It’s safe to say that Holy Week in the Philippines is an experience in itself. Touted as the biggest Christian nation in Southeast Asia, the Philippines treats Holy Week like no other. It’s a time where everything comes to screeching halt giving people more time to reflect and reassess their faith.
And while the country celebrates collectively, more and more people understand that faith is intimate, personal, and is not just subjected to rules and rituals. Having been raised in a Christian home and schooled in Catholic schools, I have had my own share of experiences with regards to the development of my personal faith. As a fan of churches, I have been to more than a few both big and small out of curiosity and there has never been one quite like Church Simplified.
I’ve heard of Church Simplified through friends from the South (where it really is a small world) and through posts on social media. For quite awhile now, Church Simplified has also been associated with Walkway, the interactive, modern Stations of the Cross housed in Bonifacio Global City every Holy Week.
I was given the chance to know more about Walkway and Church Simplified when one of my bosses, Divine Reyes, introduced me to lead pastor and founder, Bebo Bharwani.
For quite sometime now, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed listening to other people’s journey of faith and how they got to where they are simply because it helps reestablish and reinspire my own.
In fact, Church Simplified was born out of Bebo’s own personal journey of faith, “I actually grew up in church, but the short end of it is that I ended up being very cynical for a lot of reasons. One of them was that I didn’t always see the claims of life change to be real. And this mainly for my own life, but it seemed that the hype for the changed life was really what it was, mostly hype.”
He continues on to explain, “I think in the church world, there’s a temptation for us to celebrate a lot of external things, like when a person stops cussing or being able to kick of vices or jail house conversions. I found that when it came to things underneath, changes inside of me, was rather slow, so slow that sometimes you really doubted if change actually was taking place or if it was even possible. Issues like self-righteousness, pride, arrogance, greed, and lust, they plague all of us, whether you are a young believer or the old faithful.”
Despite Bebo’s cynicism he couldn’t quite seem to shake Jesus off, “However cynical I got, no matter how Much I even came to points where I even disdained church, I just couldn’t bring my self to totally abandon the idea of who Jesus was. There was something about him, you couldn’t write him off so easily. There’s something about the life he calls us to live, one hand it’s counter intuitive - to gain life you must lose it, on the other hand it feels like he makes so much sense, that it’s so crazy and so unexpected that it could be true. Plus also, I didn’t really see an alternative to him that made sense to me.”
He went on to say, “I kept crawling through my journey, and I feel like God has met me. Not in some “the earth shook or the sky opened way” but in a way where it’s made enough sense to get me to the point where I found a ledge from which I could take a leap of faith from.”
It was this need for an alternative that led to Church Simplified, “CS is predicated on the idea that everyone is on some kind of spiritual journey. This journey is made up and influenced by your context, your life experiences, your joys, your pains. In other words, and because they are so unique, there will be no other journey like yours.” He emphasizes that our relationship with Jesus is very personal and is authored by God, one that is based on a very deep and intimate relationship with him and the eventual outcome is that one would find life, a full and satisfying life.
But Bebo understands that one’s relationship with God is personal, God also designed us to lead you to people, “God rigs it in such a way where your personal unique journey with Him will eventually run into my journey, and when our journeys interface in such a way where we can begin to help each other move forward, and where we can begin to run, walk, and even crawl together, that is the essence of church.”
CS is about trying to identify form from essence, the mechanism from the heart of what it means to follow Jesus and what it means to be a community of seekers, “Everyone is welcomed in CS but I guess we tend to attract people who have the same baggage. Essentially it is a church for cynical people who aren’t brave enough to abandon faith. Seriously, it tends to be for people who can’t seem to shake people off.”
And there’s a need for a church like this in the city, “There’s a need for a place where seekers can come and poke around. There’s a place for people with little faith, whose faith is constantly hanging by a friend, that’s us, that’s Church Simplified.” In fact, its mission statement boldly says, “Helping each other take the next step (whatever that might look like for you in your life) in the journey of faith towards Jesus.”
