The Farmers of the Philippines
Fr. Serge C. Maniba
(On 11 November 2016, Fr. Serge C. Maniba gave this presentation during the Missiology Forum held at the Institute for Consecrated Life.)
This talk is about mercy and compassion: the essence of mission in Asia. The focus of my talk is about the farmers of the Philippines. In this talk I will try to answer the following questions: Who are the farmers of the Philippines? What are their faces? What is their situation? How should mercy and compassion be communicated, preached, shared with them?
According to Dr. Marilyn Elauria, in her paper submitted as a country paper for the International Seminar on Cultivating the Young Generation of Farmers with Farmland Policy Implications,1 May 25-29, 2015, MARDI, Serdang, Selangor, Malaysia, of the 30 million hectares total land area of the Philippines, 9.67 million hectares is an agricultural area or about 30 percent of the total land area is cultivated by almost 5 million farmers. These farmers are spread all over the country from Luzon, down to Visayas and Mindanao.
I don’t intend to cover all the farmers of the Philippines because that is impossible to do. Instead, I will limit my scope to the “faces” of the farmers of Antique, of whom I am part of, and with whom I share life and ministry with.
There are different kinds of farmers in the Philippines. A few who own a vast track of land and hire hundreds of workers to work in their farm: these are the rich farmers of the country. There are also farmers who are not so rich but own a considerable size of land and enjoy the fruits of their labors the whole year round without worrying where to get their food for their families. These are the middle class farmers and those others who live above the poverty line. And there are farmers who work hard in the farm but don’t own a land because they have no resources to buy their land. Either they are legal tenants of land owners or squatters in the land, or those we call illegal settlers because they cannot afford to reach even the level of legal tenancy. These are the poor farmers who are hired by land owners to work in their farms and receive a little from their labor; or the farmers who scour the land after harvest time to pick up and gather whatever is left in the farm, or those refuse that had fallen back to the ground after harvest time. These are the marginalized farmers, often faceless because they are unknown, thus nameless, and the poorest of the farmers.
Of these three categories of farmers, I will share with you something about those poorest, faceless, nameless, unknown farmers of the Philippines, specifically situated in Antique, a place where mountains meet the sea.
I am a rural boy and I carry with me different faces of farmers. I have beautiful memories of the life in the farm as well as the sad voices of groaning and suffering of farmers and their families that echo in the country side, filling every corner of the farmlands.
I was born in a family of farmers. I know the season of planting, growing, and harvesting. I know how to feed animals like goats, cows, carabaos, etc. Early in my life, I was privileged to experience what it means to be a child of farmers and to work by tilling the land. I volunteered, together with other children, to work during planting season so that we earn a little more for our school allowance because we get little from our parents. I know how to wait for the rice we planted until they yield their fruits on harvest time. And the time of waiting means shortage of food in the table of farmers, increase in loans as they have to borrow money to buy rice and other basic needs of their families, and hungry stomach for many children when their parents cannot anymore find people who will lend them more money.
When I was ordained as priest of the Diocese of San Jose, Antique, these “faces” of the farmers, and “faces” of the fisher folks as well, who are also faces of the poor, became clearer to me. The villages of the parishes I served are both situated in the mountains and near the sea. When I visit the mountain villages, I see farmers tilling the land either under the heavy down pour of the rain or under the scorching heat of the sun. Their physical built, small stature and wasted bodies, and the color of their skins already tell the tale of their stories: stories of poverty and their search for liberation and fullness of life. Taking a little time to listen to their stories, I heard the “cry of the poor” echoed in the groaning of these farmers.
Back in the comfort of parish rectory, the poor, most of them farmers, will knock at my door bringing with them a list of their needs, hoping the Church can provide them answers. 1. Money to buy seeds for planting; 2. Money to buy fertilizers when planting is over; 3. Money for the tuition fee of their children in school, as well as for school supplies, uniforms, and other miscellaneous fees. 4. Money to buy rice, oil for their lamps, fish, salt, etc. 4. Money for medicine or pay for hospital bills as many of them are sick and have no money to buy medicine or to pay the hospitalization. 5. Money for the casket and the burial of their sick who died due to lack of proper care, food, and medicine. The list is long and endless.
Encountering these marginalized farmers who belong to the category we call “the poor”, the face and names of these faceless and nameless farmers begin to emerge:
1.The small, dark-skinned, thin, “men”, head of the families or male children able to work in the farm.
2.The small, dark-skinned, thin, women, mothers nursing their malnourished kids, from a breast emptied of milk due to malnutrition.
