Disclaimer: i, teci, am a member of Victory Christian Fellowship, which is described here. i suppose churchmate Anson says it aptly:
"My attention was turned to this article in the Philippine Star about the church I attend. It was interesting really as the writer focus on the number of show biz people that attend my church. While it is a nice article...flattering really...I wish it would be a bit more balance[d]. While the church does attract showbiz people, it also attracts thousands of students, office workers, businessmen, lawyers, doctors, teachers, politicians, soldiers, housewives, programmers and ordinary people from all sorts of background. Christ came to die for all and not just celebrities."==============================================================
JESUS CHRIST & SUPERSTARS
HOT FUSS SUNDAE by Paolo Lorenzana
Saturday, September 22 2007 (www.philstar.com)
There’s probably enough dirt here to go around — enough to quash the significance of all those gossip shows, scandal-glorifying blogs, and rumor-fueled conversations that keep the showbiz kiln burning brightly. In such a pristine environment — a church heralding liberation from sin and spiritual sustenance from the imperfections of humanity — was a congregation scattered with the broken, the weary and, interestingly, the famous.
The woman singing from the expansive stage facing a couple hundred people espoused all of the above. Kitchie Nadal, no stranger to the public’s speculation and who’d resonated with the inner pain of female singers she’d once idolized, was now singing a song entitled Grace. This gig demanded no talent fee or attempt at promoting a new EP. She wasn’t even singing for an audience that, despite having its fair share of CD-purchasing youthful-demographic types, was diverse in all respects. No, one of local rock’s most regaled female denizens was singing for God.
What has stirred the showbiz community more than Gretchen Barretto’s dalliances, Ruffa Gutierrez’s caustic marital life, or any scandal worthy of Boy Abunda’s two cents, is God. Victory Christian Fellowship, which began in 1984 as a relatively tiny assembly of 150 students in Manila’s U-Belt, has become the leading purveyor of this movement, now evangelizing 24,000 adherents in 11 venues around the metro, including a flagship church located in Bonifacio Global City. Nationally, its church has grown in all regions, and globally, its track record just as impressive — Filipino missionaries setting out as far as Afghanistan to spread Christ’s word. Still, its most visible envoys are its celebrities — sexy ‘80s persona Carmi Martin, a smattering of basketball stars, and MTV alum Donita Rose-Villarama, one of the church’s most stalwart devotees — listening raptly to the preaching on the power of grace after Nadal’s exclusive performance; the “guest list” on this particular Sunday but a fraction of Victory’s stellar army.
With today’s most luminous personalities — namely Piolo Pascual, Sam Milby and Toni Gonzaga — having clung to this rampant conversion, subtly dropping their beliefs in interviews and raising the public’s speculation in a country whose culture is permeated with the sins of its stars and is buttressed by its solemn Catholic backbone, skeptics have been driven to taint Victory and the progression of Born-Again Christianity with the sort of celebrity domination that Scientology has harbored in Hollywood.
Yet in the ministry of Victory, there is no alien ruler or iconic member known for jumping on couches that have made it an easy target of ridicule. And though the church itself resembles any modern corporate structure — with elevators, escalators and high-tech audiovisual slideshows projected in an auditorium used for its regular services — its mission, put simply, is the development of a willing visitor’s personal relationship with Christ rather than the hawkish throttling of a new religion. This, as Victory’s senior pastor Joey Bonifacio declares in a service interspersed with comedic repartee and his enrapturing lilt, is “supernatural grace,” or rather, Christ’s call enabling a person to become what He has created him or her to become, no matter how littered with sin one’s past is.
Saved! No, Really...
Siguro the most attractive thing about all of it is that sinners are allowed in,” says Rica Peralejo, a Mary Magdalene of sorts you might be familiar with from movies like Balahibong Pusa and Dos Ekis, a week after Bonifacio’s preaching on grace. “I lived a hardcore life — everything you can think of — downing 11 glasses of Kurant and staying up ‘til 10 a.m., drugs and sleeping around ‘cause I thought that was the way to be somebody. My weakness was that no one protected me.”
She’d been around the Christian type before and initially reacted as many have — “turned off” by its “corniness”: members’ exhilarated sing-and-clap worship at the beginning of a service; the whole business of admitting you were a sinner and being “saved”; and having to make life all about God while denying herself the hedonistic perks that came with the celebrity lifestyle. She remembers the exact date she was “shaken” by God — May 1, 2006 — when, after much resistance, her “weakness” was neutered; Rica finally unshackling herself from her desperation for male adoration and, with discipleship from actress-turned-evangelist Coney Reyes, dedicating her entirety to Him.
Apart from suffering mockery from family and friends, her admission was one that laid her career under a guillotine, paring down her selection of roles as she declined dancing sexily on variety shows and the half-naked laddie mag features — an arduous transition after being known for writhing against a tree in Tatarin rather than baring her soul to the Lord. “People really saw me as stupid. And then a pastor said ‘Don’t worry, nothing can go against the miracle of a changed life’ and I was like, ‘Okay, whatever that means…’ But now, I know it’s real. If you were to come up with your own words, you can’t explain Him. There’s just so much change in me that was impossible.”
As Rica speaks, eyes glazed with childlike wonder, we are sitting at a café across the Ateneo de Manila University, where the 26-year-old is a freshman majoring in creative writing; this second life of schooling she considers her “fuel and inspiration” and a decision she counts as one of the many dramatic transformations brought on by her faith. Indeed, that former starlet is buried six feet under but what has sprung forth is a rejuvenated star who admirably balances a demanding education with a morning show and a new teleserye entitled Pangarap na Bituin, a show that illustrates the rocky road showbiz may sometimes lead its stars down.
Boundless doubt to all of this is welcome, of course, and Rica realizes that, especially when the God of Born-Again Christianity seems to have become an all-encompassing manager and publicist in the realm of showbiz, shifting past scandal into salvation and turning sexy stars and drug-dredged lotharios into disciples. Still, Victory will relentlessly continue its fellowship in the hippest way possible, whether to the life-threatened Afghans or star-steeped community, and Rica, like each member of the celebrity stronghold who have sacrificed their careers for the sacrifice of Christ, will continue to keep the faith. “I have my human tendencies but the difference is that I’m well aware of the sinner I am. There’s a spirit in you that tells you that you gotta ask for help. For now, work is such a godly act for me. ‘Cause if you ask me, I don’t want to be in the business. But if I disciple and tell you there’s a God, so what? But He put me somewhere I can serve him best. It’s funny, and you may not believe me, but my job is where I see the hand of God move the most. Every damn day of this business, I see him.”
God as local Tinseltown’s most sincere endorsement may be a bit of a stretch, but maybe all the admission that results decrees a little admiration. It even makes all the dirt we’d sought all along seem irrelevant.