Originally created 08/02/97

Earthly rewards strengthen heavenly faith for Philippine believers



MANILA, Philippines - Ding Mergal believes in miracles.

Since becoming a fervent follower of the El Shaddai charismatic movement, the minibus driver won a new vehicle in a raffle, was blessed with a son after five years of trying and swears he escaped certain death in a car crash.

Now he has a more fervent hope - a cure for his 2-month-old son's congenital heart defect - and he is confident El Shaddai will deliver.

The earthly rewards supposedly reaped by many El Shaddai followers have helped it become the Philippines' most popular Christian charismatic movement. Its success comes as the country shakes off a decade of economic stagnation and aims at an affluent, materialistic future.

El Shaddai, which means God in Hebrew, was founded in 1984 by a Filipino real estate developer and part-time gambler. Today, as a formal movement within the Roman Catholic Church, it claims 6 million believers at home and in 24 nations with large numbers of Filipino workers - about a tenth of the Philippines' population.

On Saturday nights, as many as 50,000 believers crowd El Shaddai worship gatherings at a large field on Manila Bay. As they sway and clap to Gospel music, some lift their wallets to the sky praying for riches, while others wave passports wishing for a visa to a better life in the United States.

Halfway through the six-hour service, El Shaddai's founder, Mariano "Brother Mike" Velarde, leaps onto the stage, grabbing the crowd's attention and holding it tightly for the three hours until the midnight ending.

With his checkered, immaculately tailored jacket, matching bow tie, white pants and orchid corsage, Brother Mike, 57, could be a leading candidate for the world's most dapper evangelist.

The showy attire and Brother Mike's admonitions to followers to "don't worry, be happy" and always tithe are elements of an overall message that is a far cry from the pro-poor, pro-social reform stance adopted by much of the country's Catholic Church in the 1970s and '80s.

The Catholic Church, which controlled vast amounts of Philippine land and wealth during Spanish colonial times and for centuries represented the interests of the landlord class, became radicalized during the 1966-86 rule of dictator Ferdinand Marcos. It turned into one of the strongest voices for democracy and social reform - and, in some cases, for communist revolution.

Instead of the destitute, who still officially comprise 33 percent of Philippine society, El Shaddai appeals to the country's newly emerging middle class. And the Catholic Church, struggling to find relevance and hold onto members in the post-Marcos years, has welcomed El Shaddai into its ranks.

"There's still 85 percent of Catholics who do not go to Mass, and I believe Brother Mike does us a great service in reaching out," says Monsignor Hernando Coronel of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines.

El Shaddai says it collects the equivalent of $4.6 million a year from believers, which goes to a foundation that finances the movement's activities. Brother Mike has been accused twice of embezzling funds from the foundation but was cleared by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

With its dual emphasis on earthly rewards and spirituality, El Shaddai allows believers to "aspire for greater material success while keeping their souls intact," said Poncian Bennagen, a Filipino anthropologist.

Bennagen said El Shaddai's rallies condense into a few hours the attractions of traditional village festivals that commemorate local patron saints and ask for continued blessings, both material and spiritual.

Brother Mike insists he does not promise material benefits to his followers. But earthly rewards, he says, strengthen heavenly faith, and wish-fulfillment solidifies religious belief.

"In effect, that is how Jesus started his ministry," he said in an interview, citing biblical stories of Jesus healing the sick and feeding the multitudes.

Bishop Teodoro Bacani, who heads the Catholic Charismatic Renewal Movement for the Archdiocese of Manila, said there initially were some doubts about whether El Shaddai was "directed too much to temporal prosperity."

"It's not a perfect movement," the bishop said. "But I really think that this is a movement of the Holy Spirit and that Brother Mike is an instrument used by God to help his people during these times."

To ensure El Shaddai does not stray too far from Catholic teachings, the bishop and two Catholic priests regularly meet with Brother Mike and his lay leaders to give them religious instruction.

Brother Mike says his own leap of faith occurred in a hospital bed in 1978 when he was "miraculously healed" of a heart ailment after reading the Bible a day before he was scheduled for surgery.

"From that incident, things started to change within me," he said.

He said he abandoned his "hobby" of submerging himself in his real estate business during the day and spending nights at Manila's casinos, and became more religious, donating some of his wealth to church charities.

He soon joined the Catholic charismatic movement, and in 1983 started preaching on a small radio station he acquired and devoted to Gospel broadcasting.

A year later, listeners persuaded him to organize prayer gatherings. Attendance ballooned so dramatically the group was forced to move from Manila's sprawling Rizal Park in 1995 to the bigger seaside property it now uses.

"We expect the membership to continue to grow tenfold, and we are expecting a moral and spiritual reformation to take place all over the Philippines and other countries," he says.