I will never forget that afternoon in May 1981, when PNoy or Noynoy Aquino, the man who would be the 15th president of the Philippines, became our driver for a day-tour of Boston. In the car was his dad, former Senator and political prisoner Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, and my dad Teddy Benigno, Philippine Bureau Chief of the international news agency Agence France Presse. Dad flew there to do a story on how Ninoy, President Marcos’ arch political rival, was faring after a triple heart bypass and exile in the United States.
Ninoy had been at risk for a fatal heart attack after a prolonged hunger strike and the purgatorial gloom of seven years in solitary confinement. He asked to be released from prison to undergo heart surgery in America. Ninoy feared an operation done by local doctors under the authority of the Marcos government meant certain death. Marcos knew the international press and human rights groups were keeping a watchful eye on Ninoy. His demise during surgery would spur negative headlines globally. Marcos and Imelda decided to let Ninoy go.
Fast forward to Boston. PNoy, our driver, was keeping perfectly quiet as he drove us down the road to Harvard University where Ninoy was a “Fellow,” a resource person and lecturer. PNoy mostly kept to himself. He was self-effacing, quiet, ready to take the back seat when his loquacious dad was on center stage.
But Ninoy was not his usual ebullient self. He anxiously confided how Cory kept him wide awake an entire night. He had told his wife of his plans to return to the Philippines and she responded by dissolving into tears of anguish and protest. Their life in Boston was idyllic, a gift from heaven, their own perfect “Camelot.” Why transform their dream into a nightmare?!
“I’d never seen her cry like that before,” Ninoy sighed. “She sobbed uncontrollably through much of the night. But what can I do, Teddy? Seven years in prison is seven years. Will I just let it go down the drain? He left the question hanging in the air as if waiting for rebuke or affirmation. We didn’t know what to say. But I knew we were bursting with questions, apprehensions, dire scenarios we didn’t dare voice. I could imagine PNoy thinking: “Oh no dad, here we go again?”
Ninoy’s plan, as he explained it, seemed naïve and overly optimistic. He knew Marcos was seriously ill with Lupus Erythematosus. He felt an urgent desire to talk to Marcos and convince him to lose the stranglehold of his dictatorship or see the Philippines go over the brink of disaster. Communist ranks were growing, the military was itching to take over, First Lady Imelda had her own plans to keep the Marcos dynasty in power.
Ninoy made us feel like It was now or never. Even in this sedate Boston reprieve, Ninoy was a man in a hurry.
The next day, at their “Camelot,” the Aquinos’ rustic brick cottage surrounded by pine trees, Ninoy and dad continued discussing the state of our nation. Suddenly Ninoy stood up and urged us to join him for a walk in the backyard. He whistled for his beloved German Shepherd Mako, his companion in prison, to come join us. As the dog happily romped forward, Ninoy murmured that the house was bugged. He told Teddy in low tones that a trusted contact in Mindanao had agreed to take him into the country via the South, in a boat. The other option was to fly into the Philippines with a fake passport.
We all know now the option he chose. And neither Cory, nor Marcos, nor Imelda, concerned friends in America, nor devils nor death could stop him from fulfilling this mission. It seemed pre-ordained. And launched on the floor of Ninoy’s Laur cell.
The very next month, Ninoy was invited to guest on The 700 Club, the world’s longest-running daily Christian TV program based in Virginia Beach, Virginia. During the interview, he told the host, Pat Robertson, that he had suffered a crisis of faith during his seven years alone in his prison cell. He began to question if there was a God. And if there was, why was he languishing in jail while all the crooks were on the loose? He constantly searched for answers.
Ninoy had just a few items in his cell. He had books, including a Bible, Imitation of Christ by Thomas A. Kempis, an assortment of Christian journals, including those by Dietrich Bonheoffer, a Christian clergyman jailed and executed by the Nazis, and Born Again, an autobiography by Charles Colson, former Pres. Richard Nixon’s Chief Counsel and ruthless “hatchet man.” After his release, Colson founded Prison Fellowship International, a Christian outreach to convicts.
