Fr. Amado Picardal, CSsR, STD
Since the late sixties, after the end of the Second Vatican Council, Basic Ecclesial Communities (BECs) have emerged in the Philippines. During the Martial Law period, BECs continued to grow especially in Mindanao and some parts of Visayas and Luzon. The Second Plenary Council of the Philippines (PCP II) in 1991 regarded the BECs as means for renewing the Church and Philippine society. PCP II promoted the formation of BECs throughout the country. Since then BECs have continued to grow and expand and they can now be found in over sixty dioceses.
What are BECs and how can they be employed as effective means for social transformation?
The PCP II vision of BECs
The PCP II regards the BECs as a way of being Church and as an expression of Church renewal:
Our vision of the Church as communion, a Church as priestly, prophetic and kingly people, and as a Church of the Poor – that is a Church that is renewed, is today finding expression in one ecclesial movement, and this is the movement to foster Basic Ecclesial Communities. (par 137).
Based on this statement we cay say that BECs are the local expression of the Church as
Community of Disciples
Whose members live in communion
and participate in the mission of Christ
as a prophetic, priestly, servant community
and as a Church of the Poor.
The PCP II gives us a phenomenological description of BECs:
They are small communities of Christians, usually of families who gather around the Word of God and the Eucharist. These communities are united to their pastors but are ministered to regularly by lay leaders. The members know each other by name and share not only the Word of God and the Eucharist but also their concerns both material and spiritual. They have a strong sense of belongingness and of responsibility for one another.
Usually emerging at the grassroots among poor farmers and workers, Basic Ecclesial Communities consciously strive to integrate their faith and their daily life. They are guided and encouraged by regular catechesis. Poverty and their faith urge their members towards solidarity with one another, action for justice, and towards a vibrant celebration of life in the liturgy. (par 138-139)
Based on this description we may deduce several important characteristics of BECs:
- These are small communities whose members are in unity and solidarity with one another and with their pastors. The members have a strong sense of belongingness and responsibility for one another. (They live in communion)
- The members share the Word of God and are guided by regular catechesis (A prophetic, witnessing, and evangelizing community)
- The communities gather around the Eucharist and have a vibrant celebration of life in the liturgy (a priestly, worshipping community).
- . They share not only their spiritual concerns but also the material. Their poverty and their faith lead them to involvement in action for justice and social transformation. (a kingly, servant community)
- They emerge among the poor and they empower the poor. (Church of the Poor)
Analyzing the PCP II vision of BECs, we can conclude that it is the nature of the BECs as servant communities to be involved in action for justice, peace and social transformation.
A Historical Overview of the Involvement of BECs in Social Transformation
Many of the early BECs, especially in Mindanao and Negros, were formed during the Martial Law period. The Mindanao-Sulu Pastoral Conference (MSPC) envisioned the BECs as worshipping, witnessing and serving communities. Thus, besides the regular liturgical activities, developmental activities were introduced such as livelihood/income generating projects, cooperatives, communal farms, community-based health program (CBHP), etc.
There were also awareness/conscientization seminars that were given that awakened the members of the BECs to the reality of the situation. Even the liturgies that were celebrated during Advent, Christmas, Lent and Holy Week were correlated with the situation of poverty, injustice, oppression and violation of human rights. The drama workshops also highlighted the situation under a repressive dictatorial regime. The ongoing bible-reflection and bible-service also referred to the current situation.
Many of the BECs became centers of resistance against the Martial Law regime. The bible-reflection sessions and the liturgies became spaces where people could break the culture of silence and fear and encouraged them to participate in the struggle against the dictatorial regime. There were BECs that became involved in militant activities – such as protest marches and rallies against various issues (military abuses, human rights violations, U.S. bases, dam project, land reform, etc.).
All these led to the suspicion that the BECs were being used by groups struggling against the Marcos regime. In a master’s thesis on “Contemporary Religious Radicalism in the Philippines” which he submitted to the National Defence College in the 1979, Colonel Galileo Kintanar wrote that the religious radicals were building up the BECs as “an infrastructure of political power” that could pose as a threat to national security.
