A SOJOURNER’S VIEW: A 2016 Christmas Story

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 24 Dec) —  This story began a long, long time ago if time is viewed by the millennials.  It began with an American Jesuit named Fr. Vincent Cullen, SJ.  Not many Mindanawons today know him but he is a legend among the Indigenous Peoples in Bukidnon as well as Lumad areas in Cotabato and Davao.

Among the Jesuits, of course, he is a revered confrere for he continued the pioneering missionary work of the Jesuits among the Lumads in Mindanao that goes back around five centuries ago. In 1596, Fr. Valerio de Ledesma, SJ arrived at the mouth of the Butuan River; the following year, Fr. Manuel Martinez, SJ joined him.

If memory serves me right, in the 1950s until the 1980s, Fr. Cullen made his way to the Lumad communities in Bukidnon and later reaching the area now called Buda (for Buda-Davao-Cotabato area). Up till the end of his life, Fr. Cullen’s ministry was mainly among the Lumads.  Perhaps, he was one of the first Catholic missionaries to reach these areas, long before other missionaries would follow suit.  As infrastructure was in its primitive stage at that time, he walked the mountains and plains of this part of Mindanao to be able to reach the Lumad upland communities.  Today, the older members of these communities would share their fascinating stories about the time he lived with them and ministered to their needs.

Like many other missionaries who ventured into this difficult ministry, Fr. Cullen knew that he needed assistance from Lumad persons who were willing to accompany him as he went around these communities and had the capacity to play the role of being intermediary. One of those he identified was Datu Magdaleno “Mayda” Pandian, Sr., a Manobo from Maramag, Bukidnon. Datu Mayda was the ideal co-worker of Fr. Cullen; he was young and fit and was familiar with the terrain of the mountain areas.  He was highly regarded by the datus of these communities, He was fluent in his mother tongue and had learned Cebuano-Bisaya and even English.

For many years, he remained a faithful companion of Fr. Cullen. Not only was he constantly accompanying the Jesuit in his treks to the uplands, but he also learned the rudiments of literacy work.  Passionately committed to be part of a program to empower the Lumads, he supported Fr. Cullen’s vision to advance the interests of the people as well as protect their rights. This was especially true during the martial rule when it was very easy to be considered a subversive by having close ties with the Lumads in the uplands as the military were always suspicious about “outsiders” immersed among them.  However, despite the risks involved, Datu Pandian persisted with his commitment to be in solidarity with his own people.

In the mid-1970s till the early 1980s, there was a vibrant movement in the Local Church of Mindanao-Sulu owing to the cohesive collaboration among the bishops, priests, religious and laity across the different Archdioceses, dioceses and prelatures through the Mindanao-Sulu Pastoral Conference (MSPC).  One of the priority ministries identified by the MSPC in the early 1970s was what were then called the Tribal Filipinos (referred to even earlier as cultural communities). A movement arose that brought together churchpeople very much concerned with the plight of the Lumad, the name that arose to identify indigenous peoples across Mindanao-Sulu.

Fr. Cullen and Datu Mayda were the active participants of this movement along with Bishop Francisco Claver, SJ and other priests and religious belonging to the Columban missionaries, the PMEs, PIMEs, OMIs, ONDs, FMAs, RGS and other congregations.  They naturally brought along their lay partners during conferences, consultations and seminar-workshops meant to provide continuing training and establish strong networking among themselves.  The early programs concentrated in the fields of literacy, alleviation of poverty, agricultural development, health and sanitation.  Eventually their efforts also included assisting the Lumads protect and defend their land and human rights.

This Lumad social movement involving church-people had its ups and downs, depending on the vicissitudes of the political landscape both in the country and in Mindanao.  Following EDSA in 1986, the movement got fragmented as various groups had different priorities as well as strategies to assist Lumad communities.  Some of the key people of the movement – like Fr. Cullen –  also faded away for various reasons.

When Fr. Cullen was no longer the key person of the Tribal Filipino apostolate (TFA) of the Diocese of Malaybalay, Datu Mayda also ended his stint with the TFA program. He found a new way to be of service to his very own people, the Manobo.  Instead of moving around the different localities, as he did before with Fr. Cullen, he concentrated his efforts with the Manobos of Maramag and adjacent places.  Having promoted literacy programs, he saw the need to establish a Lumad school.

His vision of this school would eventually become a model for the Dep-Ed IP curriculum as institutionalized by the National Indigenous Peoples Education Policy Framework that arose out of the DepEd Order No. 62, series of 2011.  In the mid-1990s, or 20 years ago, Datu Magda founded the Mindanao Tribal School, Inc. (MTSI) in Maramag, because he saw that the existing educational system at that time placed little regard for the Lumads’ indigenous knowledge, skills and practices (IKSP).

Manobo was to be used as medium of instruction so that the pupils were rooted in their mother tongue (at a time when some Lumad parents found it useless to teach their children to speak their own language, preferring to speak the dominant Cebuano-Bisaya). They would learn about local history and the elements of their cultural legacy. Manobo songs and dances were to be taught along with other aspects of their culture like the governance system. The community’s elders were to be tapped as resource persons to supplement what the teachers would teach.

