Kevin John "Kejo" Maddela will celebrates Christmas with his family at Solano United Methodist in his home province of Nueva Vizcaya, Philippines. The day after Christmas, Maddela takes part in a time set apart for young people that has been a tradition in his country since 1921.
Christmas Institute is a five-day Christian retreat for youth and young adults from middle school up to college, facilitated by The United Methodist Church. Christmas Institute is held every year from December 26-29. Not just in the Philippines anymore, now many Filipino United Methodist congregations in the U.S. also offer the program.
"It is a remake of the heart-warming experience of John Wesley on Aldersgate Street in London. Christmas Institute is an all-in avenue for youngsters to experience the redeeming grace of God through faith in Jesus for self-transformation," says Maddela.
Christmas Institute offers all the excitement of a summer camp and a church lock-in. There's time for recreation, Bible study, and leadership development workshops. Christmas Institute is a youth-led gathering that gives young people experience as lay leaders. The programming is prepared by older participants for the younger ones with guidance from pastors, deaconesses and lay leaders.
Maddela attended his first Christmas Institute at the age of 12. In 2015, he visited the East Mindanao Philippines Annual Conference (Davao City, Philippines) and Quezon City Philippines Annual Conference East at Wesleyan University Philippines (Cabanatuan City) as part of his duties as a United Methodist Youth Fellowship National Officer. Maddela most enjoys hearing the TED talks and learning best practices from other young leaders at the annual gatherings.
April Gonzaga-Mercado is another veteran of the Christmas Institute. She says she always enjoyed the time away, surrounded by peers who shared her faith. "Having fellow Christians in the same age bracket allowed me to open about my struggles as a teenager where we can relate with and pray for each other."
At Christmas Institute, Mercado honed her talents in communications and creative arts. The experience led to her present career in communications. Mercado is a special projects manager and field representative for United Methodist Communications in the Philippines.
Another fan of the program is the Rev. MarLu Primero Scott, who answered a call late in life to go to seminary and become a pastor. She has served Wilbur Memorial United Methodist in Washington State and as chaplain at Union Theological Seminary in Cavite, Philippines. The seeds of this second career in ministry were planted in the mid-1960's while attending Christmas Institute at Muzon Methodist Episcopal Church in the Philippines. "It was during one of those services that I committed my life to God uncertain of where it was going to take me."
Primero Scott remembers fondly the feeling of adventure as teenage participants would give up the comforts of home to sleep on the floor of a church for the week. "Every delegate had to secure sleeping space they shared with 50 plus other youth. Everyone brought a blanket, a mat, a mosquito net, and a pillow. Each had to bring their Bible and a notebook to take notes for reporting back home."
Primero Scott went on to become the Manila District Methodist Youth Fellowship President in 1963 and was in charge of the Christmas Institute held that year at the conference center in Taytay, Rizal.
Across the Philippines, up to 15,000 young people will attend Christmas Institute in a given year. Many pastors and lay leaders will tell you that their time at Christmas Institute led to their calling to serve the church. "Memories of Christmas Institutes continue to stoke the fire of the person I am today," says Primero Scott.
*Lilla Marigza is a writer for United Methodist Communications. She can be reached at 615-742-5131.
This feature was first published December 22, 2015.