Logging into Microsoft’s instant messenger this morning at 8.30, I got a message from a friend in Manila; she was in her office waiting for an evening meeting, I was about to set about my morning’s work.
We chatted for a while, ‘when are you going to visit the Philippines again?’ she asked, ‘Next year?’
‘Not next year’, I said, ‘I won’t make it next year?. It is a busy year; but, being honest, I still have memories of the fear I felt on my first visit there in January 1991.
The itinerary included a visit to the sugar-growing island of Negros, the island where the Columban priest Niall O’Brien worked, the island where he had been imprisoned during the days of President Marcos on fabricated charges of murder. Negros was not a happy place. There was a mass movement of ordinary people who had been displaced from their lands by a small movement of extremely wealthy landowners who were intent on increasing their estates. The Government was thoroughly corrupt; it deployed its troops to support those who paid it. The Government was opposed by a Communist guerrilla movement, the New People’s Army, who were equally ruthless in imposing their will.
Seeking the Christian way was not easy in such circumstances. Throughout the island there were young thugs, some backed by the Government, some backed by the Communists, they were armed with machine guns, automatic rifles and grenades and they tended to be drunk by about midday. It would not have been the sort of place to spend a week if I had known in advance.
The day we arrived priest of the Philippine Independent Church had been shot dead outside a street cafe by gunmen, allegedly in the pay of landowners. He had been active in campaigning for land rights for the peasants and had annoyed the wrong people. Narciso Pico was a parish clergyman, 42 years old with a wife and son and a baby expected. He was aware of the dangers of speaking out, he had received death threats, but he would not be silent.
Pico believed that the Gospel gave him no choice but to speak for what was just and right. He set out from home to attend a clergy meeting and had stopped at the cafe for a cup of coffee. He must have been watched because he was approached by two gunmen who shot him dead before making off with his motor cycle.
We listened gravely as the events were recounted. We became even more grave when it was suggested that we should attend the wake of Narciso Pico the following Sunday evening.
The wake was taking place beyond the area under firm Government control. Travelling at night there could mean getting shot by Government-backed militia who suspected you of being involved with the New People’s Army or getting shot by the New People’s Army who suspected you of being Government spies. Belfast was like Disneyland compared to this place.
The journey was made in darkness along unmarked roads. There were periodic road blocks manned by heavily armed men who asked repeated questions of our driver and interpreter. It went through my mind that if we were shot I hoped someone would inform the British embassy.
We finally arrived at a church hall where crowds of people were gathered for the wake. We spoke with various people and finally met with a Filipino bishop, Ramon Tiples, who asked us into an office.
“Can I see your call card?” He asked.
“Pardon”, I replied.
“Your calling card, your business card, can I see it?”
I hadn’t really anticipated anyone asking for a calling card identifying me as Rector of the Church of Ireland Parishes of Bright, Ballee and Killough. By sheer chance there were cards tucked in the back of my wallet. I handed him one and he smiled. “We had to be sure you were not American agents”.
If I was an American agent I was doing a wonderful impression of a pale and terrified Englishman.
Fear is a strange thing. It focuses the mind very sharply. I can still remember precise details: I can still feel the warm night air; still smell the anti-mosquito spray; still hear the voices; still see the funeral casket.
Fear focuses the mind. It is astonishing to read the accounts of those who fought in the First World War, the photographic quality of their memories. Perhaps it is the adrenaline, fear makes you think very clearly about things. It makes you reflect very carefully about what is happening and what you are doing.
Perhaps it is only at the edge of life that we are really driven to be clear about what it is we do believe. Narciso Pico died as a martyr to his faith in a God of truth and justice, I was frightened simply to travel along the road. I think Jesus would have said to me, “where is your faith?”
Perhaps because fear is not a familiar experience, real faith is also something unfamiliar. Real faith is not about saying the words of the Creed in the comfortable setting of a church on Sunday mornings, it’s about staking everything I am and everything I have on this man from Galilee.
Bishop Ramon Tiples said something that frightened me. He said that Narciso Pico was a real Christian because he stood firm for what he believed, he said that there were others who were not real Christians because they ran away in times of danger. I don’t think he meant it as a personal comment, but the words hit home all the same.
How far would I be are prepared to go with my trust. How far am I prepared to risk comments, how far am I prepared to give things up, how far am I we prepared to go in be what Ramon Tiples would have described as a “real Christian”?