On Saturday, December 11, 2021, one day before my birthday, a longtime acquaintance of our family went to be with the Lord. Pastor P. S. Philip, District Superintendent of the Malayalam District of the South India Assemblies of God (MDAG), passed away from complications of a heart attack. He was 74 years old (just a year older than my father). I received the message from a mutual friend late Friday night, Dallas time, and I must say that for a long I was stunned, and this in spite of the fact that we had not seen very much of each other since 2013. But for a long while, since the 1970s, whenever Pastor Philip came to Dallas, he always came to Maranatha, and he always came to our home.
My family’s experiences, friendship, and relationship with Pastor Philip goes back a very long way. Pastor Jacob’s father (my grandfather), the late Pastor A.K. Pappachine, was one of the first generations of pastors in the MDAG (and in fact, one of the first for all the regions of South India represented in that fellowship). The place that Pastor Philip was born and raised in (Kerala, Thonniamala) was a place of great revival for the Pentecostals in Kerala, and specifically for the Assemblies of God (AG). Pastor Pappachine ministered there frequently during those years, along with other AG pastors, such as Pastor C. Kunjumon, a former District Superintendent and the man who would mentor Pastor Philip in ministry from the age of 14. My father knew him from that time, and my mother would come to know him when he went to North India for further Bible studies in the city of Yothmal, where my mother was studying nursing. Pastor Philip would come to lead and preach at small prayer meetings for some of those students, along with my mother. After my parents came to America, Pastor Philip came for a few years to pursue further Bible studies; first in the 1970s, and then later when he completed doctoral work. My brother remembered driving with our dad to his college to pick up Pastor Philip and bring him to our home on some weekends or during break times. I remember as a small child seeing him preach in some of the early prayer meetings of our church.
In the early years of Maranatha Full Gospel Church, Pastor Jacob carried credentials from the AG (from 1979 to 1985), but this relationship went back for thirty years to his childhood. Both in the United States and in India, Pastor Jacob’s ministry was very much involved with the AG. Churches were started both in North and South India for the AG through Pastor Jacob’s ministry there, and several others were supported by Maranatha. In the 1980s, Pastor Jacob ministered extensively in Kerala (the area of the Malayalam District). It was impossible for those in ministry and leadership in that district not to come through our home. All of them came.
I still remember the time our family went to India in 1983. We went to Bethel Bible College (while we were in Kerala), and Pastor Jacob preached in that famous chapel there. I can still see the students and teachers coming out of classrooms to see us, along with my grandfather who was with us. I remember Dr. John Thannickal (who was the principal at the time), Pastor P.D. Johnson (at the time, the District Superintendent), Pastor P.N. Zachariah, and Pastor E. Mamachine, all great men of God at the time, and all had stayed with us in Dallas.
The Bible School teachers stayed with their families on the campus at the time, and one of Pastor Philip’s children was born just around that time, and we went to their house just to visit for a few minutes. When I think back to that moment, I wish I had a picture of all those men, just to recapture a generation of greatness. Those were some of the greatest preachers and teachers of their time, and almost all of them have passed on into eternity.
It was impossible for Pastor Philip to not be recognized as a leader of men from that time. He was tall, built, and handsome, and he carried himself with confidence and a mixture of charm and strength. His voice was one that commanded authority, and after observation, one knew that he could carry himself appropriately with any crowd, group, or person. And in the world of Pentecostal denominations and churches, he could get along well with just about anyone while representing the interests of the MDAG of God and Bethel Bible College.
Maranatha Full Gospel Church built church buildings for the AG in a couple of places for the Malayalam District. From the Malayalapura AG and Valanjavattom AG, some kids went to Bethel Bible College for studies, and Pastor Jacob paid their tuition in full. Not all graduated, but still Pastor Jacob trusted the institution enough to hope that it would be better for their academic and spiritual health than other places, which is a testament to the respect that he had for Pastor Philip and some of the men whom we knew at the time who were teaching there.
As the 1990s came about, our focus of ministry changed toward North India, and gradually we began to part ways from old friends and colleagues in the South. Pastor P.D. Johnson died in Zambia while on a mission trip, and with his passing began a new era of leadership in the Malayalam District. Pastor Jacob preached at the funeral of Pastor Johnson in Trivandrum while Dr. Y. Jeyraj (the SIAG General Superintendent at the time) conducted the burial service. Pastor T.J. Samuel, who was the Assistant Superintendent of the Malayalam District, would later be elected as Superintendent, but because of an unfortunately contentious relationship that he had with Pastor Johnson, he entered leadership with underlying tensions already in play. Pastor Philip was elected Assistant Superintendent, and whether right or wrong, the epicenter of their rivalries or leadership/administrative tensions was Bethel Bible College.
