At Large

A Sister in the struggle

/ 05:07 AM November 07, 2017

The numbers are still disputed. But whether 20,000 (the organizers’ count) or 3,000 (the police estimate), those who participated in the “Stop the Killing, Start the Healing” activity last Sunday delivered a loud and clear message that the killings of drug suspects by the thousands have got to end.

What makes the Mass at the Edsa Shrine, and then the march to and assembly at the People Power Monument even more significant is that these had the backing of the Catholic Church hierarchy. True, bishops, priests, lay groups and Catholic schools had previously spoken out and sponsored Masses. But these were discrete, isolated events.


Sunday’s event was a major show of force.

The Church has always played a major role in marshaling public opinion. But while Church leaders can act in unison over issues they agree on, they can sometimes be slow to come to consensus. As it was early on during martial law in the 1970s, so it is today.


Entirely apropos, then, is this tribute written by Menchu Aquino Sarmiento in honor of Sr. Helen Graham, MM. Titled “A Bible Scholar in the Struggle,” the article (excerpts are published here in installments) traces Sister Helen’s journey from her arrival in the Philippines 50 years ago, and her evolution from teacher to Bible scholar (with a focus on the role of women in the Church), to activist and organizer.

It was a time when you could be imprisoned for singing “Bayan Ko” in public. Ordinary folks clumped together on the street might be violently dispersed or criminally charged with illegal assembly. The invention of mobile phone technology and the World Wide Web was decades away, yet the news was often faked, suppressed and strictly censored. Forbidden truths were spread through mimeographed newsletters and photostats of banned articles smuggled in from abroad. Then as now, priests and nuns, collectively known as the religious, were in the thick of the anti-Marcos martial law struggle.

Sister Helen was one of them. She has spent the past 50 years as a Maryknoll Missionary (the MM after her name) in the Philippines.

She was just five years old when she lost her parents: Dorothy Poll and Walter Alva Graham, to TB. Orphaned, she lived with her paternal grandparents in Brooklyn. Grandma Mamie had never gotten past the elementary grades but she was a formative influence. Grandpa Will, a self-proclaimed agnostic and secular humanist, enjoyed debunking traditional Catholic teachings. After high school, two years of secretarial training and another two years of employment, the young adult Helen joined Maryknoll. There she realized her avocation and passion for biblical studies.

On Sept. 9, 1967, she sailed out of San Francisco bound for the Philippines, over 6,000 miles away.

Even half a century ago, Manila traffic was horrendous and, as Sister Helen wrote, “there were cows and carabaos, sometimes pigs and goats too, walking freely on the streets with the people.” She had fallen in love with the Filipino people.

Then she was off to teach high school in Datu Piang, Cotabato, eight hours away from the main Mindanao Maryknoll Fathers Mission in Sasa, Davao, by wooden bus over “accordion-pleated dirt roads.” There was no electricity or running water, but swarms of mosquitos, lizards, rats and bats.


Soon it was decided that Sister Helen, who had studied biblical Hebrew at the Harvard Divinity School and taken courses at the Union Theological Seminary, would be more useful teaching in Maryknoll College. She returned to Manila in the tumultuous months before the momentous First Quarter Storm of 1970. She was also a student at “teach-ins,” popular in those days as a means of raising awareness on pressing social concerns.

The reality of Marcos martial law touched closer to home when one of Sister Helen’s students, Tessie Liwanag, was arrested and detained in Canlubang, Laguna, after the military killed her husband before her very eyes. In January 1973, Fr. Engelbert van Vilsteren, a Dutch Carmelite in Agusan del Sur, was murdered by paramilitary forces. Clearly, not even the foreign religious were safe.

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TAGS: At Large, drug killings, extrajudicial killings, Heal Our Land, Helen Graham, Rina Jimenez-David, Socrates villegas, Stop the Killing Start the Healing, war on drugs
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