August 18, 2020

Memorial Service Honors the Life of Adventist Missionary Stricken by COVID-19

Marcos Paseggi, Adventist Review

Leomel Jezter Plaza Bellosillo — LJ to his family — was the teenage son of missionaries originally from the Philippines, living in Botswana in the mid-2000s. As the youngest son of missionary parents Manuel and Elma Bellosillo, LJ was getting ready to go to Maxwell Adventist Academy, an Adventist boarding school in Kenya. His three sisters had already left for school, but being the last one, he felt a little apprehensive.

Then his father approached him.

“Son, I want to give you a number you can call anytime you need it,” his physician father told him. “Take this piece of paper with you.” In a time before cell phones and online video became standard ways of communicating, it seemed odd for his father to say that, LJ remembered.

When LJ opened the piece of paper, he saw that it read, “J333.” This is such a weird number to call, he thought. But then his father went on. “LJ, that number is from the Bible. It refers to Jeremiah 33:3 — ‘Call to Me, and I will answer you, and show you great and mighty things, which you do not know,’” his dad told him. “It’s a number you can call any time you need, son.”

This experience was one of many that family members and colleagues shared during a special three-hour service to honor the life of Manuel Bellosillo, a Filipino Seventh-day Adventist missionary doctor who died of COVID-19 at 67 while serving in Cameroon.

The Zoom-mediated memorial service for Bellosillo, the first Adventist overseas missionary in active service to die from COVID-19, connected 140 homes and offices across continents and time zones on August 16. The special moments of remembrance and reflection zeroed in on Bellosillo's care and commitment through his life and to the very end.

“My dad didn’t only tell us to have faith,” LJ said.  “We saw it in his life that he had faith. He walked the talk. This is the real legacy that he left us.”

In the opening prayer, Adventist Church health ministries director Peter Landless agreed. “We are here to celebrate the life of a hero: a beloved child, colleague, husband, father, and grandfather,” he said. “It was a life spent in service to a broken world, for which he paid the ultimate price.”

Southern Asia-Pacific Division president Saw Samuel said, “Our thanks will not be enough to express our gratitude for his service,” as he read 1 Corinthians 15:58, a verse from the Bible that, according to him, exemplifies Bellosillo’s life of service. It reads, “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord” (NKJV).

In a recorded video message, Adventist Church president Ted N. C. Wilson expressed the world church’s “deepest sympathy and condolences” to the bereaved family.

“This is a blow to many who have known and been touched by Dr. Bellosillo’s service,” Wilson acknowledged. “We will ask the Lord to give you encouragement and comfort, the encouragement and comfort that can come only from the throne of heaven. [This will] help us remember Dr. Bellosillo’s acts of Christian kindness; there will be many in heaven thanks to the service of this family,” he said.

A Life of Service

Manuel Beldia Bellosillo was born on February 18, 1953, to elementary teachers Silvester Burata Bellosillo Sr. and Victoria B. Bellosillo in Pontevedra, a coastal town in the central Capiz province, located about 375 miles (600 kilometers) southeast of the Philippine capital, Manila. The eldest of five children, Manuel took responsibility seriously from a young age, looking after his siblings and helping to run a laundry and egg-delivery service to bring in additional income for the family.

After obtaining an undergraduate degree in biology, Manuel Bellosillo was accepted into the School of Medicine at Southwestern University in Cebu City, Philippines. There, he faced challenges with what became a trademark resolve. He kept personal expenses at a minimum to cover tuition costs. Some weeks, his meals consisted of soup made from a single bouillon cube and occasionally supplemented with a boiled egg. Similarly, he could not afford textbooks, so he borrowed them from his classmates. During vacations, he borrowed textbooks so he could study ahead for upcoming classes. Family members said God gave him an exceptional memory that enabled him to retain enough of what he read to obtain good grades even without full access to all of the required textbooks.

This habit of using God-given opportunities followed Bellosillo in his career. During missionary furloughs back to the Philippines, he immersed himself in medical studies for a month at a time at Adventist Medical Center Manila. One year he focused on surgery, another on ophthalmology, and so on. In this way, he gained expertise to better serve patients in the mission field.

In his early post-graduate years, Bellosillo worked at Adventist Hospital-Calbayog in Calbayog City in the Philippine province of Samar, where he met and later married his wife, Elma, a medical technician and accountant. Then he served at Adventist Hospital Palawan in Puerto Princesa in the Philippine province of Palawan. After being confirmed by the Philippine Academy of Family Physicians as a certified family physician in February 1994, he and his family accepted a mission call to Africa.

