My wife could not wait to watch the movie, Felix Y. Manalo, because as a director herself, she wanted to see how Joel Lamangan would treat it. I had my own priorities, mainly as a Filipino eager to know more about a fellow Filipino who went against the odds and won. All our heroes seem to be revolving around revolutions and wars. I wanted to know one who fought different battles.
My own curiosity about Felix Y. Manalo and the Iglesia Ni Cristo began in the early 80s when I shifted away from corporate life in order to know more about my own people and our history. At that time, I was hungry for more knowledge about our culture, from how it operates on the ground of ordinary and poor Filipinos and not from exclusive schools and corporate Makati.
My personal journey of discovery meant my learning about cultural traditions and practices, including myths and legends, especially of the Tagalog region. Being a Visayan, I often felt like a stranger in a metropolis I did not grow up in and whose dialect I could not speak well. It was a special time of my life, another growing up phase in a way, and quite enlightening.
It was not easy to cram so much new information in so short a time. But I spent so much hundreds of weekends in a mountain considered sacred by many and I believed I was able to do a lot of catch up work. It greatly helped that many social scientists generously shared their wealth of knowledge and experience with me. I truly fell in love with the motherland only then, because I knew enough of her and the Filipino only then.
Spain used and abused us. The United States used and abused us. Japan used and abused us. It is natural that the few among Filipinos who could not take more exploitation and abuse would rise against the invaders and occupiers. Therefore, it is natural that our heroes would mostly be from their ranks. Violence through battles and wars would produce warriors amidst the bloodshed, and the bravest among them are now among those we have elevated in our esteem.
Felix Y. Manalo did not go through that kind of a battlefield. His arenas of conflict and sacrifice, however, were battlefields nonetheless. Imagine yourself in last years of the 19th century when Catholicism dominated Philippine society, rich and poor. Imagine yourself in the early years of the 20th century when American evangelists from different denominations were ushered in by the American conquerors. And imagine yourself as a young Filipino with great religious faith and hungry to know more about the truth.
Without knowing much about Felix Y. Manalo at that time but knowing he founded Iglesia Ni Cristo, I was already in awe at what he had accomplished. After all, it is not common for Filipinos to establish something against the status quo and succeed. More significantly, it is religious in character, affirming the deep affinity of Filipinos to the divine. We can count on one hand what Filipinos have founded that expanded to millions—and lasted over a century.
There are a few religious faiths that define most of the world, led by Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. But within these major faiths are many variations, charisms and factions. Felix Y. Manalo had to go through all the religious politics that stood in his way to establishing his own. He had a choice of an easier life by simply staying Catholic, or Methodist, or Presbyterian, or a Seventh Day Adventist. He took the harder path, of course, as do all great men of faith when pursuing visions.
The controversies that have affected the Iglesia Ni Cristo in more recent times are, I am sure, continuing challenges that other churches face from time to time. Organizations are of men, even if men say they are for God. And there is no better example than the Catholic Church if we only want to consider controversies, scandals and schisms. Books can be written about the greed, the lust and the politics that have hounded the Catholic Church. Yet, it has persisted.
The same goes for the Iglesia Ni Cristo. Changing times will always challenge tradition and traditional leadership. Worse, in the Philippines where the Iglesia Ni Cristo remains a minority church despite its spectacular growth, any scandal or power intramurals within the Iglesia Ni Cristo will be fanned by religious prejudice. Life is not equal among majorities and minorities, and I am sure the Iglesia Ni Cristo leaders and members have long lived with this reality.
We all, as citizens or as the faithful of our own faiths, confront the same changing times. It is not merely modernity, because modernity only means the current times. Rather, it is the character of these modern times that rocks the boat of all that had seemed stable and unchanging. It does not matter whether it is in religion, economics, politics or technology. All are confronted with a kind of change that is both frightening and exhilarating. It just depends whether one is in the part looking for it or in the part afraid of it.
As the Iglesia Ni Cristo moves to its second century of existence, the soundness of what Felix Y. Manalo founded will go through new rounds of trials. Every day will be a first day, and new paths are often very slippery. Our people have gone through great suffering in the last four hundred years and any kind of relief from poverty and corruption, from any source, will be a boon. This is the invitation for all governments and for all faiths.
Felix Y. Manalo was a Filipino, and so am I. It is hard not to be proud at what he achieved. I know he could not have done so without the deepest of conviction, unshakeable courage and the will to endure. May these virtues infect us all.