FIFTH YEAR RETROSPECT: THE LIFE AND WORK OF FR. POPS

Fr. Fausto Tentorio, PIME, better known as Pops, Tatay Pops, or Lolo Pops, depending on the generation of the person calling him was born on January 7, 1952 in Sta. Maria Hoe di Rovagnate, Lecco, Italy. He joined PIME in 1974 and was ordained a priest in 1977.

Fr. Pops came to the Philippines on November 17, 1978, at the height of the Marcos dictatorship, and was assigned to Ayala, Zamboanga. At that time, Fr. Peter Geremia (now the President of the Foundation) was also assigned there having been “deported” from Manila. The PIME then had several priests who were punished for being involved in community organizing in their parish in Tondo. Two priests were already deported back to Italy, but Fr. Peter was just a junior so he was sent to Zamboanga instead. Pops used to say that when he was in the seminary, he was fascinated by the song “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina” because at that time Imelda Marcos was being compared to Evita Peron and he said he wanted to come to the Philippines as a missionary.

When he arrived in Zamboanga, he became fascinated with the plight of our Moro brothers and sisters and would spend all his time with them. It was among them that he was first called “Pops”, a derivative of Pope, because the Moro associated him with the Pope but they pronounced it as Pop. The “s” came afterwards.

01_Pops_Young PIME years

In an undated photo, the young PIME priests Fr. Pops (center, bottom row) and Fr. Peter Geremia (fourth from left).

PIME had a 5-year contract with the Diocese of Zamboanga that would end in 1981 and it was the Diocese of Kidapawan who was going to receive them afterwards. The group then moved, riding a ferry from Zamboanga to Cotabato City then riding their motorcycles from Cotabato City to Kidapawan. Fr. Peter recalled that this was one of their most memorable motorcycle rides ever.

At the Diocese of Kidapawan, Fathers Pops, Peter & Tulio were assigned to the parish of Tulunan with its satellite chapel in Columbio, Sultan Kudarat. Peter and Tulio in Tulunan while Pops would periodically go to Columbio. The other PIME were sent to Arakan. It was also around this time that the Diocesan General Assembly set up the Tribal Filipino Program that Fr. Peter and Pops immediately administered. The TFP then set about organizing the indigenous peoples in the diocese.

The atrocities of the dictatorship were intensifying at this time with the formation of paramilitary fanatical groups like the Tadtad and Ilaga, whose members included the notorious Manero men. Churchpeople and lay leaders were the targets of the Marcos regime then. Fr. Peter would have several attempts on his life and so did Pops. There was one time when the convent in Columbio was strafed. It was a good thing that Pops was already lying in bed and he immediately rolled to the floor because had he been standing up, he would surely have been hit. When the Maneros killed Tulio, the Diocese had to transfer the two survivors, Peter and Pops because the Maneros vowed to get them also. So Fr. Peter was sent to Kidapawan to head the TFP while Pops was sent to Arakan. This was 1985.

Burying Fr. Tulio in Arakan, 1985.

Burying Fr. Tulio in Arakan, 1985.

While in Arakan, Pops started out giving away carabaos and farm implements to the lumads. He was also starting his own personal scholarship program. After several years however, he saw the futility of giving to individual persons as these created more division among the people instead of strengthening their unity. So he prioritized organizing and strengthening the communities and setting up social infrastructure like literacy/numeracy centers, health programs, and community farms. In 1991, he set up the Tribal Filipino Program for Community Development, Inc (TFPCDI), an independent institution providing services for the indigenous peoples’ organizations and that he foresaw will eventually be run by the people themselves.

He believed that education was central in giving one a better edge in life so he set up literacy and numeracy centers all over Arakan. Then when they saw that all the adults could now read and write, they shifted to the children. They started with nonformal schools for the bigger ones who were ashamed of going to mainstream schools and when these children were all covered, he then went to the younger ones and set up early-education centers. These centers now gave the indigenous children the background required to be enrolled in mainstream schools when they turn Grade 1. Then PIME set up the Notre Dame of Arakan, a private school that he also administered as school director, a mainstream school for the children of Arakan.

Pops with young schoolchildren in an Early Childhood Center in Arakan.

Pops with young schoolchildren in an Early Childhood Center in Arakan.

But, at first, getting the children to school was very difficult. And he discovered why: they had to look for food first before they can go to school and if they couldn’t find anything they had to be absent from school or go to school hungry and unable to concentrate. So he set up a feeding program for the schoolchildren and a farm assistance program for their families. The feeding programs he did so until the families of the children could produce enough to be able to send their children to school not hungry.

Another reason that he saw for the absences was the poor health of the children. Diarrhea and respiratory tract infections and TB were very common and also caused a lot of absences for the children. And so the first priorities of the Primary Health Care Program were the children and the setting-up of water and sanitation infrastructure in all communities. This program also trained Community Health Workers to be the front liners in ensuring the health of their respective communities. Health stations were set up in strategic locations and these would be run by CHWs themselves.

Supervising the construction of a water system in a community in Arakan.

Supervising the construction of a water system in a community in Arakan.

