A SOJOURNER’S VIEWS: In the shadow of the Temple of Mammon

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/05 June) — In June of 1963,  around a hundred of us freshmen began our undergraduate  studies at what was then the Ateneo de Davao College (it would much later become the Ateneo de Davao University or ADDU).

Just a few months earlier, I graduated from the Holy Cross Academy Boys’ Department  in Digos (what is now the high school of Cor Jesu College of Digos City) with around forty other boys turning into young men  including Vice-Mayor Rodrigo Duterte,  the former Presidential Assistant for Mindanao, Jesus Dureza and the late Governor of Davao del Sur, Rogelio Llanos. (A few other members of my batchmates also  pursued political careers).

I was born in Tibungco, Davao City in June of 1947 as my parents evacuated there at the height of World War II given the atrocities committed by the soldiers of the Japanese Army against civilians.  Those living in downtown Davao were most vulnerable to the military abuses so my parents – along with many others – evacuated to the countryside.  A few months after my birth, we returned to the downtown location and my early childhood was spent around the area where the Mandaya Hotel now stands.

However, because of his work with a logging company, my father decided to relocate the family to Digos and that’s where I finished my elementary and high school studies. But again because of work, my parents decided to return to Davao City in the mid-1960s after  I began my studies at the Ateneo and we lived at Rizal St. for a while before finally transferring to Maa.

In the early to late 1960s, Davao City’s urbanized area only included the central downtown places  including San Pedro, Magallanes, Claveria (now Claro M. Recto) and Uyanguren Streets (now Ramon Magsaysay). The rest were mere side streets with very little activity going on. Rizal Street (one of the city’s location with a night life) was a sleepy street then. So were the streets that crisscrossed the main ones. Where SM south is now, was wilderness. Ma-a was ricefields and the Diversion Road (aka Philippine-Japanese Friendship Highway) was non-existent.

Bajada  in the 1950s was considered a place far away from downtown;  buses and jeepneys passed through this part of the city on the way to the northern part of Davao Province and eventually towards the eastern part of Mindanao. Looking out the windows of the vehicles, one saw the rural segment of the biggest city in the world.  Bajada began  to appear on the map of the city because of the airport, the port and a few of the industrial plants that rose in the 1960s.

Eventually, middle-class families escaping the noise and pollution of the downtown area began to relocate towards Bajada. Before long, a number of religious congregations (the Redemptorists, the Maryknoll missionaries, the Religious of the Virgin Mary,  and the Carmelite nuns) built convents here.  Churches followed the construction of convents.  Poor families who couldn’t find a spot in the downtown area to build a house began to squat on some of the properties on both sides of the road.  But up till the early 1970s, Bajada remained an appendix to the downtown area.

While studying at the Ateneo, I was in-charge of various tasks with a few extra-curricular activities I was engaged in.  This involved soliciting funds for projects and the groups easy to approach were the religious congregations.  Going to the Maryknoll house in Sasa at that time is like going to Mandug or Callawa these days. If one relied on public transportation, one had to deal with the alas puno schedule and there were just a few jeeps plying between Acacia and Sasa.  One made sure to travel before 5 p.m.; otherwise there was no more public transportation available.

Fast track to 2011.  Except for the major banks whose business locations are still in San Pedro and Claro Recto Sts, Big Business – especially of the retail trade – has moved out of the downtown area.  Downtown Davao City is a ghost of its past: here, there are no more cinemas.  The Galaxy, Garmon, Golden, Crest, Lyric, Clifford and  Eagle Theatres have disappeared from the entertainment scene.  These have been transformed into second-rate shopping centers or even sites for charismatic prayer gatherings.  No upscale yuppie would think of dining out in any of the restaurants and cafes downtown as these have deteriorated into second-class business establishments. Vendors – selling ukay-ukay, pirated DVDs, cheap cell phones and food of all kinds – have proliferated along the sidewalks of the downtown area which is no longer sosyal; it is wa class.

The rich and those wanting to play rich avoid the downtown area like a plague. And the taipans have obliged them through the setting up of malls. The first ones were still in the downtown area (the first Gaisanos across UM and Ilustre). When the Victoria Plaza, and later the Gaisano Mall made their appearance, Bajada began its transformation leading to its status now as the primary place for business investments. With this development, there has arisen another downtown in Davao City beyond the San Pedro-Claveria-Magallanes axis. And this is the Bajada strip.

