DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 17 December) — As soon as he boarded the 4 a.m. Manila-General Santos flight on November 27, Fr. Teresito Soganub, hostage of the Maute Group from May 23 to September 16 and in the custody of the military from September 17 to November 20, broke down in tears.
That he was returning to his beloved hometown of Norala, South Cotabato some two hours away from General Santos City, was not the main reason why he cried when he boarded the plane and sobbed uncontrollably when it landed.
The primary reason, he said, was his journey as a priest, a vocation he chose but which rejected him initially because he was “a very good man with very many bad habits.”
“Pag land sa airport. naga-crying ako. Pagsakay pa lang sa plane, naga-crying ko… not much for thanking God I am alive, I survived and I have no wounds except sa mata. I cried because budlay gid intindohon ang Ginoo, ngaa ginpili man ko (it is difficult to fathom God and why He chose me) for this miracle.”
Soganub counts his days in captivity until he and a teacher escaped midnight of September 16 at 116 (117 days reckoned from May 23, Day 1 of the Marawi Crisis and eve of the feast of María Auxiliadora or Mary, Help of Christians, the patron saint of the St. Mary’s Church in Marawi). They found their way into an area held by the military ten minutes later, on September 17, Soganub said.
Known in different circles as Father Chito, Tisoy, Chetex, Prime, Soganub turned 57 in the war zone on August 1, feeling so “deprived” he could not say mass. “I did not blame the hostage-takers. I blamed God. Ngano gi-allow mo Lord? (Why did you allow this Lord?). I am not worthy of this punishment if ever this is a punishment or challenge pero I celebrate it, celebrate pa rin, celebrate life,” he told MindaNews over breakfast of paksiw na hito and rice before proceeding to the local government’s “welcome home” motorcade and program at the covered court on November 28.
The nearly four-month ordeal was a test of Soganub’s faith and coming home to Norala was like coming to terms with how God has blessed him so much to have kept him alive.
Friends at the Task Force Detainees (TFD) where he served as coordinator in South Cotabato from 1984 to 1987 recall how Soganub entered priesthood as a late vocation.
He corrects the impression. “Not late, but delayed.”
Soganub entered Our Lady of Perpetual Help seminary in Koronadal, South Cotabato when he was 17. His classmates were ordained10 years ahead of him.
“Ampo gid ko to be one of the chosen. Ginhatagan niya pero dugay” (I prayed I would be one of the chosen. He chose me but it took so long,” he said.
“The martyr of dialogue today” was how Davao City’s Archbishop Emeritus Fernando Capalla described Soganub at the 16th Mindanao Sulu Pastoral Conference here on October 18.
It was Capalla, then Bishop of Iligan and Administrator of the Prelature of Marawi, who sent the then 27-year old Soganub back to the seminary in 1988, with inter-religious dialogue in Marawi, the country’s lone Islamic city, as his future assignment.
Soganub would stay there — the only area he had been assigned to in his 23 years as priest — until he escaped from the Maute Group in September.
Soganub says he is grateful for the privilege God has given him. “Dili usual nga privilege, bisan gustohon mo pa. Gina-imagine ko gamay na lang kulang sa martyrdom. (It is not a usual privilege even if you want it. I imagine it’s close to martyrdom). Ang martyrdom kasi, martyrs are chosen by God and martyrdom is a privilege and you cannot ask for it and (no matter) how prayerful you are, how holy you are, if the Lord will not give it to you, indi gid” (it’s not for you).
Soganub said a churchgoer at the St. Ignatius Cathedral in Camp Aguinaldo, Quezon City on Nov. 19 made him realize how much he has inspired other people.
He was talking with a military official who was assigned in Marawi years ago, when an “executive looking” man in his 30s rushed to hold his hand and to ask him to bless him and his baby “because you pray effectively. You would not have survived there (Marawi) but you did.”
Soganub narrated how captivity strengthened his faith and his commitment to interfaith dialogue. Even as the Maute Group forced them to convert to Islam, the predominantly Christian hostages continued to pray to their God while bowing.
Marawi Bishop Edwin dela Pena said Soganub and the other hostages joined the Maute Group in their prayers “pero ang kanilang dasal, ‘Our Father, Hail Mary.’
Soganub said he realized during the siege, his “reflection days sa AFP” (Armed Forces of the Philippines), and the annual retreat of the Prelature of Marawi Clergy somewhere in Luzon on November 20 to 25, that “grabe gyud si Lord. Budlay-budlay i-dissect ang mystery nga the hostaging under 116 days, not all are bad. It deepened my faith, it made me more prayerful, (it became) an occasion to pray and an occasion for people to pray for me.”
