When Ted Wilson Preached to an Empty Field in the Philippines

What looked like a curse turned out to be a blessing.

Andrew McChesney
When Ted Wilson Preached to an Empty Field in the Philippines
At Holbrook Indian School, students learn farming techniques. [Photo: Holbrook Indian School]

The raindrops started as Nancy Wilson was giving an evening health seminar to hundreds of former rebels from a large, covered stage in a field on the Philippine island of Mindoro.

When her husband, General Conference president Ted N. C. Wilson, stood up to speak, a heavy rain was falling on the outdoor evangelistic meeting. Wilson, wearing a traditional Philippine barong shirt, looked out across the field at a sea of empty white plastic chairs, each standing six feet (two meters) apart to meet pandemic-related social distancing rules. 

As the downpour quickened and a fierce wind drove sheets of rain across the stage, only a few former rebels could be seen, standing beside the stage.

By all appearances, the evangelistic meeting was a failure.

Disappointment washed over Michael Dant, a senior engineer with Adventist World Radio (AWR), who, with the Wilsons and 42 other church workers, had received special permission from the Philippine government to enter the country and conduct much-anticipated evangelistic meetings amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The meetings marked the culmination of an outreach initiative that began in 2019, when rebels holed up in the mountains of Mindoro unexpectedly started listening to AWR and asked for Bible studies.

“I felt bad,” Dant said, recalling that he had gazed gloomily across the vacant field from a technical booth, where he was assisting Wilson with a sermon on the state of the dead on the evening of November 11. “I felt that the crowd had all disappeared.”

Unexpected Blessing

But the rain proved to be a blessing. While Wilson seemed to be preaching to empty seats, a crowd of about 1,000 people remained, listening intently from makeshift shelters on the side of the field. In those structures, former rebels were surprised that the meeting had not been canceled, and they said to one another that the Seventh-day Adventists must have an important message to share if they were willing to deliver it in a storm. 

At the end of the evangelistic meetings two days later, a total of 700 former rebels gave their hearts to Jesus in baptism on the island of Mindoro, AWR president Duane McKey said November 19, citing the latest figures available. 

The former rebels’ decisions for God closed a chapter on a 50-year conflict that has claimed 40,000 lives.

“With the rain, the Lord provided special encouragement to those people,” Wilson said in an interview. “If it had not rained, or if we had not continued to preach in the rain, they would not have had such confidence and trust. Even the rain was a blessing.”

But the weather had seemed more like a curse on November 11. The Wilsons and other members of their team had reached the Mindoro meeting site after overcoming numerous COVID-19-connected challenges, including a mandatory 10-day quarantine in a hotel in Manila, the Philippine capital. People packed the field when Nancy Wilson began to speak about the importance of healthy foods. Hundreds of former rebels sat in a specially designated area in front of the stage.

Feeling a Bit Deflated

Ted Wilson said he felt a bit “deflated” when he got up to speak and saw an empty field.

“From a human standpoint, you have to be honest about it, it’s kind of discouraging,” he said. “You think, ‘Wow, OK, I can preach this sermon, but nobody’s out there.’ ”

But he never thought about canceling the meeting.

“It was something we were supposed to do, so we just did it,” he said.

The rain fell heavily as Wilson preached, but he spoke until the end. His soaked team piled into vans afterward and somberly drove to their lodging. Only the next morning did they learn that the crowd had stayed for the entire meeting — and had been strongly impressed with the tenacity of the Seventh-day Adventists. The former rebels shared their astonishment with General Jose Augusto Villareal, commander of the Philippine government’s 203rd Infantry Brigade, which has operational jurisdiction over Mindoro.

“This must be an important thing, or Pastor Wilson would have become discouraged,” the rebels told Villareal, according to Bienvenido Tejano, an Adventist pastor and Philippines ambassador to Papua New Guinea, who spoke with the general and conveyed their conversation to Wilson.

Villareal himself was impressed that the former rebels had stayed to listen. After witnessing years of armed conflict, he had wondered about the former rebels’ commitment to lay down their arms.

“Those people did not go home,” he said, according to Tejano. “They were in their shelters, listening. They are very interested in the message that they are receiving.”

The government has granted amnesty to the former rebels, and AWR is working with the government and a nongovernmental organization, ASi member Farm Stew, to help them establish new lives.

In Everything Give Thanks

Wilson was heartened to hear from Tejano that the rebels had stayed and listened.

“Every dark cloud has a silver lining,” he said in the interview. “You have to make sure that you place yourself in God’s hands so that He can actually reveal that silver lining to you. Otherwise, you are just always going to be looking at things in a negative way. ‘In everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.’ ”

A week after the rainstorm, Wilson shared the experience with church members on the island of Mindanao, the last stop on his three-week itinerary in the Philippines.

“Never allow anything — neither the pandemic, nor the weather, nor anything else — to keep you from spreading the three angels’ messages,” he said on November 18 at the Garden Seventh-day Adventist Church on the campus of the South Philippine Union Conference.“Jesus is coming soon!”

Andrew McChesney