It was unfortunate and we lost the friendship and relationship with people we had known for years, and I am sure that all the parties involved look back at those times with regret. Pastor Philip would in a short time be elected as the District Superintendent, and another friend of ours, Pastor V.T. Abraham and the AG pastors in the northern part of the state of Kerala, in the region of Malabar, would have a new district in which he would be the first (and to date the only) Superintendent. Thus would begin the next three decades of alternating leadership in the Malayalam District between Pastor P.S. Philip and Pastor T. J. Samuel.
Pastor Philip never stopped coming by Maranatha whenever he came through Dallas during that time. An unforgettable memory for me was the last time that we were in India as a family, in the 1990. We had gone to the state of Kerala and stopped by Bethel Bible College (our last time), and Pastor Philip insisted that we stay at his house that evening. We had other commitments, but we took him up on his offer that night. I do not know whether or not he took it seriously, but we took it seriously enough that we showed up back at the BBC, at the “Principal’s Bungalow” late at night. He and his family were fast asleep, but he did not show any irritation for being disturbed so late! And his wife served the seven of us (there were two men who traveled with our family) generously. That was the one and only time we had called on him at his home, but it is at least something that is fondly remembered.
Over the years, I look back and wonder. Did we really know each other well or were we more acquaintances rather than close friends? I never met his children, though I wish I had. And his wife has never come by our home or church; indeed, this particular fact became a humorous point between the two of us in the last few times we actually saw each other. I had remarked to him that in all these years that we knew him, he never once brought his wife to America, and unlike his other colleagues who were superintendents, she was not involved in preaching ministry (at least from what we understood). We happened to run into each other at a wedding a few years ago, and he introduced his wife. In Malayalam, he said, “You said that I never brought my wife here. Well, here she is. Satisfied?!” We laughed!
I wish we had seen more of each other in the last eight years. The visits and whatever communications almost came to a complete stop. I felt this loss deeply as I watched his funeral, and especially as I heard the eulogies and testimonies of his wife and children.
It is impossible for us not to know the happenings and doings of ministry in Kerala. Pastor Philip was the leader of one of the most significant of the Pentecostal fellowships and so anything that happened there with him would almost certainly make it down the “grapevine.” We would watch the annual district conventions in January and stare with awe at the masses of people who attended. It also did not escape our notice that aside from Pastor Philip, Pastor T.J. Samuel, Pastor V.T. Abraham, and a few others, we really did not know anyone in the AG anymore.
Last year, we saw that the Malayalam District (under Pastor Philip’s leadership) bought the Parenthal Convention Ground in Adoor. Some of the pastors we knew shared the difficulty in the acquisition, not just from the outside, but from within the fellowship. Obviously, there were some people who were against the acquisition (to say the least), and some who decided to get absolutely nasty and stop it at any cost. Just how nasty seemed to come as a shock to a lot of people, but considering what we went through in the last eight years, it did not surprise us in the least when we heard about it. All the stress and tension began to come down like a ton of bricks as Pastor Philip used every resource in his power and all the friends and churches and people that he knew from all over the world from 50 years of ministry, to raise the finances to close the deal for that six-acre property. By the time of their Malayalam District 2020 Convention, the property was finally paid for and taken, a noteworthy accomplishment which even the Communist chief minister of Kerala, Pinarayi Vijayan, came to celebrate. But this fight had taken a physical and mental toll. And the nastiness from certain individuals within the MDAG continued.
Nastiness; that was something that Pastor Philip probably thought he could avoid with his congeniality over the years. But for Pastor Jacob and those of us who have experienced first-hand the absolute cold-bloodedness of the so-called “saints,” we knew just about any manner of evil was possible and destructive. Large scale denominations in India such as the AG, the Church of God, and the India Pentecostal Church have a problem from a tendency that states that almost anything can be tolerated by big named or big moneyed people as long as it is financially profitable to the church. And if there are negative consequences? As long as it is not too public a problem, in essence, it would be swept under the proverbial rug. If a pastor was run out of a church by or for such an individual…well, that was too bad. “At least there was another church to move to,” went the rationale. If there was a dirty church split, “Let’s try to keep both parties in the fellowship, and we will call it church growth!” I do not think that any of the Pentecostal leaders thought about the consequences of such a mentality which has been prevalent for over 70 years in the churches.