The identification of the BECs with the Left gave the military a pretext to harass the BECs. Many of the development projects such as cooperatives, communal farms and community based health projects were suppressed on the suspicion that these were being used to support the revolutionary movement. There were chapels that were closed and the people were forbidden to gather for prayer and bible-service. Leaders and members of BECs were arrested and some were killed. Those who died were regarded as BEC martyrs. The dioceses of Kidapawan and Bacolod were some of the local churches that experienced persecution.
The military harassment and the loss of support from some bishops and priests led to the weakening of BECs. Many of those that continued focused on liturgical activities and abandoned the developmental and militant activities.
When EDSA took place, the BECs did not have any significant contribution to the toppling of the dictator.
The political landscape changed after EDSA, democracy was restored and the harassment against BECs gradually ceased. There were renewed efforts in building and strengthening BECs. Although most of the BECs continued to focus on liturgical activities, there were some BECs that were engaged in socio-economic projects, environmental issues and in peace advocacy. I would like to share with you their stories.
I would like to read to you a letter from a Peace Zone in Miatub, Tulunan, North Cotabato:
A Letter from the BEC of Miatub
May the peace of the Risen Lord be with you!
We are a Basic Ecclesial Community of Miatub, Tulunan, Cotabato, located in Central Mindanao, Philippines. Our community is part of the Zones of Peace which comprise 4 communities.
We used to be members of the BEC in Tuburan. This community was formed in the late 1970s with the help of Fr. Peter Geremiah, PIME, an Italian foreign missionary.
In the early 1980s, the area in Tuburan and the neighboring communities became the scene of armed clashes between New People’s Army guerrillas and the Armed Forces of the Philippines. There were many military men who died as well as guerrilla fighters. We were caught in the crossfire. This affected our livelihood since we could no longer go to our farms to plant and harvest our crops.
In 1986, a group of paramilitary forces, led by the Manero brothers murdered our parish priest Fr. Tulio Favale. The killing took place not far from Tuburan. The killers claimed that Fr. Favale was a communist supporter. The brutal murder of our parish priest angered a lot of people and consequently, the spiral of violence escalated. Military operations were conducted against the BECs that the government suspected of aiding the guerrillas. Many leaders of these communities were arrested and some were also murdered.
In 1989, the BEC in Bituan, was harrassed by the military. The homes of the people were burned and they had to transfer to an evacuation center. With the support of Fr. Ronnie Villamor, the parish priest, they decided to negotiate with the government and the military so that they could establish a Peace Zone — an area where no armed group, whether government or guerrillas, could enter and where no armed clashes could take place. They also communicated through radio their intention to the New People’s Army and received assurance that their decision would be respected. Thus, in 1990, the people had their exodus from the evacuation center to the Bituan Peace Zone. A few months later, the neighboring BEC of Alimodian followed suit by establishing their own Peace Zone.
Inspired by the establishment of the Peace Zones in Bituan and Alimodian, some of us belonging to the BEC in Tuburan wanted to declare our own Peace Zone. However, the community was divided. Out of over a hundred families, there were only 40 families who supported the idea. We decided to separate from the community and establish our own Peace Zone in Miatub.
In February 1991, after negotiating with the government and the military, we relocated to Miatub and inaugurated our own Peace Zone. We built our own community chapel and asked the parish priest to recognize our new community.
Since 1991 up to the present (2002), we have lived in peace. No armed group has entered our area and there has been no armed clashes between the government forces and the New People’s Army . Through the years, our community has continued to grow and develop.
Since we are mostly farmers, we spend our day to day life working in the farm. We have mutual-help system called dagyaw. Whenever someone plants or harvest rice and corn, the other members of the community come and help out. So we help each other. During times of need, we have a system of lending rice to each other. We can borrow rice from our neighbors and repay them with rice later. Whenever a member of the community is sick, he or she can borrow from the community common fund.
