I was 13 years old when I met the in a Mariapolis that a religious nun had brought me too. I didn’t understand any of the talks but was attracted by all the smiling faces I saw – and most of all, the songs sung by young people about a “revolution and love”. I loved music and the lyrics spoke to my heart. I was young enough to be idealistic to believe that all things were possible – change, peace, brotherhood.
Later on I wrote the gen and asked what it meant to be one. “A gen is someone who loves.” This was the reply given to me by the one who answered my letter. Then she gave the example of getting water for her sister, even if it was at the end of a day and she was already tired. She thought to herself that if Jesus were the one asking, she would surely get it. I was struck by the simplicity of “living the Gospel” and immediately tried to put it into practice.
From then on, I decided to continue discovering the Gospel and put it into practice. A year later, I joined the gen combo and spent the next 5 years of my life totally immersed in gen meetings, practice for concerts, going around the Philippines to sing about this new life I had found.
But those years were also marked by a strong desire to fight for social change. All over the world, there were student protests. In the Philippines, students were going to the streets to protest martial law imposed by a dictator. I joined all these, in the firm conviction that to be a Christian meant to be concrete in working for change in an unjust society. It was only when I felt hatred creeping into my heart (against the politicians, the military, the unconcerned elite in our country) that I had to stop and re-direct myself to an earlier choice – that of the Gospel and the way to change starting from within myself and through loving.
So I stopped going to demonstrations, teach-ins and the like – and I remember feeling a certain sense that I was betraying the revolution. It was more difficult to believe in the revolution of the Gospel because it seemed it would take too long to happen. It was the unity with the focolare and the gen that gave me the courage to strengthen my relationship with God before going back to the social field.
When I was in the university, I met Francis who was the classmate of my older brother in law school. He was the son of a labor leader and former regional chairman of the youth arm of the communist party. I suppose it was this passion and commitment to a cause and concern for others that also attracted me to him. I shared with him that I had discovered a different type of revolution, one based on the Gospel, as he himself was beginning to get disillusioned by the lack of change that was happening.
We go married as soon as he finished law school and were getting ready to settle down in Manila when my father, who had built several enterprises in the countryside, asked for our help in running them because all my other siblings migrated to the US. Now, I had taken up journalism in my university days – because I wanted to stay as far away as possible from working in a business. I had actually been accepted to work in a govt. economic agency as a technical writer.
But Francis was not really happy working in Manila and had grown up all his life in the countryside, though in another region. So in order to make my father and my husband happy, I agreed to go and live in the farm – at first bargaining for just 1-2 years – and eventually learning to make it my home. We were managing family businesses that included a piggery, poultry, a local electric company –and the one-unit rural bank. We had no background in agriculture nor banking nor business.
But here, we discovered we had the chance to put all our ideas about the right way to treat laborers, being fair in business dealings, etc. into practice. So the first thing we did was to review the salary levels and put them all in order – even if everyone was saying that we would lose in business because of incurring too much costs. But we thought to ourselves that surely, a business that was surviving only because it paid illegal wages, or did not pay the right taxes – was not a viable business after all. So we continued to try and do things right.
More than this, we had the chance to build genuine relationships with our workers, consciously trying to breakdown the feudal mentality that was built over centuries of oppression but also dependence on a landlord.For one thing, we told them that we would run the enterprises together and that we would have to learn from them as we knew very little about the businesses. Little by little, we tried to build a small community in the farm, raising the five girls we had, playing alongside the children of the workers as well.
Over the next 12 years, we slowly bought out my father’s interests so we could be free to run the operations alongside the Christian principles we believed in. How did the businesses grow without any formal training on our part? Looking back, we simply followed the inspiration of God in each present moment, taking courage from the successes that He gave us – and keeping hopeful when problems came about because we were convinced we were doing His will and fulfilling His design on us.
Thus when Chiara announced the message of the Economy of Communion in 1991, for us, it was like the receiving a light we had been waiting for. It was the fulfillment of all the desires we had felt as young students wanting to change the world. We began to see that it was going to be possible and it was a dream worth giving all of our lives for because it was always what we had wanted – a world with justice and fraternity.
As we are sharing our experiences in the bank, allow me now to just share one strong experience that God also allowed in our lives – mostly because when it happened almost 10 years ago to date, the whole Opera all over the world prayed for us. Francis and I were on a short vacation, in between work and meetings – when we were kidnapped by Muslim terrorists from the resort we were staying in. It was a random happening, They did not know us and simply got the people staying in the cottages closest to the sea. There were 20 of us taken and we were brought on a 13-hr. speedboat ride, to the southern most part of the country, to an island that is 95% Muslim and where the radical elements remain active even today.
While there was an initial fear that crept into our hearts , especially in the first minutes and hours of our being taken, a whole lifetime of trusting in God, in the presence of Jesus amongst us and His love for our children – as well as the enterprise which we were sure would suffer in our absence – enabled us to go out of ourselves and take an interest in our fellow victims as well as our kidnappers. Francis, especially struck a relationship with the terrorists until he became a favorite and was often called to listen while they lectured on why the Islamic religion was better than Christianity. He did not argue – but at the right moment, asked if we were not brothers because we all trace back to one Father? Or if they hated the infidels, could they really see themselves killing all of them in the world? Perhaps this willingness to listen and dialogue was a new experience for our captors as we were not only left unharmed (though three of our companions were beheaded) but in different moments, they even showed kindness towards us. I was released after a week and Francis after another 2 weeks.
This experience opened our eyes to the situation of our Muslim brothers in the South. As we were being marched for hours in the mountains of Basilan, we saw the extreme poverty and seeming govt. neglect of the roads and infrastructure that made things even worse.
From then on, we tried to keep open to opportunities to reach out more to them. We met two men through a friend who helped get us released. We offered them training in microfinance, in the hope they could take the technology home and be of help to their communities. When USAID looked for a rural bank where directors of a Muslim rural bank in the south could go for training and governance, they found a willing partner in us and we conducted training for directors from 3 banks from Muslim Mindanao. People were shocked with these reactions after what seemed to them a traumatic experience . But we just felt so wrapped in God’s love (and for this, we have Chiara and the whole Opera who we knew was praying for our safety!) and continuously looked for meaning behind the incident, so we might not miss a chance to fulfill His design on us through the experience.
Two years ago, as we stood sponsors in the wedding of son of one of the Muslim friends we made, we asked to visit the island we were brought to. Accompanied by this friend and his relative, we crossed to Basilan and went to visit a priest who had also been kidnapped along with us. We paid our respect to the Bishop who was surprised to see us come back. We looked for the family that had sheltered me the first night I was released, to say thank you. On the way back home, our Muslim friends suffered a flat tire and the priest and seminarian we were riding with, returned with us to help fix the tire. We hope and pray that through this relationship we had with both of them, they might one day live in peace again amongst themselves.