Prophetic social workers in a pained and troubled society

Photo of Fr. Gilbert Billena, O.Carm. from

In 2016, when the government program Oplan Tokhang was launched, many took refuge in the church, fearing for their lives. This is because Oplan Tokhang, which was supposed to combat the proliferation of illegal drugs, resulted in massive killings of small time alleged drug users and sellers. Even innocent civilians and children have fallen victim to the trigger happy guns-for-hire, which has now been given the moniker, riding-in-tandem, owing to the fact that the perpetrators are usually motorcycle-riding vigilantes, and usually in two’s – one driving the bike and the other pulling the trigger.

The Carmelite administered parish of San Isidro Labrador in Bagong Silangan, Quezon City was one of those who undertook the challenge of sheltering survivors and in helping the family of victims. The program, Community-Based Recovery Program (CBRP), was not just the simple provision of a secure place for the survivors to hide, but the parish priest, Fr. Gilbert Billena, O.Carm., also made sure that they would be rehabilitated from their addiction with the illegal substance, that their traumatic experience be processed through counselling and de-stressing, and that they be provided with an opportunity for a better life through skills training and livelihood projects.[1] Fr. Gilbert then went on to become the spokesperson of Rise Up, an alliance of human rights advocates set at exposing the evils of the government program Oplan Tokhang.

In a way, the parish’s ministry that is set to address the needs of the troubled victims of drug addiction entailed social work, but to speak against the evils of a tyrannical government in order to sustainably address the needs of the troubled victims needs a prophetic voice.

Social work
With the many social issues that hound the Philippines – homelessness, abandonment, landlessness, displacement due to war and calamities, hunger, chronic poverty, drug addiction, prostitution, and so much more – it is not surprising that there is a need for people engaged in the understanding of the problems of individuals in the community in order to help improve their lives and society as a whole.[2]

Addressing the needs of the person, however, should go beyond charity. It should go beyond the individual. Rather it should be about changing society to ensure that it addresses the individual needs of its members.

A popular adage goes: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” That basically is what social work is about, to teach man to fish, but before doing that, a social worker would aim to understand the person – his interests, his motivation, his personal issues, his hopes and dreams, and relates it to the society and the challenges and systems in the society that would bring about the condition of the person.

Statistics released by Agenzia Fides in time for the 92nd World Mission Sunday (October 21, 2018) revealed that as of December 31, 2016, the church remains to be one of the world’s biggest conduit of charity and social service with 5,287 hospitals; 15,937 dispensaries; 610 care homes for people with leprosy; 15,722 homes for the elderly, chronically ill or people with a disability; 9,552 orphanages; 11,758 creches or nurseries; 13,897 marriage counselling centers; 3,506 rehabilitation centers; and 35,746 other institutions involved in the care of the poor and other people in the margins.[3]

The introduction of Gaudium et Spes goes:

The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts. For theirs is a community composed of men. United in Christ, they are led by the Holy Spirit in their journey to the Kingdom of their Father and they have welcomed the news of salvation which is meant for every man. That is why this community realizes that it is truly linked with mankind and its history by the deepest of bonds.[4]

The church itself, as revealed by the aforementioned statistics, has listened to the joys, hopes, griefs and anxieties of society and tries to address the needs of the people through its various ministries, as exhorted by Second Vatican Council and the many social teachings of the church. It is engaged in many social work endeavors – from educating children and adults to addressing the most immediate needs of people in the margins. The church is a social welfare institution that does not just address the spiritual needs of the faithful but also, in its effort to establish the reign of God’s kingdom on earth, promote a society governed by Gospel values, by the teachings of Christ. This includes, first and foremost, love of God, which is made manifest by our love of neighbor as evidenced by what we commonly refer to as corporal works of mercy.

But is meeting the needs of those in need enough? Would teaching them to fish be enough? What if the system does not allow them to use the skills they learned for them to address their basic needs? Do you think that if the poor is taught to farm, he would then be able to address his need for food?

The prophet
Recently, nine sugar workers in Sagay, Negros Occidental under the militant National Federation of Sugar Workers (NFSW), of which the Carmelites were instrumental in its establishment during the Martial Law years, were shot dead by alleged members of goons-for-hire Revolutionary Proletarian Army (RPA), a breakaway group of the communist-led New People’s Army (NPA). This incident is now known as the Sagay 9 massacre.

Two of the victims were minors and four were women. They were tilling the land of Hacienda Nene after it has been harvested by its current lessee, Allan Singbenco. The land is owned by Carmen Tolentino. They were assured by Singbenco that after he has harvested and the farmers have planted, he will desist from cultivating the land.

The farmers were cultivating the land as part of their Bungkalan program, a protest to bring attention to the failed agrarian reform program of the government and to help address hunger that they would usually experience during the long “dead season” of the sugar industry. Usually, the farmers would occupy land that is covered by the agrarian reform program and, due to some reason, has not yet been distributed to the beneficiaries. Hacienda Nene is one of them.

