers looked at me in silence, then they spoke to each other in the local Filipino language. While they conversed, a third officer walked in and joined their conversation. As they deliberated, I noticed one wore a tag saying “Attorney.” I heard her say the words, “humanitarian exit.” Just before I could comprehend what that phrase could mean, the first officer interrupted my thoughts and said with a smile, while tapping the other officer’s shoulder, “She is your angel tonight!”  

“Mr. Sayi, we are so thankful that you have served our country through assisting in teaching our Filipino students,” she said. “We are more than grateful for your service to the Philippines. Continue your Christian service, and have a pleasant flight!”  

I can’t recall much of what happened as I left that office, but I remember I had tears of gratitude as I saw God open doors for me to go serve His people in Johannesburg. I think of the experience to which Peter testifies in Acts 12:11: “Now I know without a doubt that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me” (NIV).* God’s power in response to the saints’ faithful prayers opened prison gates. And my story came to its meaningful end because great families and friendships, faithful prayer, and divine grace also allowed me to experience a miracle of divine power.

*Texts credited to NIV are from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright ã 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Trust Sayi