The ABCs of Faith
MANILA, Philippines — Hannah Faith knows her ABCs — and a…
“But they were massacred … so I fled.
“Then I was robbed. They almost killed me. They were gangsters. They got my money and everything.
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“I don’t remember what happened, but I found myself in Baguio City, wandering in the streets, sleeping on the benches.”
His voice seems calm, almost nonchalant, as John Serra Dionio recounts his early life — as he answers the question, “How did you become a Christian?”
It’s a drizzly Thursday afternoon in Solano, a small city in the heart of the island of Luzon. Dionio, 44, a bespectacled, unassuming Filipino with a broad smile, sits in a worn wooden school desk at the Philippine Bible College of Bangar, where he serves as director.
On the walls around him are maps of ancient Israel, a diagram of “The Armor of God,” a poster that proclaims, “The church Christ died for has only one name, one doctrine, one head.” Bed sheets and T-shirts hang on a laundry line that separates the second-story classroom from a ping-pong table and a set of weights. Scrawled in chalk on the blackboard is a bathroom schedule for the 15 students who live in the building as they study church history and hermeneutics.
Reghie Marcos leads his classmates in the hymn “Home of the Soul” at the Philippine Bible College of Bangar. (PHOTO BY ERIK TRYGGESTAD
Downstairs, the students practice hymns for Saturday’s graduation as they wait for the skies to clear. Then, basketball.
“I cried to the Lord and asked for wisdom to manage this school,” says Dionio, who inherited the job after a surprise announcement by the college’s founder, Leo Corpuz, four years ago. Corpuz — who envisioned the school as a place to train “sound, gospel preachers” from the rural, poor communities of Luzon — died two days later.
John Dionio and his wife, Josielyn, celebrated their 17th anniversary in February. (PHOTO BY SHAWN CORPUZ)
The college has lost about 50 percent of its support without Corpuz — who tirelessly raised funds among Churches of Christ in the U.S., Dionio says. The new director has reduced the number of students, who study here tuition-free, and hopes to move the campus to a plot of land outside the city where they can grow their own food.
“I believe this is my calling,” Dionio says. “Brother Leo prepared me for this job, but God called me for this ministry.”
‘IF EVER YOU’RE IN TROUBLE, FIND THE CHURCH OF CHRIST’
As the hymn “Sweet Hour of Prayer” echoes from the students downstairs, Dionio flips through his old copy of the Quran — a book he never really understood.
MAP, GRAPHICS BY ERIK TRYGGESTAD
He grew up middle-class in Mindanao, a large island in the southern Philippines with a significant Muslim population. He followed his father’s faith, though his mother was a baptized Christian who worshiped with a Church of Christ.
In 1997, while Dionio was at work, a friend urgently pulled him aside and told him that Muslims had murdered his parents. Maybe it was a dispute over his family’s politics or their land — he’s still not sure. He just knew he had to leave, immediately.
They were coming for him.
He boarded a ship for Luzon and went to the Philippines’ capital, Manila. There he was robbed and beaten. He doesn’t remember much of what happened next. Somehow he boarded a bus for Baguio City in northern Luzon. He doesn’t know how — or why — he chose that destination.
Dazed, aimless, he wandered as words his mother once told him echoed in his head: “If ever you’re in trouble, find the Church of Christ.”
A woman at the city’s information center referred him to a Mormon church, but he knew that wasn’t it, nor was a United Church of Christ in town.
“Finally, someone said, ‘Maybe you’re looking for the Philippine Bible College,’” he recalls.
A receptionist gave him seven pesos (about 20 cents) to get a ride to the college, a ministry training school supported by Churches of Christ. When Dionio arrived, the staff was gone. He slept in a nearby park and came back. A worker let him in to take a bath.
Filo Alcayde, the school’s director, listened to Dionio’s story and helped him pay the city tax to get documentation so he could work. Alcayde offered to let him do odd jobs around the college.
“I asked him, ‘What is your job?’” Dionio recalls.
Alcayde replied, “I am a minister of God.”
“Then I wanted to be a minister of God also,” Dionio says, “because of his example.”
But he didn’t want to study the Bible. He was, after all, Muslim. So he found a job in Baguio as a waiter. Alcayde, however, refused to give up on the mysterious man from Mindanao. About two months later, he approached Dionio again.
“Brother Leo Corpuz is planning to open a Bible school in Solano,” he said. “Would you like to go with him?”
‘I FOUND THE TRUTH’
Bible college founder Leo Corpuz with his wife, Asuncion, known as Shawn. (PHOTO PROVIDED)
Corpuz, a native of the Philippines, earned ministry degrees from Harding University in Arkansas and Pepperdine University in California before returning home to train preachers at the Philippine Bible College.
He wanted to open a new school in central Luzon for students who lived far from Baguio or the capital. He chose Solano, a town in the province of Nueva Vizcaya. It’s a seven-hour journey here from Manila, over mountainous roads clogged with massive transport trucks and tiny “tricycles” — motorized bikes with sidecars for paying passengers.
