Community, Philosophy, Politics, World

Sermon in the hacienda

I decided to repost this article which I wrote in May 2010. It was also published in the Micah Mandate

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“Mandate” is a powerful word, but it is also a popular word today. My best friend Joshua, who is reading theology at Trinity Theological College told me once that a mega-church in Singapore is “hot on cultural mandate”. And one of its pastors, when asked what did the church mean when talking about “cultural mandate”, said, it is “being relevant to culture by the casual clothes the pastors wear, the persona style they adopt, the contemporary worship songs” (Quoted from Joshua’s blog).

That’s one of the many forms of “mandate” we hear these days in churches.

But it took a trip to a distant country for me to hear a fresh perspective about “mandate”.

I was in the Philippines from May 6-15, as part of an international team of observers to the country’s 2010 Election. When I was there, I went to Pulupandan, a small town on the western coast of Negros Occidental, an hour’s flight from Manila. The township has a little more than 25000 people, a local leader told us that they were an ageing community. Most of the younger people either migrated to the capital or the more vibrant nearby city of Bacolod.

The election campaigning in Bacolod City was festive-like. There were three main teams, including the incumbents, vying for the mayoral and local government positions. The campaigning in Pulupandan was, however, quieter, and understandably so. But beyond the surface of peaceful calmness, there was a tortured silence. A local resident told me, silence did not always mean peaceful. It was a silence of being subdued, a silence of fear. Indeed when 80% of the land and most of the major industries in a small town of 25000 people belonged to the same family who was also holding much of the political power there, it was hard not to have images of powerful dictators compelling people to toe the line. Truth to be told, there were people who happily sing the praises of the incumbent government, although as one of my colleague from Australia observed, the compliments were almost scripted, repeated and repeated again by different people. But praises aside, the images of powerful dictators running the town are not too far from reality.

When I questioned him whether the family’s ownership of land and control of economy will affect voters’ liberty to vote for the opposition, the incumbent vice mayor asked me, “What will your boss do if you voted against him?” I think it’s safe to say that he took their votes for him as only reasonable.

There was one opponent who contested the incumbent mayor in the 2010 Election; he was a former mayor. But after he announced his candidacy in February, he was shot dead, while walking out of a church. His running mate, for vice mayor’s position was his sister, Gina. After her brother’s death, she persisted in the contest, against the incumbent vice mayor, who is the bro-in-law of the incumbent mayor, who had asked me earlier, “What will your boss do if you voted against him?”

I spoke to Gina, a bulky rugged dark-skinned woman. She looked more like a farmer of the sugar cane hacienda (”estate”) than a vice mayoral potential. When I was at Gina’s large-compound home in Pulupandan, there were more than a handful of villagers who took shelter in that place after they were being evicted from their homes, which stood on, the lands of the ruling family, who, I must say it again, owned 80% of Pulupandan. A Catholic priest who was actively advocating the rights of the squatters was reported to be incommunicado.

The evicted villagers were supporters and beneficiaries of Gina’s family, and they claimed that that was the reason why they were being disenfranchised. On election day, when we went to monitor the polling activities, some of them actually discovered that their names were struck off the voters’ list, with red pen and a note saying something about them not being allowed to vote “per court order”.

Our interview with Gina lasted about an hour or so, beginning with a brief chat with her sister-in-law, the wife of her late brother. Towards the end of the interview, I asked Gina, almost nonchalantly, “are you afraid?” It was quite a stupid question, given that her brother was murdered almost possibly for contesting (the case is still pending investigation though). But on one hand, I was intrigued by her persistence to continue the campaign – she even campaigned for her dead brother to be voted – and on the other hand, I was really curious whether she felt any fear at all.

“Are you afraid?”

And almost without warning, Gina looked straight into my eyes, her dark skin further darkened by the shades of dusk, and said to me:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, to bring the good news to the poor,

to set the oppressed people free,

to declare the year of the Lord’s favour”.

I was unprepared for anything like that. I had expected something more, “political” or “human right-ish” at best. But this was too much for me, because like a pastor exegeting my favourite text, Gina brought Jesus’ words in Luke 4 to life. Biblical text yes, but where was the sermon? The biblical text was wrapped around the watchful eyes of peasants seeking shelter in Gina’s house, by the cheerful wife of the dead mayor, Gina’s sister-in-law, by Gina’s rugged determination to continue this war against terror and oppression. That was a breath-taking sermon, you bet.

I shuddered at the newly expounded meaning of “mandate” in Gina’s sermon. Have I been trivializing God’s charge to me and imagining grandeur in my own little vocation, when it was much much easier to be in my shoes than in Gina’s?

I do not want to romantize Gina’s struggle. There were bad things said about her family as well. Her late brother was accused of orchestrating an ambush against the incumbent mayor when the latter won in 2007 (the communist rebel army had since confessed that they were the mastermind, but the mayor still believe Gina’s brother was somehow involved). I do not want to romantize the evicted squatters and the poor, I know when one is poor, heroism, moral and values are the last thing in one’s mind.

But as the late Archbishop Oscar Romero said, the glory of god is in the living poor. God chose to identify with the “ugly of this world”, both in appearance – the poor have no silks on their back – and in cultivation – the ugliness of human nature is more prone to surface against the backdrop of poverty. It was never easy to go into the world of the “ugly”, much less to love the “ugly” and to restore their dignity. But in Gina’s sermon that day, she made it clear, it was not easy, but a mandate nonetheless.

Gina ended her sermon by saying, “this is not just a battle here, but a battle ‘up there’ as well, it is a spiritual fight and we need faith”. I wanted to shout “amen! and amen!” but for the fact that, alas, I was not in Church. It was a sermon in the hacienda.

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