When enough is enough

(First published on July 27, 2009)

hands_of_the_world_189671

As I sat by myself in the quiet of the night in my home away from home, a question that someone once voiced in an interfaith circle returned to me: How will I know when enough is enough?

    This is my eleventh year in the journey along the path of interfaith dialogue and peacebuilding. I have gotten used to friends and family looking at me quizzically and saying, “At least you have something to keep you busy,” or “Tsk, tsk…that hobby is taking too much of your time, no?”  Even my priest friend who has been engaged in Muslim-Christian Dialogue for over two decades seems puzzled by my choice of “apostolate” and every time we meet I would brace myself for what I was almost always sure would be coming. “Tell me, Marites,” he would ask, “Why are you doing this?”  And I would always be stumped, not having easy answers.

    Sometimes I find that the word “vocation” comes handy, but then again the thought of having to explain it away without sounding like a convent reject makes me want to run away and avoid the conversation altogether. I am not a religious person by my parents’ standards, although I’ve been religious by their standards too at an earlier time in my life. However, truth to tell, those were times when fear seemed to be largely the moving force behind my devout prayers and religious practices–fear of displeasing God and of being thrown into the fires of hell where my soul would be consigned to eternal damnation!

    I’m not saying that fear has no hold on me now. I still fear straying away from godliness into the darkness; and I fear death, especially the death of that which gives my life meaning. So I keep listening to that which keeps me going, and I keep seeking to find that which gives meaning to who I am and what I am doing.

    I guess this experience is not unique to me for I’m sure there is in each one of us the same longing. So I must say that mine has been sustained all these years by a passion—some call it “fire in the belly”–that awakens me in the morning with new ideas on how to realize the world that I wish to see, and how to engage new ways of doing things so that that world would become a reality.

    But there are times like this in the evenings when I find myself embraced by a blanket of darkness woven from the fabric of my own fears. And the fears are many. They are lurking behind one thing or another within me. There is the dull and sometimes sharp pain in my lower left abdomen (that has visited me again lately) that I fear. There is also the fear arising from feelings of inadequacy, of being alone in my views about my work and ultimately accountable for my failures and shortcomings, of no longer believing in the dream, of thinking myself naive or insane (or both!) for having believed in it in the first place, of running away and giving up on it and, finally, of giving up on my “good and godly” self and my hope-filled striving.

    Like night and day my dreams and reality are so disparate that interfaith peacebuilding, in my experience, is a painstaking and difficult endeavor. This is especially so when dealing with the challenge of addressing people’s differences in ways that are respectful and non-violent. When will enough be enough for me? I wondered as I curled like a fetus underneath the blanket of the night.  

International Women's Day celebration March 9 2012 210

    Will enough be enough when the Muslims and Christians (in the grassroots communities that we are serving) give up and refuse to collaborate for peace? Will enough be enough when the individuals, institutions and organizations that support The Peacemakers’ Circle stop believing in us and no longer share their resources for our work? Will enough be enough when the funds run out? Or will enough be enough when the pain in my body keeps me from waking up in the morning with renewed hope and optimism, or from waking up at all?

    When will enough be enough? I guess I will never know, not perhaps until the physical realities of my world keep me from dreaming new dreams and from pursuing them with fire in my belly. But, try as I might to douse it, the fire remains alive and burning. Sometimes it blazes so bright it threatens to consume me, and I no longer know where my puny self ends and where the dream begins! So I keep holding on to my dreams as I keep striving with faith and hope to crawl out unfazed from the blanket of my fears.

In the heart of Acholi land

Some memories
are starker than others.
This one had swirling
red dust rising from
the frenzied driving
of one eager to get us
to the edge of somewhere
where the road to Gulu
led to the hope of Juba. 
 
This was the land
where anthill monuments
towered by the roadside
bearing silent witness
to the comings and goings
of the dark-skinned people
who used to live there
and then were gone.

Now they return
with empty eyes,
calloused feet numbed
from the walking, and
hearts aching for lost
children and the blood
of kin spilled from
the dying.

Those that are found,
or have found
their way back,
come empty-handed
with no memories
of home, only the
cringing of soul
from the relentless
onslaught of anger
and hatred.

