Sharing to you my testimonial sermon for 22 March 2020 during the Opening Service of the ROMERO DAYS, an annual ecumenical celebration in remembrance of Archbishop Oscar Romero to be held in Apostelkirche. However, this has been cancelled due to the COVID-19 Pandemic and maybe pursued in a later date.
Our Faith Challenges Us To Speak Out
I was born to a very poor family. I grew up with my father who is already a retired carpenter and a mother who was a market vendor. I am the fifth of the living seven siblings then but an older brother died when I was in elementary. Though my parents told us that we have another brother and a sister who died before I was born. Our eldest lived in the nearby province and worked there in a sugarcane plantation. The brother next to her was living in a convent, volunteering in the church to make his way to high school and the brother next to him stayed with us in the house and went to school as a full student in a state college. A younger brother and a sister are next to me.
We always work our way to eat for lunch, for supper and save for breakfast. We are working to eat and live. I grew up helping my parents with the economic activities of the family. At dawn, I went to the market with my mother to sell some foods (suman, poto, syakoy, botse2x, etc.) that we cooked in the evening or at dawn or starting at midnight. In summer days I am the one selling these stuff around the neighborhood. We also harvest and sell bananas and coconuts in the market but sometimes my brothers and I would resort to pick and pack young leaves of banana and coconut to sell. When I stopped schooling before the end of the school year of my first year in high school to another school year after, I spent my days in the market selling plastic bags, sometimes retail cigarettes especially to public jeepney drivers and also pushing carts to deliver some packs of goods from one to another corner in the market for a pay. When my elder brother finally transferred to our house from the convent, he worked his way for the fresh coconut wine which I am his extra-worker or replacement during the holy week, the week before the holy week and the easter week because he and my father will be serving in the church. Oh, by the way, we were a very religious family but also were conservative and reactionary.
I finished my high school as a working student – a janitor and messenger in a private lawyer’s office. It was my boss who encouraged me to continue my studies while working. It was also during this time that I become active in the church as a junior lay evangelist and then become a youth leader and developed my desire to become a priest. I took my college preparatory units for seminary while working as a barangay secretary (a barangay is the smallest local government unit in the Philippines) while at dawn every day I worked as a motorela passenger driver (motorela is an improvised two-wheel cab carried by motorcycle) just to earn extra money to help survive and pay for my study. This time I also served as the secretary of the parish council.
It was during my seminary days that I learned liberation theology by the book and started to live out the theology of struggle among the urban poor communities, the laborers and peasants provided by our exposures during weekends and summer field works. We organized a chapter of Seminarians for Transformation and Nationalism in our regional seminary and also joined with the Promotion of Church Peoples’ Response (PCPR) – a national, ecumenical, political organization of church people – believers of Christian teaching of justice and peace, freedom and liberty, human rights and human dignity, national democracy, love and God’s shalom – called and sent to uphold and promote the Christian teachings and are committed to bring good news to the poor and summoned to live in solidarity in the struggle to realize a fullness of life guided by “The Spirit of the Lord is on me because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor (Luke 4:18a).”
I am a Lukan, largely influenced by the social Gospel according to Luke. My ordinations were all with the feast day of St. Luke – diaconate on October 18, 1998, priesthood on October 18, 1999, and bishopric on October 18, 2010.
My church, the Iglesia Filipina Independiente was born out of the Filipinos quest for freedom and liberation from all forms of dehumanization. It was the labor leader and unionist Isabelo delos Reyes, Chairman of the Union Obrera Democratica the first confederation of labor unions in the Philippines who proclaimed the birth of this native church on August 3, 1902. The proclamation was done in consonance to the resolution of the general council of the labor confederation for the establishment of the Iglesia Filipina Independiente. It was during the American regime and therefore the new-born church was under the constant watch of the colonial government which regarded it as a people’s movement against US rule in the Philippines. Since its birth up to the end of US direct colonial rule, the Iglesia Filipina Independiente would become a vessel that carries on the people’s anti-colonial, anti-imperialist and anti-fascist ideals through her prayers and songs. These principles have made it a rallying symbol in the struggle of the Filipino people against colonial domination and oppression. Until today, the church remained faithful to its birthright as the Church of the working class and the Filipino people struggling for national independence and democracy.
I believe that the theology of struggle has been embedded in the ministry of my church as the expression of the social gospel as it essentially distinguished itself from the colonial Churches, both Catholic and Protestant, that have cooperated with the US colonial regime in the country, by upholding the national-democratic-internationalist aspirations of the Filipino people.
After my seminary life, my first two parish assignments in a very poor and struggling community of peasants and para-industrial area provided my real-life struggle with them thus defined my way of living out my pastoral and prophetic ministry. My membership with the PCPR continued easily and I was elected as the Regional Chairperson for Northern Mindanao which paved the way for my election also as the Secretary-General of KARAPATAN – the Alliance for the Advancement of People’s Rights in the same region. Hence my life of activism as many said has begun and intertwined in my ministry. I become one of the voices of the indigenous peoples, the laborers, the poor peasants, and the urban poor. I was with them in mass actions and demonstrations seeking for justice and denouncing the anti-people policies and theologizing the same in my sermons. I can still vividly remember and I think I should mention this that I joined with these people in series of demonstrations to stop the entry of STEAG State Power Inc. with 51% ownership of German company STEAG GmbH – a coal-fired power plant within my parish ecclesiastical jurisdiction. We failed because the government did its full force to its entry and it has displaced thousands of peasant farmers, fishermen in the area. It was petty to know that while in Germany this kind of energy source will be replaced by cleaner sources of wind and sunlight to make Germans safe, this killer-source of energy is being transferred to our country and other poor countries in the third world.
