Thursday, August 26, 2004

Ben of the lumads

His search for meaning, his taking to the less-traveled road, and his encountering the light at last, among mostly forgotten people—these could only be straight out of a continuing divine plot that has yet to fully unravel. The experience thrills him, fills him with awe and thanksgiving.

Benjamin ``Ben’’ Abadiano, 41, is this year’s recipient of the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Emergent Leadership. In electing Ben, the RM Award Foundation ``recognizes his steadfast commitment to indigenous Filipinos and their hopes for peace and better lives consonant with their distinctive tradition and hallowed ways of life.’’

I met Ben last year when I interviewed him for a front page feature. I had learned about him from Sr. Victricia Pascasio of the Holy Spirit Sisters whose work among the Alangan Mangyans Ben had helped expand.

Twice I had been among the Mangyans before Ben went there to stay, and I had seen what it was like. Now, I am told, things have changed for the better I wouldn’t recognize the place if I wandered into it.

Born in 1963, Ben was raised by his grandparents. The circumstances of his birth are stuff for primetime TV dramas but that is another story. Ben finished sociology in Cagayan de Oro’s Xavier University where a Tingguian anthropologist, Dr. Erlinda Burton, opened his eyes to the world of the lumads or indigenous peoples (IP).

Ben recalled the first time he spent three weeks with a Manobo community in Bukidnon where water was scarce. ``Every day I would be given isang Caltex (a liter) of water for my use’’ The Manobo fashioned for him a bed shaped like a coffin suspended in midair like a hammock. Ben was amazed at the lumads’ simplicity.

``When that was over,’’ Ben said, ``I went straight to the beach and soaked in the sea the whole day. I knew I had experienced a transition and I wanted to devote my life to the IP.’’

Ben headed for Mindoro to look up a former classmate working with the Mangyans and the Holy Spirit sisters who ran a school as well as livelihood and environmental projects at the edge of the forest. He stayed on for nine years. He asked for nothing except food and a roof over his head. He organized the youth and helped put up Tugdaan (which means seedbed), a training school where the Mangyans learned not only the three Rs but also how to tap into their native genius to improve their lives. Ben’s most avid supporter was Sr. Victricia, a veteran in the field.

Tugdaan is now a major hub in Paitan. There, Mangyans learn about livelihood projects. It is also where many of their indigenous produce are developed and tested.

Ben was about to get married when the religious call made itself felt again. The Jesuits who had earlier refused him entry were tracking him down. Ben had reached a crossroad. He wanted to give more. `` The thought made me shed tears of joy. I felt as if grace was raining down on me.’’

Ben said goodbye to Mindoro and to a sociologist who would have been his wife. By the time he left the Mangyans, Tugdaan was well on its way. He entered the novitiate, did philosophy at the Ateneo, even pronounced his vows as a Jesuit. Ordination to the priesthood was still far down the road.

Then something stirred inside Ben that told him he had to go back to his first love—the IP. Before his 30-day retreat was over, Ben had already discerned where God was leading him. He left the Jesuits to make a path of his own. He had nothing except dreams and a song in his heart.

``Perhaps I was really meant for community work,’’ Ben said. It was not coincidence that he ended up with the Assisi Development Foundation Inc. (ADFI) headed by Ambassador Howard Dee.

Ben is ADFI’s consultant for Tabang Mindanaw and program coordinator for peace building. He is also the founder and moving force behind Ilawan Center for Peace and Development.

But minus the titles and the institutions he represents, Ben is, by himself, a remarkable human being, Filipino, Christian. Organizer, inspirer, trainer, educator, troubleshooter, dreamer, doer. A man for others.

Ben was made in charge of the program for the IP and also coordinator of Tabang’s Integrated Return and Rehabilitation Program (IRRP). He was instrumental in turning 47 communities in Maguindanao, Cotabato and Lanao del Sur into ``sanctuaries of peace.’’ Tabang Mindanaw’s IRRP formulated a nine-stage peace-building process for war-torn Central Mindanao and its displaced communities.

Peace-building starts at the evacuation sites, explained Ben. ``We gather data, demographics. We meet with local leaders, datus, barangay and prayer leaders, tribal elders. The goal is to build trust. The evacuees must feel that efforts are sincere.’’

Ben is not one to rest in green pastures. The light must be shared, not hidden under a bushel. The Ilawan Center for Peace and Sustainable Development is one medium for that sharing of the light. Ilawan means holder of light. Explained Ben: ``We desire to be a light for others, especially the poor and the marginalized.’’

Ilawan started as a dream of friends doing mission and who had a great desire to serve. Small groups would gather, along with lay workers and missionaries, to share their life experiences. In the process, they found they had something in common--the desire to share and express love for Christ by working among the marginalized communities.’’

Religious and priests whose zeal is on ``low batt’’ should feel inspired and revived and by these young visionaries.

Ben said the love of his grandparents (who died when he was 13) stoked the passion in him. ``Where does that passion come from? From the feeling of gratefulness, of being blessed. You have to share your best.’’#