The other week, I overheard someone speak about the history of Catholicism in the Philippines.
I overheard things I’d never given a second thought.
I overheard things I can’t un-hear.
The Philippines were colonized by Spain. That much I already knew. The Philippines had had its own beautiful culture, its own beautiful languages and dialects, its own societies and traditions, before the Spaniards invaded. That much I already knew. The Philippines, as with any country that’s been colonized “in the name of Christianity” (America and Columbus, anyone?) suffered abuse and injustice at the hand of its oppressors, surviving only after sacrificing much of itself to be replaced by the oppressors’ ideals. That much I already knew. But I’d never, until now, put two and two together what exactly that history meant in terms of today.
I was raised in the Catholic tradition. For as long as I can remember, my parents all but dragged me to Mass or to religious education (RE) classes every Sunday and every holy day of obligation. Though I didn’t doubt God was real, I still took everything with regards to Catholicism for granted, just going with the flow, disengaged and disinterested during Mass and attending RE just because my parents said so. When I describe the history of my faith life to my peers, I often gesture to the sky and say God was always something “up there” — and then, gesturing to my heart, I would explain the difference: He was never something “in here.” He was present throughout my entire life thanks to my parents’ devout practicing of Catholicism, but I never actually felt close to Him until college.
I didn’t make my faith life my own until I arrived on my campus. After finally having gained some space from my parents’ desires for my faith life — and therefore, gaining space from what my faith life used to be — I was able to create and follow my own. I started studying the Bible and worshiping out of my own volition, no longer passive, no longer having a relationship with God with Him “up there” but rather letting Him “in here” instead. After a long while of grappling with my integrity as a Christ-follower, I’ve been able to proudly and confidently identify myself as a progressive Christian, in love with God and with the on-campus interdenominational community He’s brought me, anchored in my personal relationship with Him (and not, necessarily, in a relationship with an organized religion) as I continue forward in working to address issues faced by marginalized communities.
But learning the history of how the Philippines was introduced to Catholicism and Christianity — and therefore, how I have been introduced to Catholicism and Christianity — has completely floored me. It’s thrown me for a terrifying loop. Suddenly, the three most important things to me — my culture, my faith, and my passion for social justice — seem to be at war with each other. My anger at the injustices, the loss of cultural practices and traditions, suffered by my people at the hands of the Spaniards, is suddenly taking precedence over anything else.
And I’ve been consumed by fear and uncertainty.
My faith had been my rock. But after learning about how Catholicism made its way into Philippine culture, I feel like I’ve discovered that that rock was never mine to begin with, as if I’ve turned it over to find someone else’s name was written on the bottom. I’ve been completely shaken. I’m scared to even try praying or open my Bible. I don’t feel like these practices are mine. As someone so passionate about fighting injustice, to know the introduction of Catholicism in the Philippines, and by extent, my introduction to Christianity, came by injustice has completely thrown me off.
When I met with a friend and role model in Christ the other day, he provided me with an insight I needed to hear:
“Nothing’s changed. History hasn’t changed. God hasn’t changed. The only thing that’s changed is that you learned something new.”
Giving up on my faith life, giving up on Christianity, won’t change the history of injustices suffered by the Filipinx population. But does continuing to pursue it mean that I’m okay with those injustices? I don’t know the answer to that. I sincerely hope not. The last two years had consisted of me actively choosing God every single day after a lifetime of passiveness. I woke up every day choosing Him, knowing what it was like not to. Does that have to change now that I know what I know? Would I still have found God in a different way had my people’s history been different? There are so many questions plaguing me and weighing on my heart, and I don’t know how to start answering them other than taking some intentional time to reflect and rethink. I feel like I’ve been knocked down — not to square one, not to rock bottom, but even past it. I’m not giving up on my faith life, but I think I need to rebuild it.
I’ve just ordered two books: Anthony Ocampo’s The Latinos of Asia: How Filipino Americans Break the Rules of Race and Stephen M. Cherry’s Faith, Family, and Filipino American Community Life. I’m so hungry to read them, to pursue answers and gain a better grasp on my culture, my faith, and my passion for social justice — especially how my passion for social justice pertains to my culture and my faith.
Further reading on Philippine/Fil-Am history:
Wikipedia: “Religion in the Pre-Colonial Philippines”
Wikipedia: “Catholic Church in the Philippines”
Northern Illinois University SEASite: “Christianity in the Philippines”
Asia Society: “Religion in the Philippines”
Filipiknow: “10 Reasons Why Life Was Better in Pre-Colonial Philippines”
Filipiknow: “7 Myths About Spanish Colonial Period All Filipinos Should Stop Believing”
Filipiknow: “8 Dark Chapters of Filipino-American History We Rarely Talk About”
Featured image is of the stained glass windows at my home church, July 2016