25 October 2009

Solidarity and Prayer for Fr Mick Sinnott's Freedom

Fr Patrick O'Donoghue
Columban Superior in the Philippines

At 9am this morning (October 24) hundreds of people gathered at the Plaza in Pagadian City and walked to the Wharf area, singing and praying as they went. There were dozens of banners and placards all asking the same thing: Freedom for Fr. Mick.

Pagadian City is still trying to come to terms with what has happened to Father Mick. We all are. But here in Pagadian there is a particular sense of loss and confusion. No abduction is acceptable but abducting from his own house, an old man, known for his gentleness and goodness and who has given his life to the people (and especially the most vulnerable) is beyond comprehension. It contradicts every instinct in all of us and it particularly wounds the Filipino heart which has such respect and compassion for older people.

Father Mick is deeply loved here. We, perhaps, all knew that. But the depth and breath of that love has become vividly evident these last two weeks. The photo of Father Mick that they are using on the ‘streamers’, that are in so many parts of the city now, well expresses the man they all know and love – gentleness, kindness and simplicity but also that steely resolve when it comes to issues of justice. And the man they love has been taken from them. And they hurt deeply. A tricycle driver expresses it well: ‘we are lost’. Father Mick had officiated at his marriage years ago and he still remembers the advice he gave when he and his wife have a disagreement.

The rally this morning allowed people to both share and express this ‘loss’ and all the emotions that go with it. And the wide range of groups who were represented shows that this sense of loss and grief goes right across all boundaries. There were, perhaps, as many Muslims as Christians and there were also many Subanens, among them Columban Sr Kathleen Melia and Subanens from Midsalip. (The Subanens – ‘River People’ – are the tribal Filipinos who live in the uplands of western Mindanao. Many are Catholics while others follow their traditional animism). Together they grieved as they looked for a way through their sorrow and confusion.

After a ‘Tri-people Prayer’ (Christian, Muslim and Subanen) Mr Ed Alcachupas, President of Hangop Kabataan Foundation (which Father Mick set up for those with special needs), outlined the history and ministry of Hangop. When he had finished the children and adult students of Hangop did an interpretative song. A choreographer might have had a hard time but it was something beautiful to watch and touched many hearts. As I watched them, and realized that they were being recorded by national television, it struck me how Father Mick’s abduction had given them a rightful prominence that would have been unthinkable years ago. His passion to have their dignity as persons and their right to education respected is finding a wider audience.

Despite the heat and the lack of shade for many, people stood for more than two hours and listened to the representatives of the many groups who have been calling for Father Mick’s unconditional release. They all feel the ‘loss’ – when he was taken, something was taken from them too: security, trust and maybe even hope, to try to name what it might be. There were ten speakers in all – five of them representing Muslim groups. We hear so often about armed groups but here were people from Muslim groups whose concern was the educational and economic needs of all. These groups need more prominence. When Sultan Maguid Maruhan (Interfaith Forum for Solidarity and Peace) spoke he expressed his pain that all Muslims would be identified with those who abducted Father Mick and the fear of how this could damage the efforts of the Interfaith Forum (another ministry very dear to Father Mick’s heart) to build genuine peace and understanding in the city. Speaking on behalf of all the parents of those being helped by Hangop, the father of an autistic child spoke of how he and his wife had gone to other cities in Mindanao looking for some place that could help their child but found none that they could afford. Hangop came to their rescue. And in Hangop, he added, money will never be an obstacle to the wellbeing of any child who is in need. ‘Father Mick is Hangop and Hangop is Father Mick’ he said as be begged the abductors to give back this man so filled with goodness and love for those with special needs.

When I was asked to speak I tried to speak to the pain and hurt that I was feeling and spoke initially of my love for Pagadian which had been my first assignment here in the Philippines. I thanked all present for their love and concern for Father Mick and thanked all those who, in whatever way, were working for his release. I asked them not to see themselves as the ‘City of kidnappers’ (part of their pain connects with a sense of shame that something like this could happen in their midst – as if somehow they had allowed it to happen). I pointed out that they and the city would not be defined by the fact that Father Mick had been abducted here but rather by their response to this crime. Because of their response, people will see that Pagadian is the ‘city of goodness, of love and of concern’. And I urged them to redouble their efforts to ensure that the Interfaith Forum and working for peace and the dignity for those with disabilities would succeed. This would be the greatest tribute they could offer Mick, who would be ever more proud to be a ‘Pagadianon’ when he comes home and sees this resolve.

Bishop Cabajar of Pagadian read his own statement and then, with conviction, called on all present to cleanse their hearts of all that would bring division and strive for peace and all that allows peace to grow.
But for me the most moving moments were when we had three ‘testimonies’. The first was from Carleen La Fuente, who spoke of how, till she was five years old, she had to walk on her knees because she had no proper legs. She is now fourteen and a very eloquent speaker. The story of how Father Mick got her specialist help in Davao and artificial legs (which had to be replaced as she grew up) was deeply touching and allowed many of us to share our tears – gratitude and grief all mixed together. It is my hope to be able to get a copy of what she shared and to share it with you.

The next to share was Juniel Tapitan, who is deaf and cannot speak. He signed his message and another put it into words for us. He, too, has found a new confidence in himself since Father Mick helped not only to have him learn sign language but to train as a teacher. He is now an assistant teacher at Hangop. It was a joy to watch him. When he was finished he came over to me and gave me a hug – for Father Mick. More tears.

The last to speak was Ferrer Marcaban, a Muslim who is chairman of ‘Darussalem Urban Poor’ – a project to try to create a model community for all faiths. His home and those of others were burned a while back. Fr Dan O’Malley (a Columban who lives with Father Mick and who is on home vacation at the moment) came to their help and Father Mick – who brought the issues surrounding their relocation to the Interfaith Forum and to government. The two priests were always there for them when there were needs, especially when children were sick. In between his tears, Ferrer highlighted Father Mick’s commitment to processing the issues in the right places. Those of us who know Father Mick’s determination well understood. He was always persistent when it came to justice and people’s rights. May that persistence help him now when his own rights have been so abused.

We all stood and prayed the ‘Prayer for Mick Sinnott’ – the deaf signed it. And then we sang ‘Let there be peace on earth’. Yes, Lord, may Your peace come into our lives anew and may we be peace to others whoever they may be.


There is a report on the rally in Sun*Star Online here.

No comments: