A SOJOURNER’S VIEW: Like water from one’s hand

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/25 June) — “How is one to know what people are like?  Perhaps no one can ever know; perhaps people are uncapturable, and slip away like water from one’s hand, changing all the time.”

So wrote Rose Macaulay in Staying with Relations.

Her words have been echoing in my mind in the last few days as I prepare to journey from Davao City to Marawi City to attend the 25th death anniversary of the late Bishop Bienvenido Tudtud, who is now considered the Father of Inter-Faith Dialogue (IFD) not just for Mindanao and the Philippines but throughout SouthEast Asia.

Earlier, Bishop Edwin dela Pena, current Bishop of the Prelature of Marawi invited me to be one of those who would give a testimony during a tribute that will be held in the Catholic church in downtown Marawi City on 26 June 2012.  I am so honored to be invited and I do look forward to the event, which should serve as a reunion of old and new friends.  Old friends that go a long way to the 1970s when Bishop Tudtud – known affectionately as Tatay Bido or Benny – moved from Iligan to Marawi City to begin a pioneering missionary engagement that would – after 25 years – prove to one of the most significant ministry ever discerned, conceptualized and engaged in by a Mindanawon bishop.

Some of those who will surely be there are the long-time colleagues, companions and friends  of Tatay Bido, Muslims and Christians, men and women, elderly and younger people, distinguished and those at the margins – who hold Tatay Bido’s memory deep in their hearts.  The likes of Fr. Dong Galenzoga, Sr. Mary Fe Mendoza RGS, those among the Columbans, Mercy Sisters and FMM Sisters and a few diocesan priests will be there. So also the Muslims who were his early partners in inter-faith dialogue.  To be missed will be Sr. Lilian Curaming FMM who is in Africa, Sr. Delia Coronel ICM whose health is precarious, Fr. Sean McDonagh SSC who is in Ireland and a few others.

The first stirrings that led Tatay Bido to move into the IFD ministry go back to the 1960-70s when he was Bishop of  the Diocese of Iligan, which at that time covered the provinces of Lanao del Norte and del Sur.  Going around the Lanao municipalities – especially those with substantial Moro population – he saw the reality of the marginalization of the Moro people from the rest of the country. He was bothered and bewildered by the sharp contrasts between the lives of those professing the Islamic faith and those who were Christians, mostly Catholics. He was frustrated by the negligence of the State in ignoring the needs of the poorest among the Moro peoples. He saw how the issue of land was further heightening the conflict situation.  When martial law was declared in 1972, he stared at the ugly face of war that led to mass evacuations of the disenfranchised Moro communities.

All these led him to his Quo Vadis moment that paralleled St. Paul’s conversion.  He heard the voice of the All-Mighty, All-Merciful, All-Loving God asking him to listen to the lamentations of the weak and oppressed.  He intuited the need for his own metanoia as a Christian lowlander who was part of the majority who had so long ignored – if not contributed – to the sad state of the Moro uplanders especially those living in the hills and mountains of Lanao del Sur, including Marawi.  At this particular juncture of his life, he was convinced that God asked him to make a paradigm shift (at a time when these two words were not in popular usage yet).

That shift demanded that he prepared well for it. He has had adequate exposure to the realities of the marginalized Moro communities. He has understood the roots of their marginalization.  However, he needed to understand what the Islamic faith was all about, how other Muslims in other countries were experiencing and to be able to communicate in their indigenous everyday language.  Thus, he studied Islam, went on exposure to Islamic countries and learned Maranaw.  Simultaneously, he needed to lobby the Vatican that he be allowed to leave Iligan and be assigned further up the mountains and live among the Maranaws.

Fortunately, this was the era just after the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) that took place from 1962 to 65 or fifty years ago.  There were a number of documents that came out of Vatican II that critiqued the traditional Church missionary engagements and demanded new missiological approaches in evangelization. Vatican II opened the windows of a conservative institutional Church and opened up itself to the urgent pastoral needs of the faithful even as it began to engage new missiological discourses dealing with people of other cultures and faith traditions.  Thus, when Tatay Bido dialogued with the Vatican powers-that-be of his desire to live and be present among the Muslims, the late Pope Paul VI was only too willing to honor his wishes. And thus was born, the Prelature of Marawi;  its first Bishop was Tatay Bido.

I must confess that in terms of my personal relationship with Tatay Bido, it was not exactly love at first sight. The first time I met him sometime in 1974, I was the Manager  of the Mindanao office of the Philippine Business for Social Progress (PBSP) based in Davao City.  I was 26 then, a bit aggressive in terms of pushing my own agenda and not too perceptive about the contextual realities of people like Tatay Bido.  PBSP – the first NGO operating in Mindanao – was at that time promoting social development projects.  We contacted Bishops and Directors of Social Action Centers to encourage them to implement projects to alleviate poverty.  We were not exactly like the DSWD promoting dole-out projects, but ours was  “developmental” in approach, i.e., getting the people to be organized so they can help one another.  However, our approaches were of the “reformist” kind, not really dealing with the root reasons why poverty was prevalent.

