PEACETALK: It’s because we are different that we have so much to share

(Author’s sharing on the “Story of the Church in Pikit” at the International Conference of Cotabato at the Notre Dame University in Cotabato City on June 7, 2014) 

A church caught in the midst of armed conflict

I stayed in the town of Pikit for 11 years and within those years I experienced four wars that resulted to massive evacuations of civilians. Not only that, war has always been very divisive and its corrosive effect on the relationship of people is even more damaging than the physical destruction. And so, even after the war is over in the battlefields, the silent war still goes on in the hearts of the local inhabitants – Lumads, Muslims, and Christians alike.

The awakening of the church

The all-out-war in 2000 which displaced over a million civilians in Mindanao brought the church in Pikit through a painful process of transformation. The parish at that time was divided whether or not to extend humanitarian assistance to Muslim evacuees. It was only after a passionate debate and soul-searching by the members of the Parish Pastoral Council that the parish decided to break the walls of apathy and mediocrity remembering the command of Jesus in the Gospel that tells them to “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and the exhortation of Jesus that “whatever you do to the least of my brothers, you do it unto me.” (Mt.25:31-46)

Helping the poor is not a matter of choice

The parish then organized the Disaster Response Team (DRT) composed mainly of young Muslim and Christian volunteers. Whether under the scorching heat of the sun or the pouring rain and amidst bullet fires, these young volunteers distributed food to thousands of starving evacuees in various evacuation centers. We would eat together on the same table, pray together and even cry together when we hear that another baby had died in the evacuation center.

The parish soon realized that helping the poor is not a matter of choice. For us Christians, it is a duty and a social responsibility. After all, when you hear the sound of mothers weeping and children crying in the night, you don’t anymore ask whether they are Lumads, Muslims or Christians.

An evolving context requires new vision, one that is inclusive

A new context was evolving. Therefore, a new vision was required, one that responds to the demands of the times. To imagine that vision, the parish church initiated series of consultations in the BECs for the purpose of changing the vision-mission of the parish. The result as expected was a new and inclusive one that integrated two very important elements based in the context of the changing realities in Mindanao and in the world. One was Inter-religious Dialogue and the other was Peace-building.

Culture of Peace and Inter-religious Dialogue seminars

Since then, the parish has been conducting Culture of Peace and Inter-religious Dialogue seminars in selected barangays in Pikit and in neighboring towns. These seminars, which normally last for three days, are participated by Lumads, Muslim and Christians. We also conduct these seminars to soldiers, former rebels, teachers, youth, and barangay officials. The main objective of the seminar is basically to plant the seed of peace in the heart of every person and to restore the broken relationship of people. After-all, we are all brothers and sisters. We belong to the same human family. And this world is our only home.

Reconciliation means healing the past

Perhaps, the most important part of the seminar is the healing process where the participants sit in a circle in a victim-offender setting and where each participant is given the chance to speak his or her painful experience of the past while the rest listens with empathy. The process is usually highly charged with emotion. Then, the whole process ends up with the participants reconciling with each other and making peace with one another… The heart of peace is the peace of heart.

Creating Spaces for Peace 

As part of rebuilding the communities destroyed by wars, the Pikit parish also assisted the local communities organized their villages as Zones of Peace. Believing in thebasic goodness of every human being, with barangay captains and other peace advocates, we negotiated with the military and MILF not to make these villages as battleground of their forces anymore.

And true enough, both parties listened to our appeal. In fact, during the official launching in 2004, Sec. Deles, Sir Von Al Haq, Cardinal Quevedo, Gen. Cachuela, Gen. Zulkifli of IMT and other national and international personalities from different sectors of society attended the ceremony. Then, several socio-economic projects, scholarship program, peace and inter-religious dialogue activities were implemented in these villages with the aid of several national and international funding agencies.

GINAPALAD TAKA Space for Peace

These seven villages are now called the GINAPALAD TA KA “Space for Peace” communities where the local inhabitants are trying to live together in harmony despite their cultural and religious differences. This is the product of processing the peace at the grassroots which we call peace process at the horizontal level, our way of supporting the peace process at the vertical level between the government and the MILF.

Celebrating common humanity

In Pikit, it’s common that during Christian weddings, there are Muslims who stand as sponsors. At the same time, during Muslim weddings, there are also Christians who stand as sponsors. In fact, I myself stood as a sponsor in two Muslim weddings.

During fiestas and Christmas celebrations, we usually receive Muslim visitors in the convent who would like to share in our joys. Likewise, during their religious celebrations such as Ramadhan, we also receive invitations and we would go around visiting our Muslim friends to show our solidarity with them… It’s because we are different that we have so much to share.

Advocating for Peace

Promoting peace is always a challenging task. But we have to do it if we believe in peace. That is why, accompanied by former evacuees and NGO workers, we reached as far as Malacanang, Camp Aguinaldo, foreign embassies, Senate, Congress, CBCP, universities, media networks, and other higher authorities in Manila just to advocate Peace for Mindanao.

Bantay Ceasefire Volunteers

Likewise, some of us in Pikit – Muslims and Christians- are members of Bantay Ceasefire Volunteers assisting the government and MILF monitor the situation on the ground. We are doing this even in dangerous situations because we are also stakeholders of peace and we want to contribute even just a small effort to achieve the peace that we have been longing for here in Mindanao.

We must believe more in our faith rather than in our fear. 

Four forms of Dialogue

In summary, what we are trying to do in the parish of Pikit is to adopt the four forms of dialogue articulated by the Federation of Asian Bishops Conference. These are: Dialogue of Life, Dialogue of Action, Dialogue of Words and Dialogue of Religious Experience. 

Peace among religions

Lastly, Hans Kung said, “There is no peace in the world as long as there is no peace among religions. And there is no peace among religions as long as there is no genuine dialogue among believers.”

In Pikit, we continue to plant the seed of goodness not even knowing if and when it is going to grow. But we trust in God’s Providence that whatever goodness we have planted will blossom only in goodness and that goodness alone will remain in the end.

(Fr. Roberto Layson, head of the Inter-Religious Dialogue of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, has spent most of his years as priest in Muslim-dominated areas. He was first assigned in Bongao, Tawi-tawi and was parish priest of Jolo in Sulu when Bishop Benjamin de Jesus was killed on February 4, 1997. A few months later, he was assigned to Pikit, another Muslim-dominated town in North Cotabato, where he would, in a span of 11 years, experience four wars. He was spared his fifth war in 2008 by a few weeks as he was on sabbatical then. Layson was assigned to Senator Ninoy Aquino town in Sultan Kudarat, a Lumad area, from 2009 to April 2013 and from there was posted in Datu Piang in Maguindanao, again a predominantly Muslim town. He has been assigned back to Pikit since June 2, as head of the OMI’s IRD. He read this piece with a Powerpoint presentation at the International Conference of Cotabato at the Notre Dame University on June 7,2014. This piece was originally titled “Story of the Church in Pikit.”)