Experiencing the God We Serve
by Cory Boo Varela
The Journey Begins
My journey with God started when as a freshman in the University of the Philippines in Diliman, Quezon City, I decided to take a serious look at the reality of God and Jesus Christ. Though I grew up in a religious family, I wanted to be clear about my bearing: Was God real? Was Jesus Christ a real person in history? As a math student, I was actually looking for that missing GIVEN in the complex mathematical EQUATION called LIFE.
God brought into my life people affiliated with the ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ (now called CRU). Through them, I first understood the meaning of sin and spiritual death, of eternal destiny, and salvation through faith in Jesus. I was introduced to historical Christianity and the teachings of the Bible. Because I saw something different and attractive in the way this community of believers lived, I stayed around to know more. As I experienced God's power in my life, He changed me—my desires and my priorities.
After graduating from the university, I was a trainee at the top computer information company in the Philippines with the prospect of becoming a computer analyst someday. Even though I was already receiving a salary as a trainee, I felt dissatisfied. My heart was not in my job. In 1978, God confirmed that He was calling me to Christian ministry, and I took the step of faith and applied for full-time staff with CCC. God reminded me of His words in John 15:16, "You did not choose me, but I chose you." God had chosen me! Thank you, Lord, for inviting me to work for You.
My personal experiences with the God I have served for the past four decades have almost all been shared with my husband, Danny, who has been my fellow servant in Christ since the beginning. Recalling our four-decades long ministry together helps me know that the God I believe in and follow is not just a belief that gives a sense of well-being or a religious conviction that makes me feel hopeful about the future. Rather, He is the living God who is involved in our daily human experiences, an anchor that keeps us grounded, and the mooring that holds us steady when the storms of life come.
Our Most Fruitful Years in Student Ministry
Early in our ministry, an opportunity came for Danny and me to pursue a Master of Divinity degree at the seminary in Baguio City. Our excitement over the prospect of getting further training was short-lived, however, when Danny was assigned to take over the work in Western Visayas, which meant we would have to move to Iloilo City. I strongly protested against the idea in my mind. But what about our plan to go to school? How many more years must we wait to get another chance? And why should we be moved to Iloilo City. I don't want to learn and speak Ilonggo! My regional bias rose to the surface. Illonggo is a very melodious dialect that native Cebuanos disdain—and I am a Cebuanos!
Then one day as I was working in our little garden, the still small voice of the Holy Spirit broke through: Didn't you say that you were willing to go to the uttermost parts of the earth for Jesus? Well, Iloilo is just two islands away! I surrendered my self-centered heart again to God, and He miraculously replaced my prejudice with sincere love for the Ilonggos. And off we went to western Visayas with a willing spirit and all our earthly possessions in an 8' x 10' container. We took an overnight boat trip and arrived in Iloilo city in May 1984. Our best years in campus ministry happened in Iloilo, and we would have missed it had we insisted on our own plans. God rewards obedience!
That Beautiful House on a Hill
God eventually released us to pursue further studies at the International School of Theology-Asia in Baguio City from 1986 to 1989. After just two months in our new residence, we found it was hazardous to our health. There was mildew in our clothes because the rainwater seeped into the walls and the house didn't get enough sunlight. We needed to look for a new house, but we had very little connection in the city and a limited budget for a rental. We were hard-pressed. Then a new neighbor told us that the vice mayor of Baguio City had a vacant house for rent. Indeed, the house had all the essentials and more—nice big windows and closets, access to public transportation (we did not have a car), good security, and a majestic panoramic view of Mount Santo Tomas. It even had a fireplace! The only problem was that our budget did not cover the rent.
God somehow gave us peace about renting this house, and we trusted Him to supply the deficit every month. We never failed to pay our rent during the three years we stayed there. God blessed so many people in that 4-bedroom house on the hill. Baguio is a favorite vacation spot, so our family, friends, and partners in ministry often took advantage of free lodging in that summer capital. We cherished their visits and truly enjoyed sharing our home. But more than just providing us a nice house in Baguio, God used us through the ministry of our church to lead others to become serious followers of Jesus.
The Treasure I Chose
After almost two decades of missionary life, a desire to enjoy some of life's "nicer" things awakened in my soul. I began to notice that others owned properties, drove nice cars, and had so much more "purchasing power" than Danny and I did. We had to save money to travel to the province by boat while others traveled by plane. With growing discontent, I wrestled with the issue and wondered if I might persuade Danny that we could still serve God while doing something else that would give us more income.
Then one day while walking to the national office, I saw the latest model Toyota Corolla sedan parked on the roadside. As I approached it, I told God: That car! That is what I want, Lord! I am really tired of having to put up with all the troubles of our 22-year-old car! The closer I got to the car, the spell of discontent was broken. The new Toyota Corolla had a huge dent on the side. God's voice broke through to me: Is this the kind of treasure you want? One day it looks so nice; the next day, it can look like this!
The words of Jesus in Matthew 6:19-20 came back to me: "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rest destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal." God was telling me that earthly treasures do not last forever. We had seen calamities that wiped away billions' worth of properties in an instant, and sickness and death that suddenly took everything away. I realized that the lure of earthly wealth was an illusion. I had enjoyed life without them. Why should I now think that I needed them to be happy? The beauty of my kitchen was not in its physical appearance but in the kind of food I prepare and the people who get to enjoy it. A big house is not required to be hospitable. God had provided us the means to be hospitable to friends and family, and our hearts are full of happy memories of people enjoying fellowship in our home—whether they were rented or owned.
A few years later, when God did bless us with a new car, Danny and I recalled that we actually had a lot of funny experiences with our old car. Recounting them to friends always brought much laughter to the group. How true these words of wisdom from the Apostle Paul to Timothy are: "Godliness with contentment is great gain" (1 Timothy 6:6).
