MANILA, Philippines - It was probably the strangest Friday night church service ever or the most inspiring.
There was singing and dancing and a sword-wielding pastor, the burning of a deed of mortgage and thousands of people eating pieces of a 19-foot Goliath-shaped cake (Goliath having personified the sizable debt that had kept the church in hock for years). For members of the Cathedral of Praise (COP) Manila on Taft Avenue, the noisy gathering on January 14, 2011 was a big celebration of debt freedom.
The church, founded by Dr. Lester Sumrall in 1954, had seen the rise in its membership over the years despite the church building being badly in need of repair. In 1980, the newly installed pastor of the church, Dr. David E. Sumrall, started a church building renovation program. This major project required serious funding which the congregation initially tried to raise on its own first through coconut shell banks, then in various pledges and bank loans throughout a 15-year period and finally, a two-year covenant program that finally sealed the fate of the church's giant debt.
The COP building program was plagued by Goliath-sized challenges right from the very start. After the church relocated to a temporary home in the old Robinsons Mall in Malate in 1983, the Philippines was rocked by a series of political and economic storms, revolutions and various coup attempts. The peso sharply depreciated, interest rates rose, inflation skyrocketed, investments dried up, et cetera. And as if there was no end to the economic hardships, a debilitating financial crisis hit the Asian region in 1997.
And there were even more challenges along the way. Foundations of the church building had to be dug up and redone several times after it was discovered that the church was sitting on soft soil. The design of the church complex was also redone several times to include a toilet building and an expanded parking lot to accommodate the growing number of vehicles during weekend services. Notwithstanding the challenges, the church remained focused on its primary mission--to bring good news to the lost and help the poor and needy.
In 2009, Pastor Sumrall challenged the Cathedral of Praise congregation to a one-year “seed planting” covenant meant to pay off the remaining bank loans. As soon as the program was started, Typhoon Ondoy struck which affected the lives of many COP members who nevertheless remained faithful to the covenant. Yet, not even that giant-sized problem could match God's grace that allowed the church to finally pay off the debt one year-and-a-half ahead of maturity date.
On Friday, January 14, 2011, thousands of members gathered at the Cathedral of Praise to offer thanks for God's faithfulness and the debt freedom. Old-time members from nearly 30 years back were acknowledged and gifted with symbolic coconut shell banks (to commemorate the very first coconut shell offerings for the building).
Members of the Executive Council of Servants burned the real estate mortgage document. Pastor Sumrall, who wielded a World War II samurai, then cut off the head of the Goliath cake. Meanwhile, officers of erstwhile creditor Bank of the Philippine Islands who turned over the loan documents expressed their ambivalence--happy because the church was now debt-free, yet sad as full prepayment of the loan translated to a substantial reduction in the bank's earning portfolio.
The festivity was capped by each and every member partaking slices of the huge Goliath cake and celebrating street-party style with live music courtesy of COP bands and singing groups. Also, what's a party without photos? Everyone who had a camera had a “shot” at Goliath and at each other at the photo walls and had fun.
Meanwhile, a small marker that reads "Rest in Pieces. Here lies Debt. August 3, 1983 - December 29, 2010" lies on a far portion of the parking lot. The marker may be inconspicuous yet the message is loud and clear: “No problem is too big for an Almighty God."
Photos courtesy of Cathedral of Praise Manila