The Hard Task On The Ground

An Interview with Bro. Arnel Alcober, CMF

Working in a totally different culture is no easy task. Claretian Bro. Arnel Alcober, who has been working with the Bajau of Basilan, shares his experience and the challenges he encounters as a missionary. Bro. Arnel also sheds light on the culture of the Bajau, an often misunderstood and neglected group of people.

What is your work with the Bajau?
At the moment we focus on community organizing and education because the Bajau are unorganized, their traditional community structure, if there was, is already gone. They are more organized now as clans, but there is no inter-clan structure.

As an outsider, how did you enter into their lives?
By spending more time with them. When I started, I stayed with them on an average of three days a week. I spent time with them. I talked to them about everything under the sun. I first tried to learn the language. I observed that only few people know their language. When I learned their language, they were amused. They feel that I am not so different from them and they become closer to me. They feel that I am not alien to them.

How did you adapt?
I stayed with them. I honestly attempted to understand the context of their situation until I realized that they don’t have the choice like I have. I can choose to have clean clothes everyday. They don’t have that choice. Although they know that it is necessary to be clean, they can’t afford to buy soap and they don’t have water. We make them aware of their health condition by teaching them proper hygiene and introducing basic health care.

Has their economic status changed over the years?
Their staple food is cassava but they usually buy rice for the children if they have money. If they do not have rice, it would mean that life is really hard because they could not afford to feed the children. The older ones look at rice as dessert. If they have rice, they prepare congee and eat it after meals. That means that life is good and they can afford some luxury.

Why are they afraid of the Muslims?
It’s historical. Since time immemorial, the Bajau in the southern Philippines have always been under the control of the dominant Tausug tribe. Because of the feudal relationship, the Bajau looked up to the Tausugs who treat them unjustly. The Bajau live in an environment
surrounded by a dominant Muslim culture. That’s why they always associate or blame threats and abuses on the Muslim community, although it’s mostly only the Tausug or pirates who abused them in the past.

Are you not intervening in their culture with your work?
Definitely. What we are doing are interventions. But whether it is politically correct or incorrect, that’s an open-ended question. What we are doing is help them adapt to the changing society so that they will not always be in the periphery and be marginalized. That’s our basic
thrust.

Are they not hesitant to change?
In the beginning, of course they were. Because what we are doing is outside intervention, there was some form of resistance. It’s part of their culture. But lately, we have observed a lot of indicators
of openness to change.

What have the Claretians done in the community?
In Teheman (in Maluso, Basilan), we had a housing project, livelihood
assistance for them to have boats and we built a footbridge. Then we started a literacy project for children; we have kindergarten classes.
Today, we focus on organizing the community and supporting the education of children. For example, they have now a more positive view of education. They are the ones who are bringing their children to us. They are asking us to help their children enter school.

How do you practice your being a missionary? Were you not accused of preaching or proselytizing?
Definitely it is not our intention to convert them. That we are preaching? In some way, yes. In a different language and categories.
We simply don’t talk about Christ to them, but the way we work for
communion, we work for unity, justice – these are elements of the Christian faith that we call with a lot of other names.

How do the Muslims look at what you are doing?
I haven’t heard of any charges of proselytizing. The most negative
comment that I heard from a few Muslims is, “Why are these Christians
disturbing people who opt to be silent?” In fact, we got more negative comments from Christians than from Muslims. Some Christians expressed certain jealousy with our work with the Bajau. The Muslims tolerate our presence. They don’t look at us as a threat. We are also very careful. For example, we avoid teaching the children Christian songs because it could create wrong impressions. We don’t teach them Christian prayers. We have spontaneous prayers. During meeting with Muslim leaders, we pray with them.

What is still to be done?
Now that the community is slowly being organized and they already
have a semblance of a community structure and the children are in school, the more immediate thing to be done is to provide alternative sources of livelihood. The Bajau still fish in the traditional way even if it is no longer sustainable. If the situation continues, they will not survive only by fishing. We tried to experiment with alternative livelihoods like mussels culture, but we did not pursue it because they are afraid to live near the mangroves. We tried duck-raising but although they love to eat 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 to be done.

