What I learned in Mindanao about Love & Forgiveness

Image  I have always wondered how forgiveness works, and how love comes into the equation in this. Do we have to love our enemies first before we can forgive? Or do we forgive first before we can say that we love? I wondered and pondered on this throughout my fifteen years of endeavors at building relationships of mutual respect, understanding and cooperation between Muslims and Christians in conflict-affected grassroots communities around Metro Manila.

    Last year, with the help of Dr. Ruben Habito of the Perkins School of Theology (Dallas, Texas), and with funding from the Fetzer Institute (Kalamazoo, Michigan) and a happy partnership with Balay Rehabilitation Center, came the opportunity for us at The Peacemakers’ Circle to conduct a pilot action-reflection training program on INTRA-FAITH DIALOGUE FOR MUSLIM-CHRISTIAN UNDERSTANDING in North Cotabato, Mindanao. This was a three-phase pilot program that spanned a period of one year.

    Inspired by the disciplines of Moral Imagination that I had  learned from my earlier training under John Paul Lederach, the program was designed to help Muslims and Christians in areas of armed conflict learn to address fear, anger and hatred so that they are able to build mutually respectful and harmonious relationships with one another.

  20130906_09323820130910_090023 Phase I of the program focused on INTRA-FAITH DIALOGUE and this consisted mostly of modules on Inner Work (or jihad’un nafs, as Muslims would call it) that encouraged them to look inside themselves to find the “enemy” within that hindered them from opening up to the “other” without fear. Muslim and Christian participants went through separate three-day workshops that encouraged them to reflect on the teachings and ideals of their respective faith traditions and how they were living their lives as true Muslims or true Christians based on those teachings. Activities for Self-Awareness and Transformation engaged head, heart, and hands to ensure that the experience was holistic and the process had a good balance of yin-yang forces. A presentation on the History of the Mindanao conflict (by Rev. Fr. Bert Layson, OMI) capped the experience of self-awakening as the participants became aware of the circumstances in the past that lead to perceived injustices today. This paved the way for Phase II of the program.

20130726_104620    Phase II  was a call to action. This challenged the participants to carry on with their action-reflection intra-faith learning process by creating SALAM and SHALOM INTRA-FAITH DIALOGUE CIRCLES in their respective grassroots communities.  The Intra-Faith Dialogue Circles provided safe spaces for deepening of the participants’ understanding and appreciation of the teachings and ideals of Christianity and Islam on Love and Forgiveness.20130726_092727 The participants, together with family and friends of their own faith tradition, met twice a month in their respective Dialogue Circles to share reflections on how they have lived into their faith in their daily lives, what difficulties and challenges they faced in the process, and how they were able to or intended to overcome them. This Phase II program consisted of modules for eight (8) action-reflection sessions that spanned the period of four months.

    Phase III brought the Muslim and Christian participants together for the first time in a three-day workshop on INTERFAITH DIALOGUE FOR MUSLIM-CHRISTIAN RELATIONSHIP-BUILDING (held last January 30 to February 2, 2014). This third and last phase of the training included activity modules on Storytelling, Heart Listening, Moving From Darkness to Light, Creating a Web of Peace, Seeing Differences in Position and Disposition, Dialogue and Conflict Transformation,  Moral Imagination, and Creating Safe Spaces and Common Grounds for Relationship-building. This was a turning-point workshop that was to determine the success of our efforts at promoting LOVE and FORGIVENESS between the Muslims and Christians in the areas of armed conflict. And I was astonished by the results. I say astonished because I and members of my facilitating team, Orlan de Guzman and Analisa Ugay, were at first not sure how well the modules would work so that Love and Forgiveness could come about in their midst. But happily, it did. So upon reflection on the process, I am struck by the answers that came to me about how we human beings might turn from the darkness of fear and mistrust towards the light of Love and Forgiveness.

