The Common Good
July-August 1995

Renewing the Church

by Doug Cunningham | July-August 1995

The Redemptorist Mission Team in Mindanao, Philippines.

Tragedy struck since the writing of this profile of the Redemptorist Mission Team and the interview with Karl Gaspar, a team member and Sojourners contributing editor. On December 2, 1994, Ranilo Quindao, a Diocesan Mission Team member from Mahayag, was killed at his home as he prepared for a human rights celebration scheduled for the following day.

A member of a "fanatic cult" surrendered to police and confessed to the killing. Cult members are sometimes recruited by military or local government officials to kill people they consider subversives. Before his death, Quindao reportedly had told colleagues that a local government official had a grudge against him because of his "subversive" work with the mission team.

Also, the mission team has since moved from Mahayag to the nearby town of Sominot. Quindao was working with the team in Sominot at the time of his death.-The Editors

Twenty people crowd into a small concrete room with a 5-foot-6-inch high ceiling and gather around a bare wooden table. After praying they begin to pass the vegetables, dried fish, and rice. Soon the room is filled with stories, jokes, and peals of laughter-merriment that continues into the night. Once a week this mission team gathers with their base community for reflection and rest from their assignments in the barrios.

The next morning team members return to work. Some sit at tables reading. Others hover over sheets of brown wrapping paper using magic markers and magazine clippings to create visual aids. By early afternoon, most have headed back out to the barrios.

Some 30 men and women serve on this Redemptorist Mission Team (RMT) in Mahayag, Zamboanga del Sur in Mindanao, the big southern island of the Philippines. At a time when Christian social justice advocates around the world are beset by problems of finances, commitment, and direction, this team's itinerant mission work is growing stronger after two decades of service in Mindanao.

After spending a week with the team, I was impressed with the level of their integration into the life of the local Roman Catholic parish. Redemptorist brother and team member Karl Gaspar explained, "The church has all the potential to become prophetic if we will only push for it and not wait for the bishops."

During my visit the mission team helped facilitate baptisms, play rehearsals, and prayer groups, as well as seminars on ecology and the general assembly of a new farmers' organization. All parish activities become part of a single integrated effort to raise the level of Christian discipleship.

Team members not only involve themselves in parish activities, but really immerse themselves in the everyday lives of the people. In fact, they make themselves dependent on the hospitality of the people, even in the poorer barrios. That often means sleeping in a different house every night. But after a year or two, they pull up and move on to the next parish.

To sustain themselves, the team takes its community life seriously. At least three days a month are devoted to recollection, sharing, evaluation, prayer, and recreation. While some members leave after a year or two, others have been with the team for more than a decade, providing stability and a rich treasure of experience.

ACCORDING TO Father Manny Cabajar, one of the earliest team members, the RMT concept originated from a more traditional five-day mission that focused on Christian education seminars and baptisms. But some questioned whether this was enough.

Key to the team's effectiveness today are well-honed community organizing skills and theory employed toward empowering the poor to struggle for justice. Some team members have been organizing for decades, sharing theoretical knowledge and practical experience with their younger colleagues.

For instance, one morning I followed missioners Samuel and Popong 30 minutes up a rocky road to the barrio where they gave a half-day seminar on ecology. Both were relatively new at organizing, but they had clearly learned the basics. One principle is the centrality of the people's participation in every activity. After introducing the issue, Samuel divided the participants into small groups to discuss concrete questions about a topic of which they have primary knowledge and a deep concern: What is the difference between the environment in this barrio 10 years ago and now? Why has it changed? What can be done?

From the beginning, all participants-not just the leaders-were the experts. A young man remembered that the forests were full of monkeys and wild pigs. A woman recalled when the river was full of fish. Now the river narrows considerably in the dry season due to the loss of forest and watershed. By afternoon the group had covered many of the effects of environmental destruction and was ready to tackle the hot topic of the day: the dam.

The Philippine government, under President Fidel Ramos, is determined to join the ranks of the Newly Industrialized Countries. Industry needs electricity, so all across the country new power plants are being built-geothermal wells dug into volcanos, coal-fired plants, and hydroelectric dams-generally with little if any consultation or even consideration given to the local communities. One of the hydroelectric dams will be built just upriver from the RMT base in Mahayag.

The question on everyone's mind in Mahayag is what the dam will mean for them. According to the government, it will double the amount of land under irrigation. But many are skeptical. The destruction of the watershed by commercial loggers has already made water for irrigation scarce. If they dam the river, won't that decrease the supply of water? And what about floods? The mission team members are not experts, but they are helping to facilitate a process in which people ask their questions and try to find answers.

The RMT didn't come to Mahayag with a particular interest in dams. They are invited into parishes by overworked priests to help with basic Christian education, the development of parish leaders, and the strengthening of local Bible study and prayer groups. The RMT's commitment to empower the people they serve often leads them into conflict with projects of the powerful that fail to respect the concerns and wisdom of the poor. As stated in a film the RMT helped produce, the current conflict is "not just a struggle against a dam, but a struggle for self-determination, a struggle to determine their own future."

As the community gathers at the end of another week of work, I'm beginning to sense the power of their witness-power to encourage those who struggle and power to renew the church. n

DOUG CUNNINGHAM is a United Methodist minister who was assigned to the Philippines through the UMC General Board of Global Ministries. He is now pastor of Rodgers Forge United Methodist Church in Baltimore, Maryland.

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