Joemer Ernn C. Embernate, 25, works as team manager in a business process outsourcing (BPO) company in Taguig City. He hopes to finish writing his fiction novel one day and have it published.
Ernn grew up in Pampanga and by age 9 became a sacristan or an altar boy until he was 12, according to his family’s tradition.
When he entered high school, however, he mixed with the wrong kind and got into drugs. In college, he got even worse as he joined a satanic group. Then a friend introduced him to a non-Catholic church, and he thought he found his home.
Despite being a sacristan during my grade school years, I had zero knowledge about the meaning of my Catholic faith back then. I just went through the motions of the rites not understanding what they were for. When I left Pampanga to enter high school, I also put aside my Catholic faith.
My father, Ernesto, died when I was 2 years old. My mother, Gudelia, lived in Taguig City in Metro Manila. She worked as an employee in Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City.
I lived with my siblings in Pampanga. When it was time for me to enter high school, my mother enrolled me at a high school inside Camp Aguinaldo. So I left Pampanga and lived with her in Taguig. Every day, I commuted from Taguig to Quezon City.
In my teens, I was a belligerent child. I joined a group and I got into smoking and drinking liquor. Not long after that, we also skipped class to smoke pot. Our group also got into gang wars. It was no surprise that I got kicked out of my school when I was on my third year. Worse, because of my bad record, I couldn’t be accepted in any public school.
Luckily, there was Eastern Achiever Academy of Taguig. It was near our house, I didn’t have to make a long and tiring daily commute. My mom said I can’t cut class anymore because the school was just walking distance from our house.
She was right. I took my studies seriously and I even graduated valedictorian the following year. Miracle of miracles, you would say. I guess it’s because I felt acknowledged there. My teacher in English and History, my favorite subjects, was kind and appreciative of me. He was like the father that I didn’t have. He encouraged me to do well in my studies.
But the drinking didn’t stop. I still found bad company and found ways to continue smoking and drinking. I got clean from drugs though.
I entered college in Pasay City and there, I went back to using marijuana. I would say it was one of the darkest moments of my life. I joined a fraternity. I had enemies left and right. And it was around this time when I joined a satanic group, which was composed of students like myself and musicians. All of us there were into drugs. There, we were taught that man is not a slave. We were born with free will and so we could do what we want. We met weekly in a small group. The teachings there contradicted God, of course. For example, while Jesus preached about loving your enemies, this evil group taught us ways to destroy our enemies.
Like a ray of light in the dark moment of my life, a bully from my neighbourhood, an unlikely character, encouraged me to watch the television show The 700 Club. The show featured a drug addict whose life was almost completely destroyed but he made a turn around and became a Christian. I saw myself in that guy. I told myself I didn’t want to go through the hardships he went through. It was not too late for me. I decided to change my ways. I took the advice of this bully-turned-friend and joined his church. On December 31, 2005, I was baptized in this church.
More than anything, what made me turn my back on my vices and embrace the church was Jesus. That night when I watched the 700 Club show was the first time I met Jesus intimately. I felt that He was real and that He forgave my sins even before I asked for forgiveness. That night, I felt His love.
I became active in the church. I joined youth camps and the Music Ministry. Not long after, I started leading the Music Ministry and I also became a youth pastor. Initially, I preached among our youth but later, I started to preach before the entire congregation during the main service.
And I remember, I bashed the Catholic Faith, questioning why Catholics worshipped Mary and the saints. I did that weekly. I even posted negative comments about Catholics on Friendster and Facebook. I remember creating caricatures of Pope Benedict looking scary and posting them on my FB Timeline. When I passed by a Catholic church, I laughed at the churchgoers to a point that I was rude and provoking a fight. I even bullied a Catholic I met.
I don’t know where that anger or hatred came from. Thinking back, I can liken myself to St. Paul. But I’m getting ahead of my story.
As I said, I am really into music. I play the keyboards. One day, I attended a fellowship of musicians outside our church and there was this pastor who touched my heart with his brand of preaching. He preached about brotherly love and did not lambast other religions. He was welcoming and accepting of them. I was enlightened by his preaching and enthralled by the group’s music. The group was responsible for the conversion of many musicians in the country, including big names in the industry.
I became active with this group called Musicians on Fire (MOF). I even brought members of my church’s Music Ministry there to observe and be inspired to be better musicians. I also stopped mocking the Catholic Church.
