As of the 1995 census, Tawi-Tawi had a population of 250,718. Bongao, the capital town and the biggest, had 46,672. Turtle Islands, the smallest, had 2,359. South Ubian composed of several small islands east of the main island of Tawi-Tawi had a population of 20,180. Tabawan had 122 households of 956 persons. [Note: The Wikipedia says that the population of Tawi-Tawi had grown to 322,317 by 2000.]
Tabawan, a 3-square kilometer coral island with thin topsoil, cannot produce enough food for its people. With its fishing grounds devastated by dynamite fishing, the people could no longer live by this once lucrative industry. They have to find work in Sabah, many as illegal migrants. [From an account of The Mindanao Cross editor, Guillermo Hagad.]
Tawi-Tawi, together with Sulu, has benefited from the missionary works of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate since 1939. While the Oblates minister to the spiritual life of the Catholics – about two percent of the population – they never proselytize or convert Muslims. On the contrary, in the Notre Dame schools, they facilitate the growth of Islam among their Muslim students.
The thrust of the Oblate mission is toward education and the improvement of the life of the people. With the Muslims composing 98 percent of the population, they are the principal beneficiaries of the mission schools, health clinics, and other socio-economic apostolate or undertaking.
In 1964, for instance, there were Notre Dame schools in Jolo, Bongao, Cagayan de Sulu, Siasi, Ungus Matata, Tabawan and Sibutu – with colleges in Jolo, Bongao and Siasi. There were Notre Dame clinics in Ungus Matata, Cagayan de Sulu, Jolo, Bongao, Sibutu and Siasi.
The Oblate Mission came at the time – most especially after World II – when the government could not establish schools and health facilities in the remote places in the country. Even today, those islands in Tawi-Tawi are still in need of help outside of the government.
Despite the security risks since the late1960s, the Oblates have not abandoned their missions. I cannot tell for sure now how many schools and clinics the Oblates have in Sulu and Tawi-Tawi. What I am certain is that education, health and other socioeconomic projects are still at the core of their apostolate.
Fr. Rey Roda
Among the schools mentioned above, Notre Dame of Tabawan has continued operating for the Muslims and a few Christians in Tabawan and the neighboring islands. Founded by Fr. Leopold Gregoire, OMI, a French-Canadian, the mission has been zealously run by Filipino Oblates. The Tabawan mission serves the neighboring islands.
The mission had been headed for more than ten years by Fr. Jesus Reynaldo A. Roda, OMI, a native of Cotabato City, until his brutal murder in the evening of January 15. His death will inspire his successor and the people of Tabawan to continue his projects.
According to Millet B. Mendoza of NGO Pagtabangan Basulta Tawi-Tawi, Father Roda tapped his teachers to become core convenors for peace and development work. When he died, Ms. Mendoza, who had been closely working with Fr. Roda, said that he had many projects in the pipeline or in progress like small scale livelihood projects.
He had sought assistance for his scholarship program for the youth of Tabawan to escape the cycle of poverty through education, says the Hagad account. Fr. Roda loved the Muslims. He wanted to improve life in the present and much more in the future.
Fr. Roda came from pious clans, the Roda and the Albores. His father, a fourth degree Knight of Columbus, and his mother were active workers of the Church. If I remember right, one of his sisters is a nun.
Cause for Concern
The death of Fr. Roda is a cause for concern. Despite the good that the Oblates have been doing for the poor in their mission areas, 98 percent of them Muslims, there are individuals or groups who hate the Oblates. Fr. Roda was the third Oblate to be shot after Bishop Benjamin de Jesus (1997) and Fr. Benjamin Inocencio (2000) in front of the Cathedral in Jolo.
Except for the few, the Muslims love the Oblates. To manifest their love and sorrow, they cancelled their festivities – I think Hariraya – as their expression of mourning. And, they pleaded with the Oblate Provincial Superior to have Bishop de Jesus buried in Jolo Cathedral grounds. Many attended the wake.
Why kill the Oblates who are dedicated in their mission to improve the lives of the poor in Sulu and Tawi –Tawi whom the government has neglccted? Despite the killings, there has been no indication the Oblates will abandon their mission. Will the hateful individuals or groups continue killing the benefactors God has sent for the poor?
Why compensate love with hate? (“Comment" is Mr. Patricio P. Diaz' column for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. Mr. Diaz is the recipient of a “Lifetime Achievement Award” from the Titus Brandsma for his "commitment to education and public information to Mindanawons as Journalist, Educator and Peace Advocate." You may e-mail your comments to [email protected]).