Gilda Cordero Fernando, when she was still with us, wanted to meet our bible study leader, Pastor Sunil. She found it intriguing why we, her artist and writer friends, talk highly of the Indian missionary. She asked her kasambahay to call and invite Sunil over to a merienda in her home in Panay Avenue. Came the appointed time, guess who came knocking at her door? It was none other than the National Artist F. Sionil Jose. The clueless help mistook Sunil for Sionil.
Sunil Stephens was born to a Christian family in India. He was the black sheep, the school truant. His father, who worked as engineer with the India Railroad for 32 years, was a devout Christian who, with his mother’s prayers, played an important role in his life. When he was 19, a traveling evangelist visited their home. Listening intently to the man, “I decided to commit my life to Christ,” relates Sunil.
He started doing missionary work among Hindus, Muslims, Christians, even atheists and drug addicts. In 1984, Campus Crusade for Christ (CCC) in India sent him to study at CCC-ISOT-Asia (International School of Theology-Asia) in Baguio City. It was there that he met Fe Sta. Maria, who was taking up her Master’s in Biblical Studies.
Returning to India after a year, he helped minister to drug addicts in Bangalore until 1987. He came back to the Philippines to complete his Master of Arts in Divinity at Asian Theological Seminary in 1989.
He decided to stay in the Philippines because of the “beautiful, gentle but strong Filipina,” Fe Sta. Maria. Says Sunil, “We were classmates (at CCC), and became roommates after our marriage in December 1990. God has blessed us with a cute, beautiful daughter in 1992.”
For the longest time, his parents have been praying for one of their five children to become a missionary
His parents approved of his studies in the Philippines and his eventual marriage to a Filipina even as his Indian would-be-bride was waiting in Kerala. For the longest time, his parents have been praying for one of their five children to become a missionary. They never expected that it would be “black sheep” Sunil.
“Since 1990, I had been a pastor,” says Sunil. “I ministered a Filipino Church, an Indian Church, and a Chinese Church. With the Filipino Church, I was involved in the ministry for the welfare of street kids.”
That was from 1998 to 2001. At the same time, he ministered to a former drug addict who became fully rehabilitated and became a committed follower of Christ.
Sunil has been teaching in various high schools, colleges and seminaries since 1989. He handles courses on Christianity, humanities, philosophy, theology and literature, as well as spiritual and cultural values for Filipino, Asian and Western students. He is an adjunct faculty at AGS (Alliance Graduate School) for Master’s in Ministry in Pastoral Leadership, a three-year professional degree program for pastors and church leaders who wish to enhance their impact on the church and community.
Sunil has recently published a textbook for senior high school and college level, commissioned by SIBS Publishing, Inc. entitled Global Times Living History: Introduction to the Philosophy of the Human Person.
Since 2007, Pastor Sunil has been the bible study leader of an ecumenical group of artists and writers of various persuasions and diverse personalities where we truly belong. He holds the group together, and with flying colors, too!
Before the pandemic, we took turns holding it in our members’ homes where we enjoyed sharing whatever food we brought. Thus, we lovingly call our group “The Church Café,” even when we meet only virtually now because of the pandemic.
‘He has made a difference in my life. My week is not complete without my listening to his Wednesday homily in Facebook’—Elizabeth Lolarga
Says one member, Baguio-based journalist and poet Elizabeth Lolarga, “When I first heard Pastor Sunil preach, I was impressed by the wide range of his knowledge–of Hinduism, of Christianity, of Greek mythology even. He is a compleat man in the Renaissance sense, one who would have been Socrates’ student.”
She adds, “He has made a difference in my life. My week is not complete without my listening to his Wednesday homily in Facebook. From his examples, I look for ways I can apply the scripture to my life. That is saying a lot for a sheep like me who has wandered for years and longs to come home.”
In a way, the lockdown has made The Church Café reach a wider audience via Facebook. The weekly spiritual sharing by the good pastor has now attracted listeners even from India, the US and Canada.