Department of Agrarian Reform Secretary John Castriciones, a graduate of the Philippine Military Academy and known for his alleged anti-farmer policies, however claims that the land that the farmers were tilling was no longer covered by the agrarian reform program because it has been transferred through a deed of donation.[5]

This incident reveals to us that although the farmers have the will, the strength, and the skills to run a farm successfully, the system that is currently at work in the country does not allow them to have their own land or for them to have the proper equipment to manage the land. Having an anti-farmer for an agrarian reform secretary would definitely not be of help to the cause of the landless farmers and farm workers. And with a government official whose bias for the rich landlord is made evident in his statements, no solution that would favor the little ones could be expected.

The culture of impunity in the country also continuously threatens the life of the farmers. Already, in the two years of President Rodrigo Duterte, 45 farmers and farm workers have been killed in Negros Island alone. None of the cases have been solved. In the case of the Sagay 9 massacre, the government was quick to condemn and to offer reward for the capture of the perpetrator. However, it was also quick to conclude that the perpetrators were the New People’s Army, even claiming that the Bungkalan was a program that is aimed to provide logistics to the NPA.[6]

The dismayed farmers were quick to point out: “First, they call us rebel sympathizers, then they claim rebels attacked us?”[7]

This reminds us of a famous quote from the mystical prophet Dom Helder Camara, Brazilian Archbishop: "When I feed the poor they call me a saint. When I ask why so many people are poor they call me a communist."

With this kind of system that seems to be against the plight of the little ones, how then can they free themselves from the shackles of poverty? Would social work be enough to address their concern? Would a church that is responsive to the needs of the little ones be enough?

Anglican Bishop Dr. Frank Weston said:

You cannot claim to worship Jesus in the tabernacle if you do not pity Jesus in the slum. Now go out into the highways and hedges, and look for Jesus in the ragged and the naked… in those who have lost hope, and in those who are struggling to make good. Look for Jesus in them; and when you have found him, gird yourself with his towel of fellowship and wash His feet in the person of his brethren.[8]

What we need is a church that does not only sympathize with the poor, but one who is with the poor and is one of the poor, one who is willing to be a servant of the poor. A church that is brave enough to shake the foundation of society, pointing out what needs to be changed in order to bring about the reign of God’s kingdom on earth.

Someone needs to be the voice in the wilderness[9] to tell those people who continue to bask in the darkness of the comfort of power and riches that they are causing God’s people to stumble[10] and to suffer, to cause them scandal, for them to repent and to change their ways. The church needs to be that voice in the wilderness.

In the Jewish tradition, this is the work of a prophet, a person who is the mouthpiece of God, one who is able to discern in the signs of the times, the will of the Father.

Titus Brandsma
One of the modern prophets that the Carmelites look up to is Bld. Titus Brandsma. As a Carmelite he was a contemplative, in fact, his spirituality revolved on becoming the other theotokos, to be bearers of Christ in the world. For him, like Mary, we as Carmelites should be able to show our Savior to the world. This we can do by the way we live our life – in accordance to the will of the Father and the teachings of Christ. For him, such devotion can only be achieved if we have an intimate relationship with the Father, brought about by our being contemplatives. However, our being contemplatives should also make us sensitive to the signs of the times, when the darkness of evil would start to cast its shadow in our society, and in this case we should answer to the call of the times and be prophets – denouncing the evil so that the light of Christ could flourish.

His being a Carmelite also pushed him to address the problems of society at the time. After earning his doctorate at the Gregorianum in Rome, he was assigned to teach Philosophy to the Carmelite students in Oss. Oss, at that time, was in so much poverty after the decline of the butter industry, of which the city was known of.[11] As a church, he thought it proper to help address the problem and the best solution that he could conceive was the establishment of a trade school that would equip the residents with skills that could help them find jobs other than in the butter industry.

When he was imprisoned in the Dachau concentration camp, he was always available for his fellow prisoners who were in need of care, this despite himself being in need of attention. When he sees a fellow prisoner who is hungrier than him, he would give his small portion of bread to him; when a fellow prisoner needs someone to talk to, he was available to listen; when someone is sick, he was there to share himself to them. He was intent in bringing and giving the experience of the Good News of Christ to the prisoners of Dachau, and even to the prison guards whose very purpose was to find a reason to knock out every prisoner cold – including him.

He lived his life as a Carmelite, a contemplative, a social worker who provides relief to troubled souls, and a prophet who does not cower in answering the call of the time.