His siblings received calls from Protestants and Muslims that they were praying for the priest who is an active member of the United Religious Initiatives and the Interfaith Council. Muslims also told his siblings that they were praying “for the difficult journey of your brother” and how they “love him so much because he worked too hard for interreligious dialogue.”
Crying while praying
The hostage-takers struck Soganub as “prayerful,” many of them even crying while praying.
The usual five-times-a-day prayers were cut down to three “kay gyera man” (because it was wartime) but the same prayers would still be recited, two in succession to save time going back to the mosque.
He said the fighters would cry. “Muhilak gyud, mutulo gyud ang luha. Grabe ka trusting kay Allah” (would really cry, they would shed tears. And they trusted Allah so much).
He noted how the fighters would read the word of God no matter how weary they were from the war front. Young or old, “mubasa gyud sila (they really read the Koran) and when they’re done reading, they would kiss the Koran and place it in a safe place,” he said.
Although he had been experiencing a dialogue of life and faith in Marawi City for two decades, it was a different dialogue of life and faith he was witnessing and experiencing in the war zone. (see Inside the War Zone)
Fr. Chito’s journey to priesthood was “delayed” because he was “hirap piliin ni Lord” (not easy to be chosen by the Lord), again describing himself as “a very good boy with very many bad habits.” He reckoned he was “delayed by 10 years more or less.”
But he was in a hurry to be born. His mother named him after her favorite saint, Therese of Lisieux because he was supposed to have been born on her feast day on October 1. He was born in Cotabato City on August 1, 1960, a premature baby. Two months later, his parents and the firstborn Teresito moved to Norala.
In his first attempt as a seminarian in Koronadal, Soganub may have done well because he was recommended by the rector and the Bishop to proceed to the Regional Major Seminary (REMASE) in Davao City. But REMASE kicked him out due to misbehavior. “Too much drink, beer, whiskey and wine,” he laughed.
Out of the seminary, he worked part-time in print and broadcast media in Koronadal and General Santos City, as radio anchor and contributor to Concern, a church-based newsletter.
After that brief stint, he worked full time in Task Force Detainees (TFD), as coordinator for South Cotabato from 1984 to 1987. This was where he met Fr. Rodulfo “Dong” Galenzoga of the Mindanao Sulu Pastoral Conference, a favorite facilitator during TFD meetings.
Galenzoga, who was fond of listening to stories of ex-seminarians from among TFD and church workers, became his link to Lanao and eventually, to Marawi, when he invited him sometime in 1985 to “live and observe life and faith journey” of the Ambak Community, an alternative formation which does not uproot the formatee from his historical and sociological background. (Ambak in Cebuano means ‘jump’ but Soganub says Ambak translates to “planks”),
Soganub described Ambak as “very revolutionary” and joined it on the feast of San Isidro Labrador in Magsaysay town, Lanao del Norte two years later — on May 23, 1987 — exactly 30 years before his life took yet another dramatic turn when he was taken hostage by the Maute Group in Marawi City.
May 23 would continue to be memorable for Soganub as another significant event happened on May 23, 1988 in Iligan City.
But that’s getting ahead of the story.
Ambak was “the apex or pinaka high point ng expression namin sa Mindanao-Sulu Pastoral Conference” as the formation of priests or religious was deeply immersed in the community. “Very, very revolutionary,” Soganub said.
He described how Ambak did away with books written by western authors and the westernized lifestyle, unlike the usual formation centers where seminarians from very poor families are uprooted from their areas and introduced to the lifestyle of the elite. “When he’s in the seminary, his comfort room is like the comfort room of millionaires. Tiled,” he said.
In the Ambak Community, they had to work for their food, joined farmers in harvesting coconuts or plowing the fields and after a month or so would be evaluated by farmers and workers themselves on how they relate with people, how they work.
Soganub said this kind of formation was the brainchild of MSPC, specifically Galenzoga and Marawi’s first Bishop Bienvenido Tudtud.
The St. Mary’s Theologate (SMT) in Ozamiz City, where he eventually finished his interrupted seminary life, was “alternative” because of its formation program but it still had professors, had the same routine of classes and masses, and they were still guarded, he said. “Alternative lang ang commitments, thoughts, ang orientation while ang Ambak was very, very revolutionary.”
In Ambak, the day began with a mass, followed by assignments on who would do the laundry, cook, fetch water, work as laborers in the farms.
He plowed the fields in Magsaysay, Lanao del Norte.
He stayed a year.
When Marawi Bishop Tudtud died in a plane crash on June 26, 1987, Capalla, then Bishof of neighboring Iligan, became the apostolic administrator of the Prelature of Marawi, and began his search for priests for Marawi.
In May 1988, Capalla, also an Ilonggo like Soganub, called for him and asked him if he really wanted to be a priest. He replied: “Sobra. Gustong gusto ko” (I really want to).