Yet they return—
some of them—
as though led by
some light from within,
some dim memory of
it anyway, that illumine
the way back to where
lie waiting the hope,
the hope of Juba.

And they dance,
and they sing
for those of us
who care to sit
and listen.

“Opwoyo matek!”
“Thank you!” they cry,
“We will never, never
forget you!” And we
cry, hearts filled
with aching.

[Note: This was written in remembrance of my first visit to Gulu, Northern Uganda in June 2007 with Libby Hoffman and Herm Weaver]

– Tagaytay, Philippines
July 12, 2009

A week in the life of our hopeful striving

[First published on February 10, 2013]

International Women's Day celebration March 9 2012 257

    The first week of February was declared by the United Nations to be World Interfaith Harmony Week. For us at The Peacemakers’ Circle, this was another week—albeit more colorful, hectic, and picturesque than usual–in the life of our hopeful striving.

    The Peacemakers’ Circle has been engaged in the endeavor of building relationships of mutual respect, understanding and cooperation between and among people of diverse religions and spiritual expressions since 2001.

    Like any human relationship, interfaith friendships cannot be built overnight. This is a co-creative endeavor that deepens over time among those who appreciate and honor the richness of diversity among people, and celebrate this in various ways.

    Diversity is apparent everywhere; it is in the divine scheme of things. This makes our relationships colorful and interesting, although often difficult and challenging. In our journey through life towards fullness in God, diversity makes every step not only exciting but growth-giving and awe-inspiring.

    In this spirit of excitement and awe, I share glimpses of this week’s activities as we at The Peacemakers’ Circle moved forward towards the realization of our shared vision of unity in diversity, and peace among religions.

    January 31, 2013 (Thursday)

TALA opening 2 jan 31 2013  TALA opening jan 31 2013

    The Peacemakers’ Circle launched the week early with a “year opening” party organized by the members of the Muslim-Christian Peacemakers’ Association in Tala, Caloocan City.  They were assisted by the youth participants of the leadership training project that was being conducted by The Peacemakers’ Circle under the Australian Embassy’s Strengthening Grassroots Interfaith Dialogue and Understanding (SGIDU) program.

    February 1 (Friday)

Fo Guang Shan Feb 1 2013    This was the beginning of The Peacemakers’ Circle’s Interfaith Friendship Pilgrimage 2013. Our first visit was with our Buddhist friends at the Fo Guang Shan Mabuhay Temple. We were received warmly by Venerable Meio Jin and other leaders and members of the temple. We looked forward to returning on the eve of the 9th to join them in celebrating the Chinese New Year. Kung hei fat choi!  

   February 2 (Saturday) 

Iskcon Feb 7 2013

    This was a day of colorful spectacle as people flocked to the University of the Philippines in Diliman, Quezon City to experience the Festival of India. It was organized by the U.P. Asian Studies Department in partnership with the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON). Everyone reveled in the unique cultural experience and enjoyed Indian vegetarian food, music and dance.

    February 3 (Sunday)

Ananda Marga Feb 3 2013

    Our team–Orlan, Shakun, Cecile and I–brought a basket of fresh oranges to give to our friends at the Ananda Marga Wellness Center in Sikatuna Village. We met with its director, Dada Premamamyanda, and his dedicated team of volunteers.  They received us warmly like old friends would, and we enjoyed discussing our partnership in organizing our upcoming People for Peace program on March 14. It would be a celebration of the 12th year anniversary of The Peacemakers’ Circle.

In the afternoon, there was a fun “year opener” activity in Culiat, Quezon City. This was organized by the Muslim and Christian youth leaders who participated in the 2012 youth leadership training program of The Peacemakers’ Circle under the Australian Embassy’s SGIDU program. VLUU L100, M100  / Samsung L100, M100

February 4 (Monday)

    The Peacemakers’ Circle participated in a forum entitled:  Our Shared Values as a Foundation of Muslim-Christian Harmony.” This was hosted by the Miriam College Center for Peace Education headed by Dr. Loreta Castro. Dr. Macrina Morados of the U.P.  Institute of Islamic Studies presented views from a Muslim perspective, and I presented a Christian perspective.