God Heard Our Cries
The ministry God gave our church was to inner city dwellers. Communities surrounding our church were known to have drug and prostitution dens. In partnership with an organization called Compassion Philippines, the church reached out to as many as 500 sponsored children over more than 15 years. Compassion Philippines helped them with their medical, educational, and physical needs, while the church assisted in their spiritual and emotional needs. Many of the children grew up in troubled homes. Some had parents in prison. Most were considered illegal settlers because they had no secure living condition.
After a season of fervent prayer, God awakened a desire for the Word of God. At one time, there were 31 ongoing home Bible studies in different barangays surrounding our church. The spiritual awakening in our community was followed by miracles of God's provision. Our church building was old and badly needed repairs and renovation—a poor reflection of the great God we worshipped. With a growing number of sponsored children, we also needed to build more rooms for their weekly meetings. But the church had no funds to meet these needs.
While the church and Compassion workers were lifting this need to the Lord, I got a call from one of our ministry partners telling me that funds were available for a ministry project—but that I would have to propose one. This was a total surprise to me. Most of the people in our church did not have the means to fund church needs, but they were willing to serve. So, God used other members of His body as channels of His provision for this financially needy church in Cebu. Not long after our church building was renovated and repainted, God touched a sister church in Singapore to donate money so that our church sanctuary could have air-conditioning. All of this happened in less than a year after we started our persistent "desperate cry" to the Lord.
Opening a New Frontier
One day in 2004, a pastor brought up to us the prospect of buying his uncle's property in Ubay. It was cheap enough for us to buy with our savings. We soon learned that it had a source of abundant water. One of the original heirs to the property pointed out to us that the well had served her family going back to the Spanish rule in the Philippines—more than a hundred years ago. When other wells dried up during long droughts, this well continued to serve the people nearby. When we learned this, we knew we had struck a treasure!
Discovering this abundant source of water inspired us to trust God to develop the place into a ministry center. Thus, the Shepherd's Well Transformation Center was born in 2005. After building the first house, the rains started to come, and we learned our first lesson. The property was in the middle of a rice field, and rice fields get very muddy during the rainy season. So, a rice field was no longer passable for regular motor vehicles. Still, the SW facility hosted small groups for retreats and other ministry activities when there was not much rain. At one point, we even used a carabao-driven cart to get guests in and out of the farm. It was a fun experience especially for city dwellers and foreigners!
By 2010, a new location for the SW ministry was opened to us. It was a much more suitable and beautiful place in the hilly side of Ubay. We started developing it in 2012 after the titles were properly transferred to the SW's name.
Why did God allow us to purchase that property in 2004 when it was not really ideal for developing the ministry God wanted us to establish? Only when the government finally started constructing the alternate airport beside the property (15 years later) did we see the wisdom and sovereignty of God. The airport project raised the market value of our old property, which was God's preparation to provide the funds for the development of the new property. We marvel at how God arranged everything from the beginning. He truly is our omniscient God, Who knows and holds tomorrow. We trust and obey Him today and leave the future in His hands. God is the real owner of all the earth.
Entrusted with More
The new property is located near government agencies, is accessible to transportation all year round, and is in a more scenic side of town. Danny and I fell in love with it when we first saw it. We remembered our visits to South Korea where we saw how God had used a similar development to bring spiritual transformation to the nation. Our greatest prayer was for God's will to be done.
The previous owners had managed the land well. They planted more than 200 coconut trees, as well as other trees for lumber. Of all the hills, this one had the most vegetation. Managing the property added challenges to our lives. So, when an adjacent property to SW was offered to us to buy, we hardly knew how to comprehend what God was doing. Then, in June 2015, a certified German permaculture designer visited the SW farm and offered to help develop it into a natural farm.
Jorg Mayer and his Filipina wife, Luz—self-supporting missionaries—introduced technology to the SW, and the overall health and productivity of the farm improved. Jorg told us that the design of the farm, with the newly added property, was ideal to become a model natural farm. His vision was to help promote food production for local people by establishing farming schools, with the SW farm serving as a model of natural farming for future students.
The entry of the Mayers lifted a veil for us to see more fully God's plan for the SW. While we were only focused on its spiritual mission, God showed us the SW could be used to also help provide for the physical needs of people. This made us agents for holistic transformation. As the land became productive, we would be able to pursue our God-given mission—reaching people for Christ.
God also sent another helper to SW in the form of CPA-lawyer, June Ediza, who is an advocate of social entrepreneurship. It took her awhile to understand how we run the SW by faith. When she saw how God provided for us in miraculous ways, how we waited on God to provide and lead instead of forcing things to happen according to human striving, she testified that she liked it better this way because "it is definitely less stressful." We are assured that God will send us the resources—whether material or human—to accomplish what He wants to be done in and through the SW ministry.
By 2017, God had expanded the SW ministry to the extent that Danny and I could retire from serving under the umbrella of the Philippine Counsel of Evangelical Churches (PCEC) and devote our full attention to the SW ministry. Danny had served 20 years (and I, 19 years) with the Philippine CCC, and we both served another 20 years with PCEC. We would love for God to give us another 20 years to carry out His plan for the SW.
God is the real owner of The Shepherd's Well Transformation Center. We are merely stewards. With a future filled with much promise and possibilities, we look to God for the resources of manpower, funding, and spiritual guidance we need. We are full of gratitude that we can enjoy living in this place while doing what we love to do—serving the Lord Jesus until our time of departure for the Father's house in heaven comes. We thank the Lord for giving us a life of adventure and blessing.
"For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul?" (Mark 8:35–37, ESV).