I had struck a friendship with God sometime in our Reporting on Religion Class at the Asian Center for Journalism when Dr. Eric Loo in Sydney, Australia and Mr. Anwar Mustafa in Malaysia had asked us to do a profile of a noted religious leader for Christmas. I was in Davao, trying to find an Islamic leader for the story, but since the deadline was very close and I realized I still had so many things to learn about Islam, I decided as Christmastime approached, to track down God in a parish in Cotabato, where he had been saying mass at dawn in a remote village that was always in the headlines of newspapers because of the frequency of armed encounters between government soldiers and New People’s Army guerillas.
God’s story towards the end of the Martial Law years was both tragic and shocking but just a few months before I set our meeting, the convicted man out to kill him towards the tail-end of the Marcos regime was freed and the man went to him to say he was sorry. They both went to light candles on the grave of someone the convicted man had killed in God's place.
It took some time before I could find someone who could give me God’s contact numbers but with the help of friends I did; and when I called him, he was open to meeting a stranger and asked me to come meet him near the white statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe on a Sunday morning that week.
I hurriedly prepared for the trip because as usual there were simply so many things to fix at home during my absence. God had not yet arrived when I got there so I had plenty of time to compose my questions and to orient myself. When his old blue Isuzu pick up pulled up, I saw a tall, thin, fragile-looking figure getting off and walking towards me.
He led me to his office, where a yellow Royal typewriter sat on the shelf full of other documents. He asked me about my religion; and for a while, I was tongue-tied.
I had declared in class I was an “agnostic” and a “free thinker,” next to Jana from East Germany who declared she was an aetheist. The rest of our classmates said they were Roman Catholics; like Lilik from Jakarta or Bryant from Bulacan or even Debbie; or Muslim, like Yuri and Kurniawan, from Jakarta; or Buddhist married to a Hindu but who grew up under the tutelage of Irish nuns who taught her to pray the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Holy Rosary, like my dearest roomate Pratish from Kathmandu. Mukund Pandabhan, our professor for Media Law, had once asked me to define what a free thinker was and he did not give me any trouble with my definition.
But when God asked me where I got that notion of being a free thinker, he quickly put me back to the 18th or was it 17th century when the enlightenment and rationalism swept over Europe. “Jesus Christ is even more of a free thinker than you are!” God quipped, irritated, knocking his holy fingers onto my forehead.
God had taught History in a US seminary years before he was sent to the Philippines, where he ended up at the heart of Tondo on the eve of Martial Law. He remembered that the first mass he ever said here in this country was done inside a prison cell.
I first caught sight of God towards the end of my adolescent years which also coincided with my activism years when a friend pointed to me the first European I saw who could speak Ilonggo. He was fascinating to look at: a towering figure surrounded by lumad children who took their turn kissing his hands. In his book which recounted his trip from the Marco Polo airport to Manila, he noted what the Filipino tradition of kissing hands meant because the practice was quite new to him at that time, a source of his fascination. But now, surrounded by lumad children, I could swear he already looked like one of them if not for his skin.
He also noted with surprise how Filipinos loved to worship all those European-looking saints who peopled the Church’s altars.
Some of the images still stuck with me after that trip: God leading me inside a sooty kitchen, where he shared the offerings of the morning mass with the children, his old cellphone and its faded numbers, the old jacket he wore. How lovingly he brushed aside the dry leaves that littered the grave of a friend killed when God was hunted down by the killers and was nowhere to be found.
Back in his office, as he complained about the volume of paper works he had to deal with that week, as he crouched upon the stack of papers on his desk to find that document that could answer my questions, I was struck by how fragile and delicate God has become.
Maybe some people would say the suffering of God was nothing compared to the suffering of people he had served—all those mass of humanity toiling under exploitatively low wages, tilling the land of the haciendas all their lives in exchange of measly pay, the subhuman condition working in the mines, in banana plantations and in factories, those persecuted for their political, ideological and religious beliefs.
But knowing how God, too, survived death threats all his life for doing what he got to do; and how he is fast giving in to age in a land far away from where he was born, I still felt humbled.