Miriam CPE SGIDU forum Feb 4 2013

In the afternoon, Orlan and I conducted a “deepening” workshop on interfaith dialogue for Muslim youth leaders from Rajah Mudah High School (Pikit, Cotabato), and the Christian students of Miriam College.

    February 5 and 6 (Tuesday & Wednesday)

    Orlan de Guzman gave an orientation to the participants of the Miriam Center for Peace Education on The Peacemakers’ Circle’s Muslim-Christian youth leadership activities in grassroots communities.

    On Wednesday (February 6), the students of Rajah Mudah High School visited the youth leaders in the community of Tala in Caloocan City. They had fun in each other’s company as they shared stories of hopes, dreams and aspirations with one another.

February 7 (Thursday) Tala youth with Raja Mudah Feb 6 2013

    This was a day full of activities for the team of interfaith pilgrims. The first visit of the day was with Master Wong Seng Tian of the Taoist Sheng Lian Temple along Bayani Street near Araneta Avenue in Quezon City, Metro Manila. We were offered snacks of apples and oranges, tea, and gracious company. Master Wong also gave us a book on “Authentic Annual Prediction 2013” which he said would help us navigate our way through this year of the “water snake.”

VLUU L100, M100  / Samsung L100, M100    Baha'i Feb 7 2013

      Our next stop was at the Baha’I Spiritual Center where its director, Ms. Ador Newman, and a friendly group of Baha’is welcomed us warmly. After a lively conversation around the circle, we were graciously invited to stay for lunch. We enjoyed a sumptuous vegetarian meal prepared for us by Brother Kumar (a Bangladeshi), and Sister Phyotu (a lovely woman from Myanmar married to a Filipino). How gracious our hosts and how enriching our conversations!

UNI-Harmony Culminating prog Feb 7 2013

    After lunch, we proceeded to Plaza Miranda in Quiapo, Manila to attend the culminating activity of the WORLD INTERFAITH HARMONY WEEK hosted by the Silsilah Dialogue Movement (of Rev. Fr. Sebastiano d’Ambra), the Parish of Saint John the Baptist (Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene), and Religions for Peace (headed by Dr. Lilian Sison and Bong Baybado). We were welcomed by Msgr. Clem Ignacio of the parish, and speeches expressing commitment to interfaith harmony and peace were given by representatives of the Buddhist, Islamic and Christian faith traditions. The Peacemakers’ Circle was represented by our very own Dr. Shakuntala Vaswani who also represented the Hindu faith community. Our dear friend and supporter, Fr. Carlos Reyes of the Episcopal Commission on Inter-religious Dialogue of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (ECID-CBCP), spoke as a representative of ECID. Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim also graced the occasion and expressed his support for the endeavor to promote interfaith dialogue and peacebuilding initiatives in the City of Manila.

Walking in a Circle

     The journey continues as we strive to “be the change that we see in the world” and to create common grounds where people of different cultures and beliefs can meet and speak.  We carry on to create safe spaces where they can learn to appreciate and respect their differences, transform conflict into opportunities for growth, and build relationships of mutual respect, understanding and cooperation in their midst.  Peacemakers photos

Celebrating 12 years of interfaith peacebuilding

[First published on April 27, 2013]

INTERFAITH HARMONY COLLAGE April 14 2013

    On March 14, 2013, almost a hundred people of diverse religions, spiritual expressions and indigenous traditions gathered together at the Ananda Marga Yoga Center in Anonas, Quezon City to celebrate FAITHS IN HARMONY. This was a joyful gathering that marked the 12th year anniversary of The Peacemakers’ Circle in its endeavors to promote Interfaith Dialogue and Peacebuilding.  Despite the summer drizzle, friends and supporters came and offered prayers for peace in music and dance; old friendships were renewed, new friendships were made; and a healthy vegetarian feast not only satisfied our hunger but also nourished our souls with the spirit of friendship and solidarity. We rejoiced in our togetherness and looked forward with anticipation to the journey ahead!

