Lawrence F.D. Merced has been impacting the Philippines sports community for more than 20 years now—as a basketball coach since 1991 (from league to semi-pro levels) and as FCA staff since 2013.
But in 2016, Merced (more commonly known as “Coach Tata”) expanded his influence with a sports talk program on a popular Christian radio station in Cebu City where he began interviewing sports personalities to hear their life testimonies and sharing Bible-themed messages with listeners.
Merced, the Regional Director of FCA CEVR (Central Eastern Visayas Regions), also hosted special guests like Arnold Balais in 2017. As Merced sat across from the team captain for the Philippine Accessible Disability Services (PADS) dragon boat racing team, he knew the Lord had presented him with an incredible ministry opportunity.
For Merced, it was also an incredibly unique opportunity since dragon boat racing isn’t a traditional sport that FCA had been involved with before, despite its rich history in the region.
Dragon boats date back more than 2,000 years as part of Chinese culture, and the racing of these decorative human powered watercrafts became a modern international sport in 1976. More than 40 years later, the PADS organization assembled the Philippines’ first cross-disability adaptive dragon boat racing program and fields a team solely of athletes with a wide range of disabilities and health issues—amputees, breast cancer survivors, the hearing impaired, etc.
Two weeks after meeting Balais, Merced attended his first PADS dragon boat racing practice and shared some encouraging words with the competitors as they prepared to compete at the Hong Kong International Paradragon Championship. The PADS team won the 400m Standard Boat Paradragon Category—its first international victory.
Merced became a regular weekly guest speaker and was given a front row seat to a hugely successful year of competition that included numerous top three finishes in various categories and three titles at the 1st Naga Invitational Dragonboat Race.
Even more meaningful conversation was happening behind the scenes as Merced spoke into the competitors’ lives using a tried-and-true relationship building method.
“Our entry is usually character building. We will talk about discipline, humility and more. Then we talk about how Jesus Christ is the best character builder and ultimately the eternal life giver.” -Lawrence F.D. Merced
Early on, Merced led most of the Huddles and eventually added a volunteer assistant. When that individual moved on, Merced had another meaningful encounter on his radio program in 2019 that set the PADS ministry on a new trajectory. After his interview with a local coach named Jasper Madrazo, Merced invited him to help with his basketball team’s Huddle and then to help with the PADS Huddle.
Madrazo started as Merced’s assistant but eventually took the lead. Since then, Madrazo is now a full time staff as the FCA Area Representative for Metro Cebu North. He has been joined by a former volunteer Chaplain Jun Quirequire, who is also now a full time FCA staff as Area Representative for Metro Cebu South.
The FCA chaplains often arrive about 30 minutes before the team Huddle starts with praise and worship at 4:45 AM. Then they begin practice at 5:15 AM. Sometimes they join in the stretching, help carry the boat to the water and stay with the paddlers during practice.
“Many of these athletes have a lot of problems they are dealing with due to their disabilities,” Merced said. “That’s why this team is so important to them. That’s why they really need something, especially the Word of God, to encourage them. And that’s why we’re there—to serve them at the point of their need.”
Because of their efforts, Merced, Madrazo and Quirequire have seen a significant spiritual movement.
“There are a lot of testimonies about what happens the moment they hear the Gospel,” Madrazo explained. “When they hear about Jesus Christ, many are given hope for the first time. They accept Christ, then discipleship continues to those who are really interested.”'
Madrazo recalled how one competitor, a mother who is a breast cancer survivor, accepted Christ through the ministry. The team manager also committed his life to the Lord and declared that the Word of God would be exhorted before every practice.
According to Merced, two young people on the Juniors team accepted Christ and testified that they were no longer using bad language and were now getting along with their parents at home. These two young paddlers have been memorizing The FOUR and then sharing it with their teammates.
Merced, Madrazo and Quirequire estimate that at least 35 paddlers have received salvation. Their influence has even reached up into the PADS management team. But one of the most powerful stories involves a boy named Tonton who joined the Juniors team in 2019 after being hit by a car. The accident left him partially paralyzed and resulted in the amputation of one of his legs.
His father Clint encouraged Tonton to join the PADS dragon boat team. Competitive racing renewed his confidence and did something special in his father as well.
“Clint saw how happy Tonton was and how he found some purpose in life,” Merced said, “so Jasper and Jun were able to share the Gospel with him. He cried and accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as his personal Savior.”
Since 2017, the PADS dragon boat team has won several national and international competitions. The success has brought the program and its athletes a great deal of notice throughout the city.
“We’re so grateful for the opportunity to work with these remarkable athletes,” Merced said. “I’m expecting to see more changes and transformation throughout all of their lives.”
FCA Philippines is excited about the growing opportunity for ministry to the PADS Dragon Boat Racing Team. Lawrence F D Merced is praying for more workers to divide up amongst the nearly 100 competitors.
“More workers would help us get to know the individual paddlers more intimately and build more relationships,” he said.
Merced is also praying for more financial support so they can continue providing rice for recovery meals, and eventually help the team acquire more equipment.
“We want to meet these athletes where they are,” he added. “The more they see that we truly care about their passion for the sport, the greater the opportunity to speak to their hearts and share the Gospel.”
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