He knew what to do not because he had all-infinite wisdom but because he never strayed far from the people. He was always in the communities. After he arrived in Columbio, he almost never slept in the convent, preferring to stay with the poor lumad families. It was only after he contracted amebiasis, typhoid fever, and malaria, all at the same time, that the people carried him back to the convent. This big white man who made an adult white Arakan horse look like a pony was a familiar sight in the mountains of Arakan. The big white man who spoke with an Ilonggo accent, with his eternal tubao, peculiar smell, and who ate anything as long as it was what the people are having, was always a welcome sight in these communities.

After more than 10 years, what he learned from his work in Arakan he then applied to other lumad areas. In 2003, he was elected as one of the Coordinating Board Members of the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines. It was here that he first heard about Talaingod, a place that straddles the mountains of the Pantaron, at the heartland of Mindanao. In this town, most of the communities would be composed mostly, if not a hundred percent lumad or indigenous people, the Manobo.

The first surveys of the area revealed a 97% illiteracy rate and the communities here specifically requested schools above anything else. So he sent his Education Staff to train the first literacy teachers in the area. And as what happened in Arakan, these parateachers would be instrumental in taking the first steps in eradicating illiteracy in the area.

Then in 2007, Pops and the RMP gathered enough resources to set up the first ever grade school in the area. They started with 1 schoolroom with 1 teacher. And with every year, they added one level at a time until all K to 12 levels will be achieved. They called the school the Salupungan Ta Tanu Igkanugon Community Learning Center, in deference to the Manobo people’s organization in the area whose members dreamt and labored to set the school up with the assistance of the RMP. Pops also became a Board Member of the Mindanao Interfaith Services Foundation that also had several lumad schools. In time, there would be more schools, all in lumad communities, remote and hard-to-reach communities, the poorest of the poor. Pops also started recruiting his former scholars to volunteer to teach in these far-flung schools and the scholars, now teachers, are staying. Scholars who are now paying him back by fulfilling the dreams of other lumad children. He was always drawing up curricula for the schools, learning from the people and from the schools’ experiences. He strove for a learning curriculum that will produce lumad graduates who will work for the comprehensive development of lumad identity, culture, and of the ancestral domain.

05_Pops forest

Amidst all these, Fr. Pops’ ultimate dream for the people is that they be organized and work together for their common good. He believed that only through a dynamic and responsive people’s organization would real empowerment of the people be achieved. Only through a united people working together will the people gain enough confidence to solve whatever problems they may face as a people. He also knew that he was only a lumalabay, a traveller, and it would be the people themselves who would carry on.

When he came to Arakan, the Arakan Progressive Peasants Organization, (APPO), a farmers’ organization was already active in responding to the issues affecting the farmer-settlers. In 1987, with APPO, he initiated a campaign to end the logging concession in Mt. Sinaka, whose forest is home to a family of Philippine eagles. For 2 weeks, they camped in the middle of the forest to stop the logging equipment. Almost everyone in Arakan, save for the very young and the very old, even local government officials, the police and the military, joined in the protest. The people fondly remember Pops sleeping on a tree bark for a bed and waking up covered with rashes because of the makeshift bed’s roughness. They also remember him angrily engaging the owner of the logging company who arrogantly told him that he owned the concession and the roads there. Eventually, the logging company had no choice but to cancel its concession. Now, Mt Sinaka is half-bald. The side facing Davao is denuded while the side facing Arakan has maintained its dense rainforest cover. This half-bald mountain still hosts a family of the critically endangered Philippine eagles to this day.

During the 2 worst droughts that Mindanao suffered, the first in 1992 then in 1998, Pops stayed beside the suffering farmers. When thousands of farmers decided to go to the rice warehouses of the National Food Authority to demand rice, he was with them. In 1998, local government ignored them and sent the police instead. So the farmers then barricaded the highway until local government talked to them. All the time, Pops was with them.

In 2001, he helped set up the Tinananon-Kulamanon Lumadnong Panaghiusa (TIKULPA), an indigenous peoples organization. TIKULPA took on the issues facing the lumad people and is an active member of the Apo Sandawa Lumadnong Panaghiusa sa Cotabato, the provincial federation of lumad organizations, that was also organized by Peter and Pops through the Tribal Filipino Program. The ancestral domain, its defense and development, was their principal concern.

Pops among the lumads of Arakan.

Pops among the lumads of Arakan.

At first, Pops helped the people acquire their Certificates of Ancestral Domain Title through the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act and some communities were successful in doing so. But he and the people soon discovered that this piece of paper was no assurance for the indigenous peoples. Plantations, mining companies, and other big companies continue to threaten to take away their land. These companies would fund units of the Armed Forces of the Philippines who would then go around the communities, terrorizing the people under the pretext of counterinsurgency. Every time, the AFP committed human rights violations, Fr. Pops would immediately confront their leadership and attempt to help the victims get justice.

