Missionary Priest Sees Same Deplorable Conditions, Hits Church Apathy

A Columban priest who stole headlines in local and international media in the 1970s and 1980s for his staunch defense of the poor especially the sugar workers said that the social, economic and political conditions of Negros today remain substantially the same.


By KARL G. OMBION
Bulatlat
Vol. VII, No. 50, January 27-February 2, 2008

BACOLOD City – A Columban priest who stole headlines in local and international media in the 1970s and 1980s for his staunch defense of the poor especially the sugar workers said that the social, economic and political conditions of Negros today remain substantially the same.

Fr. Brian Gore, an Australian missionary priest who lived and worked in Kabankalan and neighboring towns for more than a decade, said in a forum over the weekend in this city that except for some new infrastructures like the call centers, malls, and fast food chains, and new faces in local governments, the majority of Negrosanons who are sugar workers and farm workers still live in the same slave-like and miserable conditions as in the decades he was here.

“I had been here for few times since I left in the late 80s but I see the same power structure, skewed economic set up, and deplorable conditions afflicting our sugar workers, farmers, fishermen, urban poor,” Fr. Gore said in fluent Hiligaynon.

Some of the obvious manifestations of the same condition, Fr. Gore stressed, are that the majority are still dependent on the sugar industry; sugar workers are still not getting just wages and adequate social securities; people are still without dignity and their rights trampled upon; majority of farmers are still landless; and more fresh graduates and even older ones leave Negros to find jobs and economic satisfaction in other countries.

“That more people are looking for progress outside Negros and outside the country simply point that something fundamental is wrong in this country’s economic and political system,” Fr. Gore added.

Fr. Gore said that under this condition, the Church remains the only powerful institution that can do something to alleviate the conditions of the people, and work out social reforms.

Be the voice of the poor

Fr Gore, whose stay in Negros in the 1970s and 1980s had transformed him into a staunch advocate of the causes of the poor and in the process found himself in conflict with the landed and the rich, said that the Negros churches and clerics must remain consistent in being the voice of the poor and the oppressed.

Fr. Gore’s challenge was made after he noted that most churches, clerics and church organizations in Negros today are quite focused on the institutional or internal church concerns and seem to have backtracked from the social dimension of their work.

“Unlike in the 70s and 80s which I considered as the most productive years in the life of the Negros churches and clerics, today I don’t see a lot of them working and living among the poor especially sugar workers, farmers and fisherfolk; organizing basic Christian communities; education and other consciousness raising activities; grassroots Bible studies; facilitating conflict mediation and resolution on land disputes and other basic issues; and facilitating mobilizations for people’s problems and demands,” Fr. Gore said.

Fr. Gore said that he couldn’t fathom why the churches and clerics seem to have “stepped back or slept” when the conditions of Negros remain substantially the same as they were in the 1970s and 1980s.

Fr. Gore noted though that in recent years, especially when Bp. Vicente Navarra took over the Diocese of Bacolod, the diocese has been active on some social concerns, especially mining, environmental issues, morality issues, and the proliferation of gambling. “These are good issues; but still the main problems of the people especially land, have not been given much attention, and that church mandated organizations are much more involved in the internal institutional concerns of the church, and are less in contact with the poor in rural and urban poor communities,” Fr. Gore said.

Fr. Gore observed that there could be some shifts in the training of new generation of seminarians and clerics that lead them to become less inclined to pursue the social dimension of the Church’s mission.

True learning

“I must confess that my true learning process of what my being a priest and missionary really is began only when I stepped on Negros in 1972; I was struck by the conditions of the poor people of Negros so much that I knew later that I was already on their side, that being a missionary priest is to live the life of the poor,” he said.

“Maybe this is what is lacking in the formation of today’s seminarians and clerics – maybe – I am not sure. But I must say that when church people are in constant touch with the poor they will certainly experience a new life, a new perspective,” he added.

Under the conditions of extreme poverty and highly skewed economic structure, Fr. Gore stressed, the Church remain the only powerful institution that can do something to alleviate the conditions of the people, and work out social reforms.

“Negros today is the same, and in this condition, the church is the only place where the people could speak out, discuss issues and problems, and seek solutions to them; and the clerics should become real catalysts, educators and voices of the voiceless,” he also said.

Despite his observations, Fr. Gore challenged the local churches and clerics to truly live up to their being church of the poor, take part in the day to day problems of the people, and in the process help them find solutions to their basic problems.

Church power for good

“The Church and the clerics have so much power, and they can use it for good toward real social transformation, or for evil which is not the reason for their being,” Fr. Gore said.

Fr. Gore, together with the late Columban missionary priest Fr. Neil O Brian, were among the now famous “Negros Nine” who were incarcerated by Marcos state security forces for alleged conspiracy in the ambush of landowner and former Kabankalan Mayor Pablo Sola in the early 1980s.

He landed in the headlines of local and international media in the 1970s and 1980s for his staunch defense of the poor especially the sugar workers.

Fr. Gore was in Negros recently for some talks, and a visit to his former parish where he had set up farmer-managed community-based agricultural projects. Bulatlat

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