After we declared our area as a Peace Zone, we have been receiving financial assistance from the government and various Non-Government Organizations. In 1996, the government declared the Peace Zones as special development areas. A grant of 5 million pesos was allocated to our community. We have used part of the money to buy the land on which our houses stand. We also bought 5 hectares of land which we use as a communal farm. We bought farm equipments that we can all use. Water and electrical facilities were also installed. There were several livelihood programs that we started such as cattle-raising and carabao dispersal. We recently built a store and a warehouse for our cooperative. We will be buying a small truck that will bring our produce to the town.
This is the service that we have offered to each other and to other communities in the Philippines — bringing about peace and development in our area. This can provide an example of what communities can do in the midst of armed conflict.
Like the early disciples, we too, are living as a BEC. We live in unity and friendship with one another. We come together to listen to the Word of God and share our reflections. We pray with one another and celebrate the presence of the risen Lord in our midst. We share our material resources with one another. We help one another so that no one is in need. By living in the Peace Zone as a BEC, we give witness to the presence of the risen Lord in our midst.
Tony Pamonag –
Pangulo sa Katilingban (BEC President)
Nonoy Jacin — Chairman, Miatub Peace Zone
April 7, 2002
Here is another letter from a BEC in an urban area in Davao:
A Letter from the BEC of Sta. Teresita
May the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you!
We are a Basic Ecclesial Community located in the urban district of Buhangin, Davao City. We belong to the Mother of Perpetual Help parish. Our community is named after St. Therese of the child Jesus, who is our patron saint.
Most of our members originally belonged to the BEC of San Nicolas. This community which had a membership of over a hundred families was organized in the mid 1970s. It was one of the pilot areas of the Basic Christian Community-Community Organizing program (BCC-CO) which was initiated by the Redemptorists in their parish. At that time, Buhangin was a squatters’ area. We were living in a land owned by a huge corporation. Our homes were constantly threatened with demolition. So most of us actively participated in the struggle to own the land we were living in. We joined the barricades to protect our homes from the demolition team. We also joined mobilizations to the city hall to ask the mayor to stop the demolition and allow us to own the land. In 1986 the new Aquino government, which took over from the Marcos dictatorial regime, finally granted our demands.
In 1987 the new parish of St. Mary was carved out from the Mother of Perpetual Help parish. The BEC of San Nicolas, which was between the boundary of the two parishes, was split into two. The chapel of San Nicolas and most of the members came under the jurisdiction of the new parish. Since we were living across the road, which was part of the Mother of Perpetual Help parish, we decided to separate from the BEC of San Nicolas and form our own community. We named our community in honor of St. Therese of the Child Jesus. We started building our community chapel and asked the parish priest of the Mother of Perpetual Help parish to recognize our community.
Since our community was organized we have been coming together every Saturday evening in our community chapel for the Kasaulogan sa Pulong or KSP (Celebration of the Word). We spend this time in listening to the word of God, reflecting on it and sharing our reflections. There are usually over fifty members who regularly attend this gathering. This is presided by the Pangulo sa Liturhiya or PSL (lay liturgical leader).
We have a program of family evangelization called visita familia. For two evenings every week (usually Wednesdays and Fridays), around eight people who compose the Council of Leaders split into two teams and visit the homes of the families in the neighborhood community. The team together with the members of the family come together after supper to listen to the Word of God, reflect on the reading and their experiences, share their reflections and pray together. Everyone can share more intimately since this is a smaller group. Most often, the members of the family share their problems and how they have experienced God’s grace in their life. This is also the chance for the leaders to encourage the family to be more actively involved in the activities of the BEC. This is also the opportunity to reach out to those who have been marginalized from the Church and the Christian community. The Visita Familia has awakened the missionary dynamism of the leaders of the BEC.
Being members of the BEC has brought all of us closer together. It has created a bond that links our families together. We no longer feel isolated. In our moments of difficulty we are able to help each other and support one another.