3.Small, dark-skinned, malnourished, children crying for milk or food because their stomach still feel empty.
4.Small, dark-skinned, wasted physically, young people, going to school walking long distances, hungry because their breakfast has to be eaten later in the morning to serve as their lunch as well. They call their meal “brunch”: combination of breakfast and lunch. Many of them drop out of school when harvest season arrives because they have to go to the farm and help in harvesting the crops.
These are some of the faces of poverty of the farmers of the Philippines as revealed by the farmers of Antique.
There are many factors that cause the poverty of these farmer. One comes from the cycle of nature as the Philippines is visited by typhoons more than twenty times each year. Farms and the crops of the farmers, costing millions, are destroyed and lost in just a day or two when strong typhoons come. Worst and tragic of all is the loss of thousands of human lives that had been recorded just a few years ago. This week of, Yolanda victims, still carrying the wounds and pains of the tragedy, are commemorating the strongest typhoon that hit the Philippines (November 8, 2013) and had destroyed the thousand lives in Visayas.
Then comes the human factors that aggravate the situation of the poor farmers. Government policies and programs that are designed to alleviate the poverty of the people are riddled by corruption that siphoned the resources of the government, meant for the basic services of the people, into the pockets of unscrupulous politicians in cahoots with a few greedy individuals and their shadowy business transactions. Families of the victims of typhoon Yolanda continue to complain that government help comes so slow, while other victims of previous typhoons had lost the hope of ever receiving the aid promised them.
Corruption in the Philippines has many other faces than what I had mentioned. But sufficed to say here that natural calamities and corruption in the government have been the greatest cross the poor Filipino people, majority of them are farmers, have to carry each day.
Given this situation of the poorest of the farmers of the Philippines, revealed concretely in the many faces of poverty of the farmers of Antique, what is the mission of the Church towards them? And how should mission be done with them, among them, and for them?
As the theme of our forum today says: Mercy and Compassion is the essence of Mission in Asia. Pope Francis says: “The Church is commissioned to announce the mercy of God, the beating heart of the Gospel, which in its own way must penetrate the heart and mind of every person.”2 With these words Pope Francis invited the Church to celebrate the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy, which is a pilgrimage, a journey to the mercy of God. This journey is traditionally symbolized as a pilgrimage to Rome, during which the pilgrim crosses the threshold of the Holy Doors, at the four great basilicas in Rome.3 Here in the Philippines, Churches had been declared as pilgrim sites, just like in Rome, where people can go and cross the threshold of the Holy Doors of the Church as a symbolic act of crossing the threshold of God’s mercy.
Doing mission with mercy and compassion towards the farmers of the Philippines, is first of all, a spiritual journey into the heart of God, the source of mission. It is first an invitation to experience that mercy and compassion had been given us. Interpreting the invitation of Pope Francis, Mark-David Janus says that “crossing the threshold means leaving behind doubt and fear and allowing God’s love to embrace us. It is a spiritual journey representing the journey of our lives, a journey through our self-understanding, a journey that leads us to a complete and final trust in the love God is for us.4 There, in the merciful and compassionate heart of God, the individual believer and the Church as communion of believers, are transformed. We experience conversion, which is the transformation of hearts effected by the embrace of the merciful and compassionate Father.
This merciful and compassionate heart of God is revealed in the Sacred Scriptures. In Exodus 3: 1-22, when God called Moses through the burning bush, he said to Moses in verse 7: “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land and to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” The groaning of the suffering Israelites had reached heaven, had penetrated the heart of God, and evoked his mercy and compassion. Moved by their suffering, God had come down to deliver them from their misery caused by their fellow human beings, in the person of the Egyptians.
The farmers of the Philippines had been crying out in pain year after year. In faith we can say that their cries had reached heaven, heard by God, touched the heart of God; and as he came down from heaven to deliver the Israelites from their slavery, so God does today for all the suffering people of the world, the farmers included. His saving mercy and compassion had never been withdrawn since the time he had done it to the Israelites. The Sacred Scriptures recorded this enduring mercy and compassion of God translated in concrete through the mission of Moses, the prophets of the Old Testament, our Lord, Jesus Christ, his apostles, and the Early Church.
