Finding Hope in the Dark

In September 2017, acclaimed Filipino filmmaker Ditsi Carolino released a 13-minute documentary called Huwag Kang Papatay (“Thou Shall Not Kill”), which focuses on the extrajudicial killings (EJKs) in Payatas, Quezon City.

One of the most poignant parts of the film shows an elderly woman, Lola Remy, talking about how her son, Juan, went into hiding when he found out that he was a police target. When the police came and couldn’t find him, they took his pregnant wife and threw her in jail, where she eventually gave birth to their seventh child.

After a period of working in Manila, Juan decided to take a chance and go home to his shanty in Payatas. It was his daughter Joan’s birthday, and he wanted to cook spaghetti for her. In the midst of their celebration, a group of armed policemen arrived and dragged his kids out of the house. One of his daughters clung to him, but the policemen pulled him off her and shot him. An injured Juan begged the policemen to just put him in jail, to let him live for his children’s sake. They ignored his pleas and gunned him down.

Father Danny with Lola Remy and her grandchildren at Juan’s wake (Photo courtesy of Father Danny Pilario)

Father Danny with Lola Remy and her grandchildren at Juan’s wake (Photo courtesy of Father Danny Pilario)

In the film, Lola Remy’s agony is palpable and heartbreaking. As Father Danny Pilario, guest minister of the Ina ng Lupang Pangako (Mother of the Promised Land) parish, guides her and the kids in saying good-bye to her son, grief overtakes the old woman and the children, and the tiny room is filled with their anguished cries. Later, she leans on Father Danny’s arm as the two of them ponder whether she can raise her grandkids on her own. (Juan’s widow is still in jail.) For a woman in her 70s with no means of livelihood, supporting seven very young, badly traumatized children is a seemingly impossible prospect.

Lola Remy and her grandchildren’s story echoes that of many others in Payatas, one of the communities targeted by Oplan Tokhang, a supposedly bloodless anti-drug campaign by the Philippine National Police (PNP), which has so far yielded thousands of victims. The stories of the victims are often left out of the news, their deaths justified with one word—nanlaban (“they resisted arrest and fought back”), the PNP’s go-to excuse for the killings.

As someone who knows the people of Payatas well, Father Danny has made it his mission to amplify the voices of the grieving families and help them tell the world the stories of their murdered loved ones.

Theology in Practice

Growing up in his rural hometown in Cebu, Daniel Franklin Pilario always knew he would be one of three things—a pilot, a lawyer, or a priest. When he graduated from high school, the call to priesthood came from the Redemptorists, then led by Father Rudy Romano, a human rights advocate and one of the leaders of the anti-Marcos movement in Cebu. Father Danny remembers meeting the popular priest several times. “His missionary enthusiasm infected all of us.”

An uncle who was a Vincentian priest eventually convinced Father Danny to join the Congregation of the Mission (CM) instead. He was already studying Philosophy at Adamson University in Manila in 1985 when he found out that Father Rudy had been abducted by armed men in Cebu City. The priest’s body has never been found.

Father Danny was first assigned to work for a month in Payatas in 1990. Payatas at the time was little more than a giant heap of garbage—there were no communal spaces or facilities at all. “[The work] was very difficult then,” Father Danny recalls. “[There was] mud, smoke and [a stench] all over everything, from morning until evening.”

When his month at Payatas was up, the young priest carried on with his studies. Proving himself to be an exceptional scholar of theology, he pursued his doctoral degree at the KU Leuven in Belgium. When he returned to the Philippines in 2002, he started teaching at the St. Vincent School of Theology (SVST), of which he is now the Dean.

It was also around this time that his weekend ministry in Payatas began. In the beginning, he considered the assignment as simply a way of helping his CM confreres who were working in the community. His job was to hold weekend masses, bless the dead, and attend parish meetings. For the rest of the week, he was immersed in the safety and comfort of the academe.

But as he got to know the residents better, Father Danny began to realize that this extremely impoverished community was where he could practice and expand what he was learning and teaching in school. “[The people helped] me make sense of my theology and my priesthood. They put into question what [I] learned from books.”

Father Danny at a Vincentian conference in Suwon, South Korea (Photo courtesy of Father Danny Pilario)

Father Danny at a Vincentian conference in Suwon, South Korea (Photo courtesy of Father Danny Pilario)

In his talks at international conferences, Father Danny continually stresses that theology has no real value if it does nothing for the people on the “rough grounds,” those whose lives are mired in destitution.

A Priest for the Poor

Payatas is indeed a place that will shock anyone who hasn’t seen the very depths of poverty. Every day, more than 100,000 scavengers rummage through the piles of garbage in this 22-hectare dumpsite, hoping to find something to sell for a few pesos, or some leftover restaurant food that they can reheat and feed to their families.

Here, life can be cut short by diseases that could otherwise be prevented by proper sanitation. Here, the mountains of garbage cast long, threatening shadows on people’s cramped, dingy homes and the little pleasures they manage to have. The parish used to have a small outdoor pool where mothers could leave their kids while they picked through the garbage, until the landfill operator decided to expand the dumpsite and got rid of the pool. Later, one of the chapels in the area was also bulldozed, along with many shanties, to make way for even more of Metro Manila’s trash.

Father Danny and other parish workers try their best to be responsive to the residents’ needs. He knows not to use the pulpit to talk about Church doctrines that people who feel abandoned by social institutions will struggle to understand. People whose lives are full of tragedy and sadness have little interest in dogma; they’d like their church to be a place where they can breathe and find relief from everyday life.

