BORN FROM A FAITH THAT DOES JUSTICE
It was thirty years ago, at the height of the political turmoil of the 80s, when a group of sisters, priests, and seminarians known as the NAMFREL Marines became so moved by their love for the country that they bravely stood against notorious plots to tear the nation’s heart apart.
The group dispersed to different election hotspots around Manila and neighboring provinces and safeguarded ballot boxes on the 7th of February, 1986, the day of the Snap Elections. Clad only with their habits and armed only with their rosaries, Bibles, and an unfaltering faith, they joined hands to ensure that no massive cheating would deflect the true will of the Filipino electorate.
As the Snap Elections were soon after proven to have been marred by fraud some days later, the NAMFREL Marines marched along with millions of Filipinos to EDSA, on the 25th of February, to demand justice and seek the end the rule of the 21-year dictatorship. The historic moment gave birth to the People Power Revolution and a fresh mission for the NAMFREL Marines to protect the gifts of a restored democracy.
Moved by the same spirit of a faith that does justice that inspired its formation, the NAMFREL Marines later evolved into a wider network known now as the Simbahang Lingkod ng Bayan (SLB), “a Church in service of the nation,” whose principal mission was to instill the value of a genuine democracy in hopes of ultimately achieving social justice in the country even after the revolution.
SLB soon found themselves still advocating for clean, honest, and meaningful elections by leading the nation in forming and implementing programs that empower Filipinos to be good citizens and informed voters. Realizing further the need to mobilize citizens on affairs beyond the elections and during national crises, the organization expanded its programs and reached out to more communities for disaster response and rehabilitation.
Adopted by Society of Jesus in the Philippines as its socio-political apostolate, SLB enjoins the support of thousands of volunteers, passionate individuals, and the faithful through the decades of its 30 years of service to the Filipino people.
It was indeed faith that brought life to the organization, and it is still faith that keeps it moving for 30 strong years—a faith that dreams to achieve a truly just Philippine society.
TOWARDS A GENUINE DEMOCRACY
A familiar event marks the 30th anniversary of SLB this 2016—the election. But although the election has always been an indispensable marker of a regained democracy, the kind of election that we have up to now has since reflected the many decays in our political culture. The election remains dominated by the elite that seem to be deaf to the real needs of the people. Before and after election, common Filipinos are pushed to the margins and denied of the promises of a genuine democracy. Day by day, we witness the many deprivations—social, economic, cultural, and political—that lead to many barriers to attaining social justice. Democracy was formally restored decades ago, but the country has yet to see its genuine form—a government that truly works for the people, with a genuine election paving the way for it.
As response to the need of putting the Filipino people back at the center of Philippine politics and realize a genuine democracy, SLB launched its newest political empowerment program Kuwentuhang Bayan (KB). Born from the merger of the words kuwentuhan (conversation) and bayan (nation), KB has become platform where the nation, most importantly the grass roots, are able to engage in informed dialogue so that their issues and concerns are elevated to the local and national electoral discourse.
Evolving from its earlier versions Pinoy Big Voter (2010) and Pinoy Voters’ Academy (2007), KB has guided communities across the country in articulating the issues that they think must be the agenda of those running for seats in the government.
With KB, SLB hopes that the standards of the elections are raised by shifting the conversation from being personality-driven to becoming an issue-based one where platforms that address the people’s concerns are valued more than the names and affiliations of the candidates. After all, a genuine election—one that answers to the issues of the Filipino people—is a marker of a genuine democracy.
To invest the participation of the civil society and the religious sector in programs like KB, SLB spearheaded the convening of the Task Force Eleksyon (TFE), the largest coalition of electoral reform advocates in the country. Joined by leading educational institutions, non-government organizations, religious congregations, and active volunteers in the country, SLB through TFE has committed to form a truly vibrant civil society that proactively participates in democratic platforms such as the election, and even beyond.
IMBIBING LOVE FOR COUNTRY
The mission of SLB goes beyond elections. SLB empowers the Filipino people to speak about the issues that matter to them even outside the election season, and more so, to act on those issues with their own capacity as citizens of the nation.
One of the ways by which SLB fosters this brand of love for the country—a love that is constantly aware of the challenges the bigger society faces— is by taking action on one of the most relevant realities we face today—disasters. The intensity of the natural disasters we have experienced in the recent past is quickly becoming the new normal, as many marginalized communities in the country point out.
