The Annual Convention of the Catholic Educational Association of the Philippines (CEAP) is probably the most impressive of educators’ conferences in the Philippines, and arguably among the most impressive in the world. This year’s 3,357 delegates representing some 1,400 Catholic schools from all over the Philippines converged in Metro Manila’s SMX Convention Center. Running up to next year’s celebration of its 75th anniversary, it chose for its theme this year: Set for in faith with new eyes on the many faces of the poor.
The theme resonated with the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines’ Year of the Poor. In the letter issued by its Chairman, Abp. Socrates Villegas, opening this year, different types of poor were in face-to-face dialogue with the Crucified Lord. But, perhaps more urgently, the convention sought to align itself with the tireless appeals and indefatigable personal witness of Pope Francis, calling for attention to the excluded and discarded, not faceless statistics, but persons. “The poor are everywhere,” Jesuit priest and anthropologist, Paring Bert Alejo, declared. “But they have become invisible” to our eyes. We need to see them. With new eyes.
Instead of himself delivering an erudite lecture on the socio-cultural aspects of the poor, Fr. Alejo let representatives of the invisible poor speak for themselves.
To save their informal dwellings, Filomena “Aling Mena” Cinco, an estero dweller near Malacañang, said she and her community cooperated with government’s reblocking scheme. To keep the estero waters flowing properly, they participated in communal dredging of the estero by hand. But their urban poor dreams of owning their homes on site were thwarted by the urban rich. She was barred from attending a dialogue with President Aquino because she did not have clothes that passed the presidential dress code.
Ronnielyn Pulido, the socially-perceptive daughter of a tricycle driver and vendor in a cemetery, sleeps on mats and pieces of linoleum laid on graves and in between tombstones. She spoke of a life income that depended on the dead coming to the cemetery. With quiet dignity and palpable pain, she spoke of the manner in which people regarded her, and the way she regarded privileged students of Catholic schools: “What’s the point of their education,” she asked, “if they do not learn to help people?”
Serafina Raborar or “Nanay Bebeng” spoke poignantly of her travails raising her small family of seven originally from a kariton dwelling that was welcome nowhere and ejected everywhere. She shared her painful journey from the kariton to a home through disciplined use of government assistance, and of her determination and sacrifice to give her children an education that would liberate them from poverty.
Diego Bermeso shared how Yolanda had left their community in Leyte of around 700 with nothing but the floors of their former homes and 71 dead. They found no help from government. Their angel of consolation came from a community of Augustinian sisters who adopted their community and refused to abandon them till they were back on their feet.
Bai Beatrice Colmo of the Ubo-Manobo of Mount Apo was herself a product of a Catholic school. But she spoke of her people’s struggle to protect their ancestral domain from a religious sect’s land grabbing. Lives lost in this struggle are hardly noticed. “Slowly they are killing our culture and our traditions, sometimes violently,” she lamented, “no one seems to care.” To the Catholic schools, she suggested, “Be part of our resurrection.”
Education Secretary Bro. Armin Luistro, returning home to the CEAP, also challenged the educators to see their missions not only from the viewpoint of the achievers and successful students, but from the faces of the losers, the poor and the excluded. While schools may take satisfaction in their board placers, passers and honors students, could they pay more attention to those who fail? While he said the country could take satisfaction in the reduction of out-of-school youth from 2.9 million in 2008 to but 1.2 million in 2013, he challenged the Catholic educators to do something about the 1.2 out-of-schoolers.
He challenged the Catholic educators to more effectively – or more creatively – address the challenge of religious education in public schools.
He also enumerated 10 areas where Catholic schools may further respond to the face of the poor in partnership with the DepEd: Provide alternative sources of power for off-grid schools; refurbish bicycles or boats to help students in remote areas get to school; provide education for stateless children; assist DepEd in preparing food for some two million learners; bring education to street children through the Kariton Klasrum; help in bringing education to prisoners; address children with disabilities through special education; participate in Muslim education; participate in Indigenous Peoples’ education and reach out to the unreached.
Responding to the convention, Ateneo theology professor Bobby Guevarra elaborated movingly on the following: The CEAP convention this year was inviting all to a new sense of urgency about the poor. It was an invitation – with new eyes founded on faith – first, to be with, to draw closer to, and encounter the poor in a deeper way. Second, to see the poor in a new light. Third, to learn from the poor. Fourth, to take on the struggles of the poor as our own. To see in the liberation of the poor our own liberation