[Homily delivered by Fr. Joel Tabora, SJ at the wake of Gina Lopez, August 23, 2019. Based on Matthew 5:1-11]
I consider it one of the privileges of my life to have conferred the honorary doctorate of the Ateneo de Naga University on the environmentalist, Gina Lopez. This was in 2011. Our Board of Trustees had decided on the award because of her outstanding commitments to the environment as a private citizen. She’d returned the trees to La Mesa Dam. She’d cleaned up the Pasig. She’d spearheaded a campaign for no mining in environmentally-rich Palawan. In Bicol, she’d helped our university and our Bikolano stakeholders fight a mine in Rapu-Rapu that had been responsible for a huge fish kill due to heavy metals dumped into the sea.
So when she got up to give her response, everyone thought that she’d naturally speak about the environment. Eventually, she did. But not without first sharing with our graduates what she styled as a great secret.
“I’ll tell you a secret,” she announced. “Do not forget it. If you do, I will ask Fr. Joel to take away your diplomas!” When she had everyone’s attention, when she had everyone thinking they were going to learn Gina Lopez’s special formula for energetic advocacy for the environment, she said – practically in a whisper:
“There is a God.”
And there being a God, she enjoined each ADNU graduate – no matter his religion, no matter her chosen profession – to get in personal contact with that God. On that contact, no matter how achieved, the meaningfulness of his or her life would depend.
Next, sharing more profoundly of her soul, she said: “there being a God, everyone must find time for silence in one’s life – deep personal silence. Without silence,” she said, “forces in the world will pull you in different directions and tear you apart. Then you will no longer know who you are.”
Finally, only in the context of this silence which conditions a deep relationship with God did she say that one able to value God’s gifts, one of the greatest being the Mother Earth, the environment,” our common home” given to us all as God’s gift. Only in experiencing it as God’s gift do we experience the need, the imperative, to care for it.
We know how she delighted in the environment, the trees, the flowers, the mountains, the rivers, the seas, Gods gift, and how from a silence deep within she was moved powerfully to care for it. The restored the trees to the La Mesa watershed, she created the La Mesa Ecopark. She took on the huge task of cleaning up the Pasig river, but with it also Laguna Lake and Manila Bay. She was a powerhouse in working to preserve Palawan from large-scale mining. When from Ateneo de Naga we fought the Rapu-Rapu mines whose toxic tailings dumped into the ocean had caused massive fish kills, she was at our side.
When her passion for the environment moved the newly elected President Duterte to appoint her Secretary of the DENR (Department of Environment and Natural Resources), I mixed my congratulations with an invitation to visit the ADDU. She readily agreed. That took place on August 4, 2016.
Suddenly it was not the people going to the DENR to beg for relief from the environmental violations of mining companies; it was the DENR Secretary angry at what the mining companies had been inflicting on the people.
It was the DENR Secretary “speaking her heart”: “I will always respect the law. But in my heart I know that mining does not belong in this island ecosystem. Look at the destruction the mining companies have caused!”
Suddenly, it was the DENR secretary enraged at the poverty in Mindanao due to social injustice.
“It is scandalous that the Mindanaoans are not enjoying the wealth of Mindanao!” she declared at our Oya Mindanao gathering. “It is unacceptable that the wealthy from Manila and other countries are enriching themselves on the resources of Mindanao when there is so much poverty in Mindanao!” “I stand for social justice, and social justice means that Mindanaoans enjoy their own heritage in natural resources.” It was this energy coming from her heart that was making history that day.
Mixing passion with anger, the DENR Secretary was making her DENR officials swear allegiance to the people, not to the mining companies; she was constraining them to swear never to take a bribe from the mining firms – not five million pesos, not ten, not fifty million pesos! – in order to remain free to serve the people, especially the poor. She called on the Civil Service Organizations and representatives of the people to form a new arm of the DENR to create a partnership between the DENR and the people it is to serve.
The follow day, at the more technical planning session at Garden Oasis in Obrero, the pact between the people and the government was further enfleshed, now, however, not only with the DENR Secretary, but with then Agriculture Secretary Manny Piñol and Health Secretary Paulyn Ubial. The case was being made for the necessity of the DENR, the DA and the DOH to work together for the welfare of the people.
In all this, Sec. Gina kept shouting out three crucial questions: Do you love your God? Do you love your country? Do you love the people? When the answers from the crowd to all three questions were, “Yes! Yes! Yes!”, her challenge was:
Gina proved it with her entire life. She proved it by not only fighting for the integrity of the Philippines’ archipelagic ecosystem. She proved it by fighting the industrial behemoth that ravaged the forests, the mountains, the rivers, and oceans, fighting the economic greed and commercial inhumanity of the establishment, and fighting for the disenfranchised and discarded poor. She proved it, even though, as many prophets before her, she was ridiculed and rejected. But even in rejection, she continued being the person she knew herself before God to be.
“…I have found that as long as I am aligned, as long as I am doing things that are true, even if I make mistakes, miracles happen every day. I would say the Number One Commandment is to take everything positively because the moment you become cynical, you stop growing, and the best human life is one that’s interactive with the divine.”
“Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all manner of evil against you for my sake. Rejoice and be glad. For your reward in heaven shall be great…”(Mt. 5:11)
There is a God, she said.
There is a necessary silence.
In this silence, we recognize his gifts. Gina Lopez was one of his magnificent gifts.