THE WALK OF A FIRE STARTER
Rev. Caesar “Butch” L. Conde, the founder and Senior Pastor of Bread of Life Ministries from 1982-2012, began his journey in the faith with a life-changing encounter with Jesus Christ during a Catholic retreat in the 1970s. During one of the worship gatherings of a Cursillo, an intense three-day spiritual retreat filled with times of meditation and reflection about one’s personal journey and the power of the Cross, a vision of Jesus Christ came to Butch who was then a young and ambitious bag factory manager. He saw Jesus Christ. He did not see the face of Jesus in his vision; he, however, saw the feet of Christ walking closer and closer toward him. In a moment reminiscent of Paul’s Damascus Road, Butch encountered Jesus Christ. As the immeasurable grace of Christ touched his heart, tears were streaming down his face. For the first time in his life, he had experienced the loving embrace of the Lamb of God.
The young and promising Jesuit-trained Buddhist intellectual is now a follower of Jesus. Butch became unstoppable in his pursuit of knowing Christ more.
Until his encounter with Jesus in the Cursillo, Butch, who was in his 20s was a devout Buddhist whose goal was to become a Tibetan monk. Even his wife Maria Luisa “Nene” Torralba Conde was supportive of his pursuit of spiritual enlightenment through Transcendental Meditation that was developed and globally perpetuated by the late Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
Converting to Christianity was next to impossible. The Jesuits of the Ateneo de Manila High School and the Ateneo de Manila University trained him well in the humanities, philosophy, and Catholic theology. In 1974, with a BS Management Engineering degree and voted as “Most Likely to Succeed” in the annual college yearbook, Butch is arguably one of the finest graduates of the Ateneo. A student achiever and a leader among his peers, Butch was elected Chairman of the Management Engineering Association and Senior Vice-President of AIESEC. Butch’s Jesuit training and personal sense of excellence had both contributed to what developed within him as an utter disrespect for mediocre Filipino religiosity. The apostle Paul had also been trained by the highly esteemed Gamaliel at Tarsus, one of the three centers of education in the Roman world. Like the intellectually gifted and culturally savvy apostle Paul, Butch’s encounter with the living Christ, in His infinite majesty and boundless love echoed the same life–changing event that took place for the apostle Paul on that Damascus road.
The unquenchable thirst and hunger in his heart for Jesus Christ came at a time when no one counseled him or taught him to read the Bible. He had many questions to which no one had answers. His journey of understanding the depths of the love of Christ had finally begun. The young and promising Jesuit-trained Buddhist intellectual is now a follower of Jesus. Butch became unstoppable in his pursuit of knowing Christ more.
Not wanting to stall the growth of the new reality of Christ and His Kingdom in his heart, Butch, now a working seminary student, had devoted more time in studying the Bible than in expanding his clientele in the competitive world of sales and insurance—a development that eventually took a toll on his personal life.
A self-directed learner, the newly converted Butch virtually watched every TV show and listened to every radio broadcast that had
anything to do with Jesus Christ. It was the time of Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Swaggart, Oral Roberts, Pat Robertson, Charles Stanley, Chuck Swindoll, and the Radio Bible Class of Our Daily Bread author Martin De Haan. It was as if the floodgates of Heaven opened up and Butch was placed at the epicenter of the outpouring of the love and grace of God.
Immersing himself in every chapter and verse of the Bible, he did not go to work for the next two weeks. He then felt God calling him to finally go to seminary. Being married, he immediately figured that the Catholic San Jose Seminary at the Ateneo de Manila University was not the place for him. He consequently called the 700 Club hotline and with much ebullience, told the telephone counselor that he has already accepted Christ, is filled with the Holy Spirit, and has begun speaking in tongues, and inquired about a list of seminaries for his consideration. He was then given two options: the Evangelical Asian Theological Seminary (ATS) and the Pentecostal Far East
Advanced School of Theology (FEAST) which is presently known as the Asia Pacific Theological Seminary (APTS). Being Pentecostal in
orientation, Butch opted to attend FEAST. The Pentecostal belief in signs and wonders and faith in a God who provides for one’s needs here and now resonated to Butch. While in FEAST,
Butch made history by being allowed to attend seminary in spite of not having
graduated from a Bible institute.