The essence of mission in Asia today is the nothing but the same mission that flows from the merciful and compassionate heart of God. This mercy and compassion is fully revealed in the life, ministry, suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Pope Francis said that “the message of Jesus is mercy…it is the Lord’s strongest message.”5 In the opening of the Holy Door at St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome, on December 8, 2015, Pope Francis reminded the Church that “Mercy is very foundation of the Church’s life. All her pastoral activity should be caught up in the tenderness she makes present to believers; nothing in her preaching and in her witness to the world can be lacking in mercy. The Church’s very credibility is seen in how she shows merciful and compassionate love.”6 He continues to say: “The time has come for the Church to take up the joyful call to mercy once more. It is time to return to the basics and to bear the weaknesses and struggles of our brothers and sisters. Mercy is the force that reawakens us to new life and instills in us the courage to look to the future with hope.”7
This is the Church that is born out of the heart of Jesus on the Cross: a missionary Church, as Jesus is the Missionary Son born out of the heart of a Missionary God. In Evangelii Gaudium 27, Pope Francis shares his dream of a Church that moves away from “conservation mode” to the “missionary mode;” from “mere administration” to “permanently in a state of mission;” an “outward-looking, rather than an inward-looking, church; a church more concerned about affairs “ad-extra” rather than issues “ad-intra” (EG 27-28)- preferring a “church bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security” (EG 49).8
This Missionary Church takes the poor, here the farmers, at heart and embraces them with mercy and compassion. The deepest and ultimate reason for this, according to Pope Francis, is the fact that:
“Our faith in Christ, who became poor and was always close to the poor and the outcast, is the basis of our concern for the integral development of society’s most neglected members (EG 186). Each individual Christian and every community is called to be instrument of God for the liberation and the promotion of the poor, and for enabling them to be fully part of society (EG 187). That is why, (says Pope Francis), I want a Church which is poor and for the poor. They have much to teach us…We need to let ourselves be evangelized by them. The new evangelization, (which is based on mercy and compassion), is an invitation to acknowledge the saving power at work in their lives and to put them at the center of the Church’s pilgrim way (EG 198).”9
The “mercy and compassion as essence of mission” transforms the Church to be the house of the Father, with doors always wide open.10 Concretely, it means that the doors of our churches and parish rectories, are wide open to welcome the poor farmers with their long list of needs, even if we know we cannot answer all of them. It means welcoming the small-dark skinned, thin, men, women, young people, and children into our table and share with them our food as guests, friends, brothers and sisters, and not as beggars. It also means, we are willing to go out the doors of our comforts and enter the homes of the poor/farmers in the mountains and farmlands; to share a meal with them; listen to their stories of suffering as well as their dreams for a better life; and willing to stand up and walk with them as they claim their dignity as children of God, members of the household of God, in a society that had rejected them and relegated them to the margins of social, political, economic, and religious life.
To conclude this talk, let me quote the epilogue of Mark-David Janus, in his book Crossing the Threshold of Mercy. He said:
“God has chosen the path of mercy as the road Christian walk. During this holy year, we have been pilgrims on this road, journeying to the mercy of God. This is not a geographic pilgrimage, there were no mile markers, no fixed destinations, and this side of heaven, there is no end to our travels. This is a pilgrimage of the soul. We make the journey only to remind ourselves what we seek: the mercy of God, which by God’s mercy we already possess. We pilgrims make the journey together to encourage ourselves to keep believing in this merciful love, to believe it so deeply that we live it, to believe it so deeply that we bet our life on it, this life and our life hereafter.
Mercy is the path we aspire to walk; only mercy gives us the strength to live a life of mercy, and that same mercy leads to our ultimate destination, the last threshold we shall ever cross:”11
“See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.
And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new…I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. Those who conquer will inherit these things, I will be their God and they will be my children.” (Revelation 21: 3-7)”
1Marirlyn M. Elauria, “Farm Land Policy and Financing Program for Young Generation in the Philippines” (2015-06-09), http://ap.fftc.agnet.org/ap_db.php?id=448 (accessed November 9, 2016).
2Mark David Janus, Crossing the Threshold of Mercy (New York: Paulist Press, 2015), 1.
4Janus, Crossing the Threshold, 1.
5Andrea Tornielli, The Name of God is Mercy, translated by Oonagh Stransky (London: Bluebird Books of Life, 2016), ix.
7Janus, Crossing the Threshold, 5.
8See Antonio Pernia, “The Stranger and the Poor: Two Challenges to the Missionary Church in Evangelii Gaudium”, in Missio Inter Gentes vol. 1, no. 1 (January 2015), 37-56.
10Janus, Crossing the Threshold of Mercy, 5.
11Janus, Crossing the Threshold of Mercy, 151-152.