A SOJOURNER’S VIEW: Men and Women for Others

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 26 April) — I couldn’t help but feel nostalgic, sentimental and  very much affirmed  as I sat throughout the 2016 Commencement Exercises of the Ateneo de Davao University for its College of Law and Graduate Programs last Sunday, 24 April 2016, including the Baccalaureate Mass that preceded the graduation rites at the Finster Hall.  The auditorium was packed with close to 200 graduates, their parents and/or significant others, ADDU’s professors and staff and distinguished guests.

The nostalgia was courtesy of memories when I graduated from Ateneo de Davao College (it was not a university yet) sometime late March 1967, or roughly 50 years ago.  I thought as the ceremonies unfolded how lucky I was to still be alive and take an active participation in the 2016 graduation rites, perhaps the only one of around 50 members of AdeDC’s  Batch ’63.

Our undergraduate graduation rites in 1967 seemed like an event that took place in another time and space, compared to the one in 2016.  But then the late 1960s were a different era; things then seemed simpler, more innocent and promising for the graduates despite the nascent social ferment that was arising across the world. But then half-a-century has passed; things do radically change in five decades. After all, we were under the American colonial occupation for roughly fifty years and we as a nation was never the same again when self-rule took place.

If binary oppositions is one reality of life, two graduation rites (our time in 1967) and this time (2016) couldn’t be far too different; one wonders if it is the same academic institution conducting the same kind of ritual.  For a starter, every little memory remains of our Baccalaureate Mass on the day of graduation which made it practically a non-event. Our campus had a small chapel located adjacent to what is now the lobby of Finster Building. We couldn’t fit in that chapel, so we went to the gym of the old building of Ateneo Matina. The gym was really more of a basketball court than anything. This year, we were all accommodated in the new chapel of ADDU with its amazing images and paintings, its Muslim-inspired aesthetics and its solemn ambience.  The choir, too, sang in four voices; and, of course, there are the TV screens that invited the people to sing along.

But while the externals of this ritual were amazing and seemingly affluent; the depth of the message of the Gospel as textualized by the selected readings and interpreted by the celebrant/homilist, ADDU’s President, Fr. Joel Tabora, SJ anchored the whole ritual in the social realities of contemporary Mindanao situation.  His homily clearly manifested the challenges faced by the graduates of an institution expecting them to be “men and women for others!” Fr. Tabora spoke of a faith that opts to be on the side of the marginalized, that serves the poor and translates into praxis moral and ethical lessons internalized by those that have undergone a Jesuit education. For all these are integral to a faith anchored in the Gospel’s exhortation for Jesus’ disciples “to love one another!”

I do not remember anymore what the homily was at our own Baccalaureate Mass but even as 1967 took place right after Vatican II (1962-1965), the homilist  would have made very little reference to the Mindanao context for the graduates to reflect on. It just wasn’t done in those years.  And I doubt if most the graduates were interested to hear that kind of talk; most of us at that time were more concerned with finding a high-paying job outside of Davao.  In fairness, at that time, it was relatively easy for an Atenean to find a job, especially if one were not too choosy about job possibilities.

What was the biggest contrast between 1967 and 2016 was the choice of commencement speaker. Again, my memory is blurred and I couldn’t recall who our commencement speaker was. But at that time – and the residue of this practice continues until today for most academic institutions – the ones invited to address the graduates were mostly male, in his 50s or 60s,  highly distinguished persons of society with a high economic, political and social capital (key government officials, head of corporations, President of universities and the like), Roman Catholic naturally, urbanized and urbane and who could do the school a favor through various ways. The speaker of Batch ’63 would have been this kind of person.

But lo and behold – Batch 2016 was in for a major surprise! For the ADDU’s choice for a speaker to address the graduates was a woman, not yet in her 40s, distinguished among her people but still mostly unknown to outsiders, one born to a non-Christian belief system, raised in the uplands and whose community is the beneficiary of ADDU’s outreach program. Not many academic institutions in the country would have someone like Bo-i Jenita B. Eko, a Tboli woman from Lake Sebu in South Cotabato speak to graduates of a Law School and those finishing M.A. and doctoral degrees of a prestigious university!