Even as MTSI would eventually be accredited under DepEd, the State hardly provided any funding for this school.  Datu Mayda and the other elders had to find ways to get funding from various sources.  Fortunately, three years ago they were provided a five-hectare lot in Barangay Panadtalan, Maramag where the schoolbuildings and dormitories have been constructed. The school has a wonderful location; it is on a plain surrounded by hills and mountains. The soil is rich which is ideal for farming and gardening.  Around the school are the houses of some of the households whose children are enrolled in this school. While it was originally meant for only Lumad children, some of the Bisayan settlers near the school asked that their children also be enrolled, as the school nearest to Panadtalan is located a few kilometers away.

In the schoolyear 2016-2017, there are more than a hundred pupils from Grade 7, 8, 9, 10 (or the equivalent of the past high school system). They are served by seven Lumad teachers and five Bisayan teachers who have links with the Central Mindanao University of Musuan, Bukidnon.  All of them work as volunteers, as the school has no funds to pay for the salaries of teachers.  When Datu Mayda was still alive (he died on September 29, 2016 and he is buried inside the school compound), his honorarium as a paid consultant was distributed among the teachers. This source of fund is no longer available with the Datu’s death, so the teachers find all kinds of ways to survive.  Two of the teachers are graduates from the USEP-Pamulaan school in Tugbok, Davao City, namely Ms. Junie Jane Imba who is a Blaan and Mr. Alexier Pinaso, a relative of the Pandians. Ms. Imba had finished Applied Anthropology while Mr. Pinaso did the Social Enterprise course.

Datu Maydskie Pandian, the current Chair of the School’s Board – and son of the late Datu Mayda – is naturally worried about the sustainability of the school.  They have tried their best to solicit funds to be able to build new classrooms, upgrade the dormitory and procure  the school’s needs.  Among those who have supported them are the CMU staff, the Maramag LGU, alumni and students of Xavier University (Cagayan de Oro).  They have planted cassava in the school’s surrounding so they can raise funds.  The pupils do gardening so they have vegetables. Much as they would like to charge tuition fees from the parents, they can only ask the little that the parents could afford, being mostly farmers.

Last week I went to visit the MTSI and met Datu Maydskie and some of the teachers along with a friend from Davao City who wants to be of assistance to Lumad schools.  He would rather remain anonymous.  He is a businessman with a few enterprises from raising organic pigs to maintaining an organic vegetable farm. He is also an artist; he makes one-of-a-kind furniture as well as religious statues. Recently he has developed a technology in support of libraries of universities; he re-designs libraries so that these can become learning spaces for the youth of today who are very much into high-tech.  The re-designing involves having furniture that have multi-function inside a library (it can serve as library shelves but where children can also play) as well as developing a software that links the school to all sorts of reading and visual materials online.

He has been able to secure contracts with a few universities. In order to have funds for his advocacy to support Lumad schools, he has encouraged the universities’ administrators to help him transform the Lumad schools’ libraries into this type of learning space. As technology has penetrated the interior and even the uplands, he believes that the Lumad children should have also the opportunity to get wired and to take full advantage of the Filipiniana, Mindanawon and Lumad materials that would be useful in their education.  Three of the universities with whom he had contracts had responded favorably to his advocacy, and so my friend is now in the look-out for three Lumad schools. MTSI will be his pilot for 2017.

Now why did I title this piece as A 2016 CHRISTMAS STORY? Well, this encounter of my friend with the Manobo school in Panadtalan just took place a few days ago, as we approach Christmas Day!  It is story that could have a happy ending. And we are such in need of happy endings these days given the “dark cloud” that hovers over the Republic especially with the killings that are taking place given the State’s belligerence to use violence in terms of its drug war.

But then, what was behind the story of the first Christmas?  There is only one answer, namely, that it highlighted the importance of GIVING. Those of use of the Christian belief tradition knew since we were children that the child who was born in the manger was the Father’s gift to humanity.  God gave His only son so that the world would be saved. This child would ultimately become an itinerant preacher and the core of his message was – GIVE YOURSELF SO OTHERS MAY HAVE ABUNDANT LIFE!

There is a frenzy of gift-giving during the Christmas-New year holidays.  We do everything we can so that we can give gifts to our loved ones.  Unfortunately this has fueled a consumerism that has coopted the genuine meaning of Christmas.  The malls are now far more powerful in attracting the people’s attention during these holidays; not the churches or spaces where people can gather together to express kindness, generosity and tenderness – virtues that seem to be in short supply in these post-modern times.

Some of us do our best to ease our conscience by giving alms to beggars, visiting prisons and orphanages and packing a basket of food to give to a poor family who could not have a Noche Buena if not for our generosity.  While such acts of charity are commendable, in the end these do nothing to radically change structures of inequality and oppression.

If only we can do much more – following the examples of Fr. Cullen, Datu Mayda and my businessman friend – our gift of giving could go a long way!  Have yourself a truly kind, generous and tender Christmas everyone! [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. Gaspar is author of several books, including “Desperately Seeking God’s Saving Action: Yolanda Survivors’ Hope Beyond Heartbreaking Lamentations” and two books on Davao history launched in December 2015. He writes two columns for MindaNews, one in English (A Sojourner’s Views) and the other in Binisaya (Panaw-Lantaw).]