The members of our community belong to the lower class of society. Most of us are employees receiving the minimum wage. The common problem that we all faced is poverty. We have always tried to address this problem since we started forming our BEC. In 1988, we started a “mortuary aid” program for our members. We were able to pool together a common fund from which the members of the community could borrow whenever they got sick or whenever members of the family died. In 1992 we started a community consumer cooperative. This was the time when the Mother of Perpetual Help parish initiated Income Generating Projects (IGPs) for the BECs in the parish. There were 15 members who started the cooperative and we were able to raise P3,000.00 as starting capital and we borrowed an added capital of P5,000.00 from the parish. Later we borrowed another P10,000.00 to buy a refrigerator for the cooperative. The cooperative gradually grew in members and in assets. In 1995, we joined the mortuary aid and the consumer cooperative to form a multi-purpose cooperative. Thus, the cooperative was able to sell basic commodities to the members and to the neighborhood community at a lower price. The cooperative also lent money to the members. By 2001, there were already 101 members of the cooperative with a net asset of P554,871.00. The cooperative also organized a food processing project for some of the members which supplemented their income. At the end of each year, during the general assembly, the cooperative gives 70% patronage refund to the members and the dividends are added to the capital. Our cooperative therefore provides a great service to the members and to the neighborhood community. It is an expression of the sharing of material goods following the example of the early Christian community in the Acts of the Apostles.
Mr. Felix Talorete, Pangulo sa Katilingban (Leader of the Community)
March 17, 2002
From 1987 to 1989, I was assigned in the San Fernando, Bukidnon. I would like to share with you the story of their struggle against the logging companies:
THE EPIC OF SAN FERNANDO
Fr. Amado L. Picardal, CSsR
We are poor peasants, living in small Christian communities in a remote valley of San Fernando, Bukidnon. We have lived amidst violence – the violence of poverty, of a guerrilla war, of the destruction of our environment, and the violence of the military. But we have walked the way of peace – the way of the cross, and have experienced its liberating power. This is our story.
There was a time when the mountains were green and the river was blue. The heavy rains did not flood our farms. Nor did the long hot summer parch the land.
That was before the logging companies came. They were owned by the politicians and protected by soldiers. We watched helplessly as the trucks passed by carrying away the logs to be shipped to foreign lands.
We signed petitions asking the government to stop the loggers from turning our land into a desert and our river into a highway. But we never got any response.
Then the Redemptorist Mission Team came. Priests, brothers, sisters and lay missionaries. They lived among us and worked with us to build Christian communities. In our nipa huts late at night, and in our bamboo chapels on Sundays we came together to listen to the Word and to listen to each other’s words. We realized that to be true Christians it was not enough to worship and to read the Bible. We have to care for others and care for the earth. We have to defend the forest – which is our home, the home of our neighbors – the native Dumagats and Subanons, the home of the birds, the animals and the wild plants.
We heard that the guerrillas – who called themselves the people’s army wanted to help us with their guns. But we preferred to struggle in our own way – the way of the cross. We were prepared to give up our life but we would never take the life of another.
The day came when we gathered on the road where the logging trucks pass. There were several hundreds of us – men, women, children and old people. We barricaded the road with our bodies and the logging trucks could no longer pass. It was like a fiesta. We sang and danced, we shared our food with one another and with the loggers who were stranded. It was a real communion. The priests, the brothers, sisters and lay missionaries were with us. Even the Bishop came one night to pray with us. They listened to us when we shared with them our stories and our reflections on the Word of God and on the unfolding event. It was our turn to proclaim and witness the Gospel.
Those who did not join us taunted us. They said that we will never succeed. We were poor, powerless and few and we were up against rich businessmen and powerful politicians who were protected by the military and who could bribe the judges.
On the thirteenth day in the barricade while celebrating the Eucharist with our parish priest a truckload of soldiers came carrying an order from the judge to disperse us. They beat us without mercy. They did not spare the old people and the pregnant women. They even beat the statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. We did not resist them. We turned the other cheek. While they kept on beating us, we sang the “Our Father” with tears in our eyes.
When they brought our parish priest to the camp we also went with him. We told the soldiers that if they will imprison him they will also have to imprison all of us. They finally told all of us to go home with our priest. We went back to the side of the road that we used to barricade and watched helplessly as the logging trucks passed by. We prayed and cried. We were defeated. It was our Good Friday. The sky darkened and the heavens wept with us unceasingly.