Perhaps other universities have chosen such kind of person for their commencement speaker but – in Mindanao – what ADDU did was truly trail-blazing!  Edward Said, whose Orientalism called on reversing trends in asserting discourses would have applauded ADDU’s move which hopefully will influence other universities in the future.  But then Bo-i Eko is, indeed, a very distinguished person but only because the modern notion of distinction has been debunked in the West and has now reached our shores.  Her personal story, part of which she included in her address, is worth a book or a Lav Diaz film!

Born to illiterate parents who cultivated the land like many of their T’boli ancestors, her father at first opposed her going to school for why would a girl want to acquire a higher education? She persisted and in college, she was a working student at MSU GenSan where she finished Political Science and Law.  This academic program gave her “the intellectual capital to work with passion in the areas of women’s rights, education and culture, but it is her deep-rooted love for her own culture and identity that moved her to fight for Indigenous People’s rights and welfare” (quoted from program of graduation rites).

But before all these passion and options unfolded, just after college she was not unlike many descendants of Mindanawon migrant settlers, Moro and Lumad who dreamt of a high-earning job in Manila so she could help her family and advance in stature. She got recruited to work in a mining company, promised a monthly salary of PhP 45,000 with her own vehicle and a driver, as well as a security guard. Very tempting, indeed.  But before she signed the contract she wanted to visit first the mining site so she could find out what the situation was. To her dismay, only the much better-off Bisaya settlers were in favor of the mining and the Lumad in the area opposed it as it would dislocate them from their ancestral domain.  So much for her dream of becoming rich and affluent.

To make the long story short, this conscientizing experience made her decide to go back to her roots and, instead, check out on how she can better serve her people.  This revisiting of her roots brought her back to her gift as a Tboli dreamweaver, women who weave the tnalak cloth and realized that there was a potential in advancing the life of other women weavers. This led to the founding of the Lake Sebu Indigenous Women Weaver Association, Inc. (LASIWWAI) an acronym which when pronounced sounds like the Tboli word of “never compromise!”

Apart from encouraging women to hold on to their weaving tradition while making sure that weaving puts food on the table, she also led her community in “reviving the traditional but bnek and kermini, indigenous planting and harvesting rituals that celebrates life, which the Tbolis consider as sacred as life.”

The graduates were riveted to Bo-i Eko’s speech which she delivered in Pilipino and English.  She was part story-teller, sharing vignettes of her life and her people with funny stories that made the audience laugh; she was part teacher, exhorting her audience to be brilliant but also to be humble and she was an IP advocate challenging them to be engaged in solidarity with the Lumad.  In the end, she touched the hearts of her audience who gave her a standing ovation!

As she spoke I couldn’t help but be sentimental and look back to my years as a young development worker. I remembered  Fr. Rex Mansmann, the Passionist priest who was the first Catholic missionary who penetrated the Tboli uplands in the late 1960s and set up the Sta. Cruz  mission station at Lake Sebu when it took days to reach this mystical location by the lakes from Surallah.  It was easy to understand why Fr. Rex was seduced by the beauty of this location and mesmerized by the gentle Tboli.  When I first visited him in Lake Sebu in the early 1970s (working for PBSP who had development projects there), one rode a 2X2 army truck whose wheels were chained so it could go up the steep mountain trails and not fall off the cliff and then walk for miles to reach the Sta Cruz Mission. The whole sojourn was arduous, dangerous, could only be done by the physically fit. Its only reward was the beauty one found in this place and the wonderful hospitality and kindness of the Tbolis.

