Ginging and the Kidnapped Priest*

“Benito! Come quickly!”

Ibony’s voice was tense as she called her husband from across their one-room hut. It was 5:30 a.m. on Good Friday, March 29, 1991, and the hot sun was just rising over the forest where Ibony, her husband Benito, who was a hired farm worker, and their younger children lived on the Philippine island of Mindanao.

Benito followed his wife’s gaze out of the opening of their hut. Headed directly toward them were ten rough-looking men — some in military uniforms, others in local dress — leading as prisoner a white-skinned, whitehaired foreigner. As the captive stumbled with exhaustion, one of the men grunted, prodding him forward with his weapon.

Benito did not have to look twice to recognize the M16 automatic rifle; he had seen it when these thieving rebels had passed by their hut demanding food — no matter that Benito’s family had only salted rice for their table. And he had seen it — Benito’s nostrils flared at the memory — when one of his daughters had been seized to marry a local leader in league with the rebels. Benito had never seen her again. Jesus, please protect my family.

Ginging, 11, and her younger sister Anita were just stirring from sleep. “What’s going on?” Then came the inevitable rap of a rifle on the door.

“Food. Shelter. No informing anyone of what happens here. And no questions.”

Commander Tora-Tora spoke brusquely, as though rattling off an agenda at a business meeting. Commander Jimmy, his assistant, scowled, giving the impression that he would have much preferred to enter with a few shouts and smashes of furniture — if there had been any to smash. But the family looked cowed, and Jimmy contented himself with shouting orders to some of the men to settle in the small barn near the house, then glaring about the hut at no one in particular.

Ginging’s eyes widened. The men, with their sweat and their guns, seemed to dwarf their already-small living quarters, so that the bamboo walls seemed to disappear. She and her sister watched as the men tossed down bags, rubbed tired arms and legs, even stretched out on the floor. How long would they stay?

During the thieves’ presence, the family was unable to perform the usual tasks of farming, weeding, and milling corn, so Ginging had plenty of time to examine the captive. He was a kindly looking man, with a crop of white hair and neat white beard. His name was Father Yves Caroff, and it was plain to Ginging that the forced march had left him sick from malnutrition.

“Your wife and children better come up with those 15 million pesos,” Commander Jimmy was bullying. “Commander Tora-Tora needs the money to buy guns to fight the government. We are a minority now, but we cannot be for long. This land is ours, and the Muslim faith must become the official religion of Mindanao.”

Father Yves sighed. Right now he should be celebrating Holy Week with his little community in Kaos.

“I have told you,” he began, as patiently as he could manage, “I am an Oblate Catholic priest. I do not have a wife or children. I am paid by my superiors only in order to help improve the living conditions of the poor of all religions, which is why the Oblates are here.”
The days passed slowly by, and Ginging was able to piece together the details of the kidnapping. A municipal councilor, jealous of all the work the priest had done to help the community, had masterminded the crime by feeding to the commanders lies about Father Yves: The priest’s projects were covers for drug operations. He carried weapons. He had a great deal of money.
Ginging noted with amazement that no matter what the priest endured at the hands of his captors, he always had a kind or patient word for those who sought his company. He politely listened to the one who confided how much he wanted a girlfriend, gently urged another to visit the wife he had deserted, and offered compassion to the one nicknamed “Boy,” who was desperate to find the parents who had abandoned him as an infant.

After ten days at the hut, the men, fearing their hideout would be discovered and disappointed that Father Yves’s Religious superiors had refused to give in to ransom, decided to move on with the prisoner. Ginging watched as the priest graciously accepted, after much initial protestation, a tunic from Benito. Then the men slipped out of their hut and out of their lives.

But would they return? The family left their home to settle in a different region of Mindanao, where conditions were still poor but where thieves did not often travel. Ginging got a job as a live-in housekeeper for the Vergaras, a kind, well-to-do family in the small town of Mlang. As the years passed, her thoughts occasionally fell upon the kidnapped priest with the kind, crinkly smile, and she wondered — and prayed — he was alive. She wondered, too, what life had in store for her. By the time she was 18, and taking care of the Vergaras’s two young children, Ginging was beginning to hope she’d have her own family someday.

Ginging was cleaning up after the midday meal when her father paid an unexpected visit.

“The priest is alive!” he crowed. “He was on the radio, requesting assistance in bringing some goods to a land development project he’s running called Oblate Galilee Farm. I learned that he was rescued almost two weeks after he left us, and he’s living not far from our house. When I found him, he hugged me like a brother! He asked about you, and insists on bringing you to the farm. There is much to be done and many people you could be friends with. What do you say?”

A grin broke across his daughter’s face. “Yes!”

There he is again. The young, black-haired farmer Ginging had begun to be acquainted with at Galilee Farm had passed her way for the third time in two days, pretending to be on some errand or other. Should I smile at him? Her heart beat faster. As the farmer approached, she suddenly lost her nerve. Look at all these tomatoes that still need picking. Ginging worked furiously until she felt sure the farmer had passed by.

“It seems you have an admirer.”

Ginging, startled, looked up to see Father Yves’s eyes twinkling with merriment. “You too, Father?” The priest wasn’t the only one who had begun to tease her about the farmer’s attentions.

“Toto Pio is a good man. And very hard-working.”

“Yes … I know.”

The priest placed a kind hand on her shoulder. “I’m happy you have come here, Ginging.”

Ginging smiled up at him. “So am I.”

After Father Yves had left her, Ginging’s eyes returned to the farmer, his lithe figure disappearing
in the surrounding landscape — the farm the community was building with their own hands. The boulder-strewn, weed-stifled uplands now bloomed with rice fields, vegetable gardens, and trees fragrant with mangoes, bananas, lemons. Dry creeks were now fish ponds rich with tilapia, and the landscape was dotted with goats, cows, rabbits, and horses. There were springs of pure water and wells to keep it in.

Ginging breathed in sharply, unable to absorb all the promise of the place. She gazed out at the small houses, the rolling hills, and, most of all, at the lazy dip of the sun in a sky so fiercely blue that she felt sure tomorrow would be free from storm.  CD

Love Your Neighbor
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