On a Sunday morning in 2018, three days after Super Typhoon Yutu came ashore in late October, many members of the Cornerstone Christian congregation on the island of Saipan came to church in a daze. They were still trying to absorb their loss. Many homes were severely damaged, some destroyed. Some members narrowly escaped the Category 5 cyclone alive, hiding their children under the kitchen sink for safety.
“People were in pain that first Sunday after the typhoon,” said Pastor Manuelito Rey. “They were worried. It was a crying Sunday.”
But many of those tears have turned to joy some 18 months later. On Friday night, Feb. 21, a wave more powerful than the typhoon came ashore, restoring hope and transforming lives for eternity. After nine months of planning, the Marianas Festival of Hope with Franklin Graham was held at the American Memorial Park’s open-air amphitheater, leading to souls converted and encouraged. That Sunday, the faces staring back at Pastor Manuelito from his congregation were filled with hope.
“Everyone was encouraged!” said Manuelito, the Festival’s general chair. “And there were new faces.”
That was the story in many congregations throughout the Northern Mariana Islands, as hundreds of new believers were added to the Kingdom during the Festival, which was livestreamed to two other Northern Mariana Islands, Tinian and Rota.
“It was a Sunday of praise,” said Marilou Arriola, a member of Marianas Christian Church, which was left with nothing but its floor after the typhoon wielded its power. The church banded together to rebuild its structure and has been meeting in the new building for several months.
“I can’t describe how perfect God’s timing was to bring the Festival now,” Marilou said. “Samaritan’s Purse came just days after the typhoon and was here for a while, so why now for the Festival? Why not earlier? Why not later? It’s because our people really needed to see and to be told that someone loved them, right now.”
The Mariana Islands are a series of volcanic and uplifted coral formations in the Western Pacific Ocean, about 1,500 miles east of the Philippines and 6,000 miles west of the California coast. They are the highest slopes of a massive undersea mountain range, located near what is known as the Mariana Trench, a deep valley running along the ocean floor. They are divided politically into the island of Guam—a territory of the United States—and the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. commonwealth made up of 14 islands, all about a 30-minute flight from Guam. The Northern Marianas are a melting pot of ethnicities, including Filipinos, Japanese, Chinese and native Chamorros and Carolinians. Islam, Roman Catholicism and Christianity are the major faiths.
The streets and neighborhoods of Saipan are still interspersed with tents as many homes are yet to be restored. Many schools are still not operating on a full-day schedule, with buildings still in disrepair.
“We are just so touched that the Festival is happening,” said Geri Rodgers, wife of pastor Mike Rodgers, who led the Festival’s ministerial committee. “We have austerity now as the government has cut back on our hours. People can’t pay their bills. Tourism has been down because of the typhoon, and now this novel coronavirus. It seems hopeless. Then God does this.”
Thirty-two churches came together to plan for the Festival—a unity pastors say they haven’t seen before on the island. Christians were mobilized by the I Am Andrew program, where they were encouraged to list 10 friends, loved ones or even enemies to pray for and invite to the Festival.
God began answering prayers immediately.
James Santos wrote out his list, which included two of his sisters. A couple of weeks later, one of his sisters and her husband came to his house on their way home to Guam.
“They were bothered about their grandson’s health situation,” James said. “So I invited them in and shared the Gospel with them. Both of them accepted Christ right there in my home, and by God’s grace, the grandson is now well.”
The island’s youth seemed just as excited about the Festival as the adults. When the committee’s youth festival needed a youth praise band, Pastor Manuelito’s son, Kadmiel, assembled a group of nine teenagers to sing for various functions leading up to the event.
“A lot of them have learned to express Jesus inside of them through the music,” Kadmiel said. “If our goal is to be the representative of Jesus, worship helps us express His nature.”
These teenagers feel the urgent call to make Christ known, some proving their sincerity by signing up to serve as volunteer counselors for the Festival.
“I think of Christ as my Savior,” said Rheanie Valle, 18. “I got to know Him at Sunday school when I was 11 years old. As a Christian, it’s my goal to help others receive Him, and if learning to be a counselor can help me achieve that goal, I will do it. I’m pretty excited.”
Those in the amphitheater listened with pensive expressions, their faces aglow from the huge pole lights near the stage. A steady wind blew, causing the trees to lean inward and the American and Saipan flags to ripple. The Pacific Ocean, several yards away, was hidden by buildings and trees.
Franklin preached about Blind Bartimaeus, who sat beside the road begging, hopeless without a Savior.
“Bartimaeus called for the right thing,” Franklin said. “He cried out for mercy. You see, Bartimaeus believed that Jesus could heal him. Do you believe tonight that He can heal your heart?”
A few moments later, when Franklin invited all who wanted to be set free from sin to make their way to the front of the amphitheater, there was no hesitation. Dozens hurried forward. One young girl ran. And when Franklin led the prayer of repentance, their voices echoed behind him as they repeated the words, some almost shouting.
It was only the day after the Festival that Marilou Arriola learned that her oldest son and daughter were among those who went forward.
“I was busy helping out at the Festival, and my children came with their grandmother,” she said. “My daughter came home the following day and showed me that she had the children’s ‘Living in Christ’ booklet that new believers receive. I was shocked and happy at the same time.”
At age 10, her daughter is a shy girl.
“She wouldn’t normally go forward and willingly speak to someone she doesn’t know,” Marilou said.
Two days later, Marilou was running errands when she received a call from a member of a neighboring church.
“Did you know that your son came forward to accept Jesus Christ?” the caller asked. Smiling, Marilou said, “I had no idea.”
When she got home, she asked him, and he said: “Yes, I did. My red book is in my room.”
“Since then, I can see that their decisions have made an impact in their lives and that they didn’t just go forward for the sake of it,” she said. “My husband and I weren’t with them to hold their hands and ask them to go forward. It was completely their choice.”
And on Sunday, that amazing first Sunday after the Festival, her son was the one asking to go to church.
“I’m usually the one having to tell them all to get dressed and go to church,” Marilou said, still trying to take in what had happened at the Festival.
“It’s amazing to see what God has done on this island,” she said. “It’s nice to see people so excited about something when they don’t know if they’ll even have a job in the next few weeks. We’ve gone from devastation to celebration. What a journey.”
Photo: Thomas J. Petrino/©2020 BGEA