RECENTLY I was installed new pastor of the Parish of the Assumption of Our Lady in Bgy Lalawigan, one of two barangay parishes born of the Borongan Cathedral Parish. Even days before I left my former parish a kindly elderly man paid me a visit twice to make sure I was informed about the agreed upon date of his barangay’s yearly celebration of San Isidro Labrador’s feast scheduled on the third week of May. I simply called him ‘Mano Mayong’. I asked what his barangay’s name was and how far it was from the seat of the parish.
“Bagong Baryo,” he said, pausing. “Modesty aside, Padre, it’s a barangay I founded in the seventies and the farthest in the parish. But don’t you worry, Padre. You’ll get there in a little more than two hours.”
I asked the former pastor what he thought and he said: “No. Three is more like it. Enjoy the ride.”
Soon everything about the place intrigued me and I asked some parishioners what I needed to know as a first-time visitor. What I heard both challenged and scared me.
It was almost a quarter past nine in the morning of May 20, 2009 when we left Bgy Camada by motorized banca. May 21st was Bagong Baryo’s fiesta and I had to spend the night there for the eve’s liturgy. Suribao River beaconed like the Amazon. I may be exaggerating but I think it is our Amazon. I felt fully oriented about what lay ahead. But the calm of the waters lulled me. When the jolt came I was in a stupor.
“First station,” said one of my companions, a teacher on a break, laughing. What that meant became clear to me when the men, except the boatmen and myself, disembarked and hit the river bank to walk to the calmer spot where we would pick them up. We who stayed on the motorized banca braced ourselves up for the rapids. I watched the river running wildly, almost violently, against us. I realized we were moving squarely upstream. I breathed in and forgot about breathing out. The boatmen steered the banca through rampaging waters. Silently I uttered a prayer asking the Lord to get us safely through. To my credit I also asked San Isidro, Bagong Baryo’s patron saint, to do his share in praying for our safety. My relief was palpable when we made it. I said thanks to the Lord and to the farmer saint.
But the first station was soon followed by a second and a third, a fourth and a fifth until we reached the spot called ‘Hilangris’.
“This is where people shriek and cry out when they go through the rapids,” Enyeng, our guitarist, told me. “That explains the name.” In fact, to me the name ‘Hilangris’ sounded like ‘hinagpis’ (Tagalog for ‘groaning’). Again the men disembarked to lighten up the boat’s weight against a most unusual sight I’ve ever seen—the rampaging waters looked to me like giant boiling bubbles over which we were soon helplessly tossed about but bravely carried forward by the now feverish sound of the boat’s motor. Twice in our whole trip the motor’s blade hit a rock and twice we had to stop to replace it.
Then, to my amazement, I was enjoying the intervals in between the rapids. The river was like a witch. It could be calm and enticing when it wasn’t on a rage. The lush greenery of the rainforest on the way to Bagong Baryo and the sheer diversity of flora mesmerized me. From time to time I could see water falls by the river banks. I thanked God for Eastern Samar’s underdevelopment. Otherwise we would have lost these treasures by now. But in no way does this mean we have no predators. In fact, on the way to Bagong Baryo we passed by at least three groups of men loading countless sacks of the Suribao River’s gravel and sand into big motorized boats. Unscrupulous construction businessmen, I said to myself, with some local officials probably in cahoots. They were the river’s human rapids.
Before I was lost in my thoughts again I found us finally stopping by a small river port. ‘Bagong Baryo’ looked to me like an old village out of nowhere. The huts and concrete stairs leading upward to its inner recesses greeted us like ghosts of a bygone era. Unwashed faces of children and adults registered questions more than ‘welcome’ as they met our eyes. Poverty was written all over the place. Virtually only two houses had a functional toilet, including the hut where my group and I were “assigned” to stay. You would think they haven’t been touched by civilization yet. But as I cocked my ears to what the young men were singing, I could make out some of the latest pop and local rap music.
But the thought that possessed me was that I have finally arrived at ‘Bagong Baryo’. I saw myself in the shoes of a missionary some centuries ago. In fact, my homily was already playing in my head even before I celebrated the Eucharist which, I was told and understandably, is a rarity. I looked at my timepiece. It was 12:15 PM.
“Bagong Baryo,” I spoke later, my voice booming through a decrepit speaker, “thank you so much for your welcome. My name is Fr. Euly B. Belizar. I’m your new Cura. But let’s not talk about me. Let’s talk about you and your barangay. ‘Bagong Baryo’ (New Village), to me, is a symbol of the ‘New Jerusalem’ which is also a symbol of heaven, God’s kingdom. Do you know why? Because I realize that coming here is so much like going to heaven. Let me explain. Coming here means going against the river’s currents and the rapids. And that is exactly what going to heaven also entails. It means many times going against the currents of the world’s and the Filipino cultures. On the one hand, we have a culture that glorifies money, pleasure, violence, power and everything material obtained by any means. On the other hand, we have a faith that urges us to turn away from selfishness and pride and to take up the often heavy cross of our Christian identity and its responsibility to proclaim the gospel in word and action. If we want to reach our real home, just like when you want to reach your home, we must be ready to shoot and go against the rapids…”
I was met by Mano Mayong and his wife after Mass. “Padre,” they told me, “we were almost outvoted by those of us who didn’t want to invite the priest and have the Mass and baptisms. But we refused to give in. We will never allow, as long as we are alive, a fiesta without the Lord’s Word being preached and the Lord’s Body being given.”
Only then did I realize how every rapid was worth shooting after all.