Thursday, January 6, 2011

Ralph and social action in time of terror

HERE’S A great quote for New Year from Wendell Berry, conservationist, poet, philosopher, Christian writer, teacher: “When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”
I wrote a 2008 New Year piece on Berry’s “The peace of wild things” and received inspired reactions from readers. It was a dark and difficult time and Berry’s words just seemed to come down softly like a shawl of clean rain. 2010 has not been an easy year for many, the poor especially, and December brought with it a final dose of tragedies and other shocking matters.

There is a time to grieve and a time to celebrate. Celebrating the life of Msgr. Ralph Crisol Salazar are his co-workers in social action circa the late 1970s and early 1980s. He passed away on Christmas Eve 2010 in the United States. He was 65.
Monsignor Ralph’s ashes were brought home and a two-day wake was held here in Metro Manila, after which his ashes were brought to Legazpi City where he had served in various capacities as a priest. Burial is tomorrow after the 9 a.m. Mass at St. Gregory the Great Cathedral where he once served as pastor.

I have no hesitation in writing about someone’s passing in my first column piece for 2011. Not if it is about a person whose life and work had an impact on the so-called “PDO” (poor, deprived and oppressed, a catchphrase during the martial law years).

Monsignor Ralph’s co-workers in social action who learned about his passing immediately came together to pay their respects. This may sound commonplace but it isn’t.

Long after Ralph (let me do away with the Monsignor) had ended his term as executive secretary of the National Secretariat of Social Action (Nassa) of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, the staff during his watch continued to be a family in many ways. Something was forged during his watch and long after they had left Nassa to move on to various service fields and bigger involvements, the media, etc., many of them maintained their bond. They—okay, we—call ourselves X-Nassa and we meet at the drop of a hat, that is, four to five times a year, to share stories and jokes, discuss the latest issues and, most of all, eat. Regular venue is the home of Maring Feria in Bel-Air, Makati.

Ralph rarely attended the get-togethers as he was busy with pastoral work in Albay, and later, the US, but he was present at our big 2009 gathering for him. Bishop Julio Labayen, chair of Nassa during Ralph’s watch, is present most of the time.

I was not a Nassa employee and therefore not close to Ralph but I did some writing projects for Nassa under his supervision (I have kept the publications) and think of myself as part of the X-Nassa family. I am almost never absent from the regular reunions.

In Ralph’s time, I remember going to the printing press to collect hundreds of copies of “Iron Hand, Velvet Glove,” a publication on military abuses. Nassa partnered with a human rights group in the documentation and publication of “Iron Hand.” Shortly after I had loaded the stuff in my car and driven off from the press, about a dozen plainclothesmen with firearms flagged me down. Guns were trained on Nassa writer Chit Estella and me. We were being brought to Camp Crame. It was night time.

I had the presence of mind to insist on being brought back to the printing press to make calls. After all, the Arrest Search and Seizure Order (the dreaded Asso) was not for me but for Al Senturias, my boss in the human rights group. I thought, once I stepped into Crame I would never get out. It was Ralph and Sr. Christine Tan, RGS (both in the board of the human rights group) that came to the rescue and extricated us from the clutches of the military. I drove home shaken but relieved. Sophie Lizares-Bodegon, head of Nassa’s research, publication and documentation who was on top of the “Iron Hand” project had to be more conscious of her own security.
Sophie could not come to celebrate Ralph’s life with us but sent e-mail: “I will remember Ralph as a courageous empower-er. It was incredible how well he knew our gifts and trusted us to use them to run our departments and in his absence, the National secretariat. From him more than 30 years ago, I learned how the Church could be a responsible organization abiding by the processes, transparency and spirituality which successful corporations are only discovering today. Those were difficult times under martial law and yet the most fulfilling and exhilarating for the Church and all those who worked in social action.”

Words from Ralph taken from a Nassa publication (“Of joys and hopes, of griefs and anxieties”) I had helped produce. His essay had a special format, thus: “for indeed how could religion retain its relevance/ unless it redeemed scandalous situations/ of peasants and workers perishing in penury/ as profiteers and landlords lolled in wealth?/ of masses ogling at the march of progress/ or getting crushed by the engines of growth/ while vainly expecting the trickle of largesse/ from the enclaves of the pampered few?/…rightly octagesima adveniens underscored/ the need to pass from economics to politics/ in upholding the common good…/but thank God for enough witnesses/to the vitality of redemptive incarnation/ from the various sectors of God’s people…”