the pooR of negros island:
'...controlled from the womb to the tomb by the boss.'
KABANKALAN on Negros island in the early 'eighties had the air of a rural third world pioneering town, dusty but busy. There were plenty of general stores, several banks and the usual petrol stations. The town had the appearances of normalty. Yet all around there was an atmosphere of fear and oppression.
The small two-storey municipal building containing the mayor's office and the courtroom stood opposite the leafy plaza. Further down the street was the Catholic church in the grounds of the school with the priests' convento nearby. The convento was an old double-storey timber house with flyscreens on the windows to allow in the breeze. But the priests' quarters, including the living room, were usually stifling. Brian Gore, from Perth, Australia, would remain here in Kabankalan for more than four years.
A number of people of Kabankalan town and a few of the more well-to-do in the surrounding district apparently had some very firm views about what they expected from their local priest. The mentality went back to the days of Spanish rule, as did much of the thinking on Negros.
The sugar planters were known as hacienderos. Their haciendas were rural 'factories'. The workers and their families would live on their haciendero's property, usually a sugar plantation.
Gore immediately alligned himself with the small farmers and the sugar workers. He would ask their name: 'Tal ako ni Mr So-and-so' would be the reply. 'I am the man of Mr So-and-so, the haciendero'. And so they were.
The workers on on the hacienda were often in debt to their employer. 'They were controlled from the womb to the tomb by the boss', Gore would say. 'Every major decision was made for for them. The haciendero would lend his workers money for baptisms and marriages and even funerals and such indebtedness meant the worker could never leave the employ of the man. The wages were appallingly inadequate.'
"They'd make me sick...'
The Australian missionary rapidly developed a dislike for his role as the pastor in Kabankalan. He felt he was being forced into the mould expected of him by some townfolk and others. 'I got to the stage in Kabankalan where I couldn't eat my breakfast after Mass on Sunday. They'd make me sick."
While he could see poverty and indifference out in the sugarcane fields, many of his (wealthier) parishioners in Kabankalan town expected the new priest to bless their houses and cars, perform baptism, marriage and funeral services on request and simply ignore the social issues all about him. The priest, so went a general feeling, should simply do his duty and preach the gospel.
"This was the bloke who was screwing his own workers.."
But Gore would look down from the altar and there on one side of the aisle would be the hacienderos, on the other side would be the workers:
'I'd be talking about "Our Father" and "Community" and "Communion" and I'd be looking at the haciendero. This was the bloke who was screwing his own workers who were sitting on the other side of the church. I just couldn't take it any more.'
Gore would fume from the altar: 'You can't come into this church and go on treating people in the way in which you are! The people must have human dignity and respect; human rights and justice!' The young Australian wouldn't mention names but he didn't have to. His angry gaze would have been enough.
'Why don't you preach the word of God and stop this madness about justice. You're a priest!' the hacienderos would argue as Gore emerged from the Kabankalan church into the sunlight.
Gore would storm off into the heat of his little convento, his stomach churning. He'd sit and stare, saying nothing, unable to eat that Sunday breakfast. 'I could see clearly the whole charade. They wanted their vehicles blessed, their houses enthroned and for me to perpetuate the whole system which had been expected from the priests for so long.'
Something had to be done. After 13 years working with the people in the mountains, it was time to take a stand against oppression.