As the Lord revealed more of Himself to Butch while in the seminary, he opted to resign from his job as a bag factory manager and
decided to shift to sales and insurance so that he could have more control over his time. In spite of strategically planning the shift in his vocation, Butch still could not concentrate on his insurance work. Not wanting to stall the growth of the new reality of Christ and His Kingdom in his heart, Butch, now a working seminary student, had devoted more time in studying the Bible than in expanding his
clientele in the competitive world of sales and insurance—a development that eventually took a toll on his personal life.
He and his wife, now known as Sis. Nene to their new friends, found themselves struggling with their financial needs. They could not pay the apartment rent and simply could not make ends meet. Bro. Butch felt that he was being pushed to a corner and for a while, thought of quitting the ministry. One evening, at around 11pm, he found himself in prayer on the fields of the Ateneo.
In an interview Bro. Butch recalls this decisive event in his life as a believer.
“In tears, I told God. 'Lord, patay kung patay. But I know that You are here and You will help me. I need Your help now. You are the God of Gideon. Can You show me a sign?'”
It was as if the Lord, in answer to his prayer, plucked one star and hurled it across the night sky. As Bro. Butch watched the star fall from heaven, he thought that he was simply having a wretched case of double vision at the worst of times. So he asked again, wanting to make sure that this was God assuring him that He would provide for his family's needs. Immediately after he uttered the second prayer, another star darted across the sky. Knowing that he was of weaker faith than Gideon, who had asked the Lord for a sign, Bro. Butch asked for a third sign from God. A third star fell. Upon seeing the third star fall, something warmed inside his heart.
“My faith increased and in my heart I sang the song ‘Though none go with me, still I will follow’. The next day, a man knocked at the door of my apartment. He handed me some money. It was the exact amount that I needed. He said, ‘God talked to me last night and asked me to give this money to you.’”
All the while that Bro. Butch was a seminary student at FEAST, (administered by the Assemblies of God) he still identified himself as Catholic. In fact, he still served as an acolyte during mass at the Ateneo while in seminary. Bro. Butch developed a high regard for the leadership of FEAST for not forbidding him to attend mass while a student in a Pentecostal seminary. Being part of the crème de la crème of his generation at the Ateneo, Bro. Butch had received special training to respect other people's perspectives, and the
leadership of FEAST did just that. He was appreciative.
He took note of the fact that the Sunday worship services were held in an
unorthodox venue -- a hotel function room. He thought --
“It's a church but not a church—it's a new creation!” His experience at the
ICC opened his mind to new possibilities of doing ministry.
Since his life-changing encounter with Christ at the Cursillo, however, Bro. Butch developed a profound desire and longing for the deeper things of the Christian life.He began attending the International Charismatic Community (ICC), an Assemblies of God church.
Bro. Butch recalls one significant observation while attending the ICC. As a person who was steeped in Catholic liturgical tradition, he took note of the fact that the Sunday worship services were held in an unorthodox venue -- a hotel function room. He thought -- “It's a church but not a church—it's a new creation!” His experience at the ICC opened his mind to new possibilities of doing ministry.
Bro. Butch attended a second church, the New Life Christian Fellowship which held Sunday worship gatherings at yet another
unorthodox venue, the Asian Institute of Tourism Hotel in the University of the Philippines-Diliman. During this time, he began leading numerous Bible studies around Metro Manila. These Bible studies were open to all and were unaffiliated with any church or
denomination. The intellectual elite, business leaders, civic servants and celebrities of his generation listened to him as he shared the Word with much conviction and power.
