The Common Good
January-February 2001

A Caged Bird Sings

by Rose Marie Berger | January-February 2001

Filipino Karl Gaspar spent 22 months in a Marcos prison. This is the truth he found there.

Sojourners editor Jim Wallis and Karl Gaspar found each other in Geneva in the spring of 1983. They were attending an international ecumenical dialogue between Third World and First World theologians. "I meet a lot of people," says Wallis, "but sometimes something just connects with another human being. I remember taking long walks with Karl around the city, earnestly talking about our similar histories. We both grew up in the protest movements of the '60s. A real bond was formed between us which intensified when, a month later, Karl was disappeared by the Marcos regime."

Karl Gaspar spent 22 months in a Philippine prison, charged with political subversion. He was tortured and starved. Fellow political detainee Gus Miclat remembers when Karl disappeared. "Most of us felt numb and paralyzed by the fact that if they could do this to Karl, they could do it to anybody," Miclat said. But their fear turned to rage and then courage. For the first time, the People Power movement organized raids on the military "safehouses," rather than only enduring the military raids on their own houses. "In an ironic twist of roles," said Miclat, "in one safehouse we raided, a military thug demanded to see a search warrant."

Jim Wallis was one of thousands who tried to find Gaspar. Karl did eventually come to light—on Easter Sunday in Manila. "After I was surfaced by the military, I was told that the American consulate in Davao City was surprised about this one persistent caller from Washington, D.C.—a pastor who called every day to ask about me. Hearing that story from my family—they were the only ones who could see me in prison—made me very grateful for people like Jim, who showed tremendous interest regarding the life and death situations we faced during the time of Marcos."

In 1987, Karl Gaspar joined the Catholic Redemptorist Itinerant Mission Team and has worked with them in the southern part of the Philippines. He spoke with Sojourners assistant editor Rose Marie Berger and editor Jim Wallis while visiting Washington, D.C., this fall.

Rose Marie Berger: You recently were part of a conference collecting the stories of the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines. What was your experience recalling that history?

Karl Gaspar: Many of us who are ex-political prisoners are quite concerned that the young people of Generation X and Y seemed not to care about that part of our contemporary history. We wanted a way for the memory of the Marcos dictatorship—the evilness of the dictatorship, and the prophetic response of Christian groups—to be kept in the memory of everyone and passed to the younger generation.

Berger: Did the stories really get told? Did it raise people's emotions?

Gaspar: The conference provoked a lot of different emotions. People gave testimony to how they were victimized by the Marcos dictatorship. For myself and for others, it still brings a lot of pain. You'd think the Marcos dictatorship did not end in 1986—14 years ago. It was like a catharsis for some of us. Some had never spoke in public about what happened to them for fear they would collapse. Only now did they have the courage to speak openly about what they went through.

The feedback from the young people was, "We didn't think it was that bad. We didn't realize so many people were victimized." The extent of the pain and suffering from the torture and imprisonment was so intense. The young people were provoked to action. They are organizing in their schools to bring this history to other young people's attention.

Berger: You are participating in a two-year Maryknoll project studying responses of Christian communities to violence. Maryknoll is examining the post-conflict societies of Rwanda, Northern Ireland, and Guatemala, as well as current conflicts in Sri Lanka, Sudan, the Philippines, and Los Angeles. What is your part in this project?

Gaspar: Maryknoll is interested in the so-called Muslim-Christian conflict in the southern Philippines, a conflict that has raged for more than a century. The Redemptorist Itinerant Mission Team has been invited to the province in Lanao, smack in the Muslim reality of Mindanao. This study will be useful as team preparation for moving to a Muslim community. We'll learn from the experiences of Christian communities who are in daily dialogue with Muslim communities.

When I began the Maryknoll research, I discovered that initial work on interfaith dialogue had started in the late 1970s and expanded over the years. There are interior villages who are doing interesting, significant, and creative interfaith work at the grassroots level. I am documenting this to make it available to other Christian communities. The current attention on militant Islamic groups in the southern Philippines is renewing interest among basic ecclesial communities, Catholic agencies, and Protestant groups in promoting interfaith dialogue and peace-building at the village level.

Berger: In addition to your activism, you are an artist, a poet, a playwright, and a major creative force in the Mindanao Theater Movement. How has that developed?

Gaspar: Not until the era of student activism did I really see how powerful theater can be. We used Paulo Freire's term of "conscientization." That brought the theater of Augusto Baol, who talked about "spectators" passively consuming entertainment and "spec-actors" who become part of the story. The student population of my generation discovered song and poetry and theater as a way to reach out to fellow students.