Living out the pastoral and prophetic ministry has brought me to my first ever death threat on October 6, 2006. It was three days after our Obispo Maximo or supreme bishop, Bishop Alberto Ramento was brutally killed that I received a text message saying that I will be killed for they even killed our supreme bishop, they can also kill me as I am only a priest and make my death, a sample or warning to activists in my city. Bishop Ramento was a staunch critic of the anti-people policies of the government and very vocal against the human rights violations done to peasant communities and rights workers in central Luzon. It was the first time that I felt terribly for my life and safety but at the end of the day, I decided to go on and didn’t stop doing what was right for God through His people. But it was only the first of several threats. The spokesperson of the military several times had branded me as either commander of the New People’s Army (NPA) – the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines or recruiter of the NPA. He even tagged me as a wolf in a sheep’s cloth and a devil in a cloak and challenged me for a duel during a tit for tat over the radio which I answered that I can only be using holy water against his .45 caliber pistol.
In 2010, I was consecrated bishop of the church serving in the western part of Mindanao, the Diocese of Pagadian with the ecclesiastical jurisdiction in the provinces of Zamboanga del Sur, Zamboanga Sibugay and Lanao del Norte. This has become an opportunity to widen the scope for my pastoral and prophetic ministry. Like in my priesthood time, I didn’t waste a single moment but to spend most of my time visiting my flock right in their own houses which provided me the knowledge of how the lives of my people and their communities would be.
Maintaining, continuing and improving my engagement in the people’s movement through KARAPATAN and PCPR, I become part as a convenor of PROTECT-Western Mindanao – it is a network of faith-based organizations, human rights defenders and environmental activists promoting ecological justice in the region and threats to my life continues.
Threat through a breach in. In July 2013, my modest room in the cathedral was broke into by unidentified assailants who even get nothing but to make me feel that they were just around watching. It was two days after we announced through the media about a Community and Mercy Mission led by PROTECT to an indigenous community of Subanen tribe displaced from their farmlands and livelihood of small-scale traditional mining to give way to the TVI Resource Development Inc. a subsidiary of TVI Pacific Mining company of Toronto Canada.
In late July to early August of 2014, I was the led convenor in hosting a high-level delegation of anti-mining advocates from Canada visiting the foreign mining areas in the ancestral lands of the indigenous people initiated by KAIROS – Canadian Ecumenical Justice Initiatives, a faith-based ecumenical organization aimed to effect social change through advocacy, education and research programs which includes indigenous rights and ecological justice.
I find it unsafe and cannot sleep well in my cathedral after my room was ransacked so I spent most of my time in the Pro-Cathedral in Tubod, Lanao del Norte but in the morning of October 7, 2015, the office clerk found our parish office at the Pro-Cathedral ransacked and the CPU of our computer was robbed. A small piece of paper with the phrases written in the vernacular which means, “be watchful” and “be ready” written on each side. Clearly, the motive was intimidation and threat and surveillance through information from the CPU as other more valuable things were left untouched.
In July 2016, I also hosted a 14 member-delegation of the International Solidarity Mission, including activists from Canada, the U.S., Australia and Kenya whom together with Filipino delegates who were there to support the Filipino people fighting for their rights in the said mining mountain to validate the reports of more than hundred indigenous peoples, poor farmers and small-scale workers were killed because of their struggle for land and life. It was also in this year that I received two life-threatening information. One, my deacon and office driver was told by a state agent that my records in the intelligence community in my former and home diocese were forwarded to their jurisdiction where my present workplace is. The second was more threatening as one of my priest had an unusual Good Friday morning call and advised to tighten my security as he was told by a friend from the intelligence community that I will be killed on that day after a Maundy Thursday attacked during a Last Supper Service in the cathedral of my home province.
In May 2017 my colleague Bishop Carlo Morales was arrested for illegal possession of explosives of an inconsistent testimonial account of arresting police officers of a hand grenade allegedly found on the church car. After his temporary liberty in 2018, we were together in an ecumenical and multi-sectoral Community Mercy Mission to another indigenous community which was bombed by the military after being tagged as a rebel-infiltrated. There we found and exposed the human rights violations of the military as reported to us by the affected people. The army was using as barracks the community health center near and within the residents which in violation of local and international humanitarian law. They were forced to surrender even if they are not in any way, members and supporters of the guerillas and their lives were threatened when they opposed the scheme.
Today, and since May of 2019, I have been here in Hamburg for safety. It is because in September 2019 and until this time my name is painted like graffiti on walls of churches, bridges, waiting sheds, roads and roads retaining walls, written on leaflets, streamers, and placards, on social media by fictitious accounts branding and equating me as one with the New People’s Army or the revolutionary guerillas. The present populist government finds no delineation between and among the dissenters, oppositions, activists, guerillas, and terrorists. This branding would mean a license for the killers and rogue elements who were widely suspected to be state agents and security forces, paramilitary and hired killers by those in the state as evidenced by those arrested attackers during hot pursuit operations who were identified policemen and military officers, some of whom are significantly ranking officials.
Constantly reminded by the asking of the chieftain of indigenous peoples who said, “Bishop, please tell all the world about our existence and the oppression that we have and hoping that a change might come for the better…”, I am using my time and energy while here in Europe to tell the stories of the indigenous peoples of my country and the victims of human rights violations. I have been to churches, institutions for justice, peace, and peoples’ rights, to the government agencies and parliaments – Germany and Iceland, to the United Nations Human Rights Council, organizations for human development and many others.
Several of the people close to me have been advising me to stop what I am doing for the oppressed and marginalized people in the society – especially the LUMADS and the indigenous peoples and to just keep silent and live peacefully but I told them repeatedly that doing so would mean stopping from being a bishop, a Christian and a human, created imago Dei.