In a decade defined by widespread social injustice and severe political instability, Bro. Butch felt the call to establish a new church that would answer both the intensifying spiritual and physical hunger of the Filipino people. The 1980s until the early years of the 1990s was arguably one of the most transformative decades in modern history. It was the era of worldwide social and political upheavals—a time that saw a redrawing of the national boundaries, a realigning of geopolitical alliances, and a rebalancing of global power. As
authoritarian regimes were dismantled, national leaders were assassinated, and revolutionaries were brought to power, the imperial United States of America maneuvered through the changing global landscape to secure its place as the unrivalled superpower in the world.
How the decade of the 80s began, unfolded, and ended indicates the immensity of the cultural and geopolitical changes that transpired across the world. In 1981, AIDS was identified as a new plague, and the countercultural phenomenon MTV was born. The years 1983 and 1984 saw two high-profile political assassinations in Asia: in Southeast Asia, Filipino opposition leader Senator Benigno Aquino, Jr. was shot in the head and died on the tarmac of the Manila International Airport, while in South Asia, the first and by far the only female Prime Minister of India was assassinated by her own bodyguards after the infamous Operation Blue Star in the Sikh-dominated northern Indian state of Punjab. In 1986, the EDSA People Power Revolution brought the Marcos regime to its knees and catapulted the widow of the late Senator Aquino, Corazon Cojuangco-Aquino, to the presidency of the Philippines. As the 80s drew to a close, the fall of the Berlin Wall signaled the end of the decades-long Cold War between the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR)
and the United States of America.
It was by no accident that Bread of Life was birthed in a decade that saw the Philippines and the world in enormous transition.
On November 14, 1982, now Rev. Butch Conde, with his wife Nene and their three children Dahlia, Sunny, and Jeredan, began the next chapter of their faith journey as a family when Bread of Life was founded. The first Sunday worship service was attended by about a hundred people and was held at Maryknoll College in Katipunan, Quezon City. Nationally, there was, at that time, a sense of foreboding that the Marcos Regime could possibly be approaching its twilight years. With the emergence of Senator Benigno Aquino, Jr. as a
possible contender for the presidency, opposition to the strongman’s rule began to further escalate.
Decades before the 80s, the Philippines was one of the most dynamic and best performing economies in Asia. The Philippines was next only to Japan in terms of urban development, education, and economic output. Manila, with a cosmopolitan and fashionable populace, was considered one of the most beautiful capitals in the world where American technology, Spanish culture, Chinese goods, Indian
services, and Filipino vitality created a unique amalgam of the best of the East and the West. However, the Philippines in the 80s was but a shadow of its forgotten heydays. The Filipinos were a hungry, desperate, and disheartened people who needed to encounter the God who is real and who can heal and perform miracles. The Filipinos needed to encounter the God who is real here and now— who does not only become real when we die but who knows our innermost pains and who meets our every need.
Rev. Butch Conde envisioned a church that would worship the same God who performed countless signs and wonders in his life since he had become a Christian. As he was touched and transformed by the God of the here and now, Rev. Butch Conde's desire was for
Bread of Life to become a church that would give an answer to both the immediate needs of the body and the eternal needs of the spirit. This desire, in fact, was what ultimately led him to christen the church with the name,
Bread of Life.
“Then Jesus declared, ‘I am the bread of life.
Whoever comes to me will never go hungry,
and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.’
He believed in having a faith journey like that of Sadhu Sundar Singh, India’s apostle of the bleeding feet. Sadhu Sundar Singh
represented a pilgrim’s Christianity. Neither solitude, discomfort, nor any form of hardship led the apostle with the bleeding feet to abandon his ministry. As he walked alone to Tibet, he knew in faith that he was actually walking with Emmanuel, God who is with us and who comes to meet the needs of our body and of our spirit here and now. For Rev. Butch Conde, the first phase of Bread of Life was the Signs and Wonders phase which reflected Sadhu Sundar Singh’s own journey of faith.
“But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and
and all these things
shall be added unto you.”