Now comes the  Ayala-Abreeza Mall with a Robinson attached to it.  In the last few years when tarpaulin signs covered a whole fence declaring this site as geared for Abreeza, people wondered how this new mall would look like. There was a considerably long time for construction to progress as the whole area used to be a catchbasin. AyalaLand had to cover the swampy area with thousands of tons of sand and gravel so the level of the land would rise. Once the foundation was secured, the building began to rise.  Finally just these past few weeks, the Abreeza Mall opened even as there are still shops that have not yet opened.

Very curious is the position of the mall’s building in reference to the Church of Our Mother of Perpetual Help of the Redemptorists  across the street. Popular myth posits that gigantic buildings with mammoth scale which are used for business purposes should not face a religious building  e.g.  church, temple, synagogue, mosque and the like. Thus, Abreeza’s front does not face the church directly. Its main entrance is located to the left side of the building facing the Durian Hotel. Is this the case of business avoiding the divine gaze so that it can merrily make all the money – by hook or by crook –  while laughing all the way to the bank?

Curiouser is the contrast between the Redemptorists’ church and Abreeza. Size is but one element.  Because Abreeza is gigantic in size, the church looks like it stands in the shadow of this mammoth business establishment. And as Abreeza’s reason for being is the pursuit of riches and material wealth, the church could be said to be in the shadow of the Temple of Mammon.  Is this a fair labelling especially if Mammon is used as a word personifying riches as an evil spirit or deity?  There are passages in the New Testament that refer to money vis-a-vis God, e.g. Matthew  6:24 and Luke 16: 9-13 (“You cannot serve both God and money”).  The greedy pursuit of riches is condemned by the Holy Book as this is tantamount to worshipping Mammon.

Objectively speaking, how greedy is the pursuit of riches inside Abreeza? Of course, all the businesspeople with interests inside the mall would want to earn as high a profit as possible. After all, they do not hide the fact that they are committed capitalists; they are in this business to make a buck and as much as the law of supply and demand will allow them. One very distinct characteristic of Abreeza that sets it apart from the other malls in the city is that its stores sell only “branded” goods. Abreeza promotes high-end shopping; only those with limpak-limpak na salapi  could buy these very expensive goods.  As these goods are products of the global market where conglomerates would peg prices at exorbitant levels to showcase “class,” naturally only the moneyed elite in the city could actually buy these goods.  Yes, there are lots of “shoppers” who enter Abreeza, but how many of them actually buy these very expensive commodities?  Or are they the consumers who go to Abreeza for a look and see, but end up buying ukay-ukay elsewhere?

Hard questions can come up in the mind of this city’s social critics as they view the impressive facade of Abreeza: Isn’t this establishment perpetuating the great divide in Philippine society by living up to the appetites of the rich and frustrating the desires of the poor?  Doesn’t  this mammoth building represent all that which is unjust in our society? Does it serve to only perpetuate a system that cannot provide full humanity to the last, the least and the lost?

So should the people who enter the church on one side of the road avoid going to the consumerist temple across?  Should the Redemptorists take a hardline stance and strongly encourage the faithful to boycott the mall while reminding them that the Lady who is Mother of Perpetual Help has sung these lines in her Magnificat song: “My heart praises the Lord….His name is holy; he shows mercy to those who fear him, from one generation to another. He stretched out  his mighty arm and scattered the proud with all their plans. He brought down mighty kings from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly. He filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away with empty hands.” (Luke1 46,49-53)
Hard questions, these. After all, priests are invited to bless the stores inside the mall. We do have young people straight out of college who are able to find jobs in the city – and not resort to joining the OFW exodus – precisely because these malls provide employment.  Wealth is accumulated and there is value added to our local products because the mall provides a  convenient market site conducive for trading. And as wealth is accumulated, it will supposedly  trickle down to the poor.  Besides, malls are very convenient places to combine shopping with entertainment and socializing with family and friends in great comfort. As the heat intensifies outside (and with climate change, the heat these days have really become so unberable), the mall provides relief.  And if cities like Davao are to attract more investments, it has to project those kind of projects that manifest confidence, stability, advancement and progress. Fortunately or unfortunately, malls like Abreeza are the most accepted  indicators of such progress.

Are there actually Davaoenos who boycott the Abreeza for ideological reasons? Are they not the quixotic fools who battle with windmills? Shouldn’t we just accept the fact that life, the economy and cultures have changed and that it is best not to rage against the dying of the light?  Have  we reached a reality in this country where we have no choice but accept the contradictions as givens? And that for our own peace of mind, it is best to be comfortable in the ambivalence of our postures vis-a-vis the rise of these temples in our midst?


(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].)