A SOJOURNER’S VIEW: Book Review on SPACES: Narratives About the Mission of Fr. Angel Calvo, CMF

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SPACES: Narratives About the Mission of Fr. Angel Calvo, CMF
Author: Maria Frencie Carreon
Claretian Communications Foundation, Inc.

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 27 September) — There was a time when we could only read about the historical and contemporary realities of Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago from the perspective of either foreign scholars or Filipinos who were Manila-based.  It has been only in the last few decades that  a growing number of Mindanawon authors and writers have been producing works from the local native’s perspective.

And yet, if we make a listing of the titles of these books and articles, some regions are much better covered than others. There are localities in Mindanao-Sulu which are almost unreported as only a few books and articles have been written about them, whether these are local histories, ethnographies, cultural practices and events, places of interest as well as local personalities.  One of these localities is the island of Basilan.

Checking out with Google as to what books or publications have been written on Basilan, there are just a few titles including: The Yakans of Basilan Island: Another Unknown and Exotic Tribe of the Philippines (author: Andrew Dib Sherfan, published in 1976 by the University of California); Basilan in Focus: Its Demographics and Socio-Economic Profile, issue 23 of monograph by the Philippines National Statistics Office that came out in 1999; and Withess: Mission Stories of Basilan (author: Joe Torres, published by Claretians Communications Foundation, Inc. in 2015).

Considering such a sad literary reality, we can only be overjoyed that the Claretian Communications Foundation, Inc. just recently published Spaces: Narratives about the Mission of Fr. Angel Calvo, CMF. Written by Maria Frencie Lachica Carreon, a journalist and author based in Zamboanga City – based on her endless hours of afternoon conversations  with Fr. Calvo –  Spaces chronicles the life and mission of this Claretian missionary who has spent half-a-century of his life mostly in Basilan and Zamboanga.

While it mainly chronicles the life and mission of Fr. Calvo, Spaces tangentially touches on Basilan’s contemporary history. As such, it is a welcome contribution to the writing of local histories in various localities of Mindanao-Sulu. Fortunately, in the academic and literary circles today, there is a privileging of the local, the everyday, the little tradition and the view from below.  After all, how can we speak of a really comprehensive Philippine History if local historical narratives are hardly even considered as integral to make up the whole. Spaces truly highlights the localized perspective.

Born on 29 December 1944 in Villadolid, Spain, Fr, Calvo entered the seminary to be part of the Claretian Missionary Fathers in 1956. Ordained fifty years ago on 5 April 1970, he just celebrated his golden anniversary. (This milestone occasioned the writing of this book which would have been launched as part of his anniversary celebration but did not push through owing to the pandemic).  Two years later he was assigned to Basilan. For most of the twenty years (1972-1992), he mostly served the people of Basilan in various capacities – parish priest, running a radio station, being Director of a school. (The only time he was out of Basilan was when he went on a one-year study leave in Madrid, had a short assignment in Quezon City after EDSA and took a post in Rome at their Generalate.)

Arriving in Basilan just as martial law was about to be declared and just before the full-scale outbreak of the armed conflict between the Philippine armed forces and the Moro National Liberation Front, Fr. Calvo’s arrival coincided with major changes in the landscape of the island. Where once it was an idyllic island of tremendous beauty and rich resources where a mix of Yakans (the island’s  original inhabitants), Christian migrant settlers, Tausog and Sama D’laut lived in peaceful co-existence, Basilan turned into a theatre of war resulting in outbreaks of violence, in untold sufferings of the civilians who had to endure dislocations, kidnappings and constant risk to life and property. Even until today, the residue of the war is still present  in some places.

With a background in Sociology (an interesting vignette is what his Father Provincial told him as he was handed his assignment to Basilan who quipped: “Angel, since you wanted to study Sociology, please go to Basilan where you would have the opportunity to practice Sociology”). Basilan was a great challenge to the young missionary. The context of course was the post Vatican-II era when the Roman Catholic Church began to shed its conservative medieval cloak where her engagements were predominantly focused on the spiritual and privatized religious practices with little interest to engage the urgent social and ecological issues of the times. By the late 1960s and through the 1970s-80s, some local churches, e.g. the one across Mindanao-Sulu has shifted to a more liberal and progressive outlook which opened up new pastoral horizons.

Under the leadership of the late Bishop Jose Ma. Querexeta, CMF, the Church of Basilan in the 1970s had to make a radical shift when the armed conflict impacted on the lives of the inhabitants. Fr. Calvo’s words as to the shift that took place: “The Church had to take emergency measures for mere survival: providing bread, food and clothing to thousands of abandoned refugees in every corner of those centers that were still populated. But above and beyond all this, we, the Church of Basilan, were so strongly shaken by this armed conflict between the Muslim rebels and government forces, that we were forced to overhaul ourselves completely. We were forced to search out the deepest causes underlying it all, to look for urgent solutions, to create mechanisms to counteract the effects of cannon and bullets, to build a reconciliation that will last, to rebuild a road for peace.”