Our senior pastor, however, reprimanded me for attending MOF. He told me to stop associating with the group, especially because I was a young pastor and may be easily influenced by the group whose practices where not approved by my church. Like they played and held praise and worship inside bars.
At this point, I lost interest in our church. I received disciplinary action because I would deliberately skip service. But I didn’t care much about it for I began to question their teaching on love. The words of the pastor at MOF kept coming back to me about loving the Kingdom not the religion. He said this sets apart a righteous man from a religious one.
Around this time, I was already working at my first job in a BPO company, where I met Cris Monroy. Cris first caught my attention when I heard him praying in his own words for someone he was talking over his phone. Later, I approached him and I was surprised to find out he’s Catholic.
“Really? I never thought you Catholics pray like we do,” I heard myself blurt out.
He just smiled, tapped me on the shoulder and totally disregarded my brazen remark.
Like we do? I got embarrassed with my arrogant comment.
Finding The Feast
It turned out, Cris regularly attended the Call Center Feast (now called Feast Mandaluyong), where he was actively serving. Sometime in 2012, after work, I went with Cris to The Feast. I instantly loved The Feast. What’s more, I was introduced to the people there including the main preacher, Bro. Ebb Magtuba. I was surprised when they invited me to play the keyboards the following Wednesday to pair up with Cris who led Worship.
I said, “What? Are you sure? Don’t I have to undergo formation?”
They looked at me as if I spoke Martian.
“In our church, you have to undergo six months of cleansing and Bible Study,” I explained.
“You can serve next week if you’re willing,” Bro. Ebb said.
“It’s actually perfect for Cris and me since we work in the same company. It’s easy for us to practice together,” I said and agreed.
I liked going to The Feast but soon, I got confused. I felt guilty. A voice in me nagged me to quit. And so for a few months, I didn’t show up. But Cris was like a big brother to me. Always checking on me, asking how I was, and asking me to join him for a one-on-one Light Group (LG). I felt he really cared for me. If I was a girl, I would’ve thought he had a crush on me. Kidding!
In September 2013, I gave in to his invitation to attend The Feast being held at the Philippine International Convention Center (now called The Feast Bay Area). It was my first time to hear Bro. Bo Sanchez preach. And of all talk series that I could walk into, I came in during the Big Questions series. Throughout the series, Bro. Bo answered the difficult questions we usually ask about the Catholic Church, including the very reason I was against Catholics: Why they gave so much importance on Mary, the saints, and statues?
It was as if God wanted me to be there that day to hear Bro. Bo explain things for me. I will never forget that moment. I will never forget his answer.
Explaining the reverence to statues, Bro. Bo said even during the Old Testament, when God gave Moses the Ten Commandments, He asked that the Ark of the Covenant be made with angels on it. The Ark symbolizes God and through the Ark, God is worshipped.
The Cross, he said, is a symbol of God’s love. As for Mama Mary and the saints, they continued the ministry of Jesus and so we imitate them in their loving imitation of Christ and their love and obedience to Him.
From then on, I became a regular attendee of The Feast. On May 23, 2014, at the Lovelife retreat for Singles, I made my first sign of the cross— in 12 years.
Bro. Didoy Lubaton, the main speaker, talked about “going home” to God, to our Catholic Church. His message struck me. My heart said I was home. For I was back into the fold.
For many years, I walked astray not knowing where I was headed, not knowing what I was looking for. But all this time, I was just looking for my God. And to think He was just there all the time. But I kept my heart locked and didn’t let Him in. This time, I was ready to receive Him.
I’m so glad to be back. I have also invited people from my office, including my girlfriend Cez. Like me, she is now a regular attendee too.
As I said earlier, I am like St. Paul who used to lambast the Church but who had seen the Light. Thanks to Catholics like Cris. Thanks to the people at The Feast who were so kind to me. I felt loved. Everybody was Jesus to me.
I usually serve at the Music Ministry for the Singles Ministry’s events. I have started undergoing the formation program of The Feast. This year, I signed up with the Young David’s Ministry, the foot traffic management and service ministry, and the Radical Men, a group of young men who are undergoing formation in preparation for leadership and preaching positions in our faith community.
But I guess, the happiest with my return would be my mom. I remember when I was with a a non-Catholic church, we used to fight over the statues of saints at home. I hope someday she can join me at The Feast. For now, she is content watching it on television.