Filipinos look up to religious and spiritual leaders. Not to be left unnoticed are progressive church community leaders who emerged in their outreach as they mount development projects with the people. But how are the church leaders doing their share of community work in the context of restrained democratic processes and extreme poverty?

In the dark ages of martial rule, a significant number of women and men religious, including bishops in the country had volunteered to raise people’s consciousness on the nature of the Filipino people’s problems. They learned with the people on the meaning of community organizing for empowerment. Reflection series, aptly called biblico-theological reflections form part of the community undertakings.

These biblico-theological reflections served as inspirational sessions to allow the flock to move and act according to their conscience, so to speak. Bonding with the poor, deprived, oppressed, exploited and marginalized turned into a mass movement that bravely transformed the streets into educational spaces. Curiously, the Paulo Freire concepts and principles in education flourished with community people assumed critical stance on their conditions. The urban poor settlers, semi and skilled workers, peasants, and low-income professionals multiplied and joined by the ranks of students and young people in their bold actions in the urban centers against fascism, tenancy-landlordism, and foreign monopoly capitalists’ incursions.

The fertile protest movement gave birth to church leaders with defined service to the people–going beyond the biblical texts, making themselves available to defend those attacked by the state forces, in short, the human rights defenders among the church people rose in numbers with solid foundation on the meaning of being servants of the poor. It was not simply a preferential option for the poor. It was an act with and for the poor- to be with God’s people in the most trying moment, that was, to topple a dictatorial regime.

Then remembering those who were visible in their journey with the downtrodden yet humbled by their training and perspective in helping takes us to a more serious phase- when they evaporate due to illnesses. One of them Bishop Benjamin Barloso, known to many as Benbar in the interfaith work largely in Mindanao, was laid to rest with pride and honor last March 5.

Mindanao, home to three peoples- the majority settlers, Moro and Lumads, saw the growth and development of a simple and gentle Pastor of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines. Bishop Ben was unassuming yet determined to pursue whatever was demanded by the situation- be it organizational, educational or direct action. For him what was deemed necessary should be done with due respect to the community, geographical or institution-wise.

Bishop Ben led the secretariat of Mindanao Interfaith People’s Conference (MIPC) as its Executive Director post Marcos time, in the late 80s. He was active in many projects relevant to social justice and peace work in various capacities both as a leader within UCCP congregation and as a people’s servant approximating liberation theology.

It was fortunate for me and the local people’s organizations to get him back to become member of the Board of Directors to reorganize MIPC in 2002, further supporting its new thrusts and direction taking shape amidst calls for genuine rural development. Under MIPC was the Mindanao Interfaith Services Foundation, Inc or MISFI.

His status as a bishop, earned early in the new millennium, did not affect his perspective in the people’s movement for social transformation. He led a simple life, embracing spirituality as to respect the needs, rights and aspirations of the Filipino people. Undoubtedly, decades of solidarity with the poor honed him, in a fashion, to blend Christianity with Marxism with passion, if I may advance his own expression of engagement. Albeit, it was not all the usual bold and daring display of confrontation with the state forces but it was his giftedness to lead organizations in transition, shortly,as his share in paving for a more innovative and responsive programs and projects towards people’s liberation.

Thank you very much Bishop Ben for the meaningful journey you made with the poor people of Mindanao. A people’s bishop is gone but the fun and liberating memories linger!

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