Bro. Choi Sung Chang Bartholomew, CMF

Bro. "Bart" has started his service to God and his people as Lector and Acolyte. Fr. Samuel Canilang, CMF conferred on him these two Church ministries on April 10, 2001 at 9:00 AM in the chapel of the Claret Theology House, Tandang Sora, Quezon City, Philippines.

Choi Sung Chang, a Korean Claretian, has been studying theology in Manila since1996.

Tell us about your stay in the Philippines?

I feel lucky to be able to study theology in the Philippines. I constantly learn and gain a lot of inspiration from the Philippine community. It is not only to acquire knowledge about theology but also to experience community life with a different culture. These experiences encourage and motivate me more to live a mission life. One of my realizations here in the Philippines is that any kind of experience educes wisdom especially when I open my heart and mind. No matter what kind of experience it may be, good or bad, hard or not, it inspires me to appreciate more what mission life is. Overall, everything has been a great and wonderful experience.

How do you see your future ministry?

In fact, I don't know what ministry I will be involved in. I believe that we have to follow the council of the Congregation. However, personally, I would prefer to have my ministry among the poor people or be a retreat master. Now, I just want to develop more myself spiritually for the future ministry.

What would be your message to the youth?

Now is the best time to develop your future life. Look around and open your mind and heart. You can see that there are many things to do. In order to open your mind and heart, you have to develop your insight. It is truly important. Make time and go deep inside your heart. It may take a long time but do not give up. When you develop your insight, you will know then what you have to do. And you can then encourage others to make this world more beautiful. It is a big challenge for all of us. A lot of adventures and challenges are waiting for you.

Vincent Lee, CMF

My Christian name is Vincent de Paul. I was born on Oct.26, 1966 in Chung-ju, Korea. I was baptized at age 22 and soon became a Claretian thereafter. I finished the degree of Environmental Engineering in Seoul City University. I entered the Claretian congregation at age 27, had my perpetual vows on February 2, 1999, and was ordained priest on July 14, 2000.

Moreover, I was lured to become a member of the Claretian congregation because of their charism and devotion to "Mission". I really wanted to be a missionary. Should there be anyu place that would need my services, I would willingly go and serve. At present I am preparing myself for mission work and soon I´ll be off to Vietnam. I´ve never been happier, especially now that I am a bonafide missionary.

Vocation Testimonies: Mau Ulep, CMF

1. How did your missionary vocation start?

It all started when I was young. I have been exposed to religious activities through my mother. At an early age, I loved to go to church and celebrate mass and other church-related activities. In fact, since childhood, I already have a special devotion to the Blessed Mother and to the Sto. Niño. I was also inspired by the witnessing of our parish priest then who worked with apostolic zeal. I also remember how I played the role of a priest when I was a child (commonly termed, "pari-parian")-while my relatives acted as my immediate congregation. With all these, my desire for priestly and religious missionary life started and grew.

2. How was your vocation discernment?

As I grew, I continued nurturing the idea of becoming a priest someday although at some stage this desire wavered. There were also contrapositions to my dream. Toward the end of my high school, I have started to consult our school guidance counselor-and she, being a religious sister, helped me consider the possible options. It was somehow difficult to discern but with my constant dialogue with HIM who is the source of vocation through the intercession of the Blessed Mother, I finally decided to join the Claretians days after my birthday.

3. What was the reaction of your parents when you told them that you wanted to become Claretian?

Initially, especially my father, my parents were somehow surprised. There was also anxiety in them-what will happen to me-especially when they learned about the kidnapping of a Claretian missionary priest, Fr. Bernardo Blanco, CMF. But later on, they have accepted my decision. Indeed, they are now very supportive of me.

4. Do you think it is worth to become missionary nowadays?

To become a missionary is more worth-desiring now. In this world engulfed with a culture of egoism and non-commitment, there is a need for witnesses and signs of true service and commitment-who can sacrifice their lives even facing death like Fr. Rhoel Gallardo, CMF.

5. What would you advise to these young people who are now in their vocation discernment?

Be constant in your prayer. Never forget that the foundation of vocation is God-He is the one calling. Therefore, pray to him and ask him for the inspiration, guidance and wisdom to discern properly. Ask also the Blessed Mother to help you-she is the exemplar of commitment and service. You may also consult your spiritual director or counselor for some guidance; but remember that the final decision is with you.