|Singapore's Straits Times 1981, shows Vergara's transformation from activist student to a preacher at St. Andrew's Anglican Cathedral, and in-charge of its extension (outreach) centers.|
The Priest Who Ran Away From Home
By Gilian Pow Chong
(Editor’s Note: This article appeared on the Sunday Weekender Issue of Singapore’s Straits Times dated December 20, 1981 and is reprinted here with minor editing November 5, 2012 hoping that it will inspire the readers, both young and old, to appreciate the value of education as an “equalizer” in society. From being a “street urchin,” the person referred to here is currently missioner for Asiamerica Ministries in the Episcopal Church based in New York City, having garnered two Bachelor degrees, one Master’s degree, and two Doctorate degrees.)
His life sounds like grist for the Hollywood mill. Poor island-village boy (in the Philippines) longing for education, stows away aboard a liner bound for Manila, where he lives life as a street urchin, sleeps among the homeless and later works as dishwasher, janitor, acolyte, house boy and office boy to finish high school. Then he goes to college, works as journalist, and agitates for the activist youth movement and figures as fiery speaker at demonstrations against social injustice. Through all these, he makes friends and enemies, is praised for his work among the poor, jailed for participating in farm workers’ strike, became a priest and later recognized in his own village as a hero and role model. Today, the Rev. Fred Vergara is missionary pastor at St. Andrew’s Anglican Cathedral and works among the young adult Christians and ministers among the migrants, the sick and the poor in Singapore. (Singapore 12.20.1981)
The problem with the Rev. Fred Vergara story is finding the right ending. The main character is real and there is always a new twist in his life.
The latest twist is a badly aching back.
“I think it’s from all my clowning at the church’s special Christmas Cheers outreach programme for factory workers, “he says. “I must have overdone it.”
Yes, Rev. Vergara is a keen singer and actor-comedian too.
“I’ve always like entertaining people, and naturally as a Filipino, I love singing, even if sometimes the song does not love me. After being ordained priest, I tried to maintain this.”
Born in the barrio of Pili (Ajuy, Iloilo in Panay island off western Philippines), Rev. Vergara’s childhood has been one of constant struggle against the fatalism that permeated an island-village lifestyle.
He says, “Almost everyone, including each member of my family, was resigned to his fate---a life of poverty and hopelessness. The Filipino word “Bahala Na.” becomes a a corruption of Bathala Na (God’s will be done); the faith statement has been reduced to a statement of a “No Can Do” attitude.
“Leave it all to Bathala (God) seems to be my barrio’s philosophy. Almost all of us were poor. The only rich people in our barrio were few landowners who lord it over the masses, both farm tenants and barrio folks.”
This lifestyle plagued him.
“I was very somber as a child, “he says, “always questioning what my future was going to be. Yes, I was pensive but at the same time, I have visions of hope, “he added.
“Our barrio is sandwiched between the Pacific Ocean and the mountain and every time I see the sea horizon, I would ask, ‘What’s behind that ocean?’ and when I look up the mountain I would ask, ‘What’s on the other side?’“ It seems that either way beckons me to find my path, to seek my destiny, “he ponders.
The way he saw it, there was no future for him if he stayed in the barrio. Besides, he knew that his parents would not be able to afford even a secondary education (high school) for him. There were six children in the family and life was tough. His parents long to have their children go to college but it was far too ambitious for a war veteran without pension and for his barely educated wife.
Vergara’s parents valued higher education and saw potentials of their children who were mostly honor students in elementary school ---but college was much too ambitious. Even their modest house was squatting on someone else’ land.
“I walked seven kilometers to attend the town high school. There were few buses and jeepneys but we could not afford it,” he says.
Finally he decided to serve as an acolyte in the town church so he could stay for free in the convent during classes, but even then, there was no way that he could finish high school as the fees were going up.
Eventually pressure became too hard to bear that when the parish priest was away, he “borrowed” his motorcycle in order to explore possibility in another town, but “as fate would have it,” he crashed it into a pig on his way.
“Not only was the pig dead but its owner was furious and the motorbike was a complete write-off,” Vergara said.
He promised the owner that he would sell the pig for the equivalent of S$30 and return with the money. But he only managed to sell it for half that sum.
Too scared to face the pig’s owner, too sorry to face his family and too ashamed to face the priest (Rev. Ceasar Lirazan) who owned the motorcycle, he jumped into a passing truck going to the city (Iloilo) and “again as fate would have it,” the truck went directly to the pier where a liner (Galaxy) was about to sail away.
“I did not even know where the ship was going but I went right up to it, eluding the guard and going straight to hide in the kitchen, “Vergara recalls.
“Actually, I was surprised that the cook and the other kitchen staff did not ask questions. They simply presumed that I was a new recruit as a kitchen boy. The chef even gave me a sack of potatoes to peel,” he says.
But the problem began when he was sent to toss the garbage overboard. He could not lift the load so he dragged and pushed it out into the water. But with it went the shoe of the passenger who was sun bathing on the deck!
“The furious man grabbed me and wanted to throw me overboard but he was intimidated when I threatened to bring him down with me as well. He must have seen the suicidal eyes of a desperate teenager. He released me with a warning to stay out of his sight.”
Vergara sneaked back into the kitchen during a routine check of all the passengers and pretended to wash the floor. When the inspector came round, he cleverly pointed the hose to the inspector and drenched him with water until he retreated, cursing “____you! Stupid kitchen boy!”
After a 28-hour trip---what a relief---they arrived in Manila.
But this stop was really just the continuation of his seemingly endless struggle against poverty and search for his destiny.
With only S$15 and clad in tee-shirt and trousers and rubber shoes, he wandered aimlessly in Manila looking for a job.