Ninoy also had a little window to the outside world. It was a small TV set. He told Pat, “Every afternoon at 4 pm, I would watch your show, The 700 Club. That kept me company in my solitary cell. Every time you had a Christian testimony, I had an affiliation with it.”
“I’m a Catholic, born a Catholic, along with 85 percent of the people in the Philippines. But we never really read the Bible as Catholics, I don’t know why. Also, as a young man, I had no time for God. I was busy with politics. I was moving on. I thought I was self-contained. On my own steam, I could make it. I only went to God when I needed help. Like when the votes (were being counted). I would pray “Dear Lord, help me. Then when the votes were in, I forgot the Lord.”
“But when I was put in solitary confinement, with nobody to talk to, I became desperate. I started to question the fundamentals of my faith. Is there really a God? If there is a God, then why should I be here? What have I done? And why are the crooks all out there? And then the second question—was there a God when the children were being gassed in Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Dachau (Nazi concentration camps)? Where was he? Where was this God? That was the doubt that assailed my mind.”
At the height of Ninoy’s loneliness and hopelessness, the answers came. The first was the paradox of power that comes with a Christian’s unmerited suffering. He read about it in the biographies of Bonhoeffer and Kempis. He saw it ultimately in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the innocent Lamb of God who was branded a criminal and executed on a cross. But whose blood sacrifice released and transformed billions the world over without threat, political maneuvering, or a shot fired.
Ninoy also identified with one of Jesus’ first converts, the writer of the epistles, the Bible’s most celebrated prisoner, the Apostle Paul of Tarsus. “As St. Paul put it, when I was weakest, I was strongest. When I was down on the floor, in solitary confinement, that was when He (God) came to me, then I felt strongest.”
“Therefore I have survived all my vicissitudes because I know there is a God” Ninoy added.
Ninoy’s next step into the realm of liberty was the witness of Charles “Chuck” Colson, a driven and brilliant politician who crashlanded into prison like Ninoy. Chuck was U.S. President Richard Nixon’s closest adviser, one of the most powerful and ambitious men in the U.S. government. But he was implicated in the Watergate scandal, a case of illegal wiretapping sanctioned by Nixon himself, and which led to his impeachment. Colson was involved, confessed to his crime, and landed in jail.
What was amazing was that Chuck looked so much like Ninoy—the same profile, hairdo, and square glasses Ninoy couldn’t help but identify.
In his autobiography Born Again, Colson described how his implication in the Watergate scandal broke him and brought him down on his knees before God. He decided to plead guilty and was sentenced to one to three years in prison. “That was the book that really encouraged me to go into deeper thinking,” Ninoy shared. “But when I first saw the book, I said ‘Oh, this guy’s just a phony.’ He was a Nixon man and he wants to use this book to get into the good graces of the people. Then I saw him share on The 700 Club so I started reading. One of the things he wrote was that if you sit down and take a yellow paper and write your blessings against your heartaches and frustrations, you will know that you’re always ahead. Suffering can make you or break you. I learned to welcome it as an opportunity. For instance, we take for granted our family, our children. In prison, my children would visit me one afternoon a week. And when they left, I was heartbroken. But it’s then that I realized the value of my children.”
After the Aquinos flew to America, Ninoy had an encounter surely orchestrated by God Himself. The two lookalike former politician-prisoners became seatmates unexpectedly on a plane.
“One day as I was flying from Boston to Washington, here was this man sitting beside me on the plane. I looked over and said ‘Excuse me, are you Mister Colson?’ He said ‘Yes, how did you know?’ I said ‘I saw you on The 700 Club and I read your book. Your book helped me.” We started talking and it was this man who showed me the Way.” Chuck led Ninoy in a prayer to surrender his life to Jesus, the Savior, and Sacrificial Lamb who Ninoy did not realize he was going to emulate on his fateful return trip to his country.
