issue 205 - March 1990
Photo: Peter Stalker
Soul searching in the
mountains of Negros
There's a lot of superstition about killing a priest,' says Father Brian Gore. 'And we kind of encourage that. It helps our longevity'.
His wooden house is just below the church in Oringao, a barangay in the Kabankalan mountains of southern Negros. He jokes about his 'bodyguards', a 12-year-old boy and a crippled youth who are with us in the house. Brian Gore might not be in much danger now. But he has been in the past. He's an Australian who with two other priests and six lay workers was jailed by Marcos in 1983. He lives in Manila nowadays but Oringao was his old parish and he regularly comes back to visit.
The Philippines is a Catholic country. Three centuries of Spanish colonialism saw to that. The US has been shipping in Protestant missionaries. But about 75 per cent of the population is still Catholic.
'The priest is in a very influential position,' says Gore. 'He's the number one person after the mayor - or even ahead of the mayor.'
But how should that influence be used? Should the Church confine itself to spiritual matters - or follow the liberation theology line and get involved in issues of social justice? Brian Gore has no doubts.
'If a child is malnourished from the womb,' he says, 'it can be mentally impaired for life. And that's an enormous obstacle to that child knowing and loving God - and loving and serving their neighbour.'
The Basic Christian Communities (BCC) which grew up during the 1970s gave a practical expression to this kind of social concern.
'People came to a sense of dignity,' says Gore, 'a sense that they should be in control of their own situation. We never really got justice. But at least we got a chance of people being left alone.
'Say someone had been told to get off their land because it was owned by Mr So-and-so. The judge would give an eviction order for a certain date. The community would discuss that. "What date is that? Oh March 12. We'll be there." So two or three soldiers would arrive and find 500 people weeding that two-hectare plot. There was no way to move them off. It really was people power.'
But the Army did eventually respond in Oringao. They accused Brian Gore and two other priests, along with six BCC leaders, of the murder of a local mayor. The 'Negros Nine' spent six months of 1984 in Bacolod's squalid prison before international pressure caused the fake charges to be dropped - on condition that he and fellow Columban priest, Niall O'Brien, left the country.
Later that evening I am entertained by Antoy Tajones, the 12-year-old 'guard'. He sings along to a recorded guitar background. These 'minus one' tapes are immensely popular here - everyone fancies themselves as a vocalist. Antoy says he won 20 pesos the other day in a singing contest. But he gave them to his mother. In fact he has had to leave school for a year to earn money to help the family.
'I was sad to leave school,' he says, 'but I read the books that my little sister brings home.
The next morning Brian Gore shows me round the church complex he helped build. There's a large dramatically-styled amphitheatre and a small clinic with herbal medicines. A fading mural on the front of the church shows soldiers shooting at peasants ('Not popular with the military, that,' he says).
But the most distinctive feature is the fertilizer plant. Bags of manure line the shelves. Gore grabs inside one of them to produce a squirming handful of worms.
'The worms eat the manure and the lime that's mixed in with it and then excrete a high-grade fertilizer. At one time we had millions of worms and tons of fertilizer to sell.'
This 'vermiculture' programme still operates but on a much smaller scale. In fact Antoy works here now separating the worms from the fertilizer. But the Aquino government has put an end to most community activity round here.
'The irony is,' says Brian Gore, 'that there was more people power under Marcos. In fact people power is now forbidden.'
'I came back in '86 and people said to me "Great father, we're going to have people power". When I came back a year later the vigilantes had been set up and it was no longer safe to follow the philosophy of people power.'
The most significant change, he argues, has been an ideological one. Marcos had no serious ideology. But the Aquino government and particularly the military, has been constructing an anti-communist 'national security state'.
'They regard a well-organized community as a possible mass base for the NPA. They don't kill that many priests. But they do kill more of the lay people in the remote areas. People are terrified now to do what they were doing under Marcos.'
Brian asks Antoy if the children are scared by all the military activity.
'Sometimes we get frightened. If they suspect you, you could get killed. If I were a soldier I wouldn't kill people just because I was told to. I'd investigate first.' Brian laughs at this concession. But Antoy adds: 'A soldier's job is to pick up people who are doing wrong, not to kill them.'
All this has put a lot of pressure on the progressive elements in the Catholic Church - and pushed many of the hierarchy to the right. Cardinal Sin, who was instrumental in ousting Marcos, at one point endorsed the formation of Civilian Volunteer Organizations or CVOs (the official term for vigilante groups).
There is also a more direct influence from the US in the shape of right-wing fundamentalist groups.
'We've had an enormous influx of fundamentalists in the last three years, says Brian. 'They see themselves fighting Satan in the form of communism. Quite a number from Australia and other countries but mostly from the States. Mormons in every town: they have multi-million-peso structures everywhere.
The Catholic Church is now more divided than ever. Camilo Gregorio, the recently-appointed conservative Bishop of Negros, says that the main concerns of the Church will now be evangelism and catechism.
'It churns my insides,' says Brian Gore, 'to see that we might abstract ourselves into the more remote area of spirituality. I've been in the Philippines 20 years and I've never seen one soul yet. We deal with people, not with souls.'
The local parish priest, Father Tranquilino Nacional, has now arrived. But he's just about to leave again to say mass at the fiesta day of the nearby barangay of Batyas - and invites me to join them. The expedition includes a two-woman choir, a guitar - and Antoy, who has a day off from his worms to act as altar boy. We lurch off down the mountain in a truck.
'This place used to be very peaceful,' says Father Nacional, 'but they have now started up a CVO and a lot of the Basic Christian Community members are being pressured to join.'
We walk the last part of the way to Batyas, since the road is too churned up for the truck to get through. The whole community is waiting patiently for the mass under an open palm-roofed building which serves as the chapel.
As at any good fiesta there's also a good meal. I always feel uneasy at being offered food first. But I am reassured to see that none of the other visitors hold back - Antoy walks off with a mountainous serving of chicken and rice.
Felipe Hangalay is the President of the Basic Christian Community here. 'They accuse us of being connected with left-wing groups. The CAFGUs come and ask me what the BCC is, as though it were a new church. I tell them that we talk about what God has entrusted us to do, to condemn the abuses that we see.'
After the celebrations we head back down the mountain. The truck has to be push-started - to an ironic cry of 'People Power!'.
But before returning to Bacolod I stop off again at Binalbagan to meet some of Negros's 'internal refugees'. Living with the CAFGUs and the CVOs is difficult enough but the fighting can become so intense that people have to flee their homes. Negros has suffered some of the worst fighting. The Army's 'Operation Thunderbolt' in 1989 caused the evacuation of 30,000 people and the deaths of 300 children on their way to the refugee camps. A school in Binalbagan has given shelter to some of the most recent victims and it is here that I talk to the Ampon family.
Back in Bacolod I meet another of the 'Negros Nine', Father Niall O'Brien. The Aquino government is, he believes, missing its chance.
'They have a real opportunity here. Negros is a boiling cauldron and the only way to stop it exploding is to turn down the flames. Instead they are putting weights on the lid.'
We had to leave. People were being told to report to the military to see if they had seen any NPAs. But then they were being sent back to burn their own homes. So we decided to go. At first the Mayor here refused to accept us but then the Presentation Sisters allowed us to stay at the school. They gave us materials and we get some food from the Department of Social Welfare. The children have been sick with fevers. Argie, the youngest, had to have her head shaved because she had blisters.
There were no NPA in our barangay, only CAFGUs. The situation here is much worse now under Cory. We don't mind the military going after the NPA but why do they punish us?