By MARC RECHELLE BUNTAG and AIRA MARIE SIGUENZA
MANILA – “It is not easy to advocate and help the Indigenous people because you are prone to violence and red-tagging from the state. However, RMP never failed to showcase their love by being with us in our fight for our rights.”
This is what Katkat Dalon, 19, a Lumad beneficiary of the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines, told Bulatlat in an interview.
Ever since the declaration of Martial Law of former President Rodrigo Duterte in Mindanao, the Lumad communities have become targets of threats and intimidation, including the setting up of military encampments in their vicinity, and destruction of school facilities. According to the Save Our Schools (SOS) Network, under Duterte’s administration, 216 Lumad schools have been forced to close.
Even before Duterte’s administration, the indigenous peoples have been deprived of social services and government support, making health and education inaccessible. Because of this, rural advocates like RMP stepped up to help them, establishing schools and health programs. However, this subjected the missionaries to relentless attacks.
Among the most recent was the filing of 55 counts of violation of the country’s terror financing law. Earlier, they were among the groups whose bank accounts were frozen per orders of the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC).
Lumads’ memories of struggle for rights and welfare with RMP
On August 15, 1969 in Tarlac, the national organization of priests, nuns, and lay people, was founded by a group of religious women who did charity work to support peasants’ struggle against agrarian issues like landlessness. They are the oldest mission partners of the Conference of Major Religious Superiors in the Philippines (CMSP).
Religious congregations are deployed to schools, factories, and poor urban communities. And in the spirit of helping the needy, the situation in rural areas encouraged religious men and women to go to the countryside to see for themselves the conditions of farmers and indigenous peoples in order to serve them, one of which is the Lumad community where Dalon belongs.
Dalon recalled how the missionaries gave them a platform to tell their story of oppression and developmental aggression. “They invited us [lumads] to their congregations and fora to speak,” Dalon said.
This helped their bakwit schools to continue serving displaced Lumad.
“Because of RMP, bakwit schools continued. They provided us with rice, canned goods, and monetary donations,” she added.
Sr. Edith* of RMP recalled how the military frequently invades the ancestral lands of the Lumad, forcing them to evacuate.
“The soldiers were destroying the Lumad land, bombing their schools, forcing them to be away from their homes, and killing them because of the accusation that they are part of the New People’s Army. I don’t understand why they think like that because these children only want to learn their ABCs and basic agriculture,” said Sister Edith.
This desperate situation of the indigenous people forces them to ask for help, and their only sanctuary is the church, where they are shelteredd for months until the soldiers would leave their communities.
According to Sr. Rebecca*, RMP is a pioneer in organizing IP communities in Mindanao, starting from the martial law era, helping these through community-based health programs and teaching them how to sustain themselves amid the development aggression they face in their ancestral lands.
The sisters saw the need for medical assistance in rural communities and this led them to start community-based health programs. With the help of RMP’s partner health organizations and professionals, such as the Council for Health and Development, local community health workers in rural areas were trained to manage their own health programs, prepare herbal medicine, and teach alternative treatment like acupuncture and massage.
The trained community health worker is also tasked to help neighboring areas that are also in need.
RMP is also instrumental in building cooperatives in rural communities, finding educational scholarships for the farmers’ children, and continuously contributing to the awareness raising of communities in terms of their rights.
All these were done with the view of their mission in bringing the Good News of Jesus Christ to rural communities.
Persistent service to people
“What the DOJ has done is unjust because RMP is not a terrorist organization. Who is the one who closes our schools? Who is the one who kills people? It’s not the RMP but the military,” Dalon said.
Because of RMP’s mandate to be immersed in underdeveloped areas in the countryside, they have become the frequent target of red-tagging, with allegations that they are helping the armed revolutionaries.
They likened their situation to famous Brazil Archbishop Dom Camara’s quote, “When I feed the poor, they call me a saint, but when I ask why the poor are hungry, they call me a communist.”
RMP admits that despite living out the church’s mandate to serve those in need, it is a challenge for them to convince religious institutions to embrace their advocacy. This, they said, is because they fear that the state would attack them if they associate themselves with RMP and its activities.
“It is a challenge to explain to our fellow churchmen that this is risky and will get you out of your comfort zone. However, this is part of our mission – to connect to rural areas despite hardships like having no cellphones and making long walks because there is no available vehicle,” Sr. Rebecca said.
Sr. Edith recalled her experience in helping the Lumad in rural areas in Mindanao. She said that in one of the communities that she visited, there was a significant amount of gold, making it attractive for giant mining corporations.
These corporations would “invade” their lands with the help of the military, displacing the people and accusing them of coddling rebels. For this reason, they are being evicted from their homeland. Meanwhile, Christian workers who help Lumad stand for their rights are being killed.
“This is clear harassment by the state against RMP and other human rights defenders to make us stop our service to the poor. For now, it negates us, but we are persevering to be true to our call,” Sr. Rebecca said.
Serving God is serving the poor
“We cannot stop helping people because it is part of our mission. If we stop, then we are not doing it right; we are not missionaries anymore,” Sr. Edith said.
For nuns like Edith and Rebecca, they will not cower in carrying through the church’s mandate: to love and serve the poor.
“Even as we face incredulous, manipulated and fabricated stories that have been conjured by purveyors of darkness, we stand firm in the light of truth. Those who seek to besmirch our ministry, by saying it supported or financed ‘terrorism’, should be held to account; their lies will only further the suffering and poverty in marginalized communities,” RMP said in a statement.
The Sisters reiterated that in order to achieve and give real and concrete love, they should go to the people and learn from them, just as Lao Tsu stated. RMP vowed “to continue igniting the fire of their souls and the grace in their hearts to carry on with their mandate of loving God and the poor. “
Editor’s note: The complete names of Srs. Edith and Rebecca were withheld upon their request.