(Editor’s note: With “Defender’s Journal,” the Ramento Project for Rights Defenders is open to publishing pieces from human rights defenders. Narrate your experiences, share about your advocacy and more. You may send us your articles via the RPRD Facebook page.)
By Rev. Gina Grande
THE COVID-19 pandemic spread across the world in a matter of days, causing great confusion, fear and anxiety across communities.
Suddenly, here was a novel threat to our lives, as if the only way to be safe was to remain where we are, and simply not move or talk. I witnessed people choosing to stay put and keep quiet out of dread. Watching how numbers rose dramatically, I felt like I, too, had to keep myself under house arrest.
But, I also saw how poor people have been beaten down even more, how many lost their jobs as the economy plunged. My heart broke for the millions affected by the pandemic. I asked myself whether it was right to stay frozen in fear – while suffering, disorder and confusion descended upon the nation. As true followers of Christ, we need to serve others. We need to move so that those badly in need can feel that Jesus is moving in their lives, in the middle of the darkness.
Even as COVID-19 unraveled, people with golden hearts still worked to mount humanitarian missions. They sought donors and sponsors; and ensured that help would go to those who were badly hit by the pandemic. I, for one, volunteered in different responses organized by the Ramento Project for Rights Defenders (RPRD), Central Luzon Ecumenical Assembly (PACLEA) and other groups. We focused on delivering aid to Aytas and peasants in Pampanga, Bataan and Zambales.
I will impart three unforgettable experiences from our relief efforts that reflect how trial-fraught our well-meaning journeys have become but also how rewarding doing mission can be.
First, in an outreach operation in Bagac, Bataan, between RPRD and Umahon para sa Repormang Agraryo (Umahon), I had a troubling experience at a checkpoint. They blocked our vehicle, took our IDs, photographed us and then made us wait for a long time. In the end, the state forces went to our target community of some 339 Ayta and farmer families to hand out the relief packs themselves – for the cameras. They had said they wanted to join so the group would be safe, but I knew for sure they thought we were affiliated with the rebel New People’s Army and our help would go to them. We had no agenda other than to help.
In Floridablanca, Pampanga, organizations Paruogan, Umahon and People for Accountable Governance and Sustainable Action (Pag-asa) handed over much-needed relief packs to 200 families. I saw firsthand how happy the beneficiaries were to have received the support. A few days after the operation, however, the pastor I was with received a call from the community. Soldiers showed up at the house of the village chieftain, telling him that all those who had participated in the activity from our end needed to report voluntarily to the authorities or we would be forcibly taken. The joy suddenly became worry. This concern of ours is not finished yet.
With the same organizations, I headed for a very remote location in San Marcelino, Zambales. It was a tiring route. We were scheduled to provide relief to Ayta families in three areas – 220 in Sitio Lumibao, 50 in Sitio Naban and 50 in Sitio Bayarongan, all in Barangay Buhawen – within a day. We walked under the scorching heat of the sun. My skin burned and head hurt. I was on the verge of giving up but, while my body was about to give out, my spirit was fervent. After we’d given the food packs, I sat in one corner and caught a glimpse of the people’s joy. Seeing the radiant smiles from the Ayta as they carried the blessings back home, all the exhaustion just went away.
These days, on top of the physical burnout, there is a lingering worry that I could get COVID-19 and pass it on even if I follow all the precautionary measures. At one point, one person had avoided me because they were afraid that I was a carrier given all the places I’d gone – a perfectly understandable but sad thing. God has always paid the hard work with joy and more inspiration to do good works so, through everything, I had kept forging on.
I could have stopped at each difficulty and isolated myself in the convent to be safe from any risk, but I kept pushing because I knew it was right and just. These have been my basis for enkindling the fire in me for service, even as a pandemic threatens my health and high-handed authorities threaten my security. These times challenge us to “… [s]peak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute… [s]peak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Proverbs 31:8-9). Even if the task at hand is tough, we must persist because Christ expects us to do what is right and just. In my involvement with humanitarian work during the pandemic and even beyond it, I have never been immune to fear or fatigue. However, I would be disappointed in myself if I did not choose to go out and be faithful to Christ. Wherever I go, I cling to the faith that God is with me.
May the passions of the hungry, abused, grieving and jobless during the pandemic fuel us, even as fear causes our fire to flicker. May we proclaim Christ’s love to them, let Christ be known to them through our works of service. Let us be faithful to the needy and serve them like Christ would, even when enemies challenge us. Jesus himself proclaims he is with us as one who serves (Luke 22:27). Let us find assurance there. Christ is with us, even in this pandemic.