A SOJOURNER’S VIEW: A friendship with Pops across 34 years

CEBU CITY (MindaNews/18 October) — The first text came just before 10 a.m. on the 17th of October, 2011  with these words – Fr. fausto tentorio, italian priest basd in arakan, servng the lumads and farmers since the 80s was shot dead ds am. Lets pray 4 hs soul and demand justice 4 hs unjust death. Pls standby 4 advisory trip to arakan 4 hs wake.  Because it was sent by  good friend Norma Javellana from Davao City who is ever so reliable with accurate reporting,  I had no reason to doubt that the news was true.

I was at our retreat house on Nivel Hills in Cebu City when the text reached me.  Our community of Redemptorists was gathered  on this hill for our day of recollection and I was contemplating on the life of St. Gerard Majella CSsR, a Redemptorist saint who was a Brother. He was born in Moro Lucano in southern Italy in 1726, died on 16 October 1755, beatified in 1893 and canonized in 1904. He died at age  29 of tuberculosis, three years after the joined the Redemptorists. We celebrated his feastday on Sunday, which also happened to be the 20th anniversary of the martyrdom of Fr. Satur Neri of the Diocese of Malaybalay, gunned down because of  his anti-logging advocacy.

The first thought that came to mind as I read the text that brought very sad news was this: the Mindanao Church has another martyr, another saint! The mind has a way of cushioning the impact of a news that brings tremendous shock! I recalled when I first heard the news that my late father was killed; I thought – what will happen to  the wonderful gardens that he was tilling in our backyard!

My mind continued to assert itself so that my heart would not cave in. I immediately thought of those who should know immediately about what happened in Arakan. I thought of old friends from the Diocese of Kidapawan and colleagues of the Mindanao Church’s MSPC network, those  in the circle of friends working in solidarity with the Lumad (Mindanao’s indigenous peoples), the Kaliwat Theatre Collective (who had worked for three years with Fr. Fausto who was fondly called Pops) and others who knew and cared for Pops.  I also texted a friend at the Ateneo de Manila University Press as they just published my book – MANOBO DREAMS IN ARAKAN: A People’s Struggle to Keep Their Homeland – in which Fr. Fausto figures prominently.

In the next hour or so, texts flew all over the islands. After an hour, there was a lull. Then I surrendered to the desire of the heart to grieve and tears fell. Once there was a respite from the primordial need to let go of the deep sadness that so consumed my total being, I remembered snapshots of the past 34 years since I first meet  Pops.

Our paths first crossed at the Maryknoll Language School in Lanang, Davao City. It was sometime in 1978 (or 1979?). I was then the Executive Secretary of the Mindanao-Sulu Pastoral Conference Secretariat and that work brought me into close association with practically all the religious congregations with communities in Mindanao-Sulu. I had met the PIME missionaries and visited their communities in Ayala, Zamboanga City and Siocon, Zamboanga del Sur. As I was an occasional  lecturer on Filipino culture and the Mindanao-Sulu church at the Maryknoll School, I met the PIMEs who went there to  study Cebuano-Bisaya.

He wasn’t known as Pops then. We called him Fausto and he easily stood out in class. With his curly long hair, moustache and sharp eyes, he had the look  of a prophet! Like a few other PIMEs and other foreign missionaries who preferred to go to the hinterlands of Mindanao, he didn’t worry about what people thought of his appearance.  He wore whatever was simple and comfortable and that was always a T-shirt, rugged pants and rubber  slippers. Many people would have joked that he looked like Jesus Christ the vagabond.

Fausto had a hunger to know as much as could be known about the Philippines and Mindanao, about the people and their culture, the problems of the country (this was at the height of martial rule) and what the people were doing to resist the Marcos dictatorship. He asked a lot of questions inside and outside the classroom. He sought to do good in learning the local language. He was an ideal student and one knew that he would do well as a missionary in Mindanao.  As he was also gentle and soft-spoken, one intuited that even if  he would take a militant stance as a progressive church worker he would not get into trouble with the military and their henchmen.

After his language studies, I would see him again and again and again. Our paths crossed a hundred times through the 34 years of our friendship owing to the convergences of our vocation and interests.  Most of these were during PIME gatherings to which I would be invited, diocesan assemblies in the Diocese of Kidapawan including  gatherings of  those who work among Lumads and later in Arakan where Fausto would be assigned for close to three decades.

The Redemptorist Mission Team based in Iligan City was invited to conduct a mission in the Mother of Perpetual Help Parish in Arakan, Cotabato in 1986. I had joined the Redemptorists by then and spent time in Arakan. Fausto was already working there with lay associates engaged in various social development projects – that dealt with issues of land, health, education and livelihood – at the service of the Manobo communities.  That provided a good chance to catch up with him.