    Today, we at The Peacemakers’ Circle give thanks for the friendship, inspiration and support that our friends have given us these past twelve years! And we look forward to many more years ahead with new hope and commitment to the ongoing endeavor of building mutually respectful and harmonious relationships between and among peoples of diverse cultures and beliefs!   People holding hands in unity

    In this spirit of gratitude and joy, I am pleased to announce that in May we shall be launching our pilot project on INTRA-FAITH DIALOGUE FOR MUSLIM-CHRISTIAN RELATIONSHIP-BUILDING in the conflict-affected communities of Midsayap and Aleosan in North Cotabato, Mindanao. This is a one-year training workshop program that aims to promote Love and Forgiveness in those communities. This will be conducted in partnership with the Balay Rehabilitation Center, the Imam Council of the Philippines, and the Episcopal Commission on Interreligious Dialogue of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (ECID-CBCP). This project is made possible through funding by the Fetzer Institute of Kalamazoo, Michigan, and the support of Dr. Ruben Habito of the Perkins University (Dallas, Texas). A film documentary on the dialogue process will be produced by Surf Reyes.

    While this is happening, our interfaith dialogue activities and initiatives in Metro Manila shall continue under the care of Shakuntala Vaswani and Orlan de Guzman; a weekend retreat on Inner Work for Self-Awareness Transformation is scheduled for November; and our Muslim-Christian Relationship-Building work in grassroots communities continues–in Tala (Caloocan City), Culiat (Quezon City), Maharlika-Bicutan (Taguig), and in Quiapo (Manila)–with the support of the Australian Embassy and other friends and supporters, most prominent of which is Rev. Fr. Andre De Bleeker, CICM, who has been helping to generate substantial funds (from Belgium) for our work these past five years! Thank you, Fr. Andre!

    Fr. Andre De Bleeker, CICM is leaving the Philippines for good on May 28, 2013. He has been assigned to take charge of the CICM archives in Rome. We are happy for him and wish him happiness and success in his endeavors! Godspeed, Fr. Andre! Fr. Andre De Bleeker, CICM-SALAMAT May 25 2013

    Once again, thank you all for being part of our enriching and inspiring interfaith journey! We look forward to growing with you as we carry on with new hope and aspirations for the future!

Peace is a narrow and bumpy road, Juan!

[First published on August 2, 2013]

Midsayap July 25-28- Muddy road

The Peacemakers’ Circle team brave the “rebel’s path” in Aleosan and Midsayap, North Cotabato.

      Last Thursday (July 25), a team of four people representing The Peacemakers’ Circle travelled from “imperial Manila” to the remote villages of Aleosan and Midsayap in North Cotabato, Mindanao to promote Intra-Faith Dialogue for Muslim-Christian Peace- and Relationship-Buildingamong the victims of armed conflict there.

    What we thought would be a journey that would unfold according to well laid plans turned out, in fact, to be an adventure of faith as we began our first steps facing the worrisome challenge of almost missing our flight to Davao and then having to wait another two hours in Davao for luggage to arrive in another plane!

    Unfazed, I and the three other members of our team–Imam Ebra Moxsir, Al-Haj (President of the Imam Council of the Philippines), Orlan de Guzman (Project Coordinator of The Peacemakers’ Circle), and filmmaker Surf Reyes (AdvocaCinema)–travelled from Davao to Kidapawan, then on to Aleosan and Midsayap along the concrete highways of our fears, past Manubuan (the boundary between Matalam and Kidapawan) where fierce fighting occurred last Sunday (July 21) between warring clans of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front  (MILF) and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).

    Faith prevailed over our fears during our four-day visit, though our resolve was tested upon our arrival when an earthquake occurred while we were having an ifthar dinner for Imam Moxsir, Nhaz and Bai with the Balay Rehabilitation team at the fourth floor of our hotel. Our presence here must be earthshaking, quipped Surf Reyes; and I wondered what this meant if, indeed, nothing in this world happened by chance!

Midsayap July 25-28-Muddy junction with Orlan (1)

Orlan and Marites preparing for the walk along the muddy “rebel’s path” (said to be the route of the Bangsamoro Freedom Fighters) to the Muslim community of Dungguan in Aleosan, North Cotabato, Mindanao, southern Philippines.

