by Jane Taguicana
Photo Credit: Raymond Santos
Bo Sanchez looked down on the floor and gave a long pause halfway through the interview. We were having a great conversation about his ministry, specifically his biblically-inspired financial education work when I had to ask him to go back to one of the most difficult times in his past.
“When did the forgiveness come to that person who assaulted you?”
Bo was sexually molested when he was eight by his cousin. And again, at 14 years of age. This time, it was a youth counsellor at another prayer community.
The Philippine’s most popular Catholic lay preacher bent his elbows in front of him and placed a hand on his chin. His once relaxed, stretched legs were now bent as well.
After a few seconds, he answered, “This is something a lot of people don’t understand and I, myself, don’t understand it, but it was easy for me to forgive.”
Much has been written about Bo, but more importantly, he has written a lot about himself.
The author of 45 books, founder of a prayer group, international preacher, blogger and TV and radio personality is everywhere.
So, when I asked my editor to interview him, I thought that I know my subject well. But every part of our conversation seem to unravel a new side of Bo. Every answer allowed me to learn more about him and be inspired by him.
After another pause, he revealed that he met the youth counsellor recently on a plane after the traumatic encounter 36 years ago. The molester was still very much a religious guy, with a huge cross hanging on his neck.
“He looks like a priest but he was an abuser,“ recalled the man known as The Preacher in Blue Jeans.
“He was the one who tapped my shoulder and said, ‘Bro. Bo,’
I looked at him and (replied), ‘Oh, hi!’ and then he clasped my hands and said, ‘I’m sorry.’”
“Please forgive me,” the abuser pleaded.
“I told him: ‘I’ve forgiven you a long time ago.’”
Eugenio Isabelo Tomas Reyes Sanchez is the youngest of six. Born on July 11, 1966 in Caloocan City from “the most fantastic human beings on the planet” Eugenio and Pilar Sanchez.
His parents met while his mum was applying for work in his father’s office. His dad, six years senior than the pretty 19-year-old applicant, was smitten right away. The older Eugenio slipped the answers to the entrance exam and hired her on the spot. Before you know it, their first date was at a morning mass and three months later, they tied the knot.
His parents introduced him to his first Catholic prayer meeting at age 12.
“At first, I didn’t want to go because I felt I was too young and religion was for older people.”
The family was a regular church goer but Bo admitted it was only due to obligation.
His faith came alive in the prayer meeting.
“(I loved) every part of it. Lively songs. Worship songs. Fellowship. The talk. I loved every part of it!”
The conversion came easy.
“I was smitten by God’s love and gave my life to Him.”
How many 12-year-olds do you know who have done that?
He preached soon after.
“Our leader prophesied that I would be given the gift of wisdom and preach. She then invited me to preach the next week and I did. At 13 years old. Wild.”
What is wilder is at 14, his parents encouraged him to start their own prayer group and asked him to be the leader.
The Light of Jesus Family was born in 1980 at a garage.
“We were 30 people,” Bo recalled. “Today, we have 30,000 people attending the 42 feasts (prayer meeting) in Metro Manila and its suburbs. We have 224 feasts around the world.”
Not only do they hold weekly feasts, the prayer group is now on a mission to have one million disciples around the world.
“We wanted a number that’s big enough to excite us, big enough to be unrealistic.”
So, does this mean it cannot be achieved?
Bo, who was wearing his trademark blue jeans and a blue shirt, smiled at my question.
“It’s a number that unless God moves, it won’t happen.”
Never meet your hero
When someone tells you never to meet your hero, they tell you this because of fear that you’d end up embarrassing yourself, or they’re afraid their idol won’t be as nice or even worst, your hero will be mean to you (Anyone read The Fault in our Stars?).
I will never give you that same advice when it comes to Bo.
Bo embodies what being a hero is, in my case, I even refer to him as my superhero.
A superhero is compassionate.
Bo has preached compassion many times over but decided to put it into action by founding Anawim, a shelter for the poor and abandoned elderly.
“I wanted to live with the poor — like St. Francis of Assisi. We raised money, bought a property, built a few nipa huts, and started welcoming the poorest of the poor.”
The facility in Rizal opened its doors in 1996 and has been a sanctuary to hundreds of lolos and lolas abandoned by their own family.
The need was great that they had to open other segments: a home for the orphans (Tahanan), streetkids (He Cares), pregnant women in crisis (Grace To Be Born) and poor kids who needs scholarships (Pagasa ng Pamilya).
A superhero also has awesome sidekicks or posse. Think of Justice League or Avengers. More is always better than one.
His mission to have one million disciples around the world is a proof. More than anything else, everyone is astonished that he doesn’t limit his preaching to his prayer group alone.
Bo tries to reach everyone and anyone through whatever medium you are comfortable with. Whether it’s through his inspiring books, videos on his websites, articles on his blogs, radio shows or grand feasts that is open not only to his own prayer community and Kerygma family.
At the recent Kerygma Grand Feast in Toronto, other prayer groups such as The Loved Flock, El Shaddai, Joy of the Lord and Living for Christ were there.
