Kargador at Dawn

Kargador at Dawn
Work in the Vineyard

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Rey Roda, OMI - God's Witness in the Archipelago of Tawi-Tawi

We have three cases of bloody murder in the Vicariate of Jolo within the last ten years. The Vicar, Bishop Benjamin de Jesus on February 4, 1997, OMI, Fr. Benjamin Inocencio, OMI on December 28, 2000 and Fr. Jesus Reynaldo Roda, OMI on January 15, 2008. To the eyes of the world, these deaths may appear senseless and incomprehensible. But to people who believe in the ministry of presence, the lives and deaths of these three missionaries are, indeed, not in vain and without meaning.

Linguistically speaking, presence is a noun, not a verb. It connotes a state of being, not doing. States of being are not highly valued in a culture which places a high priority on doing. Yet, true presence or ‘being with’ another person carries with it a silent power, that is, to bear witness to a passage, to help carry an emotional burden or to begin a healing process. In it, there is an intimate connection with another that is perhaps too seldom felt in a society that strives for ever-faster ‘connectivity’.

To the three OMI martyrs of the Vicariate of Jolo, it was not their ‘doing’ that had, in a sense, precipitated their murders in the hands of the lawless elements of the Provinces of Sulu and Tawi-Tawi. It was their ‘being with’ their people and communities that had become a powerful witnessing beyond words and actions. Bishop Ben in the whole Vicariate of Jolo, Fr. Benjie in the islands of Mapun and Jolo and Fr. Rey in Tabawan journeyed with their people with endearing smile, innocence and passionate love. Often these values were clearly revealed in their testimony of fidelity to their religious call that is often translated in simply “just go, just be there and just live with your people”.

For Rey, the journey of presence began in the Archipelago of Tawi-Tawi in the southernmost part of the Philippines. It started in the island of Batu-Batu and would end in the island of Tabawan. It was a presence among the poor Sama people. Often, it was a powerless presence with his community for whom he could “do” nothing.

He walked, sat and ate with friends. There were times that he was pulled by the urge to do more than be, yet repeatedly struck by the lack of resources. Paradoxically, it was during these times of powerlessness that he discovered the healing power of connection created by being fully there in the quiet understanding of another. In it, no one is truly alone.

Every night, he sat in the small chapel of the rectory and felt the presence of him who had called him to become a priest and a missionary. There, too, in the presence of the Lord, he journeyed and sat with his confreres, particularly missionaries living alone in the other islands of the Archipelago of Tawi Tawi and Sulu. In that silent and lonely island, Fr. Rey painstakingly discovered the power of presence that was not a one-way street, not only something missionaries give to others.

It is said by the old missionaries in the Archipelago that the islands and the communities always change them, and always for the better. In Tabawan, there are two powerful witnesses of this mutual transformation and enrichment. The first was the ‘Bapa’ of Tabawan, Fr. Leopold Gregoire, OMI who lived and journeyed with the Sama people for nearly 20 years and second was Fr. Jesus Reynaldo Roda, OMI who walked and sat with his Sama friends for nearly ten years. Both missionaries were changed and definitely, it was for the better.

The life of Fr. Rey amid the Sama people was a witness of being with the weak, the poor and the marginalized. He found this the hard way, often, in turmoil questioning over and over again why the poor continue to suffer not only of man-made disasters but also natural ones. Why the poor are often the victims of almost total neglect by the ‘powerful’ and by seemingly endless calamities? Their anguish and the cry of the poor DO NOT reach God!

In a mysterious way, it was in the isolation and poverty that have always characterized Tabawan that led to a disclosure that God is NOT the all powerful one that he was taught from catechism to the liturgies. The God revealed to him in the island, especially in the night of his murder, was all weak, so helpless and so poor.

But was this not message both of the manger and the cross? Yes, God is not only so poor and weak, but also a suffering one and dying on the cross. Is this not the real meaning of Emmanuel - his presence, God’s birth into the world? God is NOT the all powerful one! Much less is He the all TRANSCENDENT One. Definitely, the God revealed by Jesus in the Manger and the Cross is NOT a sort of a SUPERNATURAL DEITY!

It was a tragedy that raised hard question in the mind of many missionaries similarly situated about the rationale of missionary presence and work in those remote and very isolated places in the Vicariate. Yet, everyone knows that there are no answers to that question. And there is no understanding that would come either by way of theology or any other way.

There were few times, that men in the OMI Philippine Province challenged the Provincial Superior and the Bishop of the Vicariate on the question of the rationale of the missionary presence in those remote and seemingly ‘God forsaken’ islands in the Vicariate. Since in the economy of God’s salvation, all are saved by God’s mercy and compassion!

Yet what the mind cannot fathom, the heart can understand. Only in faith, hope and great love, can people begin to understand such presence, such heroism and even such senseless death. Rey, Ben, Benjie and the rest of the OMI colleagues in the same mission have that faith, hope and great love!

Such presence and ministry elude understanding when approached through the mind. In fact, they are senseless! That kind of life and ministry can only be approached through the heart. Akin to a mystery, it can only be understood in faith hope and love!

Rey was a friend and a comrade in the struggle during the dark years Marcos Dictatorship. Yet, deep beneath was the real Rey formed by the faith of his mother and father - a simple and trusting faith that gave meaning not only to his priesthood and religious life, but also to his presence and work in Tabawan.

Though painful and sorrowful, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate take pride in the OMI Philippine Province because in her womb have emerged people like Bishop Ben de Jesus, Fr. Benjie Inocencio and now Fr. Rey Roda who paid the ultimate price for the values and beliefs close to their hearts. They were not brave men, but because of the love for their people and the trust in God, they were able to muster enough courage to silence the fears in their hearts.

There rises from deep beneath the heart of people who heard the tragic news a shout of anger for this madness. Yet it is an anger that is easily consumed by the fire of love that urges each OMI to hold his head high. BELIEVE and continue that kind of presence and ministry even without understanding yet clinging to hope that they have NOT died in vain and that their lives do MAKE sense!!!

We remember Rey and his tragic death, yet we have hope in our hearts that one day the whole community of Tabawan, the whole Vicariate of Jolo, nay the whole creation shall all be re-united with the ‘fallen’ in God’s kingdom. Only in God‘s kingdom shall we see the sense f all these tragedies. It remains a mystery in the midst of God’s great love shown in the martyrdom of his only begotten Son as paralleled by the great generosity of spirit of the slain. (Jun Mercado, OMI)