As part of my seminary formation I had the privilege of being able to live with a Meranao family for two weeks in Sigayan, Sultan Naga Dimaporo, Lanao del Norte, in the Southern Philippines. It was my first time to live with a Muslim family since 2013, when I also lived for a week with a family in the Islamic City of Marawi. It is in the light of that experience that I was able to, somehow, conquer my own suspicions about Islam and therefore appreciate Islam the way I appreciate other religious traditions.
While we were on our way to Sigayan, we stopped in a very small chapel made of very light materials, overlooking the blue sea and the far distant land of Zamboanga Sibugay. Fr Paul Glynn, who lived in this area for quite number of years, recounted that it was in that chapel, just as he had finished saying Mass on August 28, 2001, that someone informed him that Fr Rufus Halley (people here called him Fr Popong) was killed in the neighboring town of Malabang. Perplexed, I started to imagine what my own missionary call might involve. Without any prior plan, my fellow Columban seminarian, Elbert and I decided that it would be worth visiting Malabang Parish, Lanao del Sur, to possibly hear some stories and have a sense of the place where Fr Rufus worked for years.
We went to Malabang by payong-payong (an improvised motorcycle with a special type of umbrella). Fr Roger MJ and Sr Bing MA welcomed us warmly and brought us inside Immaculate Conception Church, Malabang and to the Peace Park inside the parish compound where a statue of Fr Rufus has been made with an inscription from Qu’ran 25:63:
And the servants of (Allah) Most Gracious are those who walk on the earth in humility, and when the ignorant address them, they say, “Peace!”
It took a while for these words to sink in. Then Fr Roger suggested and even insisted that we go to Balabagan. We immediately grabbed that chance. Before going to Balabagan, we also visited Our Lady of Peace School where Fr Rufus used to work. That school was for me a witness of how Columbans dedicate their lives to mission and to grassroots interfaith dialogue between Muslims and Christians – students and teachers. On our way to Balabagan, Fr Roger pointed to us the actual place where Fr Rufus was shot dead. Sorrow and anger were my mixed feelings but I immediately felt comforted by the word inscribed in the site which somehow summed up the way, I believed, Fr Rufus lived his life: “PEACE.” I am from Mindanao and peace for Mindanaoan people is of primal value as it is elusive. As a future Columban missionary, questions flooded into my head as to how I could take part in this universal call to peace and non-violence – inter-socially, inter-politically, inter-culturally and inter-religiously amidst so much distrust?
My visit to Malabang and Balabagan only took a few hours but it had a significant impact in my personal missionary journey. I felt a strong desire to try to follow in the the steps of the Columbans who gave their lives without any reservations for mission, men like Fr Rufus who were very much committed to promoting peace through being friendly and kind to people, regardless of who they may be or what they might believe. The vision of the Prelature of St Mary’s, Marawi states:
Dialogue is an offering because it is always extended, not only in the pleasantness of appreciation but also in and even beyond, the pain of rejection.
Sincerity, trust and respect that is founded in God’s love never extinguish the desire to extend our two hands even in pain and “to search for goodness, beauty and truth” in others even in the midst of distrust and prejudices. That is how I see how Fr Rufus lived out his life. It might have been inspiring for me to see the zeal of the Columbans in Marawi in initiating dialogue and reconciliation between Muslims and Christians; but it was a shock for me, and remains a frightening thought, to realize that they were, all the time, under threat for their lives.
Fr Rufus might have given his life fifteen years ago and the Columbans might have had to flee the area after the incident due to imminent danger, but the call for lasting peace is still the battle cry of the people. Peace is not only a gift but a responsibility for all people of goodwill. At the end of the day, we Christians are bearers of peace. As bearers of the peace entrusted to us by the Resurrected Christ, we are encouraged
to live in dialogue in the midst of divisions and conflicts and to build peace with all people of sincere hearts, who believe in your (God’s) love and compassion
Harmony Prayer composed by the Silsilah Dialogue Movement, Philippines. Amen.
Jerry A. Lohera is a Columban seminarian from La Victoria, Kauswagan, Magsaysay, Misamis Oriental, in the Southern Philippines. He entered the Columban seminary formation in June 2012. He is in his second year of Theology in Pastoral Ministry at Loyola School of Theology, Ateneo de Manila University, Quezon City, Philippines.