Saturday ∗ 26 Oct 2013

people before buildings

In the aftermath of the October 15 earthquake that wreaked over Bohol and Cebu, with many Catholic Churches reduced to rubble, Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal has said that we must find “faith in the midst of ruins.”

I say we take stock.

And we ask questions. Say, why is it that the Catholic Church did not put out money to reinforce its churches? They can’t say there wasn’t / isn’t any money to do it, knowing as we all do that the Pinoy Catholic Church ain’t paying any taxes. What we now know is that our Catholic Church was having masses and religious celebrations in unsafe structures, putting lives of its followers at risk. 

What we now know is that in the aftermath of a tragedy the Catholic Church on these shores will be spared by most everyone – its followers, media, government included. What we now know is that in a tragedy such as this one where churches are destroyed in what is considered an act of God, this Pinoy Catholic Church will decide to wash its hands of any culpability, and it will be allowed to do so.

Because it is too easy. It is easy to blame for example every other government office, every other Tourism Secretary, that failed tremendously at saving these churches, not as spaces of faith, but as heritage structures. It is easy to think that the Catholic Church and government could have worked together at preserving and reinforcing these structures. It is easy to imagine how wonderful it would’ve been to have had that kind of cooperation for what is both a place for faith, and a piece of history and heritage.

But no such luck. The truth is that this is a country that does not care at all about heritage until it’s too late. The run-of-the-mill heritage advocate does it all the time: fight against some big business that’s buying a heritage structure when it’s too late. I always wondered why it was that none of these heritage advocates could take on a church, a building, a whole province! And work at saving that as an important piece of history.

Meanwhile, we have not had a government in a long long time that has a vision for culture and history – least of all this current one.

At the last State of the Nation Address of this President, he mentioned tourism and how the world knows of us now, appearing as our beaches do in magazines. Of course tourism is not limited to those beaches, and any other person who even knows of travel would know that much of it is like a field trip: you want history and heritage, you want to understand a people better through what they have built, what they have gone through. This is even more true for Bohol, where the churches pretty much define the towns. Now that those churches are gone, what we are reminded about is this truth: heritage is neglected in this country. It is not considered as important until it is gone.

And now that it is being given the importance it deserves, government is not only letting the Catholic Church off the hook, government also seems to be in over its head, giving us every possible uncertain answer about what the next steps should be. Yes, they are putting out money for each church, but also it is not clear how they are going to spend that money. Presidential Spokesperson Edwin Lacierda has said they are calling for international experts; I do wonder why our scientists, our architects, the Pinoys who do know to restore and rebuild heritage structures have yet to enter the picture. I do wonder why we would rather that our “international friends” assist us in rebuilding these churches, when we might be better off asking that they help rebuild homes.

Because what this earthquake reminds us too, is not just that heritage is dead in this country. It reminds us how people die in this country. With 500,000 families affected by the earthquake, which is close to 3 million people, it is horrid to talk about heritage and rebuilding, really. I am all for it, but it is the worst time to talk about it.

Yet we have this government that seems to think this is a matter of multi-tasking: one government office takes care of quake victims, while another government office takes care of tourist re-routing and talks about wanting international experts to help in rebuilding. But this isn’t a matter of multi-tasking, as it is a matter of sensitivity, of propriety, of just some good ol’ malasakit.

People in far-flung Bohol towns and barangays have no food and water and electricity. There are towns reduced to rubble. There is a story of a man who had to dig through the ruins of his home for his relatives, with his bare hands, only to have them die a couple of hours later because no rescue came for them.

If there is money for rebuilding these churches, then that money should be used on rebuilding people’s homes, people’s lives, first. If there is time and effort being spent by the Tourism Secretary to find new tourist routes, or to deliver the message to the world that things are fine, things are okay; time and effort is better spent on not just telling the affected Boholanos and Cebuanos that, but to actually show them – show us all – that this government’s got their back, that they will not be further impoverished by this tragedy, that they will not be forgotten or sacrificed in the name of rebuilding a church or two.

The government and the Catholic Church have shown us all how little they value heritage. One hopes that they will prove now how much they value people.

Otherwise, there is no faith in the midst of ruins. There’s just hunger, and poverty, and death.

this was published as “No Faith In the Midst of Ruin” in The Manila Times, October 27 2013.

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