Pastor Sunil has been with the Indian Christians in the Philippines and he can relate to Hindus and Sikhs by participating in their ceremonies and visiting their homes. He has the knack for engaging even free spirits like artists.
Perhaps the most valuable lesson he has taught me is how to live a life of balanced Christianity
Says Julie Lluch, the sculptor: “Pastor Sunil has been a spiritual mentor for more than a decade. Perhaps the most valuable lesson he has taught me is how to live a life of balanced Christianity, given my tendencies to swing from radicalism to conservatism, from intellect to emotions, from nonchalance to judgementalism. His voluminous readings in church history, literature, culture, philosophy and arts, and his years of being a missionary and pastor has allowed him to share his deep and enriching insights with me and my colleagues or disciples. I particularly love his emphasis on simplicity and other spiritual disciplines such as solitude and humility.”
Artist Imelda Cajipe-Endaya, a self-confessed questioning and critical Catholic, has this to say of our pastor: “More than a very erudite scholar and teacher steeped in world’s ancient knowledge, he is an exemplary, humble Christian, a great spiritual inspirer. He deepens my understanding of the most beautiful but difficult book, the Holy Bible as Word of God.”
Her husband, Simplicio Endaya, who she describes as “a pantheist reader of ancient wisdom and a habitual skeptic,” respects the pastor highly as one of only two Bible teachers he regularly follows, “because he does not condemn. He is most open and can satisfactorily clear my doubts, assuage my fears.”
Historian Fe B. Mangahas, a non-conformist and no-nonsense Catholic, swears by Sunil in her spiritual life. “Hiyang sa akin na Bible teacher (si Pastor Sunil). He can relate the Word to the arts, literature, social science, science, philosophy, films, etc. so I got to know Jesus up close and personal.”
Church Café has been blessed by Sunil’s wealth of knowledge influenced by his favorite authors C. S. Lewis, Soren Kierkegaard, G. K. Chesterton, Sadhu Sundar Singh and even St. Francis of Assisi, St. Augustine, Blaise Pascal, and the Russian novelist Dostoevsky.
In his modest rented apartment in Quezon City, he keeps a sweet mental image of his beloved India and her greatest sons, Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi. His memories of India are also kept alive by his current love of Bollywood movies in whatever Indian language they are made, which he and Fe watch from the flat screen TV hanging on their wall, a gift from a long-lost sister. After all, he believes in Kierkegaard’s criticism of religious dogma. Let’s say that he is indeed a committed, responsible humanist.
‘Gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder’
In his own way, Sunil has not denied others of his help, giving blessings to the sick 90-year old Teresita V. Ramos, Dangal ng Wika awardee of the Komisyon ng Wikang Filipino, who suffers from critical health crises one after another. The Pastor is always there to give his blessings.
Says Ramos’ friend, poet Ruth Elynia Mabanglo: “I consider Pastor Sunil a spiritual brother who I can run to whenever I’m in distress. His gentle words and demeanor have calming effect on me. He had helped me by giving my beloved Tita Terry (Ramos) blessings. May God give him enough health and energy to continue his ministry.”
Unfortunately, the good pastor has been suffering from CKD (chronic kidney disease) diagnosed in 2019, secondary to diabetes mellitus which he has been suffering from since 1992. Just very recently, he was rushed to the hospital where he remained unconscious for three days. It was a miracle that he woke up on the fourth day. Another miracle was an anonymous donor foot the large bill for the hospital to discharge our dear Sunil. But back at home and to reality—his medical needs like hemodialysis three times a week, insulin shots and antibiotics—he still needs financial help. His age-old vow of poverty is catching up on him.
Church Cafe has unabashedly started a fundraising campaign by offering for sale some artworks by its members. A sculpture by Julie Lluch. Prints by Cajipe-Endaya. Hard-bound Miclat books, including rare out-of-print ones. People who may have been touched or influenced by the good pastor may visit Facebook #ChurchCafeHealing.
For all that Pastor Sunil Stephens has done, I quote one of his favorite authors, G. K. Chesterton: “I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”
All photos provided by the author and the Stephens family.