They’ve changed the rules again. It used to take only a week between the time one gets listed and one’s application gets approved, if at all, to visit Sen. Leila de Lima in detention at Camp Crame. Now it takes at least 10 days.
However, unlike others, for some reason, I’ve never been turned away.
But the last time, I was told to remove and leave behind my Fitbit watch, exactly the same one I wear every day, and wore each time I visited. Aside from some food for Leila and tissue paper I keep for my own basic comfort, I try not to bring in anything else.
At both checkpoints, where a visitor is body-searched, the guards cannot be more pleasant and polite under the circumstances. Definitely they are unlike the overzealous police escorts who accompany Leila to court hearings. On the pretext of protecting her, they actually prevent her seeing or being seen, or waving or being waved at, by supporters lining her route.
These escorts not only crowd around her close to the point of suffocation but also hold their arms out, mimicking her signature open-palm greeting in obvious mockery, as if her arbitrary detention, running for 752 days when we last visited, on March 17, were not enough insult.
I can only imagine what she goes through at night, when the visits are over for the day and she is left alone in her prison once again. With each visit I come away with such thoughts of Leila, which stay with me long afterward.
This Sunday is bright and hot in the concrete confines of Crame, as is more or less normal. An oversized electric fan is going full blast; still an anahaw fan is supplied every visitor.
The receiving room, which should accommodate 50 people or so, becomes a small chapel. “Ito ang parokya ni Leila,” Fr. Robert Reyes, a regular celebrant, announces before Mass. I guess you can call it an extension of Father Robert’s own official parish, San Isidro Labrador, in Cubao, QC; he is also the head of the Urban Poor Diocese.
My husband observes, “Do you realize that we find ourselves the oldest here nearly each time we visit?”
True, and it only proves Leila’s inspiration crosses generations. We ourselves feel recharged to be in such illustrious company, starting with Leila herself, who could not be stopped from doing her job as senator even if she has to hand-write everything down—any mechanical or electronic means of communication is denied her.
There are four priests today, of whom three are those we often catch concelebrating. These three have been receiving death threats for their human-rights advocacy and surely more particularly for having stood by Leila from the very beginning. And she has written a personal appeal to the public to pray and protect these modern-day Gomburza, who risk their lives to protect our own.
They are Father Robert, “the running priest,” known as that for precisely never running away from any moral fight; Fr. Albert Alejo, S.J., everyone’s Pareng Bert, known for not himself hiding but for giving sanctuary to the persecuted; and Fr. Flavie Villanueva, S.V.D., the best argument for rehabilitation and redemption of drug users having been one himself before he became a priest.
Today they will assist the main celebrant, Fr. Manny de Lima Seranilla, a relative of Leila’s who has come home from Canada to spend his retirement fighting her cause with her.
The small room is practically filled with, apart from family, stormy-weather friends, people like us who didn’t know Leila personally until her incarceration. Thus, it is filled, too, with mutually infecting courage and mutually inspiring grace.
Appropriately, it is the Feast of the Transfiguration, when Jesus, on Mount Tabor, his face literally lighting up “like the sun,” finally fathoms for himself what it means to be the Son of God, and accepts his fate. He will be crucified, by His Father’s own will, and at that moment His and His flocks redemptive mission inexorably proceeds— “Take up thy cross and follow me.”
Is there no way out of our own crucifixion? Pareng Bert shares the feeling of another activist man of the cloth, Bro. Armin Luistro, who candidly admits he sees no hope, no light at the end of the tunnel. It feels as dark as it can be and yet he doesn’t give up and only works harder.
Pareng Bert is convinced we are meant to feel the darkness and experience the cross, and says, “Allow the pain to hit us.” Maybe then, he adds, we will we see the hope and the light of the Resurrection.
Indeed, perhaps it is not for us to find conclusive hope in one “singular moment of grace,” as in Jesus’ case—or that of Saint Ignatius after him—but in glimmers of hope at stops along the way.
Leila’s hot prison is, to us, one such stop; that’s why we keep coming.