Now I see this as a way to penetrate the interior of religions and a way to communicate with ordinary folks. You can speak the "rar rar rar rar" [political message] and it would have some impact. But if you put on a play, the crowds just multiply.

We have established a network of community theaters, singers, artists, visual artists, theater practitioners, and cultural workers in Mindanao. The movement is vibrant. We've influenced the theater movement away from the narcissistic manner that theater can develop in societies where it is a product that you pay for and get entertained.

Berger: Do you see this working together with your research in interfaith dialogue?

Gaspar: Yes. The Christian lowland peasants in the Philippines have been Hispanized during the 400 years of Spanish colonization and Hollywoodized in the 50 years of the American colonial era. Despite the long years of colonization, those in Mindanao have been able to retain the centuries-old dance, songs, and musical instruments. These elements touch the core of human beings and are at the essence of our spiritual beings.

As the theater movement engaged the indigenous cultures, it was spiritually empowered. We discovered ways by which the body becomes a medium to engage the spirit. Indigenous people acknowledge the divine presence in very creative ways— chanting, playing musical instruments, and dancing. Now you can go to many churches, both Catholic and Protestant, or attend highly political activities, and young people will enter with dance, song, or choreographed movement. It hits the very core of our being. That's the kind of theater and art that has arisen from among us.

Berger: What interests you now?

Gaspar: Anthropology—particularly the post-modern theories pushing the value and significance of the so-called "weapons of the weak." I'm interested in how cultural energy is embodied. For example, the element of dance—dance is very central to the indigenous and Muslim communities in the Philippines. They use the text of their bodies, their voices, the musical instruments created to manifest the voices of nature, birds and rivers. For the coming generation, the language of cultural energy will be the most significant.

Jim Wallis: Why do you keep going back to the mountains, keep working with people who are so poor, rather than taking a higher profile position?

Gaspar: During the time I was in prison, I realized that I didn't want a hurried life of moving from one place to the other, living in a suitcase. I didn't want the very heavy responsibilities of high-profile work. The 22 months I was in prison taught me to be truthful to myself—to acknowledge that I would rather live in simple situations, with ordinary people, living a simple lifestyle. I wanted to be close to nature, near rivers, and able to climb mountains. I wanted to live where there's no electricity, where the stars are much brighter. I haven't changed since then in regard to the priorities of my life. It's still what I want to do.

However, year after year doing this type of work puts you under tremendous pressure—having no privacy, responding to emergency situations, having no distance from the people you work with and the communities that you are responding to. I felt out of touch with the intellectual ferment in the postmodern university. I couldn't understand the articles I was reading. So I returned to university to study anthropology, sociology, and history. When I finished my doctorate, I'd had enough. I enjoyed myself. I've had time in the libraries. I'm able to understand the journals now, but my world is back in the mountains.

I recently wrote an essay on my experiences in the last 15 years. The common thread of my life, except these two years on campus, was living in the mountains, in the interior villages. What the psalmist says just erupted in my consciousness—"Salvation comes from the mountains." In a mountainous country like the Philippines, the mountain people are the poorest of the poor, the indigenous people. When the colonizers came, they were pushed to the mountains.

The founder of the Redemptorists, Alphonsus Maria de Liguori, also had this experience. He was a successful lawyer in Naples, and his conversion came when he went to the mountains and met the most abandoned people of that time. It feels nice to be connected to the memory of the founder of this congregation that I joined hoping it would affirm my own quest for what would make me full and, hopefully, happy.

Sojourners relies on the support of readers like you to sustain our message and ministry.

Related Stories

Like what you're reading? Get Sojourners E-Mail updates!

Sojourners Comment Community Covenant

I will express myself with civility, courtesy, and respect for every member of the Sojourners online community, especially toward those with whom I disagree, even if I feel disrespected by them. (Romans 12:17-21)

I will express my disagreements with other community members' ideas without insulting, mocking, or slandering them personally. (Matthew 5:22)

I will not exaggerate others' beliefs nor make unfounded prejudicial assumptions based on labels, categories, or stereotypes. I will always extend the benefit of the doubt. (Ephesians 4:29)

I will hold others accountable by clicking "report" on comments that violate these principles, based not on what ideas are expressed but on how they're expressed. (2 Thessalonians 3:13-15)

I understand that comments reported as abusive are reviewed by Sojourners staff and are subject to removal. Repeat offenders will be blocked from making further comments. (Proverbs 18:7)