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

When enough is enough

(First published on July 27, 2009)


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.

Being change

VLUU L100, M100  / Samsung L100, M100

Dialogue with Muslims at Salam Compound in Culiat, Quezon City, Metro Manila

(First published on September 21, 2010)

     Perhaps it is true that the only constant in life is change. People, relationships among people, their circumstances, and just about everything that we can think of, do change! Some changes are for the better, while others leave us with only a deeper yearning for what we desire and hope for.

     But, change comes slowly, unfolding ever so subtly on various levels in our midst that, more often than not, we hardly even notice it happening.

     For those expecting swift and discernible outcomes, patience tends to wear out easily and the easiest way of coping with frustration is to complain, criticize, blame, protest against, renounce, or even remove those whom they perceive to be obstacles to change, or are faulty instruments of it. Few are wont to see themselves as part of the big picture of change unfolding, or being involved in the process and therefore partly responsible and accountable for its outcomes.

     For those expecting little or nothing, everything or nothing may come as a surprise, and life goes on, as always, perhaps either happily or helplessly, whatever their disposition and circumstances may be.

     But, for those who have committed to be instruments of change (no matter what their culture or beliefs may be), there is the challenge of “active waiting” to face, and the aspiration of “being the change” that they “wish to see” to live up to and realize.

     My interfaith peacebuilding work these past twelve years has been inspired by the desire to respond to the need to bring about change for the better in the relationships among people of diverse cultures and beliefs. The compelling words of Mahatma Gandhi–Be the change that you wish to see in the world!–fueled my endeavors with the conviction that I, too, can be part of the movement for a better world.

     However, in my endeavors, I have experienced a tendency, even among esteemed colleagues committed to change, to focus largely on peacemaking as a means to an end rather than also as an end in itself, on the goal rather than on the process. Though we speak of wanting to bring about peace, justice and healing in our midst, our ways of being–of thinking, feeling, and acting—towards one another remain wanting of change.

     We expend much of our time and energies trying to level the playing field searching for similarities among us that, in the process, we fail to listen to, respect and appreciate those whose views or ways of being differ from our own. It is ironic that, in our desire for peace to happen, we deal with those whom we perceive to be obstacles to it in ways that belie the very principles and essence of peace. It is easier to demonize, exclude, and even remove them from our organizations, institutions, communities, etc., rather than to recognize and respect their position, interests, values and needs and make room for our differences to enrich our relationships and move our shared endeavors forward.

     Indeed, listening to each other with the heart rightly and creating safe spaces for our differences to be heard, respected, and even appreciated takes too much time and energy. True heart listening involves the disarmament of the heart that is possible only when we make ourselves vulnerable to the “other” in the spirit of humility, openness, and willingness to allow the other to “live in me.” Even for many of us who are not new to peacemaking, this is a noble ideal requiring painstaking and tedious inner work to realize. More often than not, this way of being is forsaken in relationship-building.

     But, what then is the point? Why engage in dialogue and peacemaking if our efforts cannot bring about change for the better in people’s relationships despite their differences? Why call ourselves peacemakers if our ways of being cannot help bring about peace, unity and harmony in our midst?

     Being a “peacemaker” is an ideal that many aspire for but fail to live up to. Those of us committed to peacemaking as a way of bringing about social change will find that there is a need to cultivate at least three essential capacities within ourselves that must be realized in our relationships with others. These are: the capacity to see with the heart rightly, the capacity to seek for answers to questions that liberate the human spirit from the bondage of fear, and the capacity to be with others (even our “enemies”) in the endeavor of bringing about the change that we wish to see. Simply put, we need clarity of visiondepth of conviction, andintegrity of co-creative action.

     In interfaith dialogue and relationship-building, clarity of vision in the light of faith allows us to see through the darkness of our fears and anxieties and find our way to that sacred place within us—that common ground–where we can truly meet the “other” in the spirit of oneness despite our differences, and where our silences can speak and our hearts can truly listen. This is where moral imagination is awakened and transformative action is inspired.

     Moral imagination, as defined by John Paul Lederach (renowned lecturer and trainer on Conflict Transformation and Peacebuilding) is “the capacity to imagine something while rooted in the challenges of the real world yet capable of giving birth to that which does not yet exist.”  Seeing with the heart rightly is essential to the moral imagination, as is the ability to create something new–new ways of attaining and realizing our highest collective human potentials for good—while being rooted in the difficult realities of our physical world.

     Clarity of vision inspires conviction, fuels passion, and gives a sense of direction to our actions. What we see with our hearts rightly gives rise to questions within us that compel us to seek for answers. And answers may come sooner or later with the awakening of those whose minds are open and hearts are listening, and whose actions are in harmony with the divine scheme of things that are ever unfolding.