It rained day and night for a couple of weeks. And the river rose and the overflowing waters dashed against the bridge where all the logging trucks pass. And the bridge collapsed. And the road leading up to the logging camp was blocked by a landslide. The logging operations were stopped. Nature continued the barricade for us. When we gathered the following night to pray on the side of the road where the logging trucks used to pass we all praised and thanked God who had not abandoned us.
A few weeks later we were ordered to appear in court before the corrupt judge. We filled the courtroom – men, women, children, old people. We were not afraid even if we were poor and powerless because we believed that God’s Spirit was with us. We were charged with violating the law and causing the logging companies huge loss of profits. They wanted twelve million pesos for damages. The judge scolded us as if we were naughty children and set the date for our trial. We knew that the judge was on the side of the loggers. Our main worry was where to get that huge amount of money to pay the loggers if we lose the case.
Meanwhile, the newspapers, the TV and radio begun to report our story. Suddenly the conscience of many all over the country was awakened. They realized that our problem was also their problem. Many began to show their support. And there were even others in different parts of the country who followed our example. Our voice was beginning to be heard and finally, the President of the Philippines ordered a stop to the logging operations in San Fernando.
When we heard the good news our tears of sorrow became tears of joy. Our suffering had not been in vain. We thanked God by celebrating the Eucharist and by having an instant fiesta. It was our Easter Sunday.
When we went back to the courtroom The judge reluctantly dropped all charges against us.
A few months later a pastoral letter of the Bishops’ Conference was read in all the Catholic churches and chapels all over the archipelago. It spoke about the ecological crisis in our country. And it mentioned the struggle of the people of San Fernando as a sign of hope and as an example for all. We could not believe that we in our insignificance and powerlessness can make a difference.
Our story and our struggle should have ended then. But it did not. One year later we discovered that while the logging had stopped in San Fernando it continued in the neighboring mountains. We realized that even if it happened in other places we would be affected because we were all connected.
And so we found ourselves once again in the barricade far away from home – in the provincial capital. This time we were more numerous because the people from the neighboring areas joined us. We wanted the logging to be stopped in the entire province of Bukidnon. At first we pitched our tents outside the office of the Department of Natural Resources. They just ignored us. And on the fifth day we transferred to the checkpoint in the national highway where all the logging trucks usually stop for inspection. We took over the place and set up a human barricade. And all the logging trucks could no longer get through. The soldiers came and they could not disperse us. The truck drivers tried to drive through the barricade.
Once again the newspapers, radio and TV reported our story. Finally, Secretary Factoran of the DENR heeded our request for a dialogue. He came on a helicopter to meet with us. After listening to us he granted our demands. He told us the logging in the neighboring mountains and towns would be stopped He asked us to help in the greening of the brown mountains And to help guard the forest. We went home rejoicing and thanking God once again for not abandoning us. The Eucharist became a victory celebration.
Now the logging companies have disappeared from San Fernando and from the neighboring mountains of Bukidnon. The trees that we have planted are growing. When our children grow up they will see green mountains and they can swim and fish in the blue river without fear. The heavy rains will not flood their farms Nor the long hot summers parch the land. They will remember us for what we did for them. And they will remember the wonderful things God has done for us.
These stories that I have just shared show how BECs can be effective agents of social transformation. The BECs can help empower the poor and enable them to actively take part in changing their social conditions and bring about peace and development.
Prospects for the Future
The number of BECs that are at present involved in the process of social transformation is minimal. In a survey conducted by the National Secretariat for Social Action (NASSA) in 1995, it was reported that only 34.47% of the BECs in the Philippines were engaged in integrated liturgical, developmental and transformative activities. They have not yet reached a critical mass that can substantially change Philippine society.
There is still much to be done to mobilize the BECs for social transformation.
As we promote the formation and growth of BECs throughout the country, we need to present a more holistic vision of BECs that PCP II provides. This means envisioning the BECs not only as worshipping communities but also as prophetic and servant communities that are concerned about transforming society.
