Tuesday, July 7, 2015

The Life Matters Course - developed in Australia to help young adults ‘shape a path and purpose for living’ – is now being presented around Asia. From 12-21 May, the third such course in Asia took place in Pagadian, in the troubled province of Mindanao, Philippines. 

Local government authorities provided the Initiatives of Change (IofC) team with a security detail throughout their visit to Pagadian as a precaution against possible violence. One week after the course, a major fire swept part of Pagadian city, displacing 4,000 families who saw their homes go up in smoke. It was the worst such incident in the Philippines this year, and many of those who lost their homes are still living in makeshift camps.

Life Matters in Mindanao turned out to be the calm before the storm, bringing together 27 participants from eight countries. Sixteen were Filipinos, a balance of Muslim and Christian. Jo Grant and Leonor Gumabon from Melbourne went as part of the facilitating team along with Rob and Cheryl Wood from IofC Australia.

                                                                                              Life Matters Philippines 2015 banner

Jo describes their visit, which was made possible through an IofC grant and a successful fundraising run in April:

‘The Asia-Pacific Life Matters Course 2015 was truly an eye-opening spiritual experience. Participants shared their lives of poverty, discrimination and persecution, but also how these most humbling circumstances have proven an individual’s determination and grit. We weren’t sitting amongst a group of young victims, but among young philosophers and ambassadors, with lives full of hope and strength. We gained lifelong friends. The boys from Mindanao – Mac, Zai, Min and Omar – held nightly meetings to dissect what they had learnt that day.

There were other participants from around the region. Ephriam, a 21-year old Vietnamese man who exposed the horror he had experienced as a child when his family was persecuted for his father’s religious choice. He is now choosing to make positive contributions to his own society. Lia, a beautiful, young East-Timor Leste woman, wise beyond her years, could not recognize how powerful her contribution was to the people around her.

The workshops and seminars were well prepared and well presented. It was evident that the facilitators poured their heart and soul into the programmes because the content was challenging and engaging.

During our stay in Pagadian we were received by the mayor in his office, where he shared with us the history and the issues of this province. A police motorcade escorted us as we all climbed aboard a dozen tricycles and made a lap through the city streets. It was surreal, people taking photos and waving to us from shop windows.

We are grateful for the countless eye-opening experiences, the life-long friends and the inspiration we now have in knowing that we as individuals can make ripples of change in our own communities. All we can say, from the bottom of our hearts, is thank you.’

 

Back in Australia, the IofC team has stayed in touch with participants. Co-facilitator Rob Wood reflects on highlights of the time in Mindanao, and reports on follow-up:

‘One of the surprises in terms of course participants was to have Dan, a sergeant from the local army base, taking part. Although a bit older than most other participants, he fitted in well and seemed to get a lot from the program. He also initiated a visit to the army base, where we were received by the camp commandant and other senior officers. We were shown the artillery used and had a ride in one of their tanks. Over lunch we participated in what was called a “boodle fight.” Tables were covered with banana palms and chicken, fish and rice was put out. I found out later this is a Philippine military tradition symbolizing equality and fraternity, as all members, regardless of rank, “attack” the food with their bare hands.

It was good to have this encounter with the army and to hear from different officers that they see their role as basically a peacemaking, peacekeeping one. Some of us had heard different stories about the army and their attitude to the local people especially from the Islamic community.

The course had only been going for a couple of days when a Muslim student leader from the State University mentioned that he had just been in touch with his parents to ask their forgiveness for his negative attitude towards them.

Very soon after, another of those Islamic student leaders from Maguindanao told us how bitter he had become when his younger brother had been killed in an inter-communal clash. But he went on to say, “IofC has released me from my hatred.”

On the final day of the course, the two of them were joined by the rest of their group for a dialogue with our Pagadian hosts, who were all of Christian background. Dan, the army man, was also there. This conversation was something we had hoped for but was still a bit of a miracle, considering the level of conflict between the two communities and in which the military have also had an involvement over many years. We were even more delighted to hear they want to continue the dialogue into the future because they all genuinely want to find a way forward towards a lasting peace.

After returning home to the other side of the island the Maguindanao group found their lecturer had arranged for them to conduct a five-hour training program for 110 students, based on what they had learnt at Life Matters. Apparently it was very well received and included a time of inner reflection in which everyone present participated.

The young man who decided to forgive the death of his brother has just written about the opportunity he had to share his experience with cousins whose father had been killed in a similar inter-communal clash. He said that by the end of their conversation they had also embraced forgiveness.

During the preparations for Life Matters there were moments of intense frustration when it didn't seem like things were progressing as fast as they should. However, time and again I was reminded of my need to have more patience and more faith, and that was the subject of a lot of my prayers at that point. I’m glad to say that in the end, trust won out. And as we look back now, we can see what a worthwhile venture it was in every way.

Since the recent fire, the local IofC team has built on the relationships formed during Life Matters to offer support for some of the children and families worst affected. The road to recovery will be ongoing for quite some time, and Life Matters has played a part in building the circle of trust in which real change can happen.’

 

  • IofC Australia has offered the nine-day Life Matters course in 20 cycles since 1995, with around 400 people taking part. Many young adults have found new purpose and direction through their involvement, and have developed supportive peer networks as they undertake new initiatives.

 

  • In 2014, IofC Australia began offering Life Matters workshops, a condensed, four-day version that aims to cater for young working people. For more information, contact Cheryl Wood, Programmes Portfolio at Initiatives of Change Australia, by email: cheryl.jean.wood@gmail.com