Archive for ‘Philippines’

April 20, 2012

Where is our Church of the Poor?

Footnote: This is not at all a generalization, but more of a reflection, regarding the perceived lack of presence of the so-called “Church of the Poor” especially (and ironically) in urban-poor communities that I have been to.

A while ago I had the chance to do some “field work” in Barangay Payatas, home of the infamous Payatas dumpsite, for a fact-finding project by the World Bank in relation to how it could address the pressing needs of the state’s constituents, in order for it to know where the money the Bank is going to, and to assure that wherever the money is going to must be relevant to the communities that need it.

After doing the required work – I had to take down minutes during the Focused Group Discussion and point out certain reactions or what my companion would say “intangible data” such as facial expressions and cues and whatnot – I had took the liberty to ask more questions to some of the participants of the Focused Group Discussion. Among one of my questions was the social involvement of the Church in the area.

I couldn’t say that I was surprised, but it was surprising nonetheless that the Church, according to the participants of the Group, was not making Herself present in terms of social justice. It went even as far as Ate Cristina leaving the Church and moving to another Parish to pray and attend religious services because the parish in the Payatas area was not at all accommodating to the marginalized. Ate Virginia, one of the participants in the Group Discussion, also said that the Parish was no more than a play of power – of whether who had the largest donation, or whether who has an elevated social status, or even, and it is sad, because they were leaders in the community. It is the very lack of representation that prevents them from actually worshipping.

This was not far off from another depressed community. My foster community in Depensa in Barangay Capunitan in Bataan virtually has no “Church” if we take the term to mean “the house of God” and not merely the physical structure. We had no data precisely because there was nothing to record in the community regarding the presence of the Church and its social justice component.

Having taken some theology courses on the social commitment of the Christian, it cannot but be a stark negative experience of contrast to see other people suffer because of the structural injustice that is perpetuated by our sinful state, and it depresses me even more to see the Church I belong to having no response to this particular reality. All public talk of religion nowadays seems to be the contradistinction with the secular, with how “reason” is supposed to be contrary to the self-incurred minority of belonging to such an institution, with how the “scientific mind” has revealed truths that religion for ages hasn’t had any answer with.

As with the other functions of religiosity, certainly the social commitment aspect cannot be below other functions, such as liturgical worship, nurturing a balanced spirituality, and, well, striving to understand the dogmatics of faith. I do not understand the discrepancy that is – all too prevalent with Philippine Society – present in the lack of social action by the Church, as evidenced by the large number of people living in poverty. And we’re not just talking about them being materially and economically poor; they are subject to the Church’s oppression by discrimination. This is a different kind of poverty that in the end still causes death to those who experience it – a death of representation, of voices. If the Church is committed to the social transformation of the world through the living example of Christ’s hope and ministry in our works in the public sphere, why isn’t anything happening?

Sure, one might say that poverty in itself is a very difficult and, well almost impossible problem to solve. But one might look at the poor communities of Latin America and how the Church has organized the communities to realize that they too have voices in society, that they can dare to speak, even if they are perpetually silenced by the elite. One might assert that we do in fact have Base Ecclesial Communities (BECs) whose function is to empower the disempowered. But why is it not visible? Granted, there are existing BECs in the country today, but why haven’t these reached the public sphere? Why, instead of looking into the grassroots-level of capabilities development, have we focused our attention to the national-level, policy making problems? Why generalize that the most basic problem of the Filipino people is overpopulation, instead of actually going to these communities and actually realizing that it is more than overpopulation; it is also the lack of representation, the lack of choices due to the domination of certain rationalities and identities, and ultimately, the lack of confidence and trust in oneself and one’s neighbor, preventing us from truly becoming a just society. How are we to become a just society if we ourselves do not know how to become a society?

I guess it is symptomatic of the faith of the Filipino; to gaze at the macroscopic level, to a point of forgetting the essential components of the microscopic level, as with our die-hard belief in the Passion and death of Jesus, and yet the forgottenness of the Easter Morn, and in this light, the reason for the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. Large scale is essential, but without the “little dots” that connect each element to form the conglomerate, nothing would remain.

On a more personal level, how am I to believe in the hope of the resurrection of there are people who strive to stifle that belief from within the Church, or more hauntingly, what if the Church itself – how it is today – is the very structure preventing us from seeing the hope of the resurrection in the ministry of Jesus? How can I proclaim the unfailing love of God when those very people who claim to be God’s messengers are the ones who deny other people the love of Christ? Can I even face the altar in humble reverence, knowing at the back of my head that there are those who think they are above the dominion of love?

