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When you strike down a shepherd

October 22, 2011

The following is also posted on State of Formation.

This Monday, Italian priest Rev. Fausto “Pops” Tentorio was shot dead on the Southern Philippine island of Mindanao. According to the Washington Post, he had been serving indigenous people in Mindanao for more than thirty years. His work in advocating for environmental justice and the indigenous peoples’ right to their ancestral lands put him in direct conflict with the corrupt Philippine Government. His life had been threatened before. He was outside of his church in North Cotabato, when a lone motorcyclist pulled him and shot him repeatedly.

Pops, as I knew him, is just one of many. Philippine human rights organization Karapatan reports that there

have been more than 1,000 social justice advocates killed since the former president, Gloria Arroyo came to power. She has since been replaced by President Noynoy Aquino, but there have been more than forty extra-judicial killings since he took office in June 2010. These numbers do not include illegal detention, torture, or enforced disappearances. In the investigation of all of these cases, there have been very few arrests, and even fewer convictions.

Father Pops was from Santa Maria Hoe in the Italian province of Lecco. He was a Roman Catholic priest with the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Mission (PIME), and just 59-years-old when he was murdered.

Killing clergy is fairly commonplace in Philippine society. As mentioned in the Washington Post write up of Pops’ murder, two other PIME priests have been killed in the Philippines. Even bishops are not safe. In 2006, Philippine Independent Church Bishop Alberto Romento was murdered in Luzon. Many other pastors and nuns have suffered similar fates.

What does the Government hope to accomplish in killing human rights advocates and clergy? Perhaps the corrupt politicians — almost all of whom are Christian — have been reading scripture. As it says in Mark 14:27, “For it is written, I will strike the shepherd and the sheep with be scattered.” The clergy who have been murdered, disappeared, imprisoned, and threatened were all working to change the social situation of the Philippines, in which the vast majority of people are landless peasants living in poverty. But this imbalance of power benefits the politicians, most of whom come from wealthy landowning families. When someone like Father Pops gets in their way, they eliminate him. There is no one to hold them accountable.

Except, of course, for the community. Father Pops was indeed a shepherd. He had been working in North Cotabato for more than 25 years, and had fully integrated himself among the lumads (indigenous people) in the area. He lived simply, dedicating himself to the cause of the indigenous people’s right to their native lands, which the Government wishes to sell off to foreign mining corporations for profit. He was outspoken against the Government’s militarization in Mindanao, which frequently displaces lumads and peasants. Indigenous people and human rights advocates all over Mindanao are mourning Father Pops.

In the days that have followed his death, I have seen campaigns popping up on Facebook. Social justice advocates from all over Mindanao, including doctors, lawyers, and clergy, have already gone to Northern Cotabato on a fact-finding mission. If anything, this shepherd’s death did not scatter the flock, but rather, drew the sheep closer together.

This speaks of the deep interconnectedness of the advocacy community in Mindanao, and also of Pop’s qualities as a shepherd. I only met him a handful of times, but as a foreigner new to the Philippines, his integrity and dedication were unmistakable. He was a white man who spoke the local and indigenous dialects. He resisted the privileges that easily accrue to white people living in the Philippines. He ate the same food, and wore the same clothes as the people around him. Below his thick glasses and bushy beard, he always donned necklaces made by lumad artisans.

My experience with him was that he wasn’t particularly loud, nor did he draw attention to himself. I watched him participate in a community dance at a human rights conference with both attended in Mindanao. Throughout the entire song, he was never quite able to grasp the sequence of the motions. The people around him were laughing, and he was chuckling along with them. He resisted standing out from the group.

He focused instead on standing up for justice. Which is what he was doing when he was shot several times at close range.

Pop’s death serves as a brutal reminder of what kind of shepherds Christ calls us to be. We are called to live among the sheep, rather than towering above them. We are called to listen to the cry of the poor, but also to shout out against injustice. Not only must we be willing to lay down our lives for our flocks, but we ought also empower them to be advocates for themselves in our absence.

Pops, having done these things, should now find rest. But for those of us still breathing, may Pops’ death be a reminder of the disturbing abuse of power in our world. And may Pops’ life be a testament to how we should struggle for justice alongside the people.

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