Grace Revealed: Novices’ Journey into the heart of indigenous community

on 15 Feb, 2024
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Songkoy, Pangasinan (Philippines), 02/15/2024, Gina Lontoc, novice.- Amidst the lush greenery and winding rivers in villages of Maruglo, Capas, Tarlac, Philippines lies Sitio Flora—a home for a hundred Aeta families, one of the largest indigenous groups in the country. I was one of the eighteen (18) novices who were assigned to the Indigenous Peoples (IP) sector as part of the 10-day immersion program from January 16 to 26, 2024 under the EXODUS Inter-congregational Program for Novices. With us were three formators in charge of the IP sector, one of them was my formator, Sr. Rosy Karippai, OP.

After crossing thirteen (13) rivers, our group arrived in Sitio Flora where we were warmly greeted by members of the Aeta community, most of whom were children. Fr. Arthur Eduarte, the parish priest of St. Joseph Parish and the Director of the Diocesan Commission on Indigenous People of Tarlac introduced us to our foster families after the Eucharistic Celebration. This has set a spiritual climate for our immersion experience imbued with communal solidarity and reverence.

Sitio Flora operates without electricity, relying instead on solar power, while its water supply comes from a pristine mountain spring. I was blessed to have witnessed their generosity, resilience, and connection with the Divine through their communion with nature that defined Aeta’s life. During this immersion experience, I discovered the profound beauty of indigenous spirituality and the interconnectedness of all creation. The river, which serves as more than a water source, is very important in the daily life of the Aetas. It is where we wash our clothes, bathe, and tend to the carabaos, (Baffalo) symbolizing a vital connection to both sustenance and livelihood. During my time there, I experienced first-hand the traditional methods employed by the Aeta for fishing. We would lift heavy stones and strategically block the flow of water, creating an ingenious method to trap and sift through the fish. This age-old practice not only provided food but also reflected the resourcefulness and ingenuity of the Aetas. Alongside the fish, we collected small crabs, frogs, and camaro (a type of cricket), which we later enjoyed for lunch. This experience underscored the deep bond between the Aetas and nature, highlighting its role as a cornerstone of their daily existence and cultural heritage.

One of the highlights of this immersion was witnessing the "balaehan" or engagement ceremony of one of the daughters of my foster family. As I observed how both families discuss the engagement, future wedding plans, and the intricacies of the dowry system in Aeta culture. I gained meaningful insights into their customs and values. This aspect of Aeta life was one reason why I was assigned to this household: to encourage the married children, who were in their very young ages of 13, 14, and 15, to return to school and complete their education. The prevalence of early marriages had led the eldest son and the second daughter to halt their education prematurely. However, it was a deep spiritual experience for me when, towards the end of the immersion, both the son and his wife, as well as the daughter who had just become engaged, decided to resume their schooling. Carrying out my special task is a testament to the grace of the Lord working within the hearts of the family members, guiding them toward a brighter future through empowerment and education.

In this transformative 10-day immersion, another significant mission opportunity emerged. As the immersion drew to a close, Fr. Arthur expressed a heartfelt request for us to establish a community of sisters dedicated to serving the Aeta community. According to him, the encounter between us and the Aetas deeply resonated and ignited a spark of hope and inspiration. As we anticipate the forthcoming request, we continue to pray for the intercession of Blessed Marie Poussepin as we engage in a deep discernment to continue her legacy by walking in solidarity with our brothers and sisters on the margins of society.

This immersion experience is a profound encounter with God that has altered the lens through which I perceive the world. As I bid farewell to the Aetas, I carry with me not only cherished memories but also a new found appreciation for resilience, simplicity, and the intrinsic beauty of life. Indeed, the way I see things will never be the same again.