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Solidarity for Peace- for Response Magazine, May 2008

June 15, 2008

Talaingod.  When I speak the word my lips feel magical, its name alone testifies to the mountains and the stars.  High in the hillside, the air cools from the low lands and rushes through the forest on its way to meet the sky.  This “middle of nowhere” is perhaps the center of the universe, the place where God first breathed divine life into his more perfect creation.  If God comes down to put his hands in the dirt, it must be in Talaingod.

And so, where God creates, man destroys.  Talaingod is only one of many communities on Mindanao threatened by large-scale corporate mining, only one of the many places whose forests stand to become mining pits and whose people could very soon become refugees.  In a world raging with war and injustice this is only a tiny speck, only a few hundred people, only a few hundred acres of ancestral lands.

The Filipino Government’s soldiers visited before I did.  Under the claim of rooting out terrorists (particularly members of a rebel group called the New People’s Army) they terrorized the peasants with their high tech military equipment, interrogating children, harassing adults, and finally, setting a house on fire.  The people were forced to flee.  This already impoverished community lost many crops and livestock to lack of attention or blatant theft.  Many families returned with sick children to ransacked homes. 

I came after the disturbance was over.  A sole Daisy among a field of Asian flora, I climbed on the back of a battered Kawasaki motorcycle loaded past its capacity with food and medical supplies.  I braced myself against bags of rice and bounced and teetered on the back of the bike along the 30-minute journey away from electricity and modernity as I knew it.  The jungle spread out over cliffs and drop-offs, the engine of the motorcycle roaring like a lion in the beginning of March as it fought through the mud.

The trail led on and on- past the point where the residents of Talaingod could get to a hospital or a school in a reasonable period of time.  We passed from the Third World to the Fifth. Talaingod is not just poor and remote, but it’s native, indigenous, lumad.  When Christian Filipinos emigrated from the north to settle Mindanao (per foreign request), these lumad were already here- unknown, uncolonized, “uncivilized”.

Today, one hundred years after the Northern “Visaya” Filipinos brought their culture, morals and Catholicism (all given to them by Spain in the 17th Century), the lumads and their way of life are an inferior subculture on an island that they’ve belonged to for thousands of years.  They’re already the very least of the people, and yet the army comes to ready their land for mining, comes to take it away under the guise of public safety.

Along with my sarong and military cap, I also carried guilt with me to Talaingod.  It was smaller than mynotebook, but heavier than the rice.  I tucked it in my heart and tried not to let it show in my face.  The US Military had just the month before stepped up their presence in the Philippines, training the Filipino troops in counter-terrorism techniques.  Not only had my government paid for the M-16s the Filipino soldiers were carrying, but now it had taught them how to interrogate, how to find the “terrorists”.  I saw the results of the anti-terrorism campaign when I arrived in Talaingod- the nervous people, the wild-grown fields, the empty livestock pens.

As my fellow activists handed out rice and conducted medical exams over the next three days, I wrestled with my guilt.  I took pictures of surroundings and of the people (my assigned task), played with the children and helped feed the chickens.  And on my last night there when we were all gathered around a bonfire, I realized my guilt was gone.  I took the time to look at the stars and dance with the elders while they played their wooden instruments.  There is minefield of self-centeredness between feeling guilty and taking responsibly and I crossed it with the help of some time in a peasant village and some handfuls ofchicken feed.  There is nothing I can do to undo what has happened, all I can do is be there in the moment.

Solidarity is a lot harder than charity.  Charity is easy because it doesn’t require surrender of power.  When we give to those less fortunate, we often feel good about who we are and what we’ve done.  And the people who receive those gifts feel indebted to us.  Charity perpetuates a cycle of giving out of our extra and being congratulated for it.  This can never be the way to peace, because peace only comes out of unity.  Charity separates those who have and those who don’t.

Solidarity says “It’s not about me, it’s about us.”  When we’re in solidarity, we take the role of equals, not of saviors.  It would be blasphemy to say I struggled with the people of Talaingod, but I did dance with them, I pet one of their pigs, and I played with their children.  Certainly that alone will not make life easier, but lumads were given a chance to say what happened and they knew that someone was listening.  Talaingod is not just a fleck on a giant mural of injustice.  I was given the wonderful gift of being there and now it’s inextricably a part of me.

Solidarity is the only way to peace because it must start with acknowledging commonality.  When we link ourselves to each other with relationships built on compassion and mutual growth, we tie our fates together.  True peace can only happen when there is justice for all of us.  When we’re connected, we can all walk toward peace together.

Talaingod isn’t the only place where solidarity can be had- we just need to know where to find it.  Solidarity is hard to find when donating dented cans to a soup kitchen, but it’s readily available in conversations with homeless men and women about their lives and struggles.  Pitying a shut-in is a long way from creating peace, but taking time to listen to an elderly neighbor’s stories is a step to solidarity. 

Solidarity starts with letting go of guilt and venturing out of our comfort zones.  My journey didn’t end with dancing on mountaintop- it began there.  The next day I climbed back onto a motorbike and splashed through the mud back to a world of paved roads and power lines.  I don’t know if there will be any peace for the people of Talaingod.  I don’t know if there will be peace for any of us.  But Christ calls us to try, to work for a just world for everyone.  And the only way to start is through relationship.

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