In 2009, when she had worked for two years at the Davao City café operated by Coffee For Peace (CFP), Catherine Moreno Olitao received the offer of a job in Cotabato City, on the opposite coast of the island of Mindanao. The offer came from a Moro lady of importance named Bai Jehan Baraguir, whose family are traditional rulers of the Maguindanaoan tribe, and descend from Sultan Kudarat, the legendary scourge of the Spanish, from whom one of Mindanao’s provinces takes its name. The Baraguir clan are allies of CFP and PeaceBuilders Community, Inc. (PBCI), and work closely with those organizations in the cause of averting violence in Mindanao. Catherine knew Bai Jehan as a frequent visitor and enthusiastic supporter of the CFP café.
Bai Jehan was now launching Datu’s Brew, her own café operation for her own native territory, and she needed an experienced barista to train her staff. CFP was willing to let Catherine go with Bai Jehan for the months the job would need, but a move from Davao City to Cotabato City was not something to be taken lightly. Cotabato City lies at the heart of Muslim Mindanao, a region which Christian Davaoeños such as Catherine’s family tend to regard as a dangerous. A civil war between Muslim separatist rebels and the armies of the Manila-based Philippine government has killed hundreds of thousands in this region since the 1970’s. Moreover, a centuries-long legacy of violence between Christian and Muslim residents of the Philippine archipelago – with Western colonizers conscripting Christian Filipinos to help subjugate Muslim nationalists, and Muslim warriors making slave raids on non-Muslim coastal towns – has planted deep hostilities between these groups, making many Christians afraid to venture into the few remaining areas where Muslims hold power.
Catherine’s family begged her to decline Bai Jehan’s offer and to stay away from Cotabato City, but she was an independent-minded young woman determined to make her own choices. She was just coming off a painful breakup, and wanted to quit the Davao scene to give her heart space to heal. And, most crucially, Catherine had begun to question the anti-Muslim prejudice with which she had grown up. At the the CFP café, in long conversations with a devout Muslim crewmate, she had shared the story of her Christian walk with Jesus and, in turn, had listened to his testimony of faith in Allah. This kindhearted and open young man – the first Muslim friend Catherine had ever had – bore no resemblance to the caricatures of Muslims as terrorists and traitors which she had always accepted as fact. So, with mixed curiosity and apprehension, she said yes to Bai Jehan and began packing for Cotabato.
Working at Datu’s Brew, tutoring the young Muslim baristas and interacting with a mostly-Muslim clientele, Catherine continued to see her preconceptions debunked. “They were the same like us,” she tells me. “They were normal people.” With Bai Jehan’s brother she discussed culture and religion, learning the rationale behind Muslim practices such as Ramadhan. “Because staying at home they can really focus on praying to Allah. He said that if they were outside or other places, they might have the moment of being tempted or seeing other things.” The Baraguir family showed respect for Catherine’s Christian faith. Datu’s Brew was closed two days of every week – on Friday for the Muslim day of prayer, and also on Sunday for Catherine’s sake.
Nonetheless, Cotabato City was a spooky place to be living in 2009. The previous year, large-scale fighting between rebels and Philippine government forces had erupted following the rejection, by the Supreme Court of the Philippines, of a peace agreement between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. In November of 2009, in the town of Ampatuan, near Cotabato City, gunmen massacred 58 unarmed civilians in a politically motivated act of terror. While Catherine was in Cotabato City, her family in Davao called to check on her each time the news reported another bomb blast in the area. The bombings, as well as the Ampatuan Massacre, had to do with a local election cycle rather than inter-religious feuding. Catherine actually witnessed only one violent incident, when the sounds of gunfire burst out in a bar down the block, and the shooter sprinted past her while making his escape. Catherine suspects that this attack was motivated by romantic rivalry, and that the victim and shooter were both Christians.
Recalling her five months working at Datu’s Brew, Catherine is glad she went. The time she spent living and working among Muslims transformed her notions of them. She heard their tales of the wrongs they had suffered and the job openings from which they had been barred because of the anti-Muslim prejudices of Christian Filipino society. She came to understand – and she witnessed firsthand – that the causes of violence in Mindanao are far more nuanced and various than simply Christian vs. Muslim, or rebels vs. Government. And she gained something that many a Christian, in Mindanao and elsewhere, has never had: a group of Muslim friends.