Several years ago, one of Pastor Philip’s colleagues (a man who was responsible for the Sunday School ministry of the Malayalam District) and I had a conversation about the nastiness that was being fostered in the Pentecostal church world in India. This man’s son was seriously ill in Dallas, and he came from India to be with him. But in spite of his son’s illness, he told me that being by the sick bed of his son was a relief for him compared to what was going in the ministry headquarters in Kerala. I asked him what was the problem, and he told me. I was shocked by the revelation.
He told me that there were over a dozen court cases filed against him and Pastor Philip (as he was the Superintendent of the fellowship at that time) by disgruntled individuals with regards to Sunday School/Christian Education ministry. What happened to be the reason for some of the cases? The results of Sunday School Competitions. At a music competition, the family of one girl felt that she was supposed to win first prize, but she did not so they decided to sue the fellowship under the idea that the judges were purposely biased against her. (I am not kidding, this really happened.)
In a Bible Quiz competition, some participants filed cases for the same reason. The Sunday School director explained the situation to me. There are 35,000 youths who are competing. And there are 35,000 individual, unique tests for each person competing. This along with several other safety mechanisms had been factored in to provide almost 100% protection against any kind of cheating or favoritism, and still the losers were not convinced! At another competition, officials from some of the churches participating actually decided to make the confrontations physical. Assault and intimidation; they are all common occurrences now, and by people who cannot see the irony of it all! For whom or for what are they engaging in all these actions? And this was from the youth ministries. Just imagine what the adults were doing! I wondered then as I do now; why are these people still in the Church?
Pastor Philip had weathered mine fields of ministry for several years without being wounded by the attacks of people, but he had to have seen the casualties and destruction wreaked upon others in recent times by what the Bible calls, “wolves in sheep’s clothing.”
At the funeral, his attorney, Mr. John Mathew, begin to go into detail of some of the more recent cases that caused Pastor Philip distress in the last year of his life. Each case was thrown out in court, and still people within the AG were bringing new cases, and the accusations began to get more sordid. Just three days before he passed away, another case was filed in a local court with an accusation that caused the man of God’s heart to break. Mr. Mathew stated openly, before the tens of thousands of people who were at the funeral (which included many who were unbelievers and Kerala government officials), that Pastor Philip was literally calling him every day for the last year and a half. He then called on the people who filed the cases (all of them within the Malayalam district of the AG and who were either present at the funeral or watching online) to withdraw their cases; after all, Pastor Philip is dead and such actions are detrimental to the fellowship as a whole. I wonder how many people in that service felt the sting of those words. Only God knows.
I watched Pastor Philip’s wife weep bitterly as the attorney spoke, possibly the only time in the funeral service that she broke down emotionally, and I do not blame her. They were married for 50 years, and she knew better than anyone else the anguish that her husband went through. Their children’s testimonies of their father were equally painful to hear, but to their credit, they talked more of their father as the “man of the house” who was no less a man of God for his family, than just the Superintendent of the Malayalam District of the South India Assemblies of God. He was the man who got along with everyone, never bore a grudge against anyone, not even against the people who did not agree with him or maltreated him in the end. He was their father who always loved them and hardly ever got angry with them. Most importantly, they talked of his personal testimony at home; as one preacher I heard once put it, “There was no discombobulation between the ecclesiastical and the domestic.”
Pastor Philip’s wife spoke at the end, and she did not try to hide the hurt and pain the family felt at the moment, and I do not blame her for that. Our family has been in that position where one felt that there were sadists in the crowd who were enjoying our pain or displeasure. Her words were honest. She said of her husband, “His passing is a great loss to us (his family). I do not know if it is a great loss for the Assembly of God, but it is a great loss for us.” She then assured everyone that their family was loyal to the AG and that even if anyone tried to “kill them,” they were born and bred in the AG, and they were not leaving!
In many ways, she reminded me of my own mother.
We lived in separate continents and for the most part we were just acquaintances, but we will miss Pastor P.S. Philip presence. Throughout the last four decades, we have stood together in many places and in many moments. A disagreement never passed between us and there were plenty of moments of joy and laughter. He did his ministry appropriately and well. He was the leader of a fellowship, and he fulfilled that responsibility by providing stability and direction during times that were often troubled by unstable people. He represented the Assemblies of God in India well. He represented the Pentecostal movement in India well, and we join all our brothers and sisters from all over the world in paying our respects to this man of God.
I hope God will bless and comfort his family, particularly during this Christmas season. If any of them come through Dallas, I hope that they will come by and see us. We would love to spend some time with them. God bless you.
“It will be worth it all, when we see Jesus.
Life’s trials will seem so small, when we see Christ.
Just one glimpse of his dear face, all sorrows will erase
So bravely run the race, till we see Christ.” - Esther Kerr Rusthoi