Nights were spent sleeping on the parks and the sidewalks with street urchins and sharing food with them. At times they would share food thrown in the garbage by tourists and pedestrians.
After three weeks, he sought shelter in a church in Tondo (a gang-infested section in Manila’s slums) and the priest there (Father Azucena) recommended him to work at a nearby restaurant as a dishwasher. Unfortunately, the restaurant was burned by gangsters and he was left without a job.
But it was not long before he finally found a break.
“The elderly priest from Iglesia Filipina Independiente in Tondo told me of a younger priest in downtown Manila who might need a helper as he was setting up a ministry office,” Vergara says.
He sought for that priest (Fr. Porfirio Dela Cruz) and sure enough he was admitted as an office boy, janitor and all-around messenger. “I did not ask for wages but I asked him to send me to high school in exchange for my services.”
He finished high school under the patronage of Father Dela Cruz (he would later become a bishop) who promoted him to become his typist and secretary.
“I learned typing by myself. After cleaning up the office, I would play around on the typewriters and became pretty good at it. Fr. Dela Cruz was silently empowering me to reach my goals,” Vergara says.
As office secretary, he also improved his writing skills in the English language that enabled him to gain scholarships as editor of the campus newspaper of Trinity College (now Trinity University of Asia).
He studied Bachelor of Arts, major in Political Science and minor in Journalism. He became a leader in the national College Editors Guild and officer of the National Union of Students of the Philippines with responsibility of organizing students at several campuses in Quezon City (Metropolitan Manila) for mass protests.
His activist involvement and Political Science studies introduced him to the teachings of Karl Marx, Mao Tse Tung and the local Marxist-Leninist-Maoist intellectual, “Amado Guerrero” (pen name for Amado Sison of the Communist Party of the Philippines). He became a : teach in" instructor on "dialectical materialism" and other communist historical analysis.
“Very soon I began to shift my paradigm and became critical of the church which helped me in my teenage years. Mao’s little Red Book became my bible and I began to accept the teaching that religion is an opiate of the people, borne out of ignorance and fear,” Vergara testifies.
He became so immersed in student activism that on the third year of college, he practically dropped out and spent time in demonstrations, ‘teach-ins” and joining strikes and union organizing.
“I was passionate about human injustice because I have seen it as a child and as a homeless teenager. But protest and demonstrations were also becoming like a fad in campuses, something of a necessary evil in the struggle for social change.”
He spoke in rallies and demonstrations, but when martial law was declared on September 21, 1972, he and his friends lied low. He was invited by some militants to go underground and continue the struggle but an outbreak of pneumonia prevented him from following the movement.
“It was a miracle I survived. I was terribly ill. I was coughing rusty saliva and blood as my throat was severely sore. No family to turn to and no money to go to hospital or buy medicine,” he says.
In that moment of desperation, he turned to God once more who seemed to show him another path.
“I was beginning to realize that the solution to society’s problems was not an armed revolution but a change of human hearts in the power of the Holy Spirit,” he says.
He returned to the church again and this time he was appointed as editor of The Christian Register, a national magazine of the Philippine Independent Church. He also became the speech writer of the Supreme Bishop and primate of the Filipino Church, the Most Rev. Macario V. Ga and official recorder of the meetings of the Supreme Council of Bishops.
His socialist activism turned to religious leadership. He became president of the National Church Youth Movement and represented the Philippine Christian youth to the World Council of Churches held in Nairobi, Kenya and international Christian youth conference in Arusha, Tanzania. Eventually, he entered seminary to pursue the ordained ministry.
Rev. Vergara’s sudden ideological about-turn puzzled his friends in the socialist movement. No less than the leader of the movement (Edgar Jopson) visited him at St. Andrew’s Seminary in Quezon City one evening and inquired about his change of direction.
“This brilliant and committed revolutionary friend asked me what I had eaten. Before, I raised a clenched fist but now I lift up both hands in praising God. He thought I was simply afraid or just lost my passion or there must be drastically wrong with me. But he was very respectful of my decision and even offered to attend my ordination if he could evade being arrested.”
After his ordination, Rev. Vergara worked as parish priest in Dagupan and Pasay cities in the Philippines until he was awarded scholarship to study Master in Theology degree in Singapore under the Southeast Asia Graduate School of Theology. As he was finishing his studies, he was invited to become missionary priest of St. Andrew’s Anglican Cathedral in-charge of its extension (evangelistic and church planting) centers.
When he returned to his barrio in the Philippines to offer a Christmas Eucharist which was also his birthday (December 25) and thereafter purchased the land on which his parents' house was squatting for a long time, he was hailed as a village hero and role-model.
“Some children were even named after me and were told by their parents to imitate my passion for education, sans the running away from home,” Vergara jokingly says.
After his l-o-n-g struggle, what does Rev. Vergara think of life today?
“When I ran away from home, it was a struggle to free myself from poverty and to achieve a different future. When I joined the activist movement, it was a natural evolution of my personal struggle against social injustice. But these struggles are futile without a spiritual compass.”
“I realize that without God, my struggle would be in vain. It also became known to me in my study, that without moral, ethical and spiritual framework, today's revolutionaries would eventually become future reactionaries, formerly oppressed people would become future oppressors. I chose the path of priesthood because I can minister to both sides of the socio-political divide.”
What helped him succeed?
“Optimism,” he says. “I always look for a silver lining after every storm in my life.”
“You can always distinguish an optimist from a pessimist by the way you look at the doughnuts,” he says.
“If you see mostly the hole in a doughnut, you are a pessimist. But if you see mostly the dough, instead of the hole, then you are an optimist.”
By Gillian POW Chong, Singapore Sunday Straits Times, December 20, 1981. Reprinted and slightly edited from the original version. 11.07.2012