His Life as an Overseas Missionary

During their 11 years in Zambia, the Bellosillo family had no television, cell-phone reception, or Internet access at Yuka Adventist Hospital, located about 550 miles (990 kilometers) east of the national capital, Lusaka, serving the surrounding villages in the community. The local radio station was their only source of information. But the isolation enabled the family to focus more closely on the people they served and make many friendships.

Dr. Bellosillo worked long hours and often was on call around the clock, especially during the years when he served as the only doctor in the hospital. At times, he slept next to a landline phone in the family's living room to quickly answer calls to return to the hospital. Still, he and his family remembered their time there fondly, because of the many friends they made. Bellosillo had expressed a desire to return for another term before retirement.

After Zambia, Bellosillo accepted a position at Kanye Adventist Hospital in Kanye, Botswana, where he served from 2004 to 2007. For the following five years, he worked at Scheer Memorial Adventist Hospital in Banepa, Nepal. Then he returned to Africa to work for two years at Batouri Adventist Hospital in Batouri, Cameroon, and later at Buea Seventh-day Adventist Hospital in Buea, Cameroon, a position that he held from 2014 until his illness in 2020. His mission term with the hospital was scheduled to end in 2020.

Regardless of where he worked, Bellosillo encouraged patients to read the Bible and be prepared for Jesus' soon coming, the family said. He also served as a church elder and a Sabbath School teacher and organized outreach programs.

Bellosillo contracted malaria in early May 2020 and again a second time in late May. A subsequent medical test on June 7 showed that he also had COVID-19. He passed away on June 17.

As They Remember Him

A common thread seemed to run through most of the reminiscences family and colleagues shared during the August 16 online memorial service. They stressed Bellosillo’s commitment to Christlike service and his deep conviction about the soon second coming of Jesus.

“I am thankful that God gave me a son dedicated to serving others,” said Manuel’s father, Silvestre, 93, in a letter read by one of his nephews. “He has finished the race, and he has left a legacy that does not stop in death, but it is being passed on to his children. It is not easy for me to say good-bye to a dear son, but I know this is temporary.”

Brenda Bellosillo, married to Manuel’s youngest brother, Silue, acknowledged the pandemic has left an empty space in the family, but stressed that Manuel never forgot to give them spiritual advice.

“Last May, he sent me a message saying, ‘God’s coming is very, very near.’ In case we cannot see each other again, comfort the family. We will see you again in heaven,” Brenda shared.

Manuel’s brother Sem Bellosillo emphasized the hope that Doctor Manuel showed. It is a faith, he said, that encourages him to stay faithful. “We know how the story ends,” he said. “I will be faithful so that in heaven, we will meet again, meet in the resurrection morning.”

Daughter Illoza Joy Bellosillo-Palacol remembered Doctor Manuel as a father. “At times, we were not spared the rod, but other times he would sit and talk to us. By the end, we always knew we had been forgiven. And when we got sick, we would never be afraid, because we knew we had a personal doctor.”

Bellosillo-Palacol, a physician herself, whose first baby, born on August 15, would have been the first grandchild of Manuel Bellosillo, said that she and her siblings only occasionally saw their parents as they studied. “But from near or far, he used to share his advice on life and medicine. He would always tell us to be ready for the second coming. Study hard and pray. We knew that despite their absence, our parents were running a prayer marathon for us.”

While Bellosillo-Palacol acknowledged that their prayers were not answered as they expected, the family remains confident that this is not the end.

“As my father used to say, ‘You are in the east, we are in Africa; we will meet in the air,’” she shared. “[My dad] trusted God with his life to the very end, and that gives us hope. He was not afraid to lose his life on this earth, because he had surrendered his life to God.”

Doctor Manuel’s wife, Elma, shared that her husband, whom she described as “loving and caring,” always stressed the importance of faithfulness to the end. “He would tell me, ‘If ever one of us will go ahead, we should remain faithful, and we should live a life that would lead other people to search for the truth.’”

Even though she acknowledged that she wished her husband were still around, she knows that God will one day help them understand. “We will be missing him, but we know that the Lord will help my children and me to move on,” she said.

Biographical information in this article is adapted from Teresa Costello and Leomel Jezter Plaza Bellosillo’s news story posted by Adventist Mission.