When a team from the Peacebuilders Davao office headed out for a short trip to North Cotabato on November 18th, it was with the intent of spending time with Pastor Dann’s adopted Magindanaoan family and some other folks in the Muslim community, as well as for a speaking engagement at a pastor’s conference in Midsayap. In recognizing the diversity and underlying relations between these two communities, among the team there was a mix of trepidation and anticipation that was silently, but undeniably, colored by our prejudices. Our experiences throughout the two day trip brought these presuppositions to the fore (both personally and in general, though for the former I can speak only for myself), and revealed some fascinating insights about human bonding in light of differences and similarities. We were exposed to a multiplicity of perspectives, and walked away with a brighter view of both ourselves and the “other”.
In a place like North Cotabato, not to mention Mindanao and beyond, the diversity of worldviews comes to a nexus point. The Lumads, Moros, and Migrants live in co-existence with one another, and, as a result, individual and shared social narratives arise. These narratives are characterized in large part by the perception of these “communities within communities” of one another. Affecting these perceptions are factors such as historical experience, religio-cultural identity, power balances, media representations, and a host of other reasons which are social, political, cultural, economic, etc. Sometimes their shared space gives way to shared experience, as in some Cotabato villages’ experience of conflict, or their cultural festivals. This shared experience provides a kairos moment for diverse communities to bond; unfortunately, it can also take a negative turn where collective challenge turns to collective blame, and thus fear and hatred, or violent “other-izing”. Often, conflict is seen in terms of the specific ideological groups involved and thus bears little influence on the daily lives of citizens regardless of how they identify. This was the case when we visited and learned there were ongoing skirmishes outside the city lines and yet no recognition of that fact within. The direction events take depends on the response of the people, who are influenced but not bound by their own collective experience.
The complexity and capricious potential of multiple social narratives operating at once was on full display during our trip. The first day we visited a cultural display which featured miniature villages from tribes of the five islands of the ARMM. We came to the Sulu Island portion of this outdoor museum and were greeted by two women singing a song, as they told us, of gratitude. We chatted with them shortly and one of them jokingly, but still significantly, said “we’re not terrorists!”, to which Jonathan quickly countered, “don’t worry, we’re not American military”. This exchange is a micro-event, lighthearted as it was, of a power imbalance among cultural identities in the Philippines. The women wanted us to see that the politico-militant groups who bear an Islamic identity, and furthermore the way they are represented in the media, are not indicative of everyone who shares association by religion or geographic location. Similarly, we wanted to communicate to the women that we do not see them that way by, for example, responding to their gracious welcome, laughing and listening with them, and showing them that we are not necessarily like other foreigners who visit North Cotabato surrounded by armed guards and with an impersonal agenda. From this interaction I saw that psycho-social factors affect how we self-identify, but they do not define us. I am learning that with a willingness to learn, an attitude of humility, and a perspective that is ready to see Jesus in the face of others, the barriers that compel us to define relationships exclusively in terms of difference and similarity can be overcome.
The pastor’s conference that Pastor Dann spoke at was sandwiched between meeting his Muslim family and visiting some imams, or Islamic teachers, at Southern Mindanao University. We went from the intimacy of a family setting that transcends religious lines to a corporate setting where, despite the shared faith, the outward expression of said faith makes me, personally, instinctively uncomfortable and thus somewhat distanced. This discomfort was quelled, however, when I saw the receptivity of the pastors as they listened to Kuya Dann’s missional journey and the theology behind it. It forced me to confront the superficiality in our differences. In fact, the prayer we received as a group after the message and the subsequent food and fellowship we were offered in a quiet room (with air conditioning!) wholly eliminated the feelings of quiet alienation I (and maybe others of our group) had been experiencing. It was humbling to have our prejudices checked – and it wasn’t done. We went to the University and joked with some of Kuya Dann’s imam friends before being invited to introduce ourselves to the student body of the Islamic Studies and International Relations wing of the school. I was expecting to listen quietly to a formal sit-down with some Muslim leaders but instead saw friendship and acceptance as we all talked, were invited to share, and then took a frenzy of pictures with the students. Looking at all the things we did I see that my expectations, rooted in prejudices influenced by my conceptions of identity, were consistently subverted; because of this I saw acceptance for which I did nothing to earn; a gap that I created bridged for me; and overall a fresher take on the dynamics of human relationships.
As I experienced the effect of my own preconceived notions of those I was meeting, I came to realize that everyone has prejudices, and that they aren’t automatically a bad thing. Prejudices act as a social survival mechanism so that we aren’t forced to learn the world anew every day, to protect us from putting ourselves in harm’s way when it is unnecessary. However, they work against us when we let a commonly heard story become the only story we use to form our web of knowledge. The disastrous effects of this can be seen around the world today and require no examples because one does not have to look far to think of how they might have seen, experienced, or perpetuated an unfair stereotype. The fact that this is an entrenched reality common to so many community narratives gives us all a common need for a transformed reality.
From God’s Word to us, we see that He carries no favor based on religious expression, but treats us equally and requires that we fear Him and align our values, indeed our very lives, with His purpose. This liberates us to approach our relationships as Jesus did, to gently expose falsehood in people and inspire them to love, with love. This is truly the highest calling, but I learned here that humility is the first step: I must identify how my prejudices and other shortcomings impede my willingness to open up – to know and be known by the “other”. Brought to a broader scale, it is then it is possible for respect, cooperation, familiarity, even love: a true community. At that point I recall Jesus’ words on family, with his open and inclusive perspective regarding the Kingdom and the will of God, and find myself celebrating in faith at the diversity of His community.