Up until now I still believe in the hope of the integral social transformation of the whole world, from one of sin, to one of gratitude and peace. But until we learn to look into how things start out small, and until we realize that we should stand up as a community of believers – rich and poor alike – to confront the ugly head of sin and death, we will never learn what it means to be poor. Until there is division and dismay – and true enough, Satan means the accuser and the divider – sin will reign, and we will not even notice it.

April 6, 2012

Comprehending and Confronting the Faith of the Filipino

I know that this does not at all encapsulate the faith of the Filipino, but rather only one facet of our understanding of faith. Nevertheless, I think this experience creates a space for us to talk about it and question it, for indeed, it has become part of what we call “Filipino.”

Yesterday we went to the Divine Mercy Shrine here in Cagayan de Oro. It was around late afternoon when we left the hotel to go to the shrine. It is a good 30 minutes away from the city center by car.

When we arrived, we were greeted with a lot of people going to some place at the back of the shrine, holding water containers and the like. My tita told of the “holy water” station in the shrine, and that it is free. So I insisted to go to the area and observe how it goes over there:


There were a lot of people crowding the sink-like structure on the station, each filling up their water containers to bring it home. Some wet their hands with water place their hands on whatever body part they have in mind. Some, still, drink directly from the faucet, while some wash their faces. It is sad, however, that only a few people actually pray, as far as I have observed, before taking the water:


We then proceeded down to the shrine itself, but not before taking one last look at the beautiful sunset over yonder:


The Divine Mercy statue was huge; by my estimates, probably 15-25 meters in height. It stood over a large and beautifully-crafted garden full of flower arrangements. People were all around the foot of the statue, taking pictures, praying, or basically just staring at the face of the statue:


 I took the liberty of strolling around and observing people; some were quietly praying, some were with their families, taking “jump shot” pictures in front of the statue, some trespassed the garden and sat on the grass, regardless of the clear instruction that the grass is off-limits:


The photograph's a little off, though; too many people passing around

We then left the place, but not before taking one last shot at the moon shining on the valley, with sporadic campfires here and there, for those who have chosen to sleep the night away to avoid the long lines for Good Friday:

Looking back, one cannot but ask: what does it really mean to believe? Does belief amount to the intellectual capacity to accept something that is beyond comprehension? Does believing mean giving one’s life completely to the Church? Does believing mean always asking for graces, or infinitely asking for forgiveness? Is faith relying on holy water? Is faith to strictly follow the precepts of the Church?

There are so many questions that one could ask in confronting the faith of the Filipino: one remembers the almost-blind devotion to the Black Nazarene, or the incessant belief in the power of karma, or the doctrine of temporal retribution, that God will always punish the wicked and reward the “just.”

Definitely, to show acts of piety and to relish in the rich tradition of the Church by actually participating in the different ceremonies certainly is essential in the faith. It is here that our faith as a community is nourished, for certainly, faith is both private and public: private for the fact that in the final analysis, faith is rooted in the decision of the person to believe; public, because this choice is formed and informed by the community that upholds a particular belief system. True to the word communion in community; it is to share-with, implying the lot of members that shares that belief.

But until our frames of mind break free from our very colonial tendencies; until we forgo the language of retribution so prevalent in our culture; until we learn that to limit the faith in merely physical manifestations is to really not be faithful; until we learn that to have faith is to fully be in communion with the Church (and consequently with God) through a commitment to its beliefs, not only doctrinally and sacramentally, but also existentially; until we realize that our responsibility as Christians is a responsibility for the poor; and until we realize that questioning is as essential as believing, then we are stuck in the quagmire of our so-called “faith.”

Public talk about religion is largely viewed to be polarized: on one hand, the image of the uncritical and “conservative” believer; on the other hand, the “free-thinking” secular liberal who believes that religion denies the human person freedom. Perhaps it would also help the society if we break away from our concepts and notions on what religion and the secular life are and learn to question our own predispositions and beliefs. The most dangerous thing for today’s citizen is to think that religion serves only to stifle human agency, replacing it with the logic of the market, of the secular man, “fully free” (as if the Enlightenment era didn’t fail), thus replacing organized religion with the secular ideal, which functions strangely like the proverbial uncritical and conservative religion.

There is more to our own beliefs, whether it be secular or religious. If we could just learn to question ourselves, it would be easier to talk about things considered “taboo” and “old” in today’s world. To comprehend and confront the faith of the Filipino is to learn to question our own predispositions and prejudices by first identifying our own inherited epistemologies. To comprehend and confront the faith of the Filipino is not to put it down but to learn to talk about it.

But first, one should also learn to immerse oneself, suspending one’s judgment, and to talk to people about their faith – this sets up the stage for us to finally question our own predispositions and beliefs, in the hopes of genuinely understanding what it means to believe in our context and time.