A Hero for All Time

Feb. 25, 2014 at 12:01am

As we celebrate today the 28th year anniversary of the EDSA People Power revolution, I write about heroes of a different kind. Not the heroes with guns, whether exalted like former President Fidel V. Ramos or fallen, as some think has happened with Senator Juan Ponce Enrile. Nor do I write about the civilian heroes of the 1986 uprising—former President Cory Aquino, Cardinal Jaime Sin, Butz Aquino, June Keithley, the nuns that stopped the tanks, and the countless others who massed in EDSA and toppled a dictatorship. I am not even thinking of my personal icons, human rights lawyers Jose W. Diokno and Haydee Yorac. Instead today, amidst so much skepticism in our land, I write about another kind of hero, one who walked our land quietly, making a difference without fanfare, and changing our country to a better place for the poor and for all of us.

Last week, I had an incredibly powerful and wonderful experience in the mountains of Bataan. As part of an international group of academics and researchers, attending a conference on innovations for inclusive development in Subic, I went up to the Bataan National Park to visit Kanawan, an Aeta village. While we were being briefed by the leaders of the village about the history of their community, I kept hearing the name of a certain Lawrence Ong: That it was Lawrence that first brought the Aetas together in the early 1980s  when he met them outside the gate at the Philippine Refugee Processing Center (PRPC) in Morong, Bataan; that after that period teaching English to Vietnamese and other Indochinese refugees, Lawrence kept on coming back to the Aetas for the next fifteen years, once a month at least and doing so even when he got sick and was losing his sight; that Lawrence helped them design their village and mapped out the locations of their houses; and, above all, that of all the outsiders that offered to help them, only Lawrence listened to them and asked them what they needed and wanted.

As the Aeta leaders kept repeating his name, I realized they were talking about our Lawrence Ong—my batch mate in the Jesuit Volunteers Philippines, Batch 2, assigned in 1981-82 to Sapak Farm in Cebu, a Xavier School and Ateneo de Manila alumnus. Lawrence died far too young in July 2001 of liver cancer, at the age of 45. Lawrence was thin and always looked frail but his strength of character and indomitable faith both shamed and inspired many of us with his example of unconditionally loving and serving the poor. In that sense, my rediscovery of Lawrence’s work last week was not surprising. But what amazed me was that how much the seeds he planted continue to grow and bear fruit.

According to the Aetas, Lawrence helped them built their first school building, which is now a regular elementary school. In building that school, Lawrence found the corporate and individual donors and supervised its construction.  Lawrence also linked many resources to the community, among others bringing a Jesuit Volunteer, Jaygee Sabio, there to serve the Aetas. He also introduced National Scientist Dr. Lourdes Cruz, now retired professor of the UP Marine Science Institute, to the Aetas in 1999. Since then, Dr. Cruz has been partnering with the Aetas by providing appropriate technology and through other interventions helping the community to improve their lives. Dr. Cruz now leads the National Research Council of the Philippines, which is the main partner of the Ateneo School of Government in a project on innovations for inclusive development that is supported by the Canadian donor International Development Research Centre. Dr. Cruz was the one that brought us to the mountain last week as she continues to work with the Aetas. I have committed to her and to the leaders of the community that the team of environmental lawyers of the Ateneo School of Government will help in securing their ancestral domain rights, threatened as usual by the government and mining and other commercial interests. I think it is my friend Lawrence, again that is making this connection, making himself felt. The Aetas said that was not surprising. A year after he died, on his death anniversary, the bell in the school building rang by itself, even when no one was there.

This March, Lawrence Ong will be honored by Xavier School with the Xavier-Kuangchi Exemplary Alumni Award, a well-deserved award for, if anything, it is Lawrence I remember when I listen to the song Pilgrim’s Theme, composed by Fr. Manoling Francisco SJ with the lyrics written by former Xavier School president Johnny Go SJ. That song talks about how St. Francis Xavier found his place
”in the greater scheme of things”.  Definitely, Lawrence found that place in a life of service motivated by his Christian faith. This is the latest of many awards this Chinoy subversive and revolutionary has gotten, most of them posthumous. But his achievement is not summarized by this recognition. What Lawrence Ong has done is best seen in the mountains of Bataan, where his name is always mentioned with gratitude, his gentle and loving presence is still felt, where he continues to link people to each other as he did with us and the Aetas last week, and where a community, 13 years after he has passed to eternal life, celebrates his birthday every year.

What a legacy for a man who was so simple, humble, and was invisible to many. Ultimately, Lawrence’s footprint on this world, a good one for sure, would be much bigger than those of us who think we are important because we have power and fame. Lawrence Ong, there is no other way he can be described— most definitely, a hero for all time.