When the evils of Nazism started to show its tentacles in Dutch society, he was quick to condemn it, calling on the government to wake up and not be deceived by the delicious rhetoric of the Nazis. He preached against Nazism in the pulpit and he lectured against it in his classes. He defied the orders of the ruling power at the time and welcomed the Jews in the school where he taught and boldly campaigned for newspapers to refuse the publication of Nazi propaganda. When the time came for him to face the consequences for speaking out against an evil system, he openly accepted the cup, this despite his failing health and his advanced age.

Ministry as a prophetic social worker
A social worker aims to address the needs of the person, either immediate or through a systematic and more sustainable means of empowerment – for the person to recognize and claim his/her situation and decide to do something about it.

A church minister as a social worker must also choose to be a prophet because he/she does not only make effort to address the needs of the person in need, but he/she must also possess the spirit to proclaim God’s kingdom and to make straight the path for the coming of the Bridegroom. He must be willing to criticize those in power if they become the cause of scandal for the little ones of Yahweh.

The image of ministry as a prophetic social worker, therefore, would challenge the church to actively participate in the mission of Christ in the proclamation of the coming of God’s kingdom by first addressing the immediate needs of God’s little ones through works of charity like feeding the hungry, comforting the sick, visiting those in prison, quenching the thirst of the thirsty, sheltering the homeless, covering the naked, and burying the dead.[12] Then he must enable the person to understand his/her situation, looking at it with clarity and with acceptance. The minister must be able to guide the person to realize that his/her situation can be changed, leading him/her to decide to choose what’s best for him/her or the people who depends on her/him.

Then the minister must be wise enough to question the system that led the person into the situation that he/she is in. He must be wise enough to discern what needs to be done, and must be bold enough to act, to do something that would not only alleviate the situation of the person in need, but would address the whole situation, benefiting not just the individual but society, as a whole. The minister must always have, in front of him, the image of the Kingdom of God, where justice and goodness prevail.

In the Philippines
In the context of the Philippines, the increasing poverty rate in the country and the widening gap between the rich and the poor has resulted and is expected to result in more social issues that would affect our society especially the poor communities that are increasing in number.

In its recent report on poverty in the Philippines, the World Bank states that as of 2015, 22 million Filipinos lived below the national poverty line.[13]

Citing statistics from the Philippine Statistics Authority, IBON reports that in July alone, “inflation rose to 5.7% from 5.2% the previous month.”[14] This means that more and more people are going hungry, which would mean that more and more people would also resort to undesirable professions for them to be able to meet their needs.

Because of this, the need for people engaged in social work is much more needed in the country.

As a ministry, the church could open its doors to people in need – not just in giving out food and other basic items, but more importantly by organizing, educating, and empowering poor communities who are widely affected by the economic crisis that most in the country are experiencing.

Ministry must also be prophetic in that the ministers and the church itself should not be afraid to speak out against the evil systems that continue to create hell for most Filipinos. And so, in this pained and troubled society that we are in, it is but natural that the people would clamor for an image of the church’s ministry as a prophetic social worker – a bringer and giver of comfort who does not cower in proclaiming the coming of God’s kingdom.

[1] Elauria, Lloyd Paul OFM, A Pastoral Action for the Rehabilitation of the “Balik Loob” in San Isidro Labrador Parish, Bagong Silangan, Quezon City in the Light of Pope John Paul II’s Teachings, Our Lady of the Angels Seminary College (MA Thesis), 27 February 2018, 1-2.
[2] See Kendra Cherry, What Is a Social Worker and What Do They Do?, VeryWell Mind, Accessed on 21 October 2018,
[3] Catholic Church Statistics, Agenzia Fides (Vatican, 20 October 2018), Accessed on October 23, 2018,
[4] GS 1
[5] Espina-Varona, Inday, Massacre crushed long-time hacienda workers’ dream for son, ABS-CBN News (22 October 2018), Accessed 23 October 2018,
[6] Espina-Varona.
[7] Espina-Varona.
[8] Address to Anglo-Catholic Congress of 1923, quoted in H. Maynard Smith, Frank, Bishop of Zanzibar, (London, 1926), 302.
[9] See Matthew 3:1-3, Isaiah 40:3-5.
[10] See Mark 9:42, Matthew 18:6-7.
[11] Schrover, Marlou, Labour Relations in the Dutch Margarine Industry, 1870-1954, History Workshop, 30 (1990:Autumn) p.55. The multinational company Unilever was an offshoot of the Oss-based butter business of Antoon Jurgens, after merging with its biggest competitor, Samuel van den Bergh, to form the company Margarine Unie. In 1930, it merged with soap company, Lever Brothers, to form Unilever.
[12] Matthew 25:35-40.
[13] World Bank, 2018, Making growth work for the poor: a poverty assessment for the Philippines, Washington, D.C. : World Bank Group, p3, Accessed on 23 October 2018,
[14] IBON, Poor Filipino families worst hit by rising July 2018 inflation,, 8 August 2018, Accessed 23 October 2018,


Popular Posts