Candle in the dark    I believe that the turning-point exercise in the workshop that helped make the transition from fear and mistrust to love and forgiveness possible was that of Moving from Darkness to Light. Lying on the floor in darkness The module consisted of these three activities: 1) Creating a Safe Sanctuary within oneself, 2) Facing that which one fears, the “Enemy” out there and expressing negative feelings non-verbally through ones hands using clay dough, and 3) Using the Listening Stone in the practice of deep listening and hearing the response of the “Enemy” that is being expressed back non-verbally.

Freeing pain from the body

LIstening Stone
Confronting my demons

Shedding tears of contrition






    The turning-point is that moment when one is able to shift ones attention away from the raging noise of anger, resentment and hatred in one’s head, tune in to silence, and in that silence hear the sound of one’s pain echoing back to oneself from the heart of the “enemy.” It is that moment when one hears the cry, “It hurts!” and one realizes that this cry is coming from a human being other than oneself stumbling in the darkness of his/her human frailties. “Naawa ako sa kanya kasi tao rin pala sya,”  said one participant hearing this cry in his heart. I felt sorry for him because I realize that he is a human being too, he said.

Love letters   Muslim women healing each otherShaping love & forgiveness

Freeing the spirit in shibashi

Colorful stones

    His realization made me stop and reflect on what this means in the context of my interfaith relationship-building work. I realized that in conflict transformation and peacebuilding, FORGIVENESS is the turning-point that moves the person from darkness to light. It is an experience of “humanizing” rather than “demonizing” the one whom one considers the “enemy.” It is a choice to love where Love prevails over Fear; a choice to tune in to stillness where one is able to hear with the heart humbly and listen to the silences speak clearly of that which is in the heart of the “other.” In this listening silence, one finds oneself in oneness with the “other” in a sacred place that is deep within oneself yet is beyond and transcending all boundaries of fear.

Salam group & yin-yang    This realization affirms what I have come to believe about Fear and Love, that they are two opposing forces that cannot co-exist at the same time and in the same space. Fear contracts. Love expands. These two opposing forces give rise to two very different movements of soul that make the person think and act in very distinct ways. A relationship that is motivated by fear is very different from that which arises from love. One is rigid, stifling and confining. The other is spontaneous, expansive and liberating.

    So I figured that when one chooses to love, one is moving away from the darkness of fear, anger and hatred to be able to see the light of goodness in the “other” although this goodness may not be readily apparent. And when one forgives, one is seeing the light of goodness in the “other” because of the light of love within oneself that enables one to see the light in the “other” even in the midst of the engulfing darkness.

    This is what we at The Peacemakers’ Circle humbly hope to accomplish in our endeavors at building relationships of mutual respect, understanding and cooperation in the areas of armed conflict in Mindanao. We strive to help our ailing Muslim and Christian brothers and sisters illumine each other’s darkness with the light of Love and Forgiveness.  We saw this happening before our eyes, and are thrilled by the success of our concerted efforts. Yes, Love and Forgiveness is possible among people in conflict! And we would love to see the realization of this unfolding elsewhere in the country and in other areas of armed conflict around the world! INTRA-FAITH DIALOGUE FOR INTERFAITH UNDERSTANDING can be a powerful tool for bringing about healing and relationship-building among people of diverse cultures and beliefs everywhere.

    We are aware, however, that this is just a small beginning. For the success of this project to be sustainable, the journey of building relationships must continue on the ground. One year is not enough. With enough help and support, we look forward to accompanying the process of nurturing and strengthening the efforts of the members of the Intra-Faith Dialogue Circles in the grassroots communities in North Cotabato (Mindanao) where we have started, and to the creation of more Dialogue Circles elsewhere where they are needed.

    Meantime, we hope that this may be a helpful contribution to the successful implementation of the Peace Agreement between our Philippine government and the Bangsamoro people in the grassroots. And may this generate more light among those who are inspired to support this project to make its success sustainable and its impact far-reaching.

SALAM-SHALOM group photo

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