To help the Tbolis adjust to the modern times, Fr. Rex built schools, a hospital, a cooperative store, a rice mill and encouraged the Tbolis to set up houses in clusters.  Eventually he also dealt with the land issues and the problem of deforestation that got him in trouble with PANAMIN, the government agency under Elizalde during the martial rule.  Fr. Rex – who for idealistic young people like me seemed like a St. Francis of Assisi figure – was as gentle with the Tbolis as he was as harsh to those who abused them. I got so attracted to what he did in Lake Sebu that I almost resigned from PBSP to work with him full-time. But it was not meant to be (and this is another story as the Rex Mansmann tale would end up a bit sad and tragic even!)

Once his boys and girls finished high school in the mission, he searched for a school where to send them to college.  He decided it would be Ateneo de Davao college, and I must confess that there were some of us who thought it was not appropriate.  He chided us by saying why would the Ateneo be appropriate to us and not his boys and girls?  He persisted and in the 1970s, the first Tbolis of Lake Sebu enrolled at the Ateneo, finished their course and returned to Lake Sebu where today they are teachers, government employees and leaders of their community.  I thought Bo-i Eko’s desire to go to college must have been influenced by the choices made by her older kinspeople when she was still a young girl!  And looking at Bo-i Eko confidently speaking before the graduating class, I thought, Rex should have seen her for he would be vindicated!  I just felt so lucky that in my lifetime, I got to see the early years of Lake Sebu where a young girl in that location grew up to be the commencement speaker in my alma mater!

But as if this was enough, there were other parts of the program that dovetailed with the over-arching theme of the rites. Even the song sung by the Ateneo Glee Club as intermission – Gary Granada’s Bahay – about the indignity of living in shacks (still a common feature of upland life) – fitted so well into the day’s proceedings. Then there was the message to the graduates from one among them, Law student Justin Ryan D. Morilla.  While most of his speech dealt with how difficult law school can be and how they survived through the love and affection of parents and mentors, towards the end he exhorted the Atenistas to be at the service of the weak and dispossessed, singling out the Lumad. He reminded the graduates that even as they leave the campus, they will always be Atenistas as they are supposed to carry with them what they have internalized through the years – to be truly Filipino, Christian and heroic as they serve the people!

The ritual’s end tied up with the beginning, again with the words of Fr. Tabora.  In what could have been an overkill – but made less didactic by a message that was short and straight to the point –  he nailed the challenges to the graduates so that there was no mistaking what the President’s desire was for the graduates as they leave the campus and face the world. His words: be passionate for justice as it leads you to social justice and ultimately to work for the common good (versus private good), embrace the multi-cultural and multi-religious context and engage in dialogue of those of other ethnicities and religions (and even those who are atheists and agnostics), be strong in faith as secularism asserts itself in today’s world, engage in enterprises that would help uplift the poor and close the gap between rich and poor, take care of our common home by engaging in ecological action and do what you can to strengthen the educational reforms that have begun. Being engaged in such made the graduates truly men and women for others!

At the end of the rites, I felt very much affirmed. My own relationship with my alma mater through the last fifty-three years (1963-2016) has been quite checkered; the early years and the last three years feeling very close (these days as I am a part time faculty member) and in the between ranging from not-so-close to far distant. There was a time, those of us felt unwelcome by our alma mater as it became a ghetto to the raging context outside the campus!  We do know of alumni who are on the other side of the fence; protecting the interest of the powers-that-be.  But at these graduation rites, I could take to heart my alma mater and felt very much at home in her embrace! [Redemptorist Brother Karl Gaspar is Academic Dean of the Redemptorists’ St. Alphonsus Theological and Mission Institute (SATMI) in Davao City and a professor of Anthropology at the Ateneo de Davao University. He is author of several books, including Desperately Seeking God’s Saving Action: Yolanda Survivors’ Hope Beyond Heartbreaking Lamentations, and two books on Davao’s history launched in December 2015 — Davao in the Pre-Conquest Era and the Age of Colonization and Si Menda ug ang Baganing gitahapan nga mao si Mangulayon. He writes two columns for MindaNews, one in English (A Sojourner’s Views) and the other in Binisaya (Panaw-Lantaw)]