I had just arrived from a week-long sojourn to Sulu and Zamboanga, the first to honor an invitation for bravery, and the second to bask in the generosity of a hospitable city. There was much drama in the trip to Panglima Estino, Sulu, with a party of 200 Christians defying their fears and choosing instead to invest in friendship. We thought building houses for poor Muslims was more important than perpetuating the hostility that had broken our historical brotherhood.
Zamboanga was another matter. As much as we entertained some initial apprehension about Sulu, it was only celebration in Zamboanga. Mayor Celso Lobregat went all out to make the Bayani Challenge of Gawad Kalinga a fun affair despite the heat and rain that greeted almost fifty teams of volunteer house builders. The good mayor coined the greeting, “Mi casa es tu casa,” so appropriate for the bayanihan spirit that dominated the event where 800 volunteers from all over the country and abroad built homes for fifty poor families.
I thought that going back to Manila would bring back a sense of order in my life. It was fun sleeping on floors of classrooms in Sulu, or crowded rooms of overextended hosts in Zamboanga, but one longs for a modicum of comfort and routine to assuage an aging and tired body. I cannot exchange my latest experience in Mindanao for anything, not even for comfort and luxury. However, I must admit I wanted to rest, and wanted to take this rest in my own home.
After several days in Manila, I am now wondering if facilities for physical convenience are enough to make an active citizen rest. While there was fear of violence in a province long known for fierce fighting between Tausugs and government troops during the martial law years, the reality as we experienced life on the ground was totally different from perception and expectation. Mayor Munib Estino of Panglima Estino played the most gracious host together with a whole town so appreciative of Christian guests who opted to believe in a forgotten fraternity rather than succumb to ugly prejudice.
It helped so much that Mayor Munib Estino and the Marines under the command of Gen. Juancho Sabban, ably assisted by Gen. Boying Ecarma, constantly lent their presence and active cooperation. It helped even more that Sulu Gov. Abusakur Tan affirmed the provincial government was very much in control, given extra powers by an emergency situation. Sulu became the safe zone it was not supposed to be. I wonder why we were so worried in the first place, and why many who never had been to Sulu, and would most probably never go there, almost succeeded in getting the event postponed (meaning canceled). Judging a book by its cover is a dangerous habit, and, oftentimes, a stupid one. This attitude has kept Filipinos from crossing barriers to repair divisions amongst them, locking us to destructive patterns rather than taking chances at forming new ones.
What greeted me in Manila was a lot of news, bad news. My body is getting some comfort back, but my soul gets mostly vexation. While I heard only laughter and lively conversations of old and new friends enjoying each other, I read and watch media report shameful attempts to change the Constitution against a people’s will, strange and abusive police behavior in investigating the death of Failon’s wife, senators alleging corruption and murder against each other, and speculations of an arrest order against a whistle blower who saved billions for the Filipino people. The list of bad news goes on forever, and I wonder why there is no attempt to postpone or cancel an atmosphere which goes beyond physical threat to the actual corruption of a collective spirit. Obviously, many leaders, including those claiming spiritual ascendancy, can find peace with moral decay but go nuts over threats of physical danger. It is not order I returned to but a general sense of chaos.
Instead of getting what I thought was a well-deserved rest, I am reminded by the hypocrisy of it all, the same hypocrisy that sustains a warped value system. When attachment to power and wealth become more important than service and generosity, society is, indeed, sick. No wonder poverty and corruption rule the land together with religions of all sorts in one merry milieu, contradictions in substance finding harmony in tolerant co-existence. Principle often surrenders to protocol, nobility less valuable than credit-grabbing, in a nation dominated by Christians led by the most un-Christian role models.
When Gen. Sabban, and Gen. Allaga before him, told our contingent of volunteer builders that the Marines would and could provide security to ensure our safety, we trusted them. When Mayor Munib Estino was laughing off our fears and assuring us that all is well, and that, in fact, he was already hosting for over a week our forward party of a dozen volunteers, we believed him. When Gov. Tan said, “Come and help my people,” we accepted his invitation. Yes, we knew that the kidnapping of Red Cross workers was muddling the situation in Sulu, but the word of those who knew better must have more value than the speculative fears of fearful and prejudiced people. I am glad we realized that, took a chance for peace, and have now established many, many new strategic friendships.
I am not discounting the reality of danger in Sulu, just putting it in context. We here who live in Manila and elsewhere far from Sulu are threatened by more than physical danger. We are forced to survive in a perverted atmosphere where evil can be more powerful than good, where wrongdoing can be rewarded more than observance of law, where the welfare of our pocket and position takes priority over the welfare of our soul. How can Sulu be more dangerous than this?
The word of a noble Muslim warrior or Marines willing to die for a friend, or even just an invited guest, is more credible and valuable than the word of politicians and many so-called religious leaders. Never in our history has honor bent so low when those who represent State and Church have themselves become suspect to a people they are supposed to serve but have failed. Ordinary citizens cannot allow failed leaders to determine our destiny. We must look to ourselves, constantly choose Good over Evil and Walk over Talk, look to our God and our conscience for directions, and allow our Davids to emerge from rigid King Sauls clinging to power.
“Cowardice is seeing what is right, failing to do it, then insisting that a thing is impossible because we cannot accomplish it.”