Rice not bullets. Farm implements not militarization. Plowshares not swords. One would think that the choice is clear. For Philippine government security forces in southern Philippines, that was not the choice on April 1.
On that one tragic day, the demand for rice by some 5,000 farmers, many of whom are Lumads who were peacefully assembled on the main road situated in front of the Spottswood Methodist Center, in Kidapawan City, in Mindanao, Philippines, was met with water cannons, truncheons and bullets.
The violent dispersal left in its wake three dead, 18 severely injured, close to a 100 wounded and scores missing.
In the scamper for safety, the farmers took refuge at the Spottswood Methodist Center, which in turn gave them sanctuary. This center is also the home of the episcopal offices of the Davao Episcopal Area and its leader, Bishop Ciriaco Francisco.
Bishop Francisco did not mince words in defending the role of the church. What he said to church members is what he said at government hearings investigating this tragedy.
“By offering our sanctuary, we are not just being hospitable to our farmers and hungry ones, but we are making them as one amongst us. When we welcome them in our home, our sanctuary, we do not only give our best, but we share with them our deep kinship. By offering them our sanctuaries, we recognize their suffering and hopes, their struggles and aspirations,” Francisco said.
To the church in Mindanao, offering sanctuary to marginalized and impoverished peoples like the Lumads belongs to the core of the church’s ministry. For doing exactly this, the trustees of the Spottswood Methodist Center have now been served notice by the Kidapawan City mayor of a possible violation by the Center of city ordinances related to pursuing an activity that injures “public morals, peace and order and public safety, or when the place of business becomes a nuisance or is alleged to be used by disorderly characters, criminals or persons of ill repute.”
Days after the violent and deadly dispersal, the center remained under siege by members of the Philippine National Police and the military. They have since left, but not without the imposition of real and imagined fear that security forces evoke.
Farmers, Lumads have hope
The farmers and the Lumads, as Bishop Francisco said, are without connections in the corridors of power, but they have hope. Their indigenous culture has rooted them with the soil. Their spirituality is so tied to the earth that they will protect it from abuse and unsustainable practices with their lives.
Lumads are indigenous peoples, the term literally meaning “people born of the land.” They are tillers of the soil, but they are being driving off due to development on their ancestral lands.
For Lumads, land is life. Closeness to their ancestral lands has produced a spirituality that reverences the Creator that to them gives life and provides for their living and livelihoods. The loss and alienation from these lands, including forced movement and evacuation, due to militarization and climate change, subverts that spirituality.
The Lumads know the root causes of their predicament. Their indigenous knowledge and ways of life demonstrate that injustice of profound implications happens when anyone dishonors the earth and its resources, for example, through mining by multinational corporations in their ancestral lands.
Climate change, especially El Niño, is profoundly affecting and exacerbating the predicaments that Lumads and Philippine farmers are facing. Social and environmental injustices abound.
The solidarity of people’s organizations, local and international institutions, including ecumenical bodies, and the vital connections that weave the ministry of presence, prophetic witness and accompaniment of many groups—local and international, including United Methodists, is giving the Lumads a reason to hope, and forge on with their struggle.
Pilgrimage in U.S.
This April and May, the Lumads are on a pilgrimage in the United States. They are telling their stories of struggles and hopes to the peoples of a country whose presence and intervention in the Philippines is both historic and contemporary.
Lumads and other indigenous peoples in the Philippines presented their case at the Ecumenical Advocacy Days in Washington, D.C., in mid-April. They also met with State Department officials. They are currently touring several U.S. cities, meeting with grassroots leaders, church leaders and ecumenical bodies. Meantime, a delegation from the California-Nevada conference went to the Philippines to conduct a fact-finding mission under the auspices of Bishop Warner Brown.
The Lumads and other Filipino indigenous representatives are sharing their hopes and struggles to groups who care about their plight. In the second and third week of May, they will be present at the General Conference of The United Methodist Church in Portland, Oregon. A video highlighting their story will be screened in plenary, followed by a press conference that day. They will also share their culture at a United Methodist Board of Church and Society night of celebrations of acts of justice and advocacy.
In mid-May, the Lumads will also attend the sessions of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues at the United Nations in New York City. If their request is granted, they may also meet with the ambassador of the Philippine Mission to the United Nations.
The Lumads are hoping that those who hear their story and learn their plight will be moved beyond solidarity into collaborative action to address the social injustices and discrimination that plague them as indigenous peoples, not the least including social issues like climate justice and human rights that others share and claim in common with them.
The Lumad delegation has some concrete campaigns: Stop the attacks on Lumad schools and killings of their teachers. Stop the attacks on Lumads and their communities. Stop the killings of indigenous peoples. Support the Lumads’ campaign against militarization of their communities and against the plunder of their ancestral lands and indigenous resources.
Perhaps, at the intersections of our encounter and collaboration with Lumads, indeed with indigenous peoples everywhere, acts of repentance that are just, redemptive, restorative, and sustainable—may yet happen.
The Rev. Liberato Bautista is assistant general secretary for United Nations and international affairs at General Board of Church and Society.