28 April 2017
Message at the 400th Year Founding Anniversary of the Ladies of Charity – Association Internationale des Charities (AIC) Philippines, Inc., Bayview Park Hotel, City of Manila, 28 April 2017
Thank you very much. Maupo ho tayong lahat. Thank you very much, Tita Melanie. Tita Melanie was one of my guardian angels during the entire campaign season. Maraming salamat po.
Ms. Imelda Torres, our National President; Fr. Perry Peralta, our National Spiritual Director; Ms. Paulette Songco, Vice President for Metro Manila; Ms. Elsie Matalote, President of the Archdiocese of Manila; of course, Ms. Melanie Aquino, National Board Director; the other National Board officers and members, ladies from the different regions, archdiocesans, diocesans and units, ladies and gentlemen, mga minamahal ko pong kababayan. Magandang hapon po sa inyong lahat.
First of all, thank you very much for inviting me to join you this afternoon and speak before you during a very special occasion. Gaya po ng sabi ni Tita Melanie, my mom is also a member of the Ladies of Charity. Nakita ko po iyong iba niyang kaibigan, nandoon sa likod. Hindi ko po alam kung bakit hindi sumama iyong nanay ko.
It is not everyday that one gets to address an organization like yours. For the last 400 years, you – my dear Ladies of Charity – have shown our country that one’s faith and commitment to serve others can flourish, transform lives, and ultimately, stand the test of time.
Faith and duty are two things that our family hold dear. In the last four years, faith in God has given us the strength to face many triumphs and fears. It is what carried us through our grief of losing my husband in a most unexpected way – giving us the courage to face the challenges that lie ahead. It served as a constant guide, for me and my daughters, as we made the most difficult of decisions.
But most important of all, faith has led us to a deeper understanding of our duty to serve others.
As Vice President, the past nine months have been quite a roller coaster ride. It has led me to many places and introduced me to people from all walks of life. It has opened my eyes to some of the most disturbing realities taking place in our society. It has challenged me to live my faith in the most profound and tangible way.
The past nine months have not been easy. But faith has allowed us to drown out the voices, to drown out the noise, so that we can focus on where we can help the most.
Every week, my small team and I visit the farthest, poorest, and most remote communities all over the country to see for ourselves how we can best be of help.
Perhaps, not so many of you have heard yet of Agutaya. It is a small town composed of several islands located in the northern part of Palawan. It is a fifth class municipality, with a population of 12,000 people.
Getting there is quite an adventure: You have to take a ten-hour grueling boat ride from Coron just to reach its shores. The place has no electricity and access to safe potable water.
Some months ago – November to be exact – I had the rare opportunity to visit Agutaya. Upon arriving, we were surprised to see everyone crying, including their Mayor. It was a sight to behold. And later on, we found out that the reason why they were crying is that they were so happy because it was the first time that they were being visited by a national government official.
While walking around, we noticed that the Grade 5 students were only as small as the Grade 1 students. The doctor who was with us told us that the children were suffering from stunting – an irreversible condition caused by malnutrition and chronic hunger. Knowing that these children would never recover broke our hearts.
We visited the only public elementary school there. Sira po iyong paaralan. And we were asking the people, “Kailan pa ito nasira?” Sabi po nila, “Noong Yolanda pa po, four years ago.” Sabi namin, “Bakit hindi pa siya naaayos?” “Siguro hindi pa po nakakarating sa Central Office na sira pala siya.”
But Agutaya is just one of the many places in our country that remain invisible in the eyes of many. I am sure that many of you here today have also heard similar stories of other places. Far-flung communities that have been forgotten over time. Ordinary people like fishermen who lay hostage at the hands of abusive middlemen. Farmers who do not have their own land. Indigenous groups with no access to healthcare and quality education. Poor families surviving on meager wages.
Sadly, despite the consistent growth of our economy, many people are still left behind by progress. During the past three decades, we have worked very hard in reclaiming our freedoms and consolidating our democracy. We have introduced checks and balances, instilling transparency and accountability in our institutions.
Yet, in this age of globalization, widespread poverty continues to affect the lives of more than 26 million Filipinos. Our country’s wealth and resources have taken too long to trickle down and be felt by those on the ground. Sadly, this situation has bred a culture of hate and anger among our people. Rage and violence have taken over social media. Siguro po alam niyo naman iyon. Online trolls and fake news abound. But how do we mend a nation marred by injustice and inequality? How do we stand in solidarity when many have resorted to viciousness and cruelty?
I have said this before, and I will say it again: in serving our people, we must always come from a place of authentic love and understanding, as Christ did. We must learn how to listen with open hearts. Empathy is the first step in effective nation-building.
This is something which I have learned when I was still working as a human rights lawyer with an NGO called SALIGAN. For almost ten years, we would spend our days trekking on mountain trails, crossing rice paddies, and sailing on waters, just to reach the farthest of barangays. There, we would meet and break bread with farmers, fisherfolk, indigenous peoples, rural women and children, and so on. We would listen to their stories – personal accounts of how some of our laws have become, by themselves, instruments of abuse and injustice. We would handle many of their cases and go against powerful and influential families. Work was difficult, but fulfilling.
A few years ago, a Jesuit priest and writer, by the name of Fr. James Martin, wrote a powerful reflection on Christ’s resurrection. And I quote, “Easter changed everything for the disciples and followers of Jesus… after Easter Sunday, they became bold proclaimers of the Gospel, ready to stake their lives on the truth of what they know and believe. What can account for such a dramatic change? Only something as vivid, as tangible, and as undeniably real, as an encounter with the Risen Christ.”
The message is clear: All of us are called to follow Christ’s example of servant leadership. To go where we are most needed. To walk with the poor and experience their struggles and frustrations. To listen to their stories to arrive at the best solutions.
Remember that it is through these personal encounters that real change becomes possible. For it is only by experiencing their struggles and experiencing their hardships can we fully understand their needs. This is exactly why our Savior served. Jesus did not serve from a throne surrounded by power and privilege. He served on the ground, walking with the people He loved most. And He served with unfailing empathy.
So as witnesses of Christ’s love and redemption, we are called to be beacons of hope during these extraordinary times.
Together, let us sow the seeds of unity among the Filipino people. Let us build more bridges, and topple down walls. Energized by our faith, let us continue to reach out and serve the poor—together.
This is not the time for fear and aggression. This is not the time for violence and retribution. But this is the time for merciful compassion.
In the face of pain and suffering, let us always remain focused. Let us remain strong and committed – to serve the last, the least, and the lost among our brothers and sisters.
Maraming salamat po and patnubayan po sana kayo ng mahal na Diyos sa lahat ng oras. Magandang hapon muli. Maraming salamat.