Dear Mom and Dad and all,
The last time, I left off with the news that the election situation in Columbio was finally resolved, with the proclamation of the incumbent (Christian) mayor as the winner of re-election. However, I spoke too soon when using the word “resolved.” Remember that the (Muslim) challenger had already been proclaimed the winner by the first Municipal COMELEC chairman, even though not all of the votes had been counted. I had thought that the decision of the National COMELEC chair to send another official to complete the canvassing of votes, and then her subsequent proclamation of the true winners, would automatically nullify the first proclamation. But that was not the case.
Instead, we remained in a situation of “double proclamation,” with each candidate claiming that his was the valid one. Such a conflict can only be resolved by the National COMELEC Board, meeting en banc, in Manila. And of course, that takes time, since Columbio was not the only problem area in regard to local elections, not to mention the LONG and TEDIOUS process of gathering and canvassing the votes on the national level (President, VP, and Senators). So, during the long period of waiting for a final resolution, the atmosphere remained very tense in Columbio, with lots of rumors that violence could erupt at any time.
I mentioned last time about the Muslims who evacuated from Columbio during the time of the counting, but were beginning to trickle back. In fact, as the tensions increased, more and more Muslims evacuated and lived in makeshift shelters at the elementary school compound in Datu Paglas, the neighboring municipality which is predominantly Muslim. It was never clear to me exactly what was the basis of their fears: were they afraid that they and their homes would be attacked by the Christians of Columbio, or had they heard that Columbio itself would the object of attack from outside Muslims and so were afraid to be caught in the crossfire?
In any case, the life of evacuees is undoubtedly difficult, bordering on the inhuman: no privacy, lack of food, clean water and sanitation facilities, easily prone to sickness, especially among infants and children. We (the parish, together with the Peace and Justice Commission of the Diocese) provided a relief mission for them, distributing rice, fish, medicine, soap, some clothing, etc. A few of my parishioners were a bit surprised that we would do so, since according to them the evacuation was politically motivated, and the evacuees brought their condition on themselves; they could come home any time. I replied that hunger and sickness don’t discriminate according to politics. When people are in need, we’re called to help, to the best of our ability, not to examine and judge whether they really “deserve” our help or not. I think this was a significant moment of challenge for all of us, to put into real practice what we profess as followers of Christ.
In the meantime, the tension also continued within Columbio. All kinds of text messages were flying around, telling people to be careful, that there was “solid information” that Columbio would be attacked, etc. Many Christians from Columbio began to avoid the normal road out of town which passes through Datu Paglas, and instead took the back way, over the mountain, sometimes adding a couple of hours to their trip. The Muslim drivers of “skylabs” (the large motorcycles used for public transportation) based in Datu Paglas saw their business dry up, since no one was traveling between Columbio and Datu Paglas.
It may have been a bit naive on my part, but I have to say that I refused to let these fears control my actions and activities. We’ve continued on with all of our pastoral work. When I’ve had to travel out of Columbio, I’ve been taking the regular road, through Datu Paglas, just as always. And just as always, I am greeted with waves and smiles from the people living along the road. Naturally, I avoid traveling alone, but that’s a precaution that’s been in place for years, under any circumstances.
In early July, almost two months after the election, the National COMELEC Board issued their resolution in regard to Columbio, nullifying the first proclamation and validating the second. The re-elected Mayor, Vice-mayor and Municipal Council members took office. In that regard, then, it seems that things are truly getting back to normal. The evacuees have all returned to their homes, and we have had no incidents of violence, revenge or payback from either side. Up to now, it seems that the challenger is accepting the decision, although he still has the right to appeal, and it is unclear whether he will exercise that right.
As I mentioned above, the pastoral work has continued throughout. We are now in the process of a parish “census”, visiting all the villages and Basic Christian Communities, going house to house and getting information about the families: marriage status, number and age of children, sacraments needed, how active they are in the activities of the BCC, etc. One of the Maryknoll Fathers in Davao gave me computer program he had designed for recording baptisms, and I was able to adapt it for the full census info. So, out here in the boondocks, little Columbio is becoming very “high-tech”: with all the parish information encoded on the computer.
It might sound like mundane recordkeeping, but I believe that this is a truly pastoral activity: it’s a way to get to know the people better, see their real needs, and respond. This is particularly true in regard to the sacraments, and most especially for those people who have not really been reached for quite some time. You might remember that I mentioned in an earlier letter about establishing a couple of new BCCs, since so many people live in far-flung and rather isolated areas. They are geographically included within a given BCC, but since they are far away, they are not involved in the life of the small community. Since then, we have set up four more new Basic Christian Communities, bringing the total of new BCC’s to six, and the overall total of villages outside the Poblacion to 18.
Especially in those new areas, the census helps us to understand the real pastoral situation of the people. Just one example: in one village pretty far up in the mountains, I’ve discovered through the census that only about 25% of the couples are married in the Church, and many, many children remain un-baptized. In one sense, this is not surprising, since they have not had the opportunity for regular activity in a BCC. So, we know how to target our catechetical programs for these people in terms of preparing for sacraments.
The rainy season has started again, but before the elections, a flurry of bridge building went on, with four new bridges in our area. That means that even as we move deeper into the rainy season, we can reach most of the villages by car. There are still a few rivers with no bridges. In fact, just recently I went to say Mass in 3 villages beyond a certain river. It had been raining pretty hard for a couple of days and the river was pretty high: no way to drive through it, and even wading across would be difficult. But some enterprising young men had fashioned a raft out of bamboo and lashed a rope to it, which they then looped around a tree upstream on the far shore. Loosening the rope little by little, they allowed the raft to come to our side; then once it was loaded with passengers, they hauled on the rope and pulled the raft across. Then it was a matter of walking about an hour to the farthest village and then working my way back. So, while most of us are not so happy about high rivers, at least these young men found a way to earn a little extra income.
In another area, a beautiful new bridge was built, and then the river changed course! Actually, it kind of split in two directions, so there is still a river under the new bridge, but about 30 meters later, there’s another one! So far, the second river has not risen very high, and I’ve still been able to cross it in the car, but I’m sure as the rainy season proceeds, it will be more difficult to do so.
Love and prayers, Steve
(August 9, 2004)