When I contacted Bishop Tudtud for a meeting so I could talk with him about PBSP, he invited me to have breakfast at his resident near the Iligan City cathedral. My mistake was not having done my homework in terms of finding out who he was, what kind of person he was and what were his own concerns and aspirations.  As I was on my way to Marawi to meet with the staff of the Dansalan College Extension office, I wanted our meeting to be brief.  I planned to stay only for breakfast,  inform him what PBSP was doing and asked him if he was interested to apply for funding.  This I did even before both of us could enjoy our coffee.  I can still remember the look on his face when I was finished with my “presentation”.  His face went blank, and right there and then, I thought he would walk out and leave me there alone at the breakfast table.

But Bishop Tudtud understood that I was a young man who had no inkling about dealing with persons like him. He understood that I was just doing the job expected of me by my superiors. However, he also wanted to teach me a lesson, in the gentlest way possible that I would not be insulted.  He asked me to enjoy the  breakfast that was already on the table.  Then he talked about other things that had nothing to do with social development projects, writing proposals and funding.  It was clear to me that he didn’t want to have anything to do with PBSP.  Having intuited this, I knew my time with him was up and I bid him goodbye after breakfast.  Naturally, I didn’t think highly of him and I thought that would be the first and the last time I would have any association with him.

Come to think of it, that day when I first met him must have been a day when he was already preparing to leave Iligan for Marawi.  If I knew then, what I know now, what a delightful breakfast meeting that would have been conversing with him on what was shaping up in his mind that would ultimately become a historic option that would touch thousands of lives in the years to come.  But I was part of the youth of that generation among migrant-settlers in Mindanao who were into another sphere of discourses; we didn’t think it was worth our time to engage the Muslims in dialogue. I would not have understood anything that Bishop Tudtud would have shared about his shift and, possibly, I would have not shown any concern.

Fast forward a few years later.  I resigned from PBSP and got elected as the Executive Secretary of the Mindanao-Sulu Pastoral Conference (MSPC) at the MSPC III in Ozamis City.  At the same time, Bishop Tudtud was elected by the Mindanao Bishops as the Chair of the Board of Directors of MSPC, with Bishop Federico Escaler SJ as the Vice-Chair. It was at that Conference that I began to know him and in the next three years that we were together, I would get to know him better.  Not just get to know him so that we would be able to work well together, but to know him in a manner that I would affectionately consider him a surrogate father, a Tatay Bido.

When I recall those times we were together – in formal settings such as conferences and meetings, but especially informally when we traveled the length and breadth of Mindanao when truly it was “more fun” to be in this country, in Mindanao – those memories always bring a smile on my face.  But even as we also shared moments of anxiety, frustration and sadness, one appreciated the lessons to be learned in his company as to how to face all these with no bitterness in one’s heart.

I recall what he had to go through to convince everyone – especially his brother Bishops – as to the validity of his option to explore IFD and what were the repercussions when a church leader would do so.  Very few understood what he was trying to communicate.  I, too, in the early days of the IFD movement didn’t get it;  there were times, I thought it was a waste of time and resources. Early on, there was just a few kindred souls who accompanied Tatay Bido in this lonely journey. His mission – like Don Quixote – was a search for an impossible dream. When I had acquired some basic understanding of his message, it pained me to hear others ignore – if not totally contradict – his vision of dialogue, mutual understanding and reconciliation.

I can remember very well the hours that passed on that fateful day when we heard that his planed crashed in the Mountain Province. I was in Manila on that day;  I had heard he was flying to Baguio to conduct a retreat for a group of religious women. His plane didn’t make it to the airport.  The first reports were hazy and in a time when there were no cellphones, it wasn’t that easy to contact people to confirm the first news that media was reporting about the victims of the plane crash.  When, finally, the sad news was confirmed, I was taking the plane to go back to Davao.  As was the practice then when a plane crashed, the newspapers of the day were not distributed to the passengers so I missed reading the newspapers that had his name listed as one of those who died in the crash.  All throughout that plane ride, I was in tears.

There was no wake and funeral rite to attend which added to the deep grief at his passing. Not even a single body part could be found.  Then I thought how his death was so appropriate to the man and his message.

When he became the prophet of IFD – and today he can rightly be called the Father of Inter-Faith Dialogue not just in the Philippines but throughout Southeast Asia – he reminded his audience that at the root of the Mindanao conflict was land.  How the Moro and Lumad people were being pushed out of their ancestral land. How the continuing attempts of big corporations and landed families to secure more land was further fueling the conflagrations across this bleeding land.  And that, if we can all help diffuse this conflict by doing our little bit towards dialogue and reconciliation, it is possible to dream of peace in Mindanao.

In death, Tatay Bido would witness to the words he uttered while alive. He would not even claim a small piece of land which would be his graveyard.

Tatay Bido’s life changes continue to challenge us today. One only hopes that twenty-five years after his death, his legacy will not slip away like water from one’s hand. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Redemptorist Brother Karl Gaspar of Davao City, is author of several books, including “To be poor and obscure,” “Mystic Wanderers in the Land of Perpetual Departures,” “The Masses are Messiah: Contemplating the Filipino Soul,” and the recently-launched“Manobo Dreams in Arakan.” He writes two columns for MindaNews, one in English [A Sojourner’s Views] and the other in Binisaya [Panaw-Lantaw].)