Father Danny is a friendly presence in the residents’ lives. He visits their homes after Mass, exchanges jokes with them, and attends birthday parties. He knows the pulse of the community, and can tell when something troubles them.

The Killing Season

During Mass one Sunday in December 2016, he sensed that something was wrong. The people in church were quiet and looked agitated. On prodding, they told the priest that the police did a raid a few days ago and killed three people. To his horror, Father Danny realized that Oplan Tokhang was now in full operation in Payatas.

The killings that started in July 2016 were initially sporadic, leading most residents to think that there was some sort of gang war going on. Emboldened by President Rodrigo Duterte’s declaration of support, the policemen of Quezon City Police Department Station 6 started doing their Payatas raids in uniform.

They had a list of names apparently supplied by the barangay hall, but when they couldn’t find the people on the list, they’d target random men and shoot them instead. This is what happened to Marcelo, Jessie, Raffy, Anthony, and Efren, young garbage truck sorters who had just finished their shift and were playing cards early one morning when a group of policemen on a raid chanced upon them. None of them were drug users. Of the five, only Efren survived.

Father Danny discovered that many families couldn’t even give their dead relatives a decent burial because the funeral parlor was charging them as much as 80,000 pesos. (He later found out that the funeral parlor was co-owned by a policeman.) “There was one [victim] who was already decomposing by the side of the road,” Father Danny recalls. He and the other church workers scouted for financial assistance to help the grieving families bury their dead.

As the number of victims grew, fear enveloped the community. Families would hold wakes, but none of their neighbors, not even the prayer leaders, would turn up to console them. Some people would justify what happened to the victims by saying most of them were drug addicts and pushers anyway. As Father Danny muses, “’Thou shall not kill’ is a difficult commandment to explain.”

The fear and rejection that the victims’ families experienced saddened Father Danny. “I began to ask: How can we continue celebrating Mass when people around us [are] dying? It is impossible to keep on celebrating if we have no response.”

Aware that most bereaved families would be too scared to actively seek help, Father Danny and his group would make it a point to send two volunteers to visit and see how families could be helped. When he heard about what happened to Juan and how no visitors had gone to his wake, he invited the mothers in church to go and see Lola Remy, “just to encourage them to not be afraid.” He wanted them to see how important it was to be there for Lola Remy, for her to have someone to listen as she poured out her grief.

Project SOW

Father Danny knew that the families’ needs extended beyond funeral costs and sympathy. On December 30, 2016, he and other church workers held a little party for the bereaved women and children, giving them bags of groceries to welcome the New Year with. They also discussed what kind of support the families would like to receive. The women asked if they could meet regularly so they’d be able to share their stories and their grief with people who understood their pain. Thus, Support for Orphans and Widows (SOW) was born.

For almost a year and a half now, Project SOW has been holding meetings every other Saturday, where the widows and mothers of EJK victims can talk about their dead loved ones, the harshness of life, and how they’re surviving. In a separate room, the children meet with counsellors and community workers from Professionals in Mission. Afterwards, the families get together and celebrate Mass.

The SOW families and their supporters on the group’s first anniversary (Photo courtesy of Father Danny Pilario)

The SOW families and their supporters on the group’s first anniversary (Photo courtesy of Father Danny Pilario)

There are about 25 families who are currently under the care of SOW. Journalist Patricia Evangelista’s research revealed that there could have been more than 100 EJK victims in Payatas, but most victims’ families were too scared to speak up and just quietly moved away.

For those who chose to stay behind, the road to complete healing is a long one. In every session, one or two women share their stories (“while the rest of us cry”). They also work through their grief by sharing photos, reading the Bible together (Lamentations is something they identify with), and doing art therapy. Last year, they had a summer excursion where they went swimming and had a picnic.

[Image 4: The SOW families with Father Danny at their summer outing]

The SOW families with Father Danny at their summer outing (Photo courtesy of Father Danny Pilario)

The SOW families with Father Danny at their summer outing (Photo courtesy of Father Danny Pilario)

Help comes in various forms and from all over the country. When Father Danny started posting about the project on his Facebook page, he received positive responses from many people. They donate money, and some even give their time to entertain and work with the families. Earlier this year, the Blancos, the renowned family of fine artists from Angono, held an art workshop for the group.

Healing through art with the Blanco family (Photo courtesy of Father Danny Pilario)

Healing through art with the Blanco family (Photo courtesy of Father Danny Pilario)

Amid the darkness and sorrow, there are hard-won little victories—a child learning to laugh again, a mother finding the courage to open up and tell her son’s story, a widow being able to make money from raising a few pigs. Lola Remy was given an interest-free loan to open a sari-sari store; she and her grandkids are also moving out of Payatas to a safer area. Efren and the families of his murdered friends sued the policemen of Station 6 and were granted a permanent writ of amparo, which means the police are not allowed anywhere near their homes and workplaces.

Father Danny and the group of lawyers helping SOW are hoping to get Juan’s widow out of jail soon. And of course, there’s still that glimmer of hope that someday, the families will find justice for their loved ones.

For now, Father Danny hopes that people who support EJKs will learn to see the victims as human beings, not criminals whose lives had no value. Indeed, it’s hard to think of a man like Juan as less than human when he did what many wouldn’t be brave enough to do—risk his life so he could give his daughter a little treat for her birthday. “His love for his kids was unconditional,” Father Danny says. “Is this inhuman?”

Joy Watford

Joy Watford

Joy Watford is a tech editor and freelance writer based in Cambridgeshire, England. She enjoys making lowbrow art and kakanin, and has an unhealthy obsession with sushi and crime podcasts.