You were one of the seven priests who advised Archbishop Philip Smith on the new Justice and Peace Ministry of the Archdiocese of Cotabato, and I was hired as its first lay coordinator in 1986. During the first meeting, which you hosted at the Notre Dame University (NDU) faculty house, I was sorting out the documents for distribution when you came in and asked, “Where’s coffee?” I remember there was silence, and I looked up, and everybody was looking at me. I panicked! You left the room, and there was small talk going around, but I was really feeling so bad! You returned to the room with another person who had a huge coffee maker full of coffee, and the bishop and the priests started lining up for their coffee. After the meeting, you jokingly told me, “Next time, be sure to prepare coffee and snacks during our meetings.” I remember answering back, “Not part of my job description!” But really, I was truly grateful to you.
During those years, I learned about interreligious dialogue, the real work for justice, advocacy for human rights, work for the poor, service to the underserved, especially during wars, and understanding my Moro brothers and sisters under your patient coaching. But most of all, I learned how to be a person at equal par with any other person, not less because of my gender.
I left the Justice and Peace Commission to do more grassroots work, but I would always receive some word from you no matter where I was, asking about my welfare, checking up on me. You were the “Bapa” that never forgets.
When you hired me to be the Director of the Notre Dame University (NDU) Peace Center in 1995, you were very honest in telling me that it wouldn’t be easy, but you needed me there. I was scared; I had no degree nor formal schooling in Peace Education. My academic background was part-time teaching religious studies at NDU—nothing on Peace Education. But I trusted you when you said I would do good in that position. So, I said yes. You were right; it was not easy. There were a thousand times I wanted to give up, I cried myself to sleep over hurts that I kept, and I spared you these things, but somehow you found out. You challenged me (and the team of neophytes with me) to chart another course for the Peace Center. And we did.
You dreamed of a university that is not existing for itself but is of service to the community around it, to the city where it is located. You dreamed of a university that responds to the needs of the community. You dreamed of a Peace Center that ensures the teaching of Peace Education, but also a center that encouraged students and faculty to be concerned and for the center to serve the need for a safe space for warring factions to talk. And you drew us around those dreams. We worked hard to make those dreams come true.
Every holy season of Ramadhan, the school hours were shortened, and prayer rooms were provided for the fasting students. Christian students were invited to fast in a “Duyog Ramadhan” program. Every breaking of the fast, bread and cakes and water and some drinks were provided for the students, and when the bakeries around the school knew of this, they provided the food! These became the teaching moments of Muslim-Christian relations outside the formal class subjects. The office of the chaplain (priest, sister, Imam) was very active in their involvement during this season.
I remember when deans and I would meet to support each other in requesting graduating students to do their theses and final school projects in support of the needs of the neighboring barangays. So, engineering students built footbridges in flooded communities (that’s what stayed with me for a long time!) and nursing students had their medical missions, and BSE students had their lit-num classes with adults and the young.
We had our formal Peace Education classes, and students were also exposed to national and local issues by inviting speakers into the school, or we joined rallies in the plaza.
And we opened the Peace Center to host the exploratory talks between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP). People called you “Fr. Jun Mercado, OMILF” behind your back, and some colleagues said this to your face. You just shrugged off the label and laughed. We knew you were hurting, but we also knew, in our hearts, at the core of what you were doing was “Ang kapakanan ng taong bayan” (The welfare of the people). You always had the people in your heart so “que se hoda sila” (to hell with them) as you would laughingly say sabay kumpas ng kamay sa ere (while making gestures with your hands in the air)!
As head of the secretariat of the Independent Fact-Finding Commission, the one tasked to monitor both the MILF and the GRP during their exploratory talks, I led the team, and we went to a lot of places that were deemed “dangerous,” but the team was brave enough. We knew you would raise hell if something happened to us. I never saw you blow your top except on one occasion—when you learned that one of the parties allowed us to pass even as they were operating, and it was the quick reflex of Yasser (our pilot) that saved us. He turned the vehicle around and drove so fast out of the area. You were so angry as you spoke on the phone with the party concerned. I recall being shocked as I heard an expletive escape your lips!
I was very nervous when we were tasked to find the culprit in the bombing in one of the camps. What do I know about bombs and stuff? But you trusted me and the team. And when we submitted to you the report after weeks of trips to the camp, late nights of studying our findings, evaluating evidence with a God-sent expert, I was very tense, but I wanted to be present during the presentation just in case there were questions. You understood. And you gently explained to me that it was easier for the men to meet by themselves with no woman around. And I understood.
Father Jun, Boss, Bapa, there were nights that you would come into the office and find us still working, and you would buy us pizza. You always made sure there was a vehicle and a driver assigned to our office when we do our night work. One time you sent Larry home and drove all of us home at 2:00 in the morning.
I know that I have disappointed you by not wanting to be what you wanted me to be, but the last time we met, after your mass at the Cathedral, I just felt the embrace of a friend and the blessing of a Bapa.
I still cannot believe you are gone. When Jojo showed me you lying in the coffin, I waited for you to wake up and ask “Asan ang kape?” (“Where’s the coffee?”)
I am still holding on to my butterfly, not ready to let go. But I know I have to. My only happy thought in this painful time is that you will be celebrating your 73rd birthday with your Mom and Dad! After all these years, you will finally meet your Dad and feel his embrace.
As the East Timorese will say, “A te logo!” Until later, my dearest Bapa.
Maria “Deng” Ida L. Giguiento is one of the two recipients of the 2015 Tanenbaum Peacemaker In Action Award that was given in recognition of her work in interreligious dialogue in Mindanao and Timor-Leste. From 2005-2018, Deng served as the Peacebuilding Training Coordinator of Catholic Relief Services – Philippines. She was also a member of the Project Reference Group for a curriculum development project involving best practices of civil society, working with security forces to improve human security. A grassroots peacebuilder from the Philippines, Deng has dedicated nearly three decades of her life to using the conflict transformation paradigm in working with partners in Mindanao and in post-independent Timor-Leste. She has trained men and women from Caritas International partners to local military officials and non-state actors. Deng is one of the longest-serving facilitators at MPI, who started in 2000.
Photo of Fr. Jun from the Official Public Facebook Page of the Philippine Province of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. Used with permission.