Lent reminds Father Edwin “Edu” Gariguez of the reason why he entered the priesthood. “It’s self-giving,” he said.
“Self-giving,” the Filipino priest who is known for his social activism, said is the reason for being of every social action worker, priest, and activist.
“That is the reason why they choose to follow the path of serving the people,” he said.
On Ash Wednesday, the start of the Lenten season, Father Edu tendered his resignation as executive secretary of the social action secretariat of the Philippine bishops’ conference. It will take effect on May 30, 2020.
“It was just a coincidence,” he said. “I knew there could be no other perfect day to make [his departure] public,” said the priest.
Father Edu, who served the social action office of the bishops in the past ten years, said Ash Wednesday is a reminder of Jesus’ teaching to take care of the welfare of others.
“The mission started when I was a young seminarian,” said the priest who came from the Diocese of Lucena but transferred to Apostolic Vicariate of Calapan in the island province of Mindoro during his theology studies.
“I was looking for a place where I can give more,” he said.
In Calapan, the priest helped in organizing farmers and tribal communities.
After his ordination on April 1, 1993, Father Edu established the Peasant Empowerment and Advocacy Network, a federation of farmers in the province.
He advocated for “transformative politics.”
From 1999 to 2001, he served as executive secretary of the town mayor of Victoria in Oriental Mindoro province.
He later worked as “advocacy officer” for the Mangyan Mission, a church-based organization that promotes the rights of tribal people.
Moved by his “faith and religious convictions,” the priest organized the Alliance Against Mining in Mindoro and led numerous protest actions against the destruction of the environment.
As a result of public opposition to mining, the local government of the island enacted a moratorium on large-scale mining operations in 2002.
A Norwegian mining company, however, ignored the ordinance and continued its operations.
“That prompted me to bring the fight in the international community,” recalled Father Edu. He flew to Europe to file a complaint before the Organizations for Economic Cooperation and Development against the mining company.
In 2009, Father Edu led an 11-day hunger strike, together with 25 others, that forced the Philippines’ Environment office to look into the mining company’s violations.
In 2010, the government ordered a stop to the company’s operations in Mindoro.
Journey in promoting human rights
Father Edu’s journey in promoting human rights and the protection of the environment was filled with threats, and heartbreaks.
In 2002, a member of his organization was killed. The murder did not deter the priest from pursuing his mission. He started documenting the spate of killings in the province.
The priest, however, was number one on the killers’ hit list.
“The diocese had to protect him by sending him out,” said Nelsie Alvarez Uy, 39, a church worker in Calapan. She said Father Edu’s work as a community organizer threatened some influential people.
“His unconditional response to the needs of the poor and the disadvantaged touched the lives of people,” recalled Uy. “He is always ready to extend his arms to the people,” she said.
In 2004, the priest was sent to Manila to pursue his doctoral degree in anthropology at the Asian Social Institute.
In 2012, he was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize for leading a grassroots movement against large-scale mining and for amplifying the voice of the indigenous peoples.
Later, as head of Caritas Philippines, Father Edu developed and spearheaded numerous programs that made the church organization a leading humanitarian agency in the country.
“His work competencies helped the social action commission a lot in becoming what it is right now,” said Bishop Broderick Pabillo, former head of the social action secretariat of the bishops’ conference.
In the coming weeks, Father Edu will be going back to the province, where he said Ash Wednesday and Lent are being lived by the people every day of their lives.
He said he will continue his advocacy and his mission to defend the rights of tribal people and the protection of “Our Common Home.”