The Church taking action and Christian life in the Philippines

Today’s my first day back in the CAFOD Liverpool Volunteer Centre after our trip to the Philippines.  This is my fourth blog and I want to say something about how our partners NASSA/Caritas Philippines (NASSA for short) and the Church is working to enable people and the planet to have a more sustainable future.  I’ll try and give a brief outline of how the Church is already responding to social concerns, based on its structures, what its potential is to make further improvements and the directions it seeks to take.  Once again, these are just the impressions I’ve received from what we’ve witnessed heard from others there.

Church-sponsored Social Action work operates at all levels (local/parish, diocesan and national).  Throughout this work, like a thread through their lives, people expect and plan for coping with natural disasters (earthquakes, typhoons, landslides, floods, volcanic eruptions, etc.).  On Palm Sunday, they collect money and keep some for local development work (helping people make their lives better), put some aside for emergencies (typhoons, earthquakes, etc.) and send some to NASSA to provide support to the whole church and respond where the local Church can’t cope.  Typhoons are an example and the recent ones have been so damaging that even the local and national support wasn’t enough so other Caritas agencies like CAFOD came to help.

blog 4 .1A great example of people coping with such circumstances was in Pasig south of Manila where Fr Errol is the PP of a parish of 20,000.  We were there at a survey meeting with NASSA staff to find out where local people need most training to cope with the next major shock.  They already know they are OK at dealing with floods because four years ago, heavy rains on the Sierra Madre Mountains became an 8-foot torrent around the church.  Huge amounts of damage.  People now have an evacuation drill worked out and practise it regularly so NASSA will help train local people to deal with earthquakes instead.  To cope with such events, Fr Errol has setting up local Basic Ecclesial Communities (BECs) of 15-20 families each.  The Groups meet weekly and pray but they are also dealing with the issues of their lives.  He meets monthly with representatives from each BEC and visits the BECs on a rolling programme too.  This is a growing model – in 2017 people are more focussed on parishes becoming “communities of communities.” NASSA is keen to encourage parishes and BECs to go beyond emergency relief and support one another on a more regular basis, responding to needs as local people see it.  NASSA work largely through their local diocesan Social Action Centres who support such developments, some more strongly than others.  In my first blog, I mentioned the work of Lipa Archdiocese’s Social Action Centre nearby (LASAC) as a strong example.  This idea of small communities is at the heart of the Self-Help Group Programme in the Lipa area where women cluster together and save a little money each week in a credit union.  On the back of this a massive movement has quickly grown with four towns covered by their own network of such groups in depth.  These networks in clusters and in larger federations advocate for political change as well as basic community and economic development.  The Groups design and lead the new developments.

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Florenzio, right, whose nickname is Entoy

We heard about the need for this approach too from Environmentalist Florenzio from Sorsogon Diocese.  When we were looking at the world stats, he was not only familiar with the international picture of poverty, inequality and power as we looked at the world map but also knew well the local position too.  His group have completed a local audit and had a map as part of the planning for emergency relief led by NASSA across the country.  He knew where the people who didn’t have toilets (or latrines) were, those who didn’t have running water, and about child health concerns for under 5s.  Fishermen and farmers were the poorest he told me and his greatest concern was for the environmental damage in fishing and the dumping of waste by people.  He struck me with his quiet and deep commitment to improving the lot of farmers and fishermen who struggle with poor conditions, low wages and the poisoning and dynamiting of fish stocks with poor support for their rights from the Government.  He had nearly been shot in defence of local people and told me calmly and matter-of-factly that he was ready to die for what he believed in, the beauty of the earth and the needs of the poor, and was proud of the involvement of the Church in this.

When I asked him what he hoped for from the day, he quietly thought for a moment and, reverting to his own language, simply said, “Bayanihan!”  This means “spirit of cooperation”, a term Filipinos have coined from a practical example.  Many people live in houses which need to be more mobile than we are used to because of the natural hazards they face.  When someone needs to move, they often literally move their house on poles too. This takes a great deal of effort from a team of people and this practice is used to encapsulate the spirit of cooperation.

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Typical Bayanihan hut

We saw a wonderful Church-sponsored rice growing project in the north.  317 rice farmers have grouped together through the Social Action Centre to form an organic cooperative.  Tatay (“Grandad”) Ben, deeply respected we were told by the farmers, tests the farms for artificial fertilisers and encourages people to stay in the scheme.  He told me that unless something was done to protect the land, it would become exhausted in 40 years with over-farming and climate change.  You can see in his hands a sample of the organic fertiliser they have developed which is like rocket fuel for rice!  He was another who calmly spoke his truth to us, cradling the soil in his hands – it was part of him – all the time we were speaking with him.

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Tatay Ben with finished organic fertiliser

I also met resistance to taking social action.  A young man told me earnestly about the wonderful BECs (6 in his parish) and it was early days.  The Groups were focussed on prayer activity so far with a 2-hour Bible study a day.  However, he was reluctant to get involved in social action: “The rich have more and they should give more!  We will pray!”  Some we used in the training, such as the Lampedusa Cross Service, encouraged people not only to pray but to find out about the world, to share their concerns from compassion and to consider taking action.  While he has a good point, we hoped he too would put his shoulder to the wheel after the training!

And he does have a point about the rich of course.  CAFOD’s work in the Philippines is now at an end – for the moment at least as we need to focus scarce resources on other nations.  NASSA are trying to become more independent of foreign aid and engage more people in social action and supporting their local people but I also learnt this from Analyn, NASSA’s community worker: 76% of the $13bn annual income in the Philippines is in the hands of just 40 families.

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Forbes Magazine 2011

This means that the other 104,000,000 people have only 24% of the wealth of the nation to keep them going, which was only $3.75 Billion around $36.06 per person per year.  That’s not CAFOD being mean or tired – if we had more, we could give more to more partners.  It’s simple: other nations need our support even more.  The Church in the Philippines, who also gave to the people of Nepal in the 2015 earthquake, are trying to share their resources better and encourage more people to make their voices heard in favour of the poor.

Find out more about the work CAFOD does in the Philippines.