Living Hope Newsletter – February 2009
Claretians in the Philippines
Of all the indigenous groups present in the Philippine archipelago, the Bajau community is considered to be one of the most vulnerable and yet the least cared for by society. In fact, on the island of Basilan, they are at the lowest rung of the social stratum and are victims of abuses and exploitation by their neighbors.
“When I first began this ministry I stayed with them an average of three days a week. I tried to learn their language and observed that only a few outsiders knew their language,” says Brother Arnel Alcober, C.M.F. “When I learned the language, they were amused. They saw that I am not so different from them and they become closer to me.”
From working and living with the Bajau on a daily basis, Brother Alcober began understanding the context of their situation. “I realized that they don’t have the choices that I have,” he explains. “I can choose to have clean clothes every day. They don’t have that choice. They know it is necessary to be clean but can’t afford to buy soap and don’t have water.”
During his time with the Bajau, the Claretians have built a housing project, developed livelihood assistance for the Bajau to have boats and a footbridge, and also started a literacy project for children, similar to kindergarten classes. Today, the Claretians focus on organizing the community and supporting youth education. Claretians also try to improve the health conditions of the Bajau by teaching proper hygiene and introducing basic health care. “What we are doing is helping them adapt to the changing society so that they will not always be on the periphery and marginalized,” says Brother Alcober.
In the beginning, the Bajau weren’t always open to change. “Because what we do is outside intervention, there was some form of resistance,” he explains. “But lately, we have observed a lot of openness to change. For example, they now have a more positive view of education. They are the ones who are bringing their children to us. They ask us to help their children enter school.”
Being a missionary in the Philippines can oftentimes be dangerous work, as witnessed by the martyrdom of Father Rhoel Gallardo, C.M.F. in 2000 and the ambush of Father Felimon Libot, C.M.F. in October of 2008. With a predominantly Muslim culture, religious tension in Basilan is always an issue. “They don’t look at us as a threat,” says Brother Alcober. “It is not our intention to convert them. We don’t just talk about Christ to them, but the way we work for communion, unity, justice—these are elements of the Christian faith that we call a lot of other names. During our meetings with Muslim leaders, we pray with them.”
Now that the Bajau are better organized with some semblance of community and the children are in school, the more immediate tasks to be accomplished are to provide alternative ways of earning a living. The Bajau still fish using traditional methods, even though the methods are no longer sustainable. If the Bajau continue this practice, Brother Alcober predicts they will not survive by fishing alone.
“We tried to experiment with alternative livelihoods like mussel cultivation, but we did not pursue it because they are afraid to live near the mangroves,” explains Brother Alcober. “We also tried duck-raising and although they love to eat the eggs, they don’t like the smell of the ducks. There is also a need to consolidate the gains in the community through tangible structures or symbols of development like footbridges, houses and basic services like health and recreation centers. There is much work to be done, and the Claretians are here to help.”
Our Lady of Fatima
Our Lady of Fatima has always held a special place in the heart of Father Edmundo Andres, C.M.F., who serves as Claretian Administrator at the parish. “I have been part of this parish for the most part since I arrived in the U.S. in 1957,” says Father Andres, who was born in Spain. “It began as a small church to attend to the needs of the Spanish speaking people, which at the time were very few.”
Immigration and industrialization transformed Perth Amboy with immigrants from Denmark, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Italy, Russia, and Austria quickly dominating the factory jobs.
“From the beginning those that came were immigrants. Usually they came here very poor and illegal,” says Father Andres. “This was a place for them to feel at home.”
Today, Perth Amboy’s immigrants are primarily Hispanic. The neighborhood surrounding Our Lady of Fatima has a large and diversified Hispanic neighborhood with many Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, and more recently, South Americans. Much of the city’s Mexican population also lives in this area.
Our Lady of Fatima has always been very popular within the community because it has defended the rights of the Spanish speaking people who were being ostracized. “There are a lot of stores, shops and markets in this town owned by people who initially came here with nothing and worked their way into the middle class,” says Father Andres. “We started in a very small church,” he explains. “Though over time it got to be so many that the former pastor, Father Raymond Bianchi, C.M.F. had to use the space in a garage he converted. Father Bianchi finally built the new church that we occupy today, which fits about 500 people.”
Today, Our Lady of Fatima promotes religious education, numerous feast day celebrations throughout the year, children and adult choirs, seasonal celebrations, programs to prepare children for first communion, and a summer camp that serves nearly 300 children each year.
But as with any growing parish, issues of space are always a concern. “We do not have enough space for all the activities that we host,” explains Father Andres, noting that along with the building, the church owns a gymnasium and the aforementioned garage used by Father Bianchi. “One of the needs is to find more space. But of course, as with many things nowadays, we do not have the money.”
Being part of Our Lady of Fatima for over 50 years and serving at his current post at the parish for the past three years, Father Andres knows the importance the parish serves in the community.
“Many people have passed through this parish throughout the years and they are always loved,” says Father Andres. “There is a great regard for the work we do in this place.”