He was born into the “T” tribe, known and feared as the Defenders of Islam on the Philippine island of Mindanao.
His father was an Imam, a Muslim spiritual leader.
And it was expected that he would follow in his father’s footsteps, joining his tribesmen in defending the religion Muhammad established 1400 years ago.
But then Mark went to trade school on the Island of Cebu to train in auto mechanics.
The school, as it turned out, was run by the International Mission Board (IMB) and supported through Cooperative Program gifts and Lottie Moon offerings. In addition to gaining a craft, Mark attended a Values Class built around 21 Bible stories.
His teacher was A.S., who now serves as an indigenous missionary to the Philippines for the IMB.
As A.S. taught the Bible stories and shared the gospel, he built a rapport with Mark and the other students. Ultimately, he encouraged them to entrust their lives to Christ.
A.S. recalls: “While I was inviting the class to pray to receive Christ, I noticed that Mark was sweating very much. He told me later it was like he was on fire.”
Mark prayed to receive Christ as Savior, knowing that his decision would generate some heat of its own.
Declaring his faith
Returning home to Mindanao, where Islam plays a strong influence, Mark told his family about his newfound faith in Jesus. In Muslim families, such a declaration often results in banishment – and sometimes in an “honor killing.”
His father was stunned and disappointed but did not shun him. Even so, the bolder Mark became in sharing his faith with Muslim family members and friends, the more he became a target of the “T.”
For his protection, he continued to stay on Cebu Island with his wife and children instead of going home to Mindanao. He now serves in the Central Philippines as an indigenous Southern Baptist missionary.
I had the opportunity to spend time with Mark while on a recent mission trip to the Philippines. Quiet and unassuming, he spoke little of himself but gladly shared his testimony when prompted.
I asked what made the difference – what led the son of an Imam to embrace the Son of God?
He answered in one word: “Freedom.”
The five pillars
Mark then began to explain that his life as a Muslim was consumed with trying to satisfy a distant and unknowable god by practicing the Five Pillars of Islam:
- The confession of faith or Shahada: “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet.”
- Prayer (Salat). Muslims must recite 17 cycles of prayer each day. These cycles usually are spread over five times while the supplicant faces Mecca.
- Observing Ramadan, a month of fasting throughout the daylight hours to commemorate the first revelation of the Qur’an to Muhammad.
- Almsgiving or Zakat. Muslims are required to give 2.5 percent of their currency, plus other forms of wealth, as determined by a complicated system that purifies their remaining wealth.
- Pilgrimage, or Hajj, to Mecca, Muhammad’s place of birth. Muslims who are physically and financially able must make this trek at least once in their lifetimes.
The ceaseless cycle of works failed to satisfy Mark or to provide assurance that Allah loved him and predestined him for heaven.
In contrast, the message of Christ was liberating. God loved Mark unconditionally. And although Mark was separated from God by sin – as all people are – God loved him so much that He sent His Son to die on the cross, satisfying God’s wrath for sin and extending to Mark His mercy and grace.
As Mark stood in the Values Class that day and prayed to receive Christ, the heat he felt was the purifying presence of God.
Today, Mark’s changed life is an example to those he once drank and gambled with. They see the difference Jesus has made, and they ask him about it.
While the “T” – Mark’s former tribe on Mindanao – continues to fiercely defend Islam, Christ has transformed Mark into a gracious and gentle defender of the Christian faith.
This column first appeared May 20, 2014, in The Pathway, the news journal of the Missouri Baptist Convention.