Remembering these forebears

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The experience we all went through at the height of the pandemic and until today, as we honor and pay tribute to the founders of Silliman University, Dr. David and Mrs. Laura Sutherland Hibbard, this time with us coming face-to-face, is what I proclaim as God’s faithfulness and our resilience as a university, as a community, and as Sillimanians. This year’s theme is made all the more meaningful and relevant as we reflect on the things that transpired 121 years ago that led to the establishment of the then Silliman Institute, and finally, Silliman University as we know it today.

There are countless stories of Sillimanians whose lives have been punctuated with challenges, hardships, and difficulties much akin to what the Hibbards went through as they started initially an industrial school for boys. According to the history of Silliman University in 1901-1976, the first four years of Silliman Institute ending in March 1905 were “years of difficulties and uncertainties.” Even Dr. Hibbard himself, who was university president, was not spared as, again according to our history, he fell “gravely ill” a month after he and Mrs. Hibbard arrived in Dumaguete City. To quote the history book, “Not only did Dr. Hibbard have to spend the last two months of that year (1901) for a much needed rest in Japan; early in 1903, he and Mrs. Hibbard, in fact, had to go on an emergency health furlough to the United States.”

It is prophetic that God’s faithfulness in our lives is made possible by mankind’s perseverance and determination to surmount obstacles. This is embodied especially today in the word “resilient” or “resilience” which has, to my mind, been overused as a term to describe our state of being when the pandemic struck. As a journalist, I have deliberately refrained from using the word, not because it is not appropriate, but because it is now used loosely to describe one’s ability to recover from difficult conditions. Instead of having a favorable effect, I somehow equate the word “resilience” to dire or difficult situations. Thus, instead of this polysyllabic word, I prefer the words “strong,” “tough,” or “sturdy.”

Just being alive is a blessing. While life is full of threats, twists, and turns, it is also full of blessings, sometimes under the guise of disaster and seemingly insurmountable crises.

While the prevailing conditions during the early years of the university with Dr. and Mrs. Hibbard were not the same today, a quite similar story of God’s faithfulness may be told.

This person had a typical Christian childhood and upbringing. Their family was not well-off. Their parents were school teachers, and with eight children to feed, clothe, and send to school, money was never enough. But, there was more than enough happiness in their family, more than enough faith, and so much hope. The children’s growing up years were the happiest in their lives.

When this person went to the University of the Philippines in 1960 for graduate studies, her Christian faith was challenged into action. She witnessed poverty of such magnitude and rampant injustice that it was impossible not to speak out.

For many young Christians of her generation, taking action on issues on social justice was in fulfillment of Jesus’ words when He spoke at the synagogue and quoted Isaiah: “The spirit of the Lord is on me, because He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor; He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind; to release the oppressed; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (Luke 4: 18-19).”

After further studies in England, she began teaching at the University of the Philippines College of Public Administration and continued her advocacy work in alleviating the plight of the poor.

This person clearly remembers the day martial law was declared on September 21, 1972. She knew it was dangerous, but still she went to school and held classes. When the radio announced the arrest of hundreds of people suspected of working against the Marcos regime, she knew it was time to leave.

With nothing but the clothes on their backs, a few hundred pesos, a typewriter, a book on first aid, and a Bible, she and her husband walked out of their apartment. They left everything behind – her collection of books, furniture and fixtures, and kitchen equipment. She was weeping as her husband burned all documents identifying her name – her passport, identification cards, pictures, and the like. In a way, she recalls today, they were leaving their lives behind.

The couple lived in the house of a friend in a squatters’ area. They fabricated a story to explain their sudden presence – that she was an elementary schoolteacher and that they were refugees from Mindanao, escaping the burning and pillaging of Christian communities.

All imaginable difficulties followed. Her husband built a small hut at the end of a row of huts, near the toilets. The clotheslines were black with huge flies. Her husband tried to eke out a living to support them by working as a piece worker for a rattan company. Then, she discovered she was pregnant. Her pregnancy was complicated by a full-blown case of psoriasis brought about by all the stress she was going through. Her entire body was covered with ugly skin lesions.

After giving birth, they had to move again because the military was hot on their trail. They finally crossed over to Negros where they morphed themselves into peasants. She had to give up her three-month old baby because they could no longer buy milk for him. Her husband worked as a “tenant” in a farm while she accustomed herself to the life of a peasant wife – building wood fires, cooking, cleaning, and washing clothes.

She and her husband were granted amnesty after almost four years of hiding. By that time, she had already forgotten what it was like to wear shoes, and when she heard classical music for the first time, she could not help but weep.

Losing all of one’s material possessions was bad enough. The loss of one’s identity was even worse. She gave up her name and her academic rank. To assume several other identities, of people who were helpless and had no control over their lives, according to this person, was the worst.

However, she pointed out, she also found everything. She rediscovered her family who stood by her. Their marriage bond became even stronger as a result of a life of extreme deprivation. She learned that it is not only the rich or the powerful who can give help. They both survived, she and her husband, because they were helped by people who loved and accepted them, regardless of their stature in life.

Most important of all, she says she regained the faith she thought she had lost. What she thought was the biggest catastrophe of her life turned out to be the biggest blessing as she drew solace from Isaiah 42:6: “I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I will also hold you by the hand and watch over you.”

Hers is a story of God’s faithfulness and, yes, her so-called resilience. This feisty woman went on, among other achievements, to become an Outstanding Sillimanian, an Outstanding Negrense, a professor emeritus at the University of the Philippines, a National Treasurer, chairperson of the Board of Trustees of Silliman University, the Education Secretary of the Philippines who just concluded her six-year term, and now, Centre Director of the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization Regional Centre for Educational Innovation and Technology (SEAMEO INNOTECH).  

You may have guessed who she is by now. She is none other than our very own homegrown Prof. Leonor Magtolis Briones or Ma’am Liling to most of us.

Truly, just as our founders had staunchly resisted the urge to give up, so are all of us, Sillimanians from far and wide through all these many years and counting, not giving up, but are hopeful always. It is God’s faithfulness and our resilience that sustain us because The Foundation of God Standeth Sure. – NWI

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