An Introduction to El Shaddai

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El Shaddai, founded in and based in Manila, began in 1984 as a nondenomi�national Christian radio program. Within fifteen years, the group had blossomed into a substantial movement with millions of followers (estimates range between 5 and 10 million).3 It has chapters in nearly every province in the Philippines and in more than thirty-five countries. Approximately 80 percent of El Shaddai’s members subsist below the national poverty line, paralleling overall poverty rates in the country. The group is most known for its massive outdoor Saturday night rallies in Manila that attract a half million to one million followers each week. These “prayer and healing rallies,” featuring emotional preaching by “Brother Mike” Velarde, the group’s founder and “Servant-Leader,” are broadcast on television and radio throughout the country. Local Shaddai chapters also hold smaller weekly prayer meetings.

Brother Mike is a businessman turned preacher, without formal religious training. His evocative and entertaining preaching style, his populist persona and message, and the belief that he can channel miracles to the faithful, allow him to attract crowds and monetary collections that are the envy of clergymen. He and his congregation have been influential in national politics over the past twenty years. Brother Mike even seriously explored running for president of the country in 2010, but decided against it.

El Shaddai is recognized by the Philippine Roman Catholic Church as a Catholic lay movement. Like other charismatic and Pentecostal groups, El Shaddai emphasizes the workings of the Holy Spirit (i.e., faith healing, miracles, and emotional worship experiences) over doctrine (Poewe 1994:2). El Shaddai is a “prosperity” charismatic group (also called “neo-Pentecostal”), due to its acceptance of material prosperity and its appeal across social classes and religious denominations (Coleman 2000). Like other prosperity groups, members practice seed-faith (the idea that giving tithes with faith will result in miracles) and positive confession, done in part through written “prayer requests” for miracles. As a result, El Shaddai members often interpret every day life events as miracles, and may publically testify to their miracle stories at rallies and prayer meetings.

In a mainstream Catholic church in the Philippines, one might hear a sermon about “taking up the cross”—the idea that there is spiritual value in suffering and hardship. In contrast, Brother Mike teaches that suffering and poverty can be alleviated by faithfully following God’s principles, such as tithing. As such, the “prosperity gospel” affirms the desire for upward mobility. It teaches that paradise can and should to be achieved now, not postponed until after death.During the decade or so immediately following the People Power Revolution of 1986, the aspirations expressed in this prosperity theology seemed to fit with attempts in national government to focus energies on development and material well-being (“The Prophet of Profit: El Shaddai’s Mike Velarde Brings Religion down to Earth,” 1996). In addition, the vacuum of power created by the end of the Marcos dictatorship, the ultimate disappointment with the subsequent leadership’s ineffectiveness in dealing with poverty, corruption, land reform, and human rights abuses, and the weakening of the communist insurgency in the 1990s and early twenty-first century provided the sociopolitical context for the emergence of Brother Mike, whose populist message emphasized not only prosperity, but also self-reliance and hope.

El Shaddai’s Catholic affiliation confers some legitimacy within this predominantly Catholic country. Although El Shaddai operates as if it were an independent church, local chapters are linked with local Catholic parishes, and the movement has a Catholic priest as a “spiritual advisor.” A portion of its collections go to the church, and mass is said at El Shaddai rallies. However resident El Shaddai healers in Manila neighborhoods conduct healing rituals that merge local shamanic or folk traditions with ritual elements of Catholicism and charismatic Christianity, producing what some residents see as “authentic healing power.”

 

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