Capalla told him he had to undergo formal training in theology and should take the exam at SMT and enter the seminary by June.
“Next year na lang,” he said, citing lack of resources, but Capalla said he would take care of it.
Still, he tried to convince the Bishop that next year would be better because his papers were in Davao, that he didn’t have a good behavioral record that’s why he was kicked out and REMASE may not recommend him.
Capalla was a professor at the REMASE and before he became Bishop of Iligan and Administrator of Marawi, was an auxiliary bishop in Davao. He would recommend Soganub.
The Bishop phoned REMASE and asked them to fax a copy of his records.
The grades were okay, Capalla said. Soganub says his grades were “minimal lang.”
Capalla told him to take the exam in Ozamiz the next day and submit the results in the afternoon.
Soganub found what he thought was a perfect excuse: it was past the deadline for application at SMT. As it turned out, Capalla was Bishop-in-charge of formation in the Dipolog-Iligan-Ozamiz-Pagadian-Ipil-Marawi dioceses, and called SMT to give Soganub and two others a special exam the next day and to release the results the same day.
He asked permission to go home to Magsaysay but Capalla told them to stay and gave them money to buy a change of clothes, and fare for Ozamiz.
They passed the exam.
Brave. Dare. Go.
The Bishop asked Soganub what Diocese he was eyeing to serve. He had no answer.
Capalla told him to go to the country’s lone Islamic city for inter-religious dialogue, a ministry whose seeds Bishop Tudtud had planted and nurtured in Marawi and from there spread to other areas in Mindanao and the rest of the country.
Soganub hesitated but Capalla asked: “hindi ba adventurer ka kaya andito ka?” He said yes.
“Di ba matapang ka, ginasuka ka ng seminary, balik ka nang balik,” he quoted the Bishop as saying. He nodded.
“Go,” Capalla said, to “the place where the brave dare not go.”
“Ikaw brave. Dare. Go,” the Bishop said. He noted how Soganub’s character was fit for inter-religious dialogue: “barkadista ka eh kaya nga ma-PR ka, mahilig makinig, mahilig kang magdaldal, magaling sa relationship kaya lang mag straight life ka rin.”
Ilonggos are not afraid, the Bishop challenged him. He said he would easily rise in the hierarchy because he might be the only priest there. But he also warned him that the lifestyle would be difficult in the place Capalla described then as one where priests have no money (because there are only a few parishioners), no security, no bright future.
Soganub was overwhelmed. “Grabe ka challenging,” he recalled.
But Capalla told him that even as it sounded very difficult, he would be living the life of Jesus and he won’t have to take the vow of poverty because “you live poverty.”
According to Soganub, Capalla must have noticed his hesitance because he stood up and told him: “pa Task Force Task Force Detainees ka pa, pa-rally rally ka pa dahil you want to serve the poor, yun pala hindi mo kaya at saka takot ka. Istorya pa lang ito.”
Soganub did not see that coming but admitted Capalla was right. He bargained: “may discernment pa Bishop? As seminarian pwede pa rin mag discern?” Soganub asked.
The bishop replied in the affirmative but quickly added that he should stop saying he is for the poor, that he would follow Jesus, that he is progressive, radical, joins rallies and worked in TFD but will not go to a place where priests have no money, no future, no luxury.
“Parang na-trap ako” (I felt trapped), he said.
May 23 would again figure in Soganub’s journey as priest, as the day Capalla asked him to commit as a student for priesthood, carrying the Prelature of Marawi as his local church.”
“He asked me to start as a man of God for Marawi by attending the last novena and mass in preparation for the fiesta of Marawi, on 23rd May 1988” and to attend the patronal fiesta of the Prelature on May 24, 1988.
Soganub says his having worked with the poor and his involvement in interfaith dialogue helped him survive his nearly four-month captivity in 2017 but the primary reason is “prayers… orientation of mind and prayers. Si Lord talaga, si Lord.”
“Yung attitude ko for the poor, it helped na lang kasi this is the Jesus way, the way of Jesus,” he added.
Is he returning to Marawi?
He said he would “follow the science of psychology .. that if you have trauma, you face it. Go for traumatic healing processes so you will remain psychologically wholesome, physically handsome … you are fruitful spiritually, psychologically, physically.”
He will not go back to regular ministry, not yet, as he will still undergo trauma healing.
“Who cares for the care givers? Kasi ambassador of peace tapos yung ambassador mo unhealthy?” he asked.
Returning to Marawi, he said, “will come out in the discernment.”
“I can be there again or maybe not that place anymore. No problem. I still love that place,” he said of Marawi where he served all of his 23 years as priest — 17 of that as the longest-serving chaplain of the Mindanao State University. (Carolyn O. Arguillas / MindaNews)