I once asked Bp. Julio X. Labayen about his experience as a servant of the Lord. He said, “When I first surrendered to God, I thought my life would be from happiness to happiness. But it was not so. To my surprise, God took me to a place filled with pain, struggle and conflict. I was confused and did not know what to make of it but I soldiered on. It was only much later, that I discovered – again with much surprise – that the place that the Lord brought me to that is filled with hardship and pain is also a place filled with incredible peace and joy. Such is our Lord God, He is full of surprises.”
It is when I remember encounters like that, that I miss Bp. Julio Xavier Labayen the most. He had this uncanny ability to see through the confusing kaleidoscope of life to hone in on the common ground on which it all stands. Not only that, because Labayen was a great communicator, he could describe that shifting, ineffable, mysterious ground, in a way that even unschooled “kanto boys” and “tambays” could understand.
We are surely all the poorer without such a man in this world.
Anyway, the intention of this piece is not to go for a grand summation of Labayen’s import to the Catholic Church and Philippine Society. I leave that for sociologists, theologians and church historians to ponder. (That narrative, by the way, will surely be about Labayen as the Father of social action and the Church of the Poor in the Philippines.) No this piece is but a modest account on one of his impact on a small faith inspired organization called Socio-Pastoral Institute or SPI that he shepherded as Chairman of the Board of Directors for several decades.
A sterling mark of a good leader is that they are able to communicate clearly the direction where they want to take the organization. Of course that sounds rudimentary but you’d be surprised how many leaders are unable to do that. Many merely react to the push and shoves of the times, many more lead by the weight and color of their whim and personality. Shameless still, many lead by fear – by repeatedly harping on conjured horrors and nightmares that will consume the group unless they command them.
Labayen was not of that kind at all.
He was a leader who inspired people to seek and strive for “the impossible dream” which he articulated clearly and often. As an aside, people who envied his insight and eloquence mocked him for that and ridiculed him as “parang sirang plaka.” Most people though valued this in him and used his offered directions to set their institutional and personal bearings by.
With SPI, the institutional direction he proffered was “SPI at the service of the Kingdom.”
Allow me to unpack that phrase so we can appreciate how this seemingly simple, innocuous phrase touched and shaped our organization to the bones. It was what guided SPI to become and stay relevant to the Church, the poor and peoples of other cultures and faith.
“SPI at the service of the Kingdom” initially means that SPI does not exist for itself but for its mission.
The organizational and personal implications of this is far reaching. It means that all resources of the institution – the talent of its staff, its material and cultural assets, its network of partners, its deep pool of institutional experience, etc. – are all for the realization of a new world order marked by peace, justice and integrity of creation. It is good to have a a vehicle, a pleasant office, powerful computers, shelves of knowledge products and so on but they are there not for our personal indulgence. They are there to give power to our mission.
“SPI at the service of the Kingdom” subsequently means SPI’s mission is to help others, especially the poor, realize socio-economic-political-spiritual liberation.
Labayen’s “impossible dream” exhorted SPI to adopt an integral approach to development work. This meant swimming against the dominant narrative that development is political and economic upliftment period. SPI, prompted by the dream of the Kingdom, believes that genuine development means not only political and economic upliftment but ecological and spiritual growth as well. Fullness of life, after all, means a life filled with economic, political, social, ecological and spiritual blessings. So how can it be realized via political and economic interventions alone?
As a result of this integral viewpoint, we now work with urban poor Moro communities in Pagadian City. We are there to help shape a culture of peace and development in a region torn by war and prejudice. Our interventions there include community organizing characterized by focus on the family, the promotion of khalifa or stewardship spirituality, the building of a civil society-military dialogue group that tackles city-wide social issues that affect the poor, strengthening the Inter-Faith Council, establishment of community-based development and disaster preparedness programs, maintenance of community infrastructure, helping set up sustainable livelihoods, etc.
SPI is also helping disadvantaged communities and local barangay units in Tacloban and Samar that are severely affected by super typhoon Haiyan. We are there to help them build resilient communities and promote a culture of safety and the spirituality of stewardship. This involves strengthening the organizational capability of our partner NGOs, POs and barangays, conflict mediation, strengthening of family bonds as well as psycho-spiritual counseling to help victims come to terms with the devastation and tragedy.
We also work with local Catholic Churches. We help them develop their stewardship and BEC programs so that they can become present and relevant to the lives of those condemned to live in the armpits of society.
From the outside looking it, it appears that SPI has no focus. We seem to be running around all over the place. But this is only because we believe that to bring the blessing of the Kingdom to the poor, we need to expand our horizon of expertise. Poverty, after all, is an enemy with many faces. When the concerns and frontlines are vast, you need a large bag of tricks to keep up.
We need community organizing skills to empower people to speak up to power and claim their rights from government. We need to bring sustainable livelihoods packages so that the poor can address their material lack. We need humility and proficiency in working with peoples of other faiths and none so we do not exclude anyone from the Lord’s banquet. Most of all, we need competence in dealing with the spiritual poverty of selfishness, egoism, hopelessness, loss of meaning and purpose.
So instead of specializing as a training institute alone, SPI walked into the unknown and threw its hat in the mad world of community development and social change. After all, how can one teach church or community when one’s hands and soul are unsullied from the actual grunt work of helping the poor who are perpetually condemned to walk on hard and dusty ground?
Such is Labayen’s legacy to SPI. He gave us clear direction to where the institution should go. For that reason, I can say that there is no fragment, wedge or sliver of what SPI has modestly achieved that can be carved up and pronounced as untouched by Labayen.
And so we come to the end.
Julio Xavier Labayen is dead but he has lived a full life marked by triumphs and failures, joy and pain, hard struggle and celebrations. He is gone but his spirit, his thoughts, words and actions live on and continue to inspire persons, People’s Organizations, Civil Society Organizations and churches he touched. He is no longer here but he will long be remembered and hailed.
Long live Julio Xavier Labayen!