    We geared up early for our “mission” the next day. But, in Sitio Mampurok, Dualing, we found ourselves having to abandon the comfort (and relative safety!) of our air conditioned van at a muddy juncture along the road. We had to walk a winding narrow path (which was said to be the path of attacking rebels!) just to get to the places where we were expected to be. It helped that our two young field coordinators of the Balay Rehabilitation Center—Gigi Mapanao (Catholic) and Nhaz Matula (Muslim)—who cheerfully served as our guides, kept us laughing at ourselves along the way. And when rain started to drizzle and the road got too muddy, they happily showed us the easiest way to reach the people waiting for us at the end of the road–by riding astride the trusty habal-habal (motorbike) with as much grace that we could muster without falling off our seats when the tires stuck to the mud or when the going got really bumpy!

    I worried that the exertion and excitement might be too much for Imam Ebra Moxsir who was observing Ramadan and was fasting the whole day, but he said that he only had to see me on the bike to be assured that he could survive the experience as well.

Midsayap July 25-28-Habal-habal

Orlan and Surf enjoying the habal-habal ride

Midsayap July 25-28-Field coordinators

Orlan with local field coordinators Nasser Matula and April Mapanao of Balay Rehabilitation Center

Midsayap July 25-28-Barangay mtg

Christian meeting in Dualing, Aleosan

Midsayap July 25-28-Under the tree

Muslim meeting in Dualing

    Our perseverance paid off and we finally got to meet the Muslims and Christians of the SALAM and the SHALOM Community Intra-Faith Dialogue Circles that Gigi and Nhaz established for this pilot project last May in the barangays(villages) of Aleosan and Midsayap.

Midsayap July 25-28-Bullet holes on the wall

Imam Ebra Moxsir of The Peacemakers’ Circle with Ustadz Esmail inspecting the holes on the wall of the madrasah in Pagangan.

    We met the Muslims and Christians separately in different places—in a makeshift barangay hall in Dungguan, under the trees and a nipa hut in Dualing, in the UCCP church in Baliki, and in a madrasah along the highway of Pagangan that had gaping holes on the wall that served as a grim reminder of the military “clearing operation” during the “all-out war” in 2000 that killed innocent women and children. There, the gentle Ustadz Abdul Rahman Esmael recalled how Fr. Bert Layson, OMI, saved many lives (including Ustadz Esmael’s) by pleading to the battalion commander of the Armed Forces of the Philippines to halt the operation. It was May 5, 2000. He remembered the date clearly as though it was indelibly etched in his memory.

    We spoke to them–our newfound Muslim and Christian friends in the four conflict-affected barangays of Midsayap and Aleosan–not of promises to fulfill as politicians would, but of shared hopes and dreams of peace, alleviation from the hardships of life lived in poverty and fear, and of the sense of empowerment that comes with embodying the teachings and ideals of our faith as true believers in Christ and true followers of Islam.

Midsayap July 25-28-Shalom mtg at UCCP church 2

Meeting with the Christian leaders in Baliki

Midsayap July 25-28-MILF Chairman Bacron smiling

Bapa Abubkr “Bacron” Ibrahim, the kindly MILF chairman in Dualing.

July 25-28-Dungguan with leaders

The team with Muslim leaders in Dungguan, Aleosan.

    What we said must have resonated in the hearts of those who cared to listen. They must have heard the quiet hope in the silences between our words for we were responded to shyly with warm embraces and quiet assurances of support. As he said goodbye to us, Bapa Abubakr “Bacron” Ibrahim (the kindly old chairman of the MILF in Dualing) flashed us a most disarming smile that captured my heart and inspired me with the sense of certainty that peace is not just a promise in these conflict-affected parts of our country. It is a reality that needs only to be awakened—lovingly–in the hearts of those who have been overcome by anger, hatred, and fear; and nurtured over time with sincerity, humility, patience and perseverance.

    In my journey of fifteen years along the path of interfaith dialogue and relationship-building, I have learned that peace is not a “daang matuwid”or a straight path to follow in the same way that President Aquino would say of the fight against corruption in our country. More often than not, peace is a narrow, winding and bumpy road that demands from those who traverse it clarity of vision, depth of conviction, sincerity and passion (for being the change that they wish to see), patience and commitment to engage in reflective co-creative action with fellow travelers in the journey.

    For us at The Peacemakers’ Circle and the Balay Rehabilitation Center, there are still “miles to go before we sleep” and we are deeply grateful to those who believe in us, support our work, and keep us company in the journey. We thank you all very sincerely!