In the next decade, two developments brought us together again. First was the initiative of a few church workers and those of the IP-NGOs to pick up on the ruins of LUMAD MINDANAO, the network of Indigenous Peoples’ Organizations that were set up and which thrived during the martial rule. In the years following February 1986, LUMAD MINDANAO faced organizational  problems and collapsed.  Fausto’s confrere, a well-known and well-respected figure in the IP circles, Fr. Peter Geremia PIME was one of the key people in this initiative to set up another network that would respond to the post-1986 realities of Lumad organizing. Thus was born PANAGTAGBO.  In various activities launched by PANAGTAGBO, literally I would have panagtagbos (encounter) with Fausto and the Lumad leaders he was associated with in Arakan.

Then in the wake of the DENR’s Departamental Order No. 2 (DAO-2) that came out in 1993, there arose  a possibility for the Lumad to have some level of  control and ownership of their ancestral domain through the issuance of the Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title (CADT). Fausto – who was then becoming more known as Pops to those outside of Arakan – contacted the Kaliwat Theatre Collective, then headed by Nestor Horfilla, to assist their group in Arakan to apply for a CADT. Thus was born the cultural project of Kaliwat in collaboration with the Tribal Filipino Program under Pops and the Manobo’s IPO, the Manobo Lumadnong Panaghiusa (MALUPA).  As I am an honorary member of Arakan, I got to tag along in some of the activities connected to this project.

Fast forward to my doctoral studies at the University of the Philippines, Diliman, Quezon City which began in mid-1996.  When I thought of topics for my dissertation, at the top of the list was to look into the collaborative effort of these three civil society agents in Arakan. Ultimately, when I began to do fieldwork in 1998,  there was only one choice left, namely go to Arakan. One of the major reasons for this decision was that Pops was there to fully back me up.

By the late 1990s, I was already in my early-50s and Pops was in his late 40s. Both of us were growing older and we’ve had our ups and downs in our social and pastoral  engagements. We were comparing about the remaining hair still standing on our heads and how it was getting more difficult to climb the steep mountain slopes. I made it a point to spend week-ends in  the convento during the year of my fieldwork in Arakan. Through the night we had long chats. He shared his heartaches  about what was happening in Arakan, the frustrations he faced with the work. He felt so sad that the well-to-do Ilonggo settlers who have come to Arakan have grabbed the Manobos’ land. That the government continued to be in the hands of settlers and provided so little for the needs of the Manobos. That rich landowners and businessmen were continuing to find ways to set up plantations. That Ilonggo parishioners continued to ask him why he cared so little for them and that he only paid attention to the needs of the Lumad.

And he shared  about his fear that despite  what he and his colleagues – including highly committed   Manobo leaders – were  doing for and  on behalf  of the Manobo, there was no assurance that they could continue to  encourage them to remain united in their struggle for self-determination for the sake of their children’s children.

By the beginning of this millennium I was out of Arakan. I finished my dissertation. went to Arakan to give Pops,  his colleagues and the MALUPA leaders with a copy of the dissertation as I have promised,  then quickly returned to our mission team and did missions across Mindanao including those in IP communities. The years quickly went by.  My encounters with Pops became rare as it was not that easy anymore to just go off to Arakan. Even as I was still attending the meetings of the Episcopal Commission on Indigenous Peoples both the regional and national  levels, he would rather not join such conferences. I didn’t blame him as  he always preferred to be in the field rather than in assembly halls or conference rooms.  But I continued to hear about what he was doing as I bumped into his confreres and colleagues every now and then.

When the book Manobo Dreams in Arakan got published in middle of this year, I planned to have a book launch where he, the MALUPA leaders and the original members of Kaliwat would attend. As it was not possible to do it in Arakan or even Kidapawan (owing to time and financial constraints), the next best site would be in Digos City. My friends at Cor Jesu College including Donna Celebrado who used to be a member of Kaliwat, were going to organize it. I looked forward  with a lot of excitement to that possibility, mainly to see Pops again and catch up with the recent developments as well as be updated with how things were in Arakan.

Alas, it wasn’t going to happen. And the reason was because it came to pass that Pops’ fears would come true.  The unity among the Manobos in Arakan which was at one time one of the strongest among IP communities in Mindanao had earlier fragmented. MALUPA had split into two camps. They and Pops could not all come to attend the book launch.

If I knew then what I know now, I could have taken the four-hour trip to Arakan and sought Pops and give him a copy of the book.  That would have pleased him, not so much because he cared for books but he would have welcomed a chat where he would explain to me why the split finally took place.

It would have been a sad story to listen to.

But the sadder part of this  whole story is that Pops is gone. (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].)