I couldn’t help but ask what made CS different from other churches, Bebo was quick to stress that it takes all kinds of local churches to meet all kinds of people, “We see diversity as the outflow of the creativity of God and it’s just natural for people to seek communities and experiences that is compatible with their uniqueness, the uniqueness that God had authored. We’re beginning to acknowledge the reality that some people like or even need structure which gives so much value to liturgy. Some people like expressive acts of worship, mainly through music in the midst of a large congregation, some people, and this is becoming more true of me as I’ve gotten older, - we just need to get out into nature with close friends and experience the beauty of God there. Some are extroverted and like to be surrounded by a lot of people, others have a large internal world and feel comfortable with just a few people. Like individuals who have distinct personalities, local churches as well, have dominant traits that will lend to specific people. This liberating for all us, we can be who God has called us to be. There are a lot of great churches in the city both big and small who are really making a difference in the lives of their communities and each church is absolutely living out what they have been called to do.”
Bebo, along with Church Simplified, believes that Christianity is different for each person and this is exemplified through Walkway, an interactive stations of the cross in the heart of Bonifacio Global City that has been staged for six years now. Walkway has attracted people from all walks of life and different beliefs.
“We do hope that Walkway will be a catalyst for people to explore their faith further, maybe even inspire them to seek out a church, if they don’t already have one,” Bebo is also quick to say that while the Walkway aims for that important moment, “It’s an end to itself, we believe in the power of a moment, that sometimes a moment is all God needs to do His work in a person’s life. We’re just merely providing the space by which this connection can happen.”
Through feedback, they have heard of stories about those powerful moments at the Walkway, “It has revealed some powerful moments, powerful stories. People deciding to forgive others, themselves, and in some cases, even God. We just wanted to bless the community by creating the environment for their “aha moment” with God.”
The goal of Walkway is to be able to highlight one’s awareness of God and this is done through art, “The thing that is so powerful about art is that it has the potential to make us think, feel, and experience that which we know is already true about ourselves but can’t express. Art also has the ability to breathe new life into ideas we know are important but have forgotten why they’re important, like why it is relevant to daily life.”
Bebo uses the cross as an example, “It’s such a powerful symbol. It tells us so many things about what God is like. It tells us that God is committed, He doesn’t given up, He doesn’t take the easy road, that God fights for love, that He loves extravagantly. It also tells us about the broken condition of our hearts, the broken condition of the world, what we’ve made it to be - that it would take God to humble himself, to stoop down and experience the worse we had to offer - he did this so he could heal us. But because we’re so used to the image of the cross, because we see it everywhere, we have the tendency to become too familiar, the message of the cross flies over our heads. Art has a way of stopping us in our tracks and remind us why this matters.”
He then explains the convergence of art and belief at the Walkway, “That’s what Walkway is - it’s using art - in this case, installation art and music to help us get a fresh vision for what we’ve known and embraced to be true.”
This is what has attracted people from all kinds of faith at the Walkway every year, “But even if you didn’t believe in God or Jesus, it’s still such a great love story, at some level it will still ring true because deep inside everyone wants to be loved the way God claims to love us. I think that’s why even non-christians are still attracted to Walkway.”
Of course, I couldn’t help but ask a pastor what he can say to those who have been cynical and skeptical about their faith and he was quick to say, “We feel you, in a lot of ways, we’re still cynics and skeptics ourselves, we’re just managing daily to take one more step in this journey of faith.”
He then debunks a myth about the church, “The thing about church is, it’s made up of broken people. It’s the reality of whom Jesus came for. He didn’t come for righteous people - he came for those who were messed up. Although we agree, we could all do a better job at admitting we’re messed up. Sometimes we wonder why God would stake his reputation on us, we’re so prone to not representing him well. But for whatever reason, God chooses to work through people. At the end of the day, we must resist the temptation to pin the responsibility of our own spiritual journey on what others have done or did not do. The responsibility to seek and pursue truth falls on all of us as individuals, it is our own responsibility to respond. This is your journey, we believe God is calling all of us to him. We have to make the choice to move toward him -and the catch is that, you’ll need people.”
And to end, I asked about what he thought Christianity was all about and he said, “Christianity is about one message. God is for us. God is for you! He has always been pursuing us. Jesus is the proof of that pursuit. Everything that has happened to you, your context and life experience has been designed so that we would seek God and reach out for him and that we would find, that he had been seeking and reaching out for us all along.”