For Rev. Butch Conde, Bread of Life was to open the doors of ministry with three keys: “Just keep exalting Jesus. Just keep teaching the Bible. And always love the people.” With these three keys, Bread of Life – since its inception in 1982 - continues to open ministries that seek to equip, educate, and edify the Filipino Christian. Meaning, Bread of Life had a practical pulpit that at the same time brings depth to one’s spiritual life.
“So whether you eat or drink or
whatever you do, do it all for the
glory of God.”
1 Corinthians 10:31
According to Rev. Butch Conde, the forwarding of the ministry of Bread of Life must be guided by the understanding of the different dispensations through which God continues to move in church history. The second phase of Bread of Life is called the New Apostolics phase which had sprung from the Signs and Wonders phase of the 1980s. The New Apostolics phase was about making the Bible
relevant to the multiple areas of human life. During the 1990s, a milestone was marked for the Information Age. The Internet reached a critical mass of users worldwide, becoming a global network, thus paving the way for an unparalleled speed in the dissemination of information in human history.
The 1990s was a time of unprecedented peace and prosperity in the West, on the one hand, and the final collapse of a superpower, the USSR, on the other. The first part of the decade saw the dissolution of the USSR and the birthing of several new independent former Soviet Republics in Central Asia. It was also during the 90s, after the term of Corazon Aquino, that the Philippines elected two
presidents, Fidel Ramos in 1992 and Joseph Estrada in 1998. Coincidentally, the Philippines enjoyed great economic wealth with the economy registering up to 5% growth since its deficit in the years leading to the EDSA People Power Revolution
until the 1997
Asian Financial Crisis.
“No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. “
For Rev. Butch Conde, the spirit of the New Apostolics phase of the church is best expressed by William Carey’s famous adage that
because we serve a great God,
we ought to “expect great things from God, attempt great things for God.”
The changes in the Philippine and global landscapes during the 90s coincided with an understanding of the necessity to introduce
changes in the methods of doing ministry to ensure that the gospel will remain relevant in the different areas of human life.
The New Apostolics phase of Bread of Life has, in fact, equipped Filipino Christians for yet another major global sea change that began to emerge in the first decade of the 21st century and continues to progressively alter the world as we know it to the present day. In the 30 years of Bread of Life, He allowed the church, by His grace and faithfulness, to move from the Signs and Wonders phase to the New Apostolics phase to what Rev. Butch Conde refers to as the Organic phase of the church.
“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,”
In the Bible, to “make disciples of all nations” does not pertain to the Westphalian System of nation states; it refers rather to people groups. The Greek word that Jesus used for “nations” was ethne which, in English, translates to tribes, ethnic groups, or people groups. It respects the indigenous DNA of people groups across the world and values the uniqueness of the ethnic ethos of every people group. In the 21st century, the expatriation of more than ten million Filipinos all over the world, on the one hand, and the influx of foreign influences on Philippine soil through the return of Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs), multiracial marriages, and the flood of foreign capital, on the other, conversely, speak of the new reality that the Philippines is facing today. As the world is continuously being
flattened by globalization and repeatedly being fragmented by geopolitics, the Filipino finds himself facing a new global order where cutting edge digital technology meets the ethne.
“It is only when the church is first disturbed that the church may challenge, encourage, and then inspire.”
With the rise of what Niall Ferguson refers to as the Resterners, nations and people groups that do not adhere to the Western protocol, and with the coming of what Soong-Chan Rah refers to as the Next Evangelicalism as evidenced by the rise of ethnic minority churches in the United States of America in a period in American church history that sees a harsh and continuing decline in church attendance among White churches, Rev. Butch Conde recognized the need for the Filipino church to finally understand the “organic” element in ministry. The Filipino, having a Western mind and an Eastern soul, emerges as a somewhat
prepared people for such a time as this.
Rev. Butch Conde’s perception is that in the 21st century, there will be
a “blessing of God to the churches which understand that
‘organicity’ does not lie in church growth.”