Thereon, Chuck and Ninoy became good friends. When Ninoy readied for his journey back to the Philippines using a fake passport, Chuck asked him if his mission was a good idea considering he was risking his life and liberty. Ninoy answered that if Marcos listened to him and lifted martial rule, then it was successful, a miracle, the Philippines would be free. But if he was jailed, he would rally the opposition from prison. But if Marcos killed him, well, it was his time to go home to Jesus. So how could he lose?
“Though He (God) slay me, I will trust Him,” were Ninoy’s last words during his 700 Club interview.
Ninoy also told Pat Robertson: “I have a confession to make. God gave me a gift, an ability to articulate that brought me to the pinnacle of political power. I promised him in prison that when I regain my freedom, I’d like to use this gift to witness for Him”.
Ninoy’s heart desire was fulfilled. But in ways he never imagined. When the assassin’s bullet pierced his head from behind as he stepped down the plane stairway on August 21, 1983, his blood spilled on the tarmac. And as it’s been said, the blood of martyrs is the seed of revival. The Filipino people felt the rip of that bullet in their hearts and arose by the millions in a massive peaceful revolution that set the country suddenly free from 15 years of strangulating dictatorship.
Powerful, brilliant, charismatic men like Ninoy and Marcos, and even Duterte, martyrs of peace and non-violence like Jose Rizal, Ninoy, and Mahatma Gandhi, cannot by themselves, change the tides of history and the fate of nations. Only God can. And He uses the helpless, downtrodden, the weak, the humbled, the childlike, the persecuted and imprisoned, those willing to love and give their life for others, as Jesus His Son did, to move His sovereign hand.
It was the blood of the slain, innocent, perfect lamb, put on the doorposts and lintels of the houses of the enslaved Jews that caused the angel of death to pass over and spare them. But death visited every household in Egypt, including the palace of the mighty Pharoah. That very night, God’s Chosen People made their famous Exodus from the land of slavery to freedom and their Promised Land.
That night of liberty showcases the power of One. One God. And One soul yielded to Him. That could be you or me. Because it doesn’t necessarily mean getting physically killed. It could mean relying on Christ’s power and following his example. It’s nailing to the Cross our selfishness, vain ambition, pride, hatred, laziness, indifference, cowardice. We all have our own prisons.
That’s why Jesus Christ, Lamb of God, died to set us free. Instantly, inexorably, eternally.
When Teddy temporarily joined the ranks of the Communists in his Twenties, he became an agnostic, one who questioned the existence of God. But that fateful trip to America to interview Ninoy changed him.
“I idolized Ninoy. To me, he could have been the greatest Filipino president. He was highly articulate, with a machine-gun intelligence, with a charisma in fact that could captivate friend and foe,” Teddy recalled of the activist Senator he knew. But he met a different Ninoy in America.
“When I met him in Boston, God was coming out. He would always bring out God, God, God.”
Teddy followed him on that new journey of faith and courage. “I’m not brave because I’m not scared, but because there are people who inspire. There is, in every Filipino, before there is anything else in him, a reaching out for religious inspiration, religious guidance. Maybe it’s a little bit crude—our religiosity—because it has not gone through the Reformation that many European countries have gone through. But it’s there, and it manifests itself in times of great crises. I think we’re going through that. I think what can save the Philippines is that reaching out.”
“Eventually out of this rubble, God will have to emerge”, Teddy concluded.
As C.T. Studd wrote: “All the armies that ever marched, all the navies that were ever built; all the parliaments that ever sat and all the kings that ever reigned, put together, have not affected the life of man upon this earth as powerfully as has that one solitary life.”
And as Jesus himself promised: “If you continue in my Word, then you are truly my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John’s gospel, chapter 8, verse 32)
Featured photo by: Benhur Arcayan / Malacañang Photo Bureau, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons