[IRL] THE RUNNING PRIEST, THE DOCTORA AND THE SENADORA
By Menchu Aquino Sarmiento
In the face of natural calamities and man-made disasters, which the pandemic both is, the Church has always been among the first responders. Before the community pantries burst upon the scene, there was the Kusina Ni Doc Sally, an example of a parish-based initiative in the time of COVID.
Doc Sally was the late Salvacion Rodriguez Gatchalian, one of the first medical professionals felled by COVID-19. She was the popular president of the Philippine Pediatric Association and a respected consultant at the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine, a seminal testing site for the virus. Despite her many professional and volunteer activities, Doc Sally had been a faithful attendee and a lector of the daily 6 am masses at San Isidro Labrador in Barangay Pinyahan-Quezon City, shepherded by Fr. Robert Reyes, a Franciscan known as “The Running Priest.” His ministering to the families of other parishioners who had also died of COVID aroused fear and suspicion of him as a vector of disease. Doc Sally’s widower husband, the urologist Ed Gatchalian who had stayed by her side when she was in the ICU, also experienced some shunning. COVID “bullying” was everywhere.
Soon after Doc Sally’s untimely passing, Fr. Robert received a cash donation from a Franciscan congregation and a lay organization in Hong Kong. This became the seed money for a feeding program called Kusina ni Doc Sally. The initials KNDS were a shortcut for “kindness” which her life of service had exemplified.
Unlike the more free-wheeling Maginhawa Community Pantry which initially relied on a wondrously serendipitous give and take, Fr. Robert and the parish volunteers had a more structured approach. For two weeks, they held organizational meetings and formed committees, i.e., for mobilization (to survey the areas and identify beneficiaries), for food preparation and marketing, on sanitation and infection-prevention, as well as information-communication-documentation. The young artist Gie Adamat designed their banners and executed a life-size painting of Doc Sally for free.
Forty days after Doc Sally’s passing, from May 6 till June 5, 2020, Kusina ni Doc Sally gave packed lunches (kanin at ulam) thrice a week to 100 families or to approximately 600 individuals per KNDS day. Despite the augmentation of their modest fund with other donations of: rice from the Gatchalian family, upland vegetables from friends like the restaurateur Waya Araos, free van and driving services from parishioner Manny Valdez, more cash and sundry staples from other friends like the Gatchalian’s U.P. College of Medicine Class of 1977, Kusina ni Doc Sally operated for just 5 weeks. However, KNDS continues in other forms, such as the Gulayan ni Doc Sally which pays farmers fair prices to bring fresh healthful produce to the urban poor. Since religious gatherings were drastically curtailed, the Gulayan also became a means for the San Isidro Labrador Parish to survive.
Fr. Reyes reflects that “The pandemic has been a strange blessing. . . Both rich and poor now share a common poverty, their vulnerability to infection and their inevitable march toward mortality. However, while the poor do not have a choice but to accept and embrace their profound vulnerability, the rest of the world is challenged by the Pandemic to practice solidarity and seek genuine fraternity, both with nature and the poor.”
In his just-released book Kusina ni Doc Sally: a Community Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic, Fr. Robert also writes of the San Isidro Labrador Parish’s campaign to PRAY and RESIST the VIRUS--but not just the SARS COVID-19 virus. Before and during this pandemic, there was also the man-made scourge of multiple EJKs or Extra Judicial Killings in the government’s ongoing “War on Drugs.” As Fr. Robert wrote, “The experience of both Pandemic and EJK in the parish has been an invitation to both the parish priest and his community to immerse themselves in the dual poverty of both nature and the oppressed and exploited poor. . .” Through initiatives like Kusina ni Doc Sally, the Church nurtures its flock in body and soul. KNDS provided food at the wakes of impoverished EJK victims from the parish, even as their bereaved families continued to hunger and thirst for justice.
Long deprived of justice is the imprisoned Sen. Leila M. De Lima to whom Fr. Robert dedicates his book. She bluntly declares that “a president who kills people in times of peace, is incapable of saving lives in times of crisis and calamities.”
Meanwhile, during every mass he celebrates, Fr. Robert lights a candle for each parishioner murdered in an EJK. Throughout the pandemic, their number keeps growing, as does the light they cast.
Menchu Aquino Sarmiento is an award-winning writer and a social concerns advocate. IRL (In Real Life) are short verbal pagmumuni-muni, the essay equivalent of fast fiction--but in real life. She really wants more Filipinos to care, and to do something legal and non-violent about it, preferably together, so that we act more like a civilized country, a mature democracy.