For this reason towards the late 1970s, Fr. Calvo began to work directly with communities of Muslims or mixed communities, composed of Muslims and Christians as well as with other tribes from the interior of the island in the center of Kapatagan. This involvement was the main highlight of his mission in Basilan. Thus the whole of Part III of the book, constituting seven Chapters covers what took place during the Kapatagan mission, a most interesting process of interweaving disaster response, community development, building basic human communities and most especially inter-religious dialogue.

Promoting dialogue between peoples of various faith traditions would then become a lifetime passion and engagement of Fr. Calvo.  The 1990s unfolded with the worsening situation that consequently made life insecure and risky especially for foreign missionaries working in places like Jolo, Marawi, Lanao, parts of Zamboanga and Basilan. There were kidnappings (e.g. Fr. Clarence Bertelsman in Jolo, Fr, Bernard Maes and Bishop Desmond Hartford in Marawi, Fr. Luciano Benedetti in Zamboanga del Norte and his own confrere Fr. Bernardo Blanco in Zamboanga City) and even death threats. By then, even if he were willing to take the risks, Fr. Calvo’s superiors had to convince him to leave Basilan for a mission based in Zamboanga City.

It is here in this Ciudad Hermosa that Fr. Calvo’s inter-religious dialogue advocacy and engagement would evolve and then expand to the level where today it has become one of the most important civil society’s response to the challenge of peacebuilding in Mindanao.  Starting first as a community development effort promoting responses to the needs of children and the homeless and then branched to the peace advocacy (through Peace Advocates – Zamboanga or PAZ), it eventually gave birth to an alliance of four different organizations: Katilingban para sa Kalambuan, Inc., Nagdilaab Foundation, Inc. (based in Basilan), Peace Advocates Zamboanga and Reach Out to Others Foundation, Inc. which the organizers named as Zamboanga-Basilan Integrated Development Alliance (ZABIDA).  Fr. Calvo was founding Director and has since been its strongest pillar.

Ms. Carreon wrote this 339-page book in a way that it is the voice of Fr. Calvo one hears as the reader goes through the pages. It is an interesting collaboration between subject and writer, truly an ideal one. While she writes about Fr. Calvo’s life, it is not a biographical sketch. Instead she allows the reader to listen to why Fr. Calvo got into this kind of mission and has sustained it through the years, through thick and thin, through struggles and risks. Neither does it pretend to be auto-biographical as it mainly highlights missionary engagements as these unfold in real time, following the set timeline from 1972 to 2019.

This book should interest a wide range of readers including the people of Basilan and Zamboanga, those in the academe interested in local histories, historians who need to have a grasp of how historical events unfolded in specific localities, journalists who need background materials if they ever report on breaking news from Basilan-Zamboanga, peace advocates and peace builders interested to learn about peacebuilding approaches, church personnel and seminarians who desperately need models tackling approaches to inter-religious dialogue and book lovers. It is to all of them that we recommend this book which even – at first glance  – attracts attention  owing to its striking cover.

Coming out a year before the 2021 quintencentenary (or 500th year) commemoration of the arrival of Christianity to our islands, Spaces serves to chronicle a particular missionary approach that has very little similarity to the one followed by the Spanish friars who evangelized our ancestors throughout the Spanish colonial regime. Given this historical  context, one can easily come up with this thought after reading the book: what if it is the likes of Fr. Calvo who would have evangelized our people in the manner that present-day missionary engagements are conducted, what kind of Catholicism would now be practiced by most Filipinos?  

[MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Redemptorist Brother Karl Gaspar is a professor at St. Alphonsus Theological and Mission Institute (SATMI) in Davao City and until recently, a professor of Anthropology at the Ateneo de Davao University. Gaspar is author of several books, including “Manobo Dreams in Arakan: A People’s Struggle to Keep Their Homeland” which won the National Book Award for social science category in 2012,  “Desperately Seeking God’s Saving Action: Yolanda Survivors’ Hope Beyond Heartbreaking Lamentations,” two books on Davao history, and “Ordinary Lives, Lived Extraordinarily – Mindanawon Profiles” launched in February 2019. He writes two columns for MindaNews, one in English (A Sojourner’s Views) and the other in Binisaya (Panaw-Lantaw)  Gaspar is a Datu Bago 2018 awardee, the highest honor the Davao City government bestows on its constituents]

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