In a passionate talk at the national office of the Anglican Church of Canada in Toronto, Fr. Rex Reyes updated staff on Christian development efforts in the earthquake-and the typhoon-prone Philippines. Reyes, a senior Episcopal priest in the diocese of Central Philippines, is also serving his second term as general secretary of the National Council of Churches in the Philippines (NCCP), a partner of the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund (PWRDF).
“One thing that makes us unique is that we are not just development workers but Christian development workers,” Reyes said. That entails working prophetically but riskily, especially with a government that has tendencies toward McCarthyism, he said. “If you become prophetic in your work in Canada, you risk being defunded,” he added. “If you become prophetic in my country, you run the risk of being called a terrorist, anti-government, a Communist or a leftist.” The Aquino government has been known to harass, if not intimidate, Christian humanitarian workers, he said, citing one incident in which soldiers invaded a communal meal and started taking photos.
There is plenty of God’s work to be done in this land of 100 million people (85 per cent Roman Catholic), which has been identified as one of the three countries in the world most vulnerable to climate change, said Reyes. Food is a major concern. While governments talk about food production, Christians talk about sharing food, Reyes said. “We advocate that eating is a right. That implies that someone somewhere is not eating and someone is denying food…That is an unnatural and anti-Christian thing…It transcends colour, race and creed.”
Reyes outlined the work of his church and the NCCP in terms of a five-letter paradigm-the acronym APSES: advocacy, partnership, service, ecumenical education and sustainability. Its broad front of advocacy includes human rights, aboriginal and land rights, education, food and the right to live in peace-issues that he has taken several times to the United Nations Human Rights Council. “Unlike the government, as church people we don’t measure our progress in terms of GDP. We measure it in terms of how many children are sent to school, how many have free medical care, how many mothers don’t die [in childbirth], how many children don’t die.” The NCCP is now part of an ecumenical platform mobilizing congregations to pressure the government and the communist National Democratic Front-Philippines to resume peace negotiations and begin dialogue on such issues as social and economic justice and the rising tide of human trafficking.
Reyes reminded Christian workers that in pursuing their advocacy, they have an advocate of their own. “Jesus Christ is our advocate, the sum total of God’s justice and God’s peace,” he said. “In the Philippines, there is no other alternative but to follow the example of Christ.”
Reyes acknowledged that the NCCP has learned much from its partnership with the PWRDF and hopes the learning is mutual. “What we celebrate most in our partnership is that we realize our common humanity and dependence on God.” In this context, resources become secondary: “It’s not so much about which partner has the most resources…but about celebrating God’s justice and creating his peace.” The PWDF’s partnership with the NCCP has been in place for at least 25 years.
In addition to its established women’s and youth programs, the NCCP is launching a new program in HIV/AIDS, which is rapidly gaining ground in the Philippines. “What is Christianity’s response to young people infected with HIV/AIDS?” asked Reyes, adding that in his country many Christians still view this scourge as punishment for a sinful lifestyle.
On the education front, Reyes cited the danger of churches turning inward on themselves and losing the hard-won, often Anglican-led legacy of ecumenism. The antidote may lie in effective youth training programs, he said. “Young people are more engaged than their elders and have a wider world than their parents…When they are committed, they are unstoppable.” The NCCP runs an ecumenical theatre program in which young members (50 per cent Anglican) participate in drama, song and other arts.
The last letter in the APSES paradigm refers to sustainability and stewarding the resources to continue God’s work in austere times. The hard-pressed NCCP has not been able to raise wages in the past five years, but staff has united under the banner of Christian service. “Wages and the workplace environment are important, but God’s work is far more important and we need to unite on that,” he said.
For countries with major investments in resource extraction-like Canada-he had a strong message of accountability: “We are destroying the mountains…the stairway to heaven. We need to be advocating with our governments to be more sensitive to future generations,” he said. “We need to strike a balance between the economic needs of Canadians and the indigenous people in the Philippines and elsewhere whose lives will be severely affected by resource extraction.”
On the matter of resource-based profits, he urged Christians to ask, “When is enough? I think that among the many organizations anywhere, the churches are in the best position to say enough is enough!”