“It’s not about us. It’s not about our name. Not about our organization. It’s about Jesus. Let’s make him famous and let’s be as generous as we can.”
Also, a true hero is one who embodies our fantasy of being able to do something extraordinary.
Superman flies. Wolverine self-heals. Darna is super strong.
But the common denominator among them all is their courage to face their foes, jump over buildings or save the whole planet.
Bo’s courage lies in facing his own demons.
At one point, he was struggling with his addiction to porn and masturbation.
”I knew it had power over me because I couldn’t quit it. Its cravings were urgent.”
“After many frustrating years of struggle, I finally realized the path to healing: Learning to love myself the way God loves me. It was a long journey, but I found freedom.”
Bo’s ultimate weapon is his words, his gift of preaching. When other preacher tells you to only pray for what you need, here he is trying to conquer the world with the written word.
But the two exceptional characteristics that make him stand out are his forgiving nature and his immense faith in God.
Almost everyone in the room gasped when we heard the story about his encounter with his abuser. Some teared up (including this writer).
Forgiving allows room for more love while exercising faith is not easy.
His words still echo whenever I think of him: “We wanted a number that’s big enough to excite us, big enough to be unrealistic…It’s a number that unless God moves, it won’t happen.”
That’s the kind of faith that can move mountain.
So, no. Don’t believe others who say, “Never meet your hero.” Because when I met mine, not only did he meet all my expectations, he exceeded them many times over.
Bo Sanchez by the numbers:
Eugenio Isabelo Tomas Reyes Sanchez
13: First preached at 13 years of age on the topic of Eternal Life
1980: Founded Light of Jesus Community at age 14
1990: Founded Catholic magazine Kerygma
1996: Founded Anawim, a sanctuary for the poor and elderly
7: publisher of seven magazines including Kerygma
45 books: Author of books with topics ranging from inner healing, relationships and personal finance.
16: Preached in 16 countries, including 38 cities in North America
2006: Recipient of The Outstanding Young Men award for Community Service. The Philippine’s most prestigious award for young men and women between 18 and 40 years old.
2007: Recipient of Serviam Award, the highest award that can be given to a lay practitioner from the Catholic Mass Media Awards
Excerpts from the interview:
What is your main message to Filipinos living abroad who are more exposed to secularism and the desires of the flesh?
Follow Jesus. It’s the only that that can make our life happy and fulfilled.
At the time you were assaulted, were you aware that it was sex? The provincial government here is introducing sex education to kids, as early as grade 1, would you recommend that?
I was molested when I was eight years old. I didn’t understand what was happening, but I just knew that it was wrong. Since they were small, I’ve taught my kids to scream, run away or fight back if someone attempts to touch their private parts. For small children, sex education should be about protecting themselves from sexual assault.
What advice can you give someone who’s looking for her/his own community?
Starting a community is easy. It’s maintaining it that’s difficult. Anyone can start a prayer group. But building loving relationships among its members that will last year after year after year — that’s difficult.
There are two things to look for in a community. First, look for a community where you can serve the Lord, where you can fulfill your life mission; Second, look for a community that can nourish you spiritually and help you grow spiritually.
Marowe was working with me in the office, she was serving the Lord. She was my secretary. I noticed that she loved to pray and she has a relationship with God. And the other bonus I saw was she knows my work already, the craziness of my work. So, I was looking for a wife who would support my ministry so there wouldn’t be much (fight), somebody who would cheer me on.
It’s my greatest role in life, to become a father and I think it’s just amazing to see my sons move from one phase to another, maturing, growing. My 16-year-old loves to serve God. I see myself in him, but at the same time, he’s going through the same teenage phase of struggles and doubts. He said, he might take up a short course. Maybe set up his own business. And I said, “OK, It’s your own choice.”
Advice on relationships
They say that the only thing that can help people go through their pains and hurts is relationships. It’s as simple as that. Just being there, spending time. Even if she kinda pushes you away. Still be there. Gently being there. If she runs away, you run after her. That’s the only way, because she knows that no matter what she does, there’s people who are always there. On the day that she decides to open up, she knows that she can run to you. But if she runs away and say, “Ah, we’re tired or We don’t know what to do!” Just be there.
My salvation was that. I had a small group of friends that, at the time I wanted to open up for the first time that I was molested, they were there so I shared and they just accepted and loved and listened. That was salvation for me.
Advice for preachers
You’ve got be real on the stage. No fake…If you’re going through struggles, admit it there. We feel that if you don’t admit it, then other people will not benefit. They’ll say, ‘He’s got everything altogether.’ He’ll feel ‘Why am I such a mess?’ But if you share your mess, then people will say there’s hope for me. Number 2 is you have to keep on studying and reflecting because you can’t give what you don’t have.
What’s your life’s greatest fulfillment?
What’s your favourite treat?
Peanut butter. Sometimes. As I grow older, it had to be organic. It had to be without sugar. It had to be natural.
What is your favourite hobby?
To stay in a quaint coffee shop to read.
What book have you read lately?
Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future by Peter Thiel.