Corpuz put Dionio, who still refused to study the Bible, in charge of the new school’s library. Dionio also worked in the garden and helped clean the building. Once, as he stood in the back of a Bible class, he overheard a discussion of the Holy Spirit and asked, “What’s that?”
He gave in to his curiosity and cracked open a Bible in the library. He read and read, intrigued by the stories of a loving God offering salvation. A month later, he asked to be baptized.
Students, faculty and staff of the Philippine Bible College of Bangar sing hymns during the college’s recent graduation. (PHOTO BY ERIK TRYGGESTAD)
“Are you sure?” Corpuz asked, surprised.
“Yeah, I found the truth,” Dionio replied.
July 17, 1999, was the first day of his Christian life. About two years later, Dionio married a fellow believer, Josielyn Cabrera. They have two daughters, 13-year-old Karylle and 11-year-old Kyra.
Josilyn Dionio still cries when her husband shares his life story — “especially when he was sleeping in the park,” she says.
“His conversion encourages other Christians,” she adds, “and his life is really a blessing to all of us.”
FROM SALVATION TO SAN FRANCISCO — AND BACK
After his baptism, John Dionio took on the dual role of librarian and student at the Philippine Bible College of Bangar. Corpuz later took him to the U.S. to visit the college’s supporting churches.
Impressed by his command of Scripture, supporters in California asked the newly minted minister to serve a Church of Christ in the San Francisco suburb of Daly City. The congregation was a mix of black, white, Filipino and Asian believers, Dionio says. He preached and worked at an assisted living facility to support his family.
In 2008, the Dionios returned to Solano to help with the college as Corpuz battled complications of diabetes. Then the school’s founder was diagnosed with blood cancer — and had to spend most of his time in the U.S. for treatment. John Dionio oversaw the school, but planned to return to San Francisco when he could.
GRAPHICS BY ERIK TRYGGESTAD
Corpuz continued to visit the college for graduations — including one in 2013 when he announced, unexpectedly, “I give my authority and relinquish my directorship to John Dionio.”
Two days later, before returning to the U.S., Corpuz went to a clinic for dialysis.
There, “he went back to the Lord,” John Dionio says.
A RELIGION THAT COSTS NOTHING …
Four years later — and two days after sharing his testimony in that second-story classroom — John Dionio stands in a rented banquet hall, presiding over his first graduation as the Bible college’s director.
Dressed in academic robes and a blue-feathered cap, he greets the students with his broad smile as they walk to the stage to get their diplomas — accompanied by parents, wives, even a few aunties who introduced them to Christ.
A Bible student shows his parents the way
John Dionio and Asuncion Corpuz, right, present a diploma to Lenter Kilaban, 25, who earned a two-year degree from the Philippine Bible College of Bangar. Dionio also gives medals to Kiliban’s father, Oscar, to present to his son.
Lenter Kilaban left home to work as a farmer and began worshiping with a nearby Church of Christ. He was baptized, and during his time at the Bible college he shared his faith with his father and mother, Betty.
“We learned about how to be saved — that the only way is Jesus,” Oscar Kilaban said as his son translated. Both parents were baptized recently.
(PHOTO BY ERIK TRYGGESTAD)
Shemer Sameon, a Filipino preacher from Baguio, speaks to the graduates about the need to have “a mind that thinks like Jesus, a heart that loves like Jesus, eyes focused on Jesus.”
Shemer “Shem” Sameon
“It will not be easy,” Sameon says. “There will be hardships. The good news is, you’re not alone.” He shares a quote attributed to theologian Martin Luther: “A religion that gives nothing, costs nothing, and suffers nothing is worth nothing.”
During the three-hour assembly, John Dionio and the school’s staff sing multiple hymns with the students, including “I want to be a soul winner for Jesus.” One of the singers, Asuncion Corpuz, pauses as emotion overwhelms her. It’s her first graduation without her husband by her side.
“When he gave his last speech … maybe he knew,” says Leo Corpuz’s widow. “He said, ‘I am transferring the helm of PBC to my son. PBC will go on. It will be in good hands, with the help of the Lord.’”
One of the graduates, Rogelio Bartolome, says the college gave him more than a Bible degree. The program inspired him to stop drinking. It changed his life. Hearing John Dionio’s story makes him realize “that I’m really lucky,” Bartolome says — and that God can overcome vices and obstacles.
The story also shows that God never forsakes his children, adds Teresa Montero, the Bible college’s secretary. John Dionio has taught her that God “will let things happen for a reason, to direct us to his plan.”
Nico and Teresa Montero
“Kuya John is very passionate and dedicated to the school,” she says, using a Filipino word for older brother. “I admire how he handles the students, with so much care, and how he treats them as family.”
John Dionio studied the Bible with Montero’s husband, Nico, who says that the former Muslim’s passionate teaching about Jesus led to his own decision to be baptized.
“He treats me like his own relative,” Nico Montero says. “I’m one of the many fruits of his faith.”
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