Priest helped Philippine poor resist `system of virtual serfdom'. For O'Brien, serving the poor means more than providing solace of religion
Late one night in the fall of 1982, a gentle, muffled sound spread through the town of Sipalay on the Philippine island of Negros. Gradually, it filled the narrow streets. Finally it spilled out to engulf the plaza in front of the church - the soft, insistent padding of thousands of bare feet.
The 4,000 men, women, and children had walked to Sipalay over roadless mountains from remote villages on this impoverished, sugar-producing island. They had come to take part in a prayer rally where village widows accused the Army of atrocities against their husbands.
During the rally the next morning, the military was out in full force. But, disconcerted by the size of the crowd, they refrained from taking action.
The marchers were accompanied by two missionary priests, the Rev. Niall O'Brien, from Ireland, and the Rev. Brian Gore, from Australia.
According to Fr. O'Brien, the march to Sipalay was a dramatic example of the newfound ability of the peasants of Negros to strike out in nonviolent ways against a system that had violently oppressed them for generations.
The incident is related in O'Brien's recent book, ``Revolution from the Heart,'' published by Oxford University Press.
O'Brien is a controversial figure in the Philippines. In a recent interview during a visit to the US for the publication of his book, he talked about his 24 years on Negros and what they have taught him.
He says serving the poor means more than providing them with the solace of religion or simply handing out charity. To him, it means helping them actively resist, without violence, what he describes as the system of virtual serfdom that has kept them in poverty.
He also discussed such issues as aid to the third world and communist and Christian ideologies.
``There are three basic reactions of people who care about what's happening in the world,'' says O'Brien. ``First, there's crisis intervention, where you ... hand out some money - which I do not despise in any way.
``Then suddenly you see you need to grow past that, and you say, `I want to help them to be independent, to be self-reliant.'
``Third is social transformation, where you want to change the structures which may pit us against one another.''
O'Brien has few kind words for the ``top-down'' approach to third-world development he associates with international aid institutions.
``A lot of so-called `development' is pushed by the Asian Development Bank, but this is just a travesty of the word. By `development' they mean cement, bricks, iron bars, development of roads which will get the wealth out of the country faster. There is no intent to develop the people.''
During the 1970s, O'Brien and Fr. Gore helped to form what they call ``basic Christian communities.''
In these village communities, the poor plan their own development projects and support each other in nonviolent resistance to military harassment. Not surprisingly, these activities were highly unpopular with local authorities.
Soon after the march to Sipalay, local police brought murder charges against O'Brien, Gore, a Filipino priest, and six Filipino lay leaders. The group spent more than six months in a filthy, overcrowded prison awaiting trial.
The refusal of the two missionaries to accept a ``pardon'' from the Marcos government while their Filipino colleagues remained in prison triggered acampaign on their behalf in the Irish and Australian press. These were among the first international protests of the abuses of the Marcos regime.
O'Brien and Gore were released in 1984 - with their Filipino colleagues - on condition they leave the country. With the election of Corazon Aquino in early 1986, O'Brien returned to Negros.
He says the conditions of the poor have not improved under the present administration. This, he says, is because Mrs. Aquino has so far been unable to act against the interests of her powerful supporters and institute land reform.
Michael Bedford, a consultant on third-world issues who recently returned from Negros, says, ``The people with the ability to change the system legally - those are the people that are getting killed, not the armed left up in the mountains.''
The ``basic Christian communities'' have been accused of being fronts for the Communist Party, but O'Brien denies he is affiliated with communist groups.
He adds that such accusations against those who oppose the Filipino hierarchy - both under Marcos and Aquino - are common.
``I would say categorically that O'Brien is among the last people to be a communist,'' says Walden Bello, a Filipino author and expert on Asian politics. O'Brien says he rejects ideological formulas, whether Marxist or ecclesiastical.
``When you're being ideological, new information is irrelevant,'' he says. And he says he feels the same way about ideology in religion.
``The danger in religiosity is that we seek merely the `peace,' and the religious highs, and we even become addicted to them, when in fact they should be the overflowing of the cup of justice.
``The role I see for Christianity is not that we're to make all the world Christians,'' he insists. ``We are to serve the whole world, to bring it into brotherhood and sisterhood. Action on behalf of social transformation is such an essential part of being a disciple. It's so essential that if it's not there, we run the risk of religion declining into religiosity. What should be dynamite can become opium.''