Growing from its rich experience of effectively organizing quick disaster response efforts collectively known as Task Force Noah that started after Mount Pinatubo’s eruption, SLB has moved towards forming comprehensive disaster management programs for both preparedness and rehabilitation. It has since become SLB’s mission to, in SLB Associate Director Bernie Aton’s words, to make “substantial effort in increasing the resilience of the communities,” that they are able to stand on their own in the face of disasters.
As answer to major disasters such as the Bohol earthquake and Super Typhoon Yolanda in 2013, SLB has since worked with local government units and civil society organizations for the implementation of over 20 rehabilitation projects in over 10 areas and provinces heavily stricken by these disasters. These projects were made successful by SLB’s unique way of proceeding: assessing the gaps that SLB can fill in, consulting thoroughly with the partner grass roots, and assuring the sustainability of the programs—by working closely with local communities and making sure that they can rise again and weather the storms in their lives.
CHOOSING TO WALK WITH THE POOR
It is through the lens of the grass roots, often marginalized, that SLB finds the true meaning of its mission. That was why for several years, SLB as continued to not just talk with but also walk with the communities it serves.
For almost a decade now, SLB has stood by the farmers, fisher folk, and indigenous people of Casiguran, Aurora as they continued to rally against the oppressive government project Aurora Pacific Economic Zone, or APECO. Stripped of their rights to their own lands and waters, the sectors organized themselves to form the movement Task Force Anti-APECO (TFAA).
Building from the experience of the organization of marching with the Sumilao farmers in 2007, SLB saw its responsibility of walking and lobbying with the marginalized of Casiguran by taking the role of the secretariat in the movement.
In 2012, the people of Casiguran made a historic march from Aurora to Manila to demand justice from the government and to make the public know about their plight—an issue of development aggression that runs through the entire nation. The combined energies of the people comprising TFAA, from the locals to concerned citizens, have allowed them to embattle traditional forces of power that built APECO in the first place. From bringingthe issue to national relevance to crippling the budget of the abusive project in the senate, SLB and TFAA have showed that while the struggle is difficult, the journey is always fulfilling when made in solidarity with our marginalized brothers and sisters.
As a Church that works with the people, whether in areas of disasters or socio-political issues, SLB always chooses to walk with the least of our countrymen.
BECOMING STEWARDS OF CREATION
Whenever a natural disaster or a man-made action such as APECO dismantles the environment, it also cripples the people who depend on the environment for a living. Social justice demands us to see that working for the welfare of the people and protecting the environment are not mutually exclusive.
Inspired by Pope Francis’s call to realize the notion of our common home, the world where there is an intimate link between the people and the environment, SLB nurtures the communities it serves as stewards of God’s creation. Supported by SLB, a local community in Barangay Payatas, Quezon City does its share of caring for the environment for their own good. Residents who were involved with the creation of the barangay’s community-based disaster management plan united to form the Ugnayan ng Mamamayan para sa Kaunlaran ng Payatas (UMAKAP), the metro’s first people’s organization with a dedicated disaster management component. This year, UMAKAP focuses on building sustainable livelihood that incorporates local resources and environment-friendly practices such as community gardens.
Wherever SLB goes, it becomes inspired too by its communities that genuinely show their care for the environment: a Typhoon Ruby-stricken farming community in Barangay Bontay, Calbayog City, Eastern Samar that practices 100% organic farming; a Yolanda-affected district in Barangay Magay, Tanauan, Leyte that utilizes zero-waste management in their local gardening through Bokashi technology; a consortium of people’s organizations and social entrepreneurs known as the Culion Livelihood Ecosystem (CLE) in Culion, Palawan that promotes eco-tourism and environmental responsibility, among many other communities.
30 YEARS AND BEYOND
Like the NAMFREL Marines that were deployed to critical areas where they were most needed, SLB remained unfeigned to its mission of going to and nurturing the peripheries and serving the lost, the last, and the least in the margins of the Philippines society through its two pillar programs: political empowerment and disaster intervention.
As SLB Executive Director Fr. Xavier Alpasa, SJ, explains, the power that brought SLB to life “continues to this day even as it evolved in different forms and energies.” Through the thirty long years, SLB adapts to the changing signs of the times to render the fitting service to its countrymen in light of pressing social situations.
That said, SLB may no longer be literally guarding ballot boxes, but it continues to work towards what those early actions of the NAMFREL Marines ultimately symbolize: a faith that does justice, genuine democracy, love for country, preferential option for the poor, and stewardship of creation.
Faithful to its 30th anniversary monicker, Tindig (to stand for), SLB continues to stand for its five core values with the Filipino people, and this year, only most strongly and most ardently.
Note: This article is also published in Windhover: The Philippine Jesuit Magazine.