Pops never stopped engaging the military in the name of the people. But then the AFP started arming lumad groups, who called themselves Bagani or Alamara, and set these out to hunt the lumad leaders and Fr. Pops. In 2003, an attempt was again made on his life and had it not been for the people who created a human shield for him for 2 days, he would have died then. Young adults, heretofore the children of this human shield, remember vividly hearing the Alamara threaten to eat Pops’ ears, how they played or acted sick just to distract the Alamara, and how they escorted a barefoot Pops through the mountains towards the safety of the convent. Because of his efforts to serve and empower the lumad and change their lives, he was labeled as an enemy of the State that must be neutralized or eliminated. The threats became more frequent and dangerous and the people who loved him desperately sought ways to remove him from this dangerous situation.

This was his crossroads. His confreres at the PIME thought that he should be transferred but he went all the way to the Vatican to plead his cause: that he should not be transferred as there are still things he needed to do. He appeared fearless but unknown to most, it did affect him physically and emotionally. He developed hypertension and frequently had palpitations; he became anxious and developed insomnia but he resolved to stay in Mindanao. He started to diet and to exercise regularly to control his BP but he knew that these were but small contributing factors. He traded his motorcycle for a small 4wd but he refused a driver, saying that if something happens, he doesn’t want anyone to become collateral damage. Somehow, he felt that he needed to hurry up.

He always knew that he would die by the bullet because of his work. Because as he stepped up and expanded his service areas, the danger also increased, and has become almost palpable. He noted the continual presence of Alamara-Bagani members wherever he went. He noted the increase in number of military forces in Arakan, especially the Special Forces, and even the presence of motorcycle riders following him about in Davao.

Around this time, his partner in the TFP, Fr. Peter, was included in the PowerPoint presentations of the military as the alleged principal recruiter of the New Peoples Army in the province. Bishop Valles, then the Bishop of Kidapawan, confronted the military top brass to stop vilifying his priest. The counterinsurgency campaign was escalating because it was nearing its deadline and was now openly targeting and murdering legal personalities known to be human rights defenders. Fr. Pops was afraid, but he refused to be cowed and after a while he would no longer talk about the threats because he knew that if people knew, they would insist on getting him out of Arakan and Mindanao even. That’s why he never mentioned the October 15 assassination attempt, 2 days before the fatal one, to anyone. For him, being removed from the people was a fate worse than death.

Like the Jesus of Nazareth, he knew where he was headed and he really feared the Cup that lay before him. He always took precautions: he never took the same route twice, he never went out at night, he always left word with the staff when they should expect him back, he always notified the Bishop of his whereabouts.  He was anxious enough, but never to the point wherein his services for the people might be compromised. For the rest of the world, this is the sacrifice that escapes all logic and yet this is the love that is actually perfectly rational. This is the love that endured for 2000 years and beyond.

Fr. Pops  took ten bullets on October 17, 2011.

Fr. Pops took ten bullets on October 17, 2011.

And yet in submitting to this love, he was happy. Everybody who knew Pops knew that he was a funny, jolly, and happy person. He was joking all the time, he was a good counselor, always encouraging people to never lose hope. People and children gravitate to him. Children say he looked like SpongeBob with his cheeky grin and gapped teeth. Children never feel shy about talking back to him and would even take liberties with his beard and bare pate.

In his last will, his instructions were in Italian save for the last lines which were in Cebuano. It was as if he wanted to make sure that those who understood it would know it was meant for them. He wrote, “Ang imong pangandoy, akong pangandoy. Ang imong pakigbisog, akong pakigbisog. Ikaw ug ako usa ra sa pagpanday sa Gingharian sa Dios.” Their dreams were his dreams; their struggles were his struggles. He was one with them in building the Kingdom of God. The poor people, the lumads and the farmers, continually dream and struggle for a better future for their children and he took on those dreams and struggles for more than half of his life. He was, after all, just following the command of Jesus to proclaim that the Kingdom of God was at hand, here on earth, for everyone, especially the least of these.

Five years after his death, more and more schools for the lumads are being set up. The Salugpungan schools have campuses in the farthest communities, following Pops’ mandate: that schools should go where the children are. There are now several schools even bearing his name set up by different groups. And to fulfill his and the people’s dream, the children do not pay any tuition or anything at all.  The teachers live in the community so that even during weekends, schoolwork can still be done or so that the adults will have time for their own literacy classes. And the communities help support the teachers, giving them food, ensuring their safety, and helping them in their treks through the mountains.

Likewise, primary health care is being established in even more areas. More health workers are trained. More health volunteers are coming forward to help out in the remotest communities and even reaching out to the areas hit by disasters like Supertyphoons Pablo and Yolanda.

All over the country, the Filipino people are coming to know about the lumads, about their dreams and struggles, about their simple and sustainable lifestyle, about their long history of oppression and marginalization and their efforts to defend and develop their tribe and to protect the environment. Young volunteers who have never known Pops are happily teaching and healing all over Mindanao, inspired by his example. Support is not only coming from his family and friends in Europe but also from the US, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, even Nepal.

Those who had him killed probably never expected any of these. Such is the paradox of martyrdom or that of bearing witness even in the face of extreme suffering or death. Because 5 years after his death, Pops has become larger than life and his legacy has reached thousands. The man called Pops never knew just how far his love has reached. ##

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