In these communities, a renewed integral evangelization must be carried out – a renewed catechesis, a renewed worship and a renewed social apostolate. A renewed catechesis includes learning the Christian values and social doctrines. A renewed social apostolate requires that the BECs must become more aware of the social, political and economic realities around them and their responsibility to work for justice, peace and development.
BECs must learn to analyze their concrete situation and problems and look for ways to solve these. They need to develop skills in planning, programming, management, enterprise-building, advocacy, etc. They also need financing for their various socio-economic programs. BECs need to work with civil society groups and government agencies to build up their capability and technical skills.
The BECs can be involved in the following priority areas:
(1) economic development,
(2) peace advocacy,
(3) electoral process,
(4) governance, and
Poverty remains the number one problem of our country. BECs must be involved in poverty alleviation. They should learn how to analyze their situation and problems, recognize their resources and come up with appropriate socio-economic programs such as livelihood programs, income-generating projects, cooperatives, appropriate technology, community-based heath program, organic farming, alternative trade, community- based small scale industries, etc.
The BECs often lack expertise and financing to carry out these socio-economic projects. They need to work with the Social Action Center, NGOs, government agencies (DOT, DSWD, DAR, DA), civic groups, renewal movements (CFC-Gawad Kalinga), business groups (PBSP), etc.
The spiral of violence continues to escalate. The peace negotiations between the government and the NDF and MILF have been stalled. There is a resurgence of armed conflict all over the country.
BECs in war torn areas should set up Peace Zones or Peace Sanctuaries. This can be done in coordination with the local government unit. They have to negotiate with both the military and the revolutionary groups to respect their peace zones. The BECs can help set up local monitoring committees.
In areas where there are Muslim communities, the BECs can get involved in developing a culture of peace and dialogue with them.
There is a need to build up and expand the peace constituency that will pressure the government and the NDF and MILF to continue the peace process and address the roots of armed conflict. The BECs can become part of the peace movement and actively participate in peace vigils, marches, rallies and caravans.
The electoral process in the Philippines remains flawed. The people elect candidates for their popularity and for their wealth. There is still a lot of vote buying. There are fraudulent election returns.
The BECs can be part of the church network at the grassroots that will help in voters’ education and monitor the conduct of the election. The voters’ education can begin among the members of the BECs themselves and within the larger communities. This will consist in teaching the people to vote wisely, to know the candidates and their political programs, to choose the right candidates, to follow their conscience and to avoid selling their votes.
The BECs can provide personnel that will act as watchers or monitors in their respective precincts. Their presence can be a deterrent for those engaged in vote-buying, flying-voting, terrorism and other election irregularities. The BECs can link up with PPCRV and NAMFREL
The local government code gives a lot of power and responsibility to the local government units starting from the barangay level. This can be a source of development for the barangay or a source of corruption.
The BECs can exercise their influence in the barangay by making sure that some of its members are elected to the barangay council, by attending the barangay assemblies and actively participating in the decision making process. They can also act as fiscalizers and monitor any corruption and anomalies committed by barangay officials. They will make sure that the resources allocated for the development of the barangay are used properly.
The BECs can also be mobilized to join massive nationwide prayer rallies and marches to protest government acts or policies that are judged as immoral, oppressive or contrary to the common good (total war policy, charter change, anti-life and anti-family legislation, unjust labor laws, corruption, etc.).
The BECs must learn how to work with those in government and to pressure them to do their work conscientiously and function as genuine servants of the people.
The BECs can be mobilized to protect the environment and ensure ecological balance. In areas where illegal logging continues, the BECs can help enforce the log ban. BECs in fishing villages can help in monitoring fishing methods that destroy marine life and poison the sea. The BECs can also get involved in reforestation projects, waste management, etc. BECs can work closely with environmental groups and with the DENR.
These are some of the things that BECs can do to help transform society. Some BECs are doing these already although. But they are still few. These have to be replicated by the majority of the BECs that have emerged throughout the country. Through the BECs, the ordinary lay people, especially the poor can actively participate in the process of social transformation. When BECs are able to do these, then they can truly be what John Paul II describes them: “a sign of vitality within the Church … a solid starting point of a new society based on a civilization of love.”
Back to: BEC