How a Redemptorist Brother Helped Victims of the War on Drugs Move Forward
For the last two decades, Brother Jun Santiago has been in charge of the social missions of the National Shrine of Our Mother of Perpetual Help, more popularly known as the Baclaran Church. He led the church’s rehabilitation efforts in different parts of the country when supertyphoons wreaked havoc in poverty-stricken provinces and towns. He was in Bicol after Typhoon Reming killed more than a thousand people in 2006. He visited Samar and Coron to lead the church’s livelihood programs for the victims of Supertyphoon Haiyan in 2013.
In December 2016, Santiago was faced with an unfamiliar terror, one that was man-made and state-sanctioned. In the thick of the holidays, Santiago joined the throng of photojournalists who tailed policemen as they executed buy-bust operations in different parts of Metro Manila. The lensmen have since been dubbed “nightcrawlers.” Santiago, who was also the church’s de-facto documentarist, admits he initially joined the group as a photographer, “to share a story,” but that quickly dissipated as his layman values kicked in.
It was a weekday morning in late April when Santiago met with Esquire Philippines. He was taking a break from assisting a group of people, mostly women and children, in a training room in Baclaran Church. Our photographer, Eloisa Lopez, who has worked closely with Santiago, said most of the people in the crowd visit the church regularly and consider the youthful Redemptorist brother a source of help and hope.
That day, children approached Santiago and took his hand to be blessed. Their sisters and mothers shared updates about their lives with him. To an outsider, the whole scene looked like a reunion of friends and family, but conversations on the other side of the room, where around half a dozen young men and women were having their own discussions, revealed something more.
The group was composed of families of the victims of the administration’s war on drugs. Statistics vary, but it has been estimated the war has already killed more than 20,000 people. On that Thursday morning, the bereaved families were meeting with volunteer lawyers from the non-profit organization FLAG (Free Legal Assistance Group), including Chel Diokno, one of its heads.
This is just one of the programs Santiago has initiated for the victims of President Rodrigo Duterte’s so-called drug war.
“In my first few weeks of coverage, I was really pained by what I saw,” Santiago said in Filipino. “There was no empathy, no sympathy from fellow Filipinos. You could hear people saying, 'Finally, our lives will be at peace.' Once, people clapped when a body was removed from the scene. That’s painful to see, personally. How can a person be so happy that someone is dead? Is that justice? I don’t think so.”
Santiago convinced the parish to create programs for families affected by the drug war. Much like the natural disasters that have struck the nation, Santiago believes the government’s deadly program is also a disaster. “It became more than just for documentation,” he said of his work. “It has evolved. It became a mission.”
The Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, more commonly known as the Redemptorists, is known worldwide for its missionary work, which is rooted in the practice of Saint Alphonsus Liguori, its founder who went to the poorest towns of Italy to teach and preach.
For Santiago, helping victims of the drug war was the Church acting on its duty.
“I feel part of the Philippine theology is yung pakikikapwa tao. Yung pagbubukas ng pintuan. Yung pakikisalo sa pagkain. Nawala yun lahat sa war on drugs,” Santiago said. “So for me, it was a disaster. And I was able to convince the community that something had to be done.”
The most immediate and apparent involvement of Baclaran Church was a month-long photo exhibit, featuring the drug war coverage of Santiago and other nightcrawlers, in 2016. Simbang Gabi was just about to start, but there were no twinkling parols lighting up Baclaran Church’s surrounding gardens. There were only pictures of dead bodies, crime scenes, and families in pain and despair. Santiago put up 72 tarpaulins in total.
It was a bold move that led to much discussion, not just among the devotees of the popular Wednesday masses of Baclaran Church, but also in other churches as the exhibit traveled to different parishes in the country.
“Yung iba nagagalit, sabi sinisira daw namin yung spirit ng Pasko,” Santiago said. “But Christmas is a time of hope. The families [in the photos] deserve a good Christmas. Everybody deserves a good Christmas."
The Redemptorist Church didn’t stop there. With Santiago’s leadership, it put together an eight-month disaster relief program for those affected by the war on drugs. The program included emergency financial assistance, a livelihood program, social intervention, legal assistance, and provision of a sanctuary.
In the next few months, victims of the deadly war flocked to Baclaran Church seeking help. There were those who looked for a place to stay as they feared for their safety. There were also drug users who came knocking, asking for help to change their ways. Without know-how on drug rehabilitation, Santiago simply did what he felt was best. He gave them temporary jobs in the church.
“Our emergency livelihood program combined psychosocial help and art. May isang malaking wall dito sa Church na we turned into mosaic art, and they worked on that for months. Thankfully, may iba, natigil talaga sa drug dealing,” he shared. “But there were those who still struggled. Hindi naman one-time ang pagbabago. May failures ka ulit sa susunod. Sila ganoon din, ako ganoon din. Sabi nga eh, hindi naman pagkapasok mo sa simbahan, santo ka na. Mas mauunawaan mo lang kahinaan mo. It’s the perpetual church, di ba? Patuloy ang tulong.”
Even the photojournalists who covered the drug war felt deep gratitude to Santiago because he gave the victims on the ground a sense of comfort every time the media covered the crime scenes.
“I think at first, most victims felt that they would be merely branded as the drug war victims. They can be hostile to the media,” Lopez said. “But when Brother Jun came into the picture, they felt more comfortable that there was someone from the church offering help. He really combined the outreach of the church and the documentation of the war.”
Early Years in Photojournalism
Santiago admits his decision to join the nightcrawlers was initially for his other passion, photojournalism. As the church’s official photographer, he has captured areas during times of calamity and rehabilitation. As he visited more disaster-stricken areas, he couldn’t help but be moved by the stories of the ordinary Filipino. Santiago felt these needed to be told.
“I think the essence of a photojournalist is to have his work contribute something to society. You don’t take photos to have them exhibited or to win awards. You take photos so you can raise awareness about the stories you’re trying to tell,” he said.
Now that more than two years have passed since the Redemptorist Church opened its doors to drug war victims, its assistance has not wavered. In fact, more groups have approached the church to provide help, especially for those seeking accountability. The families left behind are now in the process of seeking justice in the court, something Santiago feels deeply proud of. Somehow, the work the church has done has made an impact, albeit small.
“I’m glad they now know their rights. And they now know what they did wrong,” he said in Filipino. “I think that’s one of the simplest roles of the church: to help people, morally. It’s difficult to just preach lessons to them. But with this, you see their progress, you witness their change, their transformation. I’m at that point that, at least, the church has touched lives,” he said.
Santiago is 46 now and is on his 26th year with the Redemptorist order. He says he is scheduled to be transferred to Lipa, Batangas soon. When asked if he’s worried if the programs he laid out for drug war victims will halt with his departure, he gave an exasperated smile, as if it was a ridiculous question.
“This just means there’s more work that we can do. There are victims there, too.”