A letter from Rev. Cathy Chang serving in the Philippines
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Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has declared martial law for the region of Mindanao. Clashes have occurred between the Philippine armed forces and members of this Maute group. There have been many attempts to contain the violence and to address the humanitarian needs of besieged citizens. Several Roman Catholic leaders, including the priest of Marawi and several members of Dansalan College, are counted as among the hostages and are still unaccounted for. Several buildings of Dansalan College, a United Church of Christ in the Phillipines (UCCP) college, have also been burned. There remain 42 hostages whose lives hang in the balance.
In response to the crisis, UCCP General Secretary Bishop Reuel Norman O. Marigza and the presiding bishops prepared a pastoral statement entitled “A Call for Prayers and Sobriety for Such a Time Like This.” They caution against stoking the flames of Islamophobia and ask the government to examine the root causes of such conflict. They stand in direct opposition to martial law, instead seeking to promote a just and lasting peace. For the complete statement, please refer to uccpchurch.com/a-call-for-prayers-and-sobriety-for-such-a-time-like-this/.
This situation in Marawi is critical. Church leaders have already discussed their initial assessment and possibilities for the next course of action. We invite your prayers and support and will provide Facebook and email updates as the situation unfolds.
While schoolchildren enjoy summer vacation, the UCCP church calendar is full of annual sessions for all conferences (similar to presbytery meetings). Many national UCCP office staff members travel to their home conferences or attend other conferences to provide worship leadership. As an official member of the national office, I also joined these ranks, serving as a guest speaker and experiencing faith in the face of anxiety, fear and violence.
Before formally attending the Negros District Conference annual session, our family enjoyed a few days in and around Dumaguete, home of Silliman University and the Dumaguete City Church that helped to birth Tahas Atong Dangpanan (TADI), the first-of-its-kind anti-human trafficking ministry. When not working, we enjoyed “Vitamin Sea therapy”—at the swimming pool and beach. While I learned more about the TADI ministry and the church, Juan researched Philippine psychology resources to inform his training of volunteers who work with victims and family members directly impacted by extra-judicial killings related to the “war on drugs.”
According to many human rights advocates we know, the “war on drugs” is a war on the poor. Still, these advocates stand in the face of violence, pursuing justice and compassion for impoverished communities. Many families have lost a family member because he/she was supposedly a drug user or pusher and was killed by drug syndicates, vigilantes or corrupt police. In response to the government policy on drugs, churches and communities are working to provide rehabilitation for drug addicts and support for families of victims of extra-judicial killings. However, many volunteers are at a loss regarding how to deal with drug addiction and the emotional impact that families are subjected to when their loved ones are killed. Volunteers want to help, but they lack training.
Human rights advocates are considering creating training modules to provide support for volunteers and church leaders. Any help is welcome. These advocates and volunteers need examples of drug rehabilitation programs and tools to develop better practice modules.
During my brief visit, the Rev. Minda Esquierdo shared that many different government agencies and an organization called Visayan Forum are active in efforts to address the human trafficking happening in this university town, but there are still not many faith-based, let alone ecumenical, efforts at intervention. However, she recounted how her church has provided their worship space as shelter for several human trafficking victims, even when these victims’ former employers threaten to attempt to enslave them again! The church’s goal is not only to create shelter, but also to develop support services for human trafficking victims. Some church members are anxious about getting more directly involved with combatting this kind of dangerous crime, yet there is a strong core of supportive volunteers and leaders who seek to keep this ministry going.
When deciding whether to accept the invitation from the Bohol Conference Incorporated (another presbytery meeting), I hesitated because of recent suspected terrorist activity in that area. Even the U.S. Embassy warned citizens to avoid the main tourist areas because they might become targets. After consulting with my colleague Rev. Fely Tenchavez and our new Philippine National Police friend and neighbor, I decided that it was safe to travel, all the while remembering that “my life is in God’s hands.”
The day before I left for Bohol, my attention was divided between potential dangers in Bohol and ongoing advocacy opportunities in Manila. With a group of advocates and family members of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs), I visited Malacañang (the Presidential Palace) to discuss the plight of OFWs on death row. On our way to a meeting with Attorney Bael, a staff member of the Presidential Advisor on OFWs and Muslim Concerns, the phrase “my life is in God’s hands” came up in conversation, and it kept me going throughout my Bohol visit. Over lunch, Attorney Bael described political tensions within the government that prevent effective solutions for OFWs. This provided an insightful perspective on the current administration’s inner workings.
While I was initially anxious about my visit to Bohol, many church members and leaders demonstrated their courage by showing up and participating fully in this conference although it was located not too far from where “suspicious” persons were identified as “terrorists.” Soon after arriving at the meeting, those who attended warmly greeted me. I affirmed their faith in the face of potential danger.
My third and final invitation to an annual conference session was with the United Metropolis Conference, considered the home conference of UCCP national office staff members. During the Biblico-Theological Reflection (BTR) around the theme of “Spirituality for Mission,” I shared how fear and anxiety about the church’s declining influence have defeated several mainline denominations in the United States and left them with the choice to regress to what might seem like the “glory days” or to remain open to God and what God is doing in the world. I wondered if the Philippine church might find itself in a similar situation. Afterwards, we enjoyed fuller discussion about following God into the world, with many church leaders still learning and discerning what that might look like, and many church leaders demonstrating openness to how God was leading them to serve the communities around their local churches. From the diversity of church leaders’ responses to my reflection, I sensed more faithfulness than fear during these critical times facing both the Philippine church and society.
In closing, I share this brief prayer/benediction that equally applies to the people who gathered that morning, to you who are reading this letter and to all of us who seek to follow God into the world, even if we falter between fear and faith:
Go out into the world in peace. Have courage. Hold onto what is good. Return no one evil for evil. Strengthen the faint-hearted. Support the weak. Help the suffering. Honor all persons. Honor all creation. Love and serve the Lord, rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit. And may the love of God, the Light of Christ, and the power and communion of that Spirit be with us all. Go in peace.
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