How service to the poor filled the void in Sr. Elen’s heart

Sr. Elenita Belardo continues her mission to serve the poor. (Artwork by Dee Ayroso)

“Prayer is very important. We do not disregard it. But it has to be accompanied by a prophetic action.”

Reposted from THE PEACEBUILDER
The Official Publication of the Philippine Ecumenical Peace Platform

MANILA — At 80 years old, there seems to be no slowing down for Sr. Elenita Belardo of the Religious of Good Shepherd.

Sr. Elen grew up in a comfortable life – with their family owning a big land estate in Silang, Cavite, a province south of Manila. In fact, her first taste on the issue of social justice was when her family faced an agrarian dispute with their tenants.

Their family, after several failed negotiations, decided in the end to sell the estate to rid themselves of the proverbial headache – her father had told them that the tenants have “taken advantages” of their leniency in handling their agrarian affairs.Little did she know that she will have more encounters with agrarian disputes later in life.

Years later, however, Sr. Ellen as a nun would be active in helping farmers in their campaign for their right to land. Her tireless support for farmers has led her to several challenges in her life. But her resolve has never faltered.

Among these challenges included harassment from the powers-that-be. This year, a ranking military officer charged Sr. Elen, along with other human rights defenders and church workers, with perjury. This after they have sought redress before the Philippine court over the rampant rights violations being committed against their fellow human rights defenders in the country, spanning from red-tagging to graver rights abuses such as extrajudicial killings.

Still, Sr. Elen remains adamant in pursuing her human rights advocacy.

After all, one of the primary movers that shaped her life was her determination to go out of her comfort zones and find fulfillment in serving God and God’s people.

“Prayer is very important. We do not disregard it. But it has to be accompanied by a prophetic action,” the soft-spoken nun said.

Happy childhood

Eleventh out of a brood of 16, Sr. Elen grew up in a big family. They were taught to love and care for one another, most of all for their youngest who had special needs. One of her best childhood memories, in fact, was watching and cheering as her brothers played basketball.

“Even our youngest would play basketball,” Sr. Elen said.

Their youngest died a tragic death when he was 56 – trapped in their burning house. Remembering it now still welled Sr. Ellen’s eyes as she nodded slowly and said, “we loved him.”

Looking back, she said growing up in a big family helped her later in life to deal with different types of people who have their own quirks and preferences.

Finding her calling

Sr. Elen taught Social Sciences and English at St. Therese’s College. While it was fun teaching, she found something “lacking” in her heart. It was only until a school retreat came that it finally dawned on her that she was being called to religious life.

She chanced upon a book on the Religious of the Good Shepherd, sent to her by her brother who was then studying priesthood in the United States. Learning more about the RGS and its prophetic mission to care for the neglected and the forgotten even more cemented her decision to respond to her calling.

“I felt at home right away,” she said.

Sr. Elen met with several RGS figures in their convents both in Tagaytay and in Quezon City. This eventually led her to meet Sr. Christine Tan, a nun who resisted the martial law rule of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who was then handling the aspirants for the RGS congregation.

“I was told to pray. But I was already praying for three days. I told the priest that nothing was happening. But I was told to continue praying,” she jested.

She eventually joined the RGS as an aspirant, though initially without her father’s blessings. Her family was positive that her father would hinder her from pursuing a religious life.

“My brother brought me to the bus station in Cubao as I was heading to Baguio for a summer retreat. My father learned about it and tried to stop me. Good thing the bus already left when he arrived at the terminal,” she recalled.

To the communities

Now a full-fledged nun, Sr. Ellen taught at Maryridge in Tagaytay, a boarding school for young girls managed by the RGS congregation. Being far from the metropolis, she said, had insulated them from the harsh realities brought upon the people during the martial law rule.

One day, her students came up to her to bring her news from Metro Manila.

“Sister, we are too comfortable here when it is already troublesome out there,” one of her students said.

The news disturbed her, making her feel restless and with a strong desire to do something. This, too, coincided with a call for the Church to return to the Gospel. Not too long after that, she decided she was ready to live among the poorest of God’s faithful.

Solving a problem bigger than them

Sr. Ellen and several other RGS nuns lived in a peasant community in Isabela, where she stayed for six years.

“What really attracted me here is our way of living. We lived a very simple life, ate simple food, and without additional furniture for our home,” she said.

Their group was eventually offered a place to stay within the community so they need not walk hours to visit them. To live and breathe the life of a peasant, she added, helped her realize how good life has been for her but “others are living a life that isn’t.”

She worked closely with women peasants and “tried to see what God was telling us.” Three years into their work, however, Sr. Elen could not see any significant development with the communities they are working with, making them re-assess their work.

“We searched for an organization who can help us. Our prayers led us to the RMP,” she said, referring to the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines (RMP).

Their meeting with the RMP equipped the RGS sisters to analyze the situation confronting their communities with a different perspective. She was particularly struck on how they revisited the Philippine history and how the injustices she witnessed could be traced to far back.

This, she added, became an eye-opening moment for her: they cannot do it alone.

Upon returning to Isabela, the RGS congregation led educational campaigns not just among the peasant communities they worked with but also among schools. These, she said, were warmly welcomed by the people, who, too, were hungry for explanations for the perennial problems they are facing – of landlessness and poverty – and how they can contribute towards finally implementing a genuine change.

Living up her calling amid challenges

Sr. Ellen has never since turned a blind eye to challenges confronting the Filipino people – not now, most especially, in face of widespread violence, killings, militarization, and harassments.

“We were always guided by biblio-theological reflections. So our response is in line with what God and the people want: a life that is better, a life that is just and free,” she said.

On her 80th birthday last April 1, she bought ice cream for a group of lay and church volunteers from Northern Mindanao who, at that time, underwent psychological debriefing as they were being subjected to threats and vilification by the military.

“I never told them it was my birthday. It was how I wanted to celebrate it,” she said with a smile.

Since her response to her calling, the void in her heart has disappeared and is now overflowing with so much passion to help the poor and the oppressed. ()

*With reports from Bulatlat.

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