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Letter from Rebecca Lawson in the Philippines

May 15, 2013


Ecumenical Women's Forum greets Angie Ipong at One Billion Rising (Photo Credit: Cheekai-National Council of Churches in the Philippines)

The Ecumenical Women’s Forum in the Philippines joined One Billion Rising—an international dance initiative to raise awareness and inspire women and men in their stand to end violence against women.  One in three women is a victim of violence in her lifetime; that is more than one billion women and girls currently sharing our planet.  In response, people around the world committed to dance a dance of rising...of overcoming...of empowerment that now is the time to end violence against women.

The Philippine One Billion Rising organizing team highlighted the story of Angie Ipong, a 60-year-old political activist who was abducted, tortured and sexually molested by the Armed Forces of the Philippines.  As she lay tied and naked in their interrogation room, she discerned that her available protest was a hunger strike, to refuse to eat; even if they killed her, she would not surrender her spirit to them.  From the military camp she was taken to prison, where she spent six years before trumped-up charges against her could be dismissed.  She found the way to make an organic vegetable garden, by composting the prison’s biodegradable garbage and reconfiguring the garbage area to create space.  She would not surrender her spirit to state repression.  When Angie Ipong was released, she came to Manila and was elected Secretary General of SELDA (meaning prison cell—but simultaneously a Tagalog acronym for the Alliance of Ex-Detainees against Illegal Arrest and Detention), where she launched a campaign for a General, Unconditional and Omnibus Amnesty for the approximately 400 political prisoners documented by her organization.  Angie would not surrender her spirit; she continues to push for the rights of the poor and marginalized.  Angie’s spirit is forever rising, so she agreed to join the collective dance!

PCUSA Peacemaking Travel Study Seminar joins the dance (Photo Credit: Cheekai-National Council of Churches in the Philippines)

The Ecumenical Women’s Forum gathered at an Episcopal Church to study—dance steps, biblical foundations, and the situation of women in the Philippines—in preparation for One Billion Rising.  We reflected on how poverty is structural violence against the vast majority of Filipino women.  And we listened to the testimony of Angie Ipong, whose deep faith led her from teaching with Catholic sisters in poor communities to becoming an activist.  Angie encouraged us to always nurture our spirits with steadfast commitment, especially when under threats and realities of violence—we must rise up in a life-giving struggle for social transformation. 

Nancy Eng MacNeill, Becca Lawson, Angie Ipong, and Ann Johnson at One Billion Rising (Photo Credit Jordan Whitt-PCUSA Special Offerings)

Sharing songs and dance, we anticipated One Billion Rising on February 14, 2013, in cities across the Philippines and around the world.  That day, we were honored to have a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Peacemaking Travel Study Seminar with us, and they joined the Manila event.  Tightly linked with their focus on human trafficking, we Presbyterians fellowshipped with the Ecumenical Women’s Forum and other women’s groups who had gathered.  We may not have had each dance step polished, but the participants jumped in and danced for an end to violence against women. 

Between dances Angie greeted the PC(USA) group, a few of whom she had previously met in Washington, D.C., for Ecumenical Advocacy Days.  As we shared uplifting energy with more than a thousand women, many of whom were from women’s organizations in local communities, I was reminded of lyrics I had composed for United Nations Women Human Rights Defenders Day inspired by Angie’s story:

            Though they violate her body, her spirit can’t be held;

Behind bars of state repression she grows strong.
In the midst of unjust waiting, she cements where she belongs;

Love has bound her to the people and their song.

Lift up your voice and chant the sounds of freedom.

Rise up, resist—denounce oppression’s pain.

Growing strong in truth and love united,

We will march on 'til peace and justice reign.                       

Here we were, dancing together.  We danced that NOW is the time for women to rise—that in standing together as women and men, we can end violence against women!

Ecumenical Women's Forum doing the One Billion Rising signature dance move.

The connections between political prisoners, human trafficking, and, yes, even the structural violence of poverty that so many Filipino women experience are undeniable. There are days when I wonder if I have enough strength to face more injustice and bear witness to more suffering in my ministry.  As I negotiate entry into detention centers to visit political prisoners or search for diapers for repatriated migrant workers’ babies, I sometimes think like Angie—I will not surrender my spirit; I will continue to struggle for life and love. 

Thanks be to God that there are also days when we dance!  On a Manila street our spirits soared in solidarity, reminding us that we are not alone in our journey toward God’s shalom!  In this same spirit, I invite you to join our dance.  Whether by contributing financial support to mission co-workers like me, getting involved in a PC(USA) project that strives to end violence against women, or praying for our partners in the Philippines, your participation is dearly needed and valued.  I thank you for your prayers and actions that help buoy me up on even the most difficult of days.  

As partners in God’s mission, we join the people in the dance of life—One Billion Rising, empowered to end violence against women!

Rebecca Lawson

The 2013 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 211
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