“My father was always very vocal, a simple man ready to stand for what was right”

18 Jun

(To celebrate Father’s Day, we are posting an interview with the ‘father’ of the Filipino community in Barcelona, Spain, Fr. Avelino Sapida. This interview was done and written by Ms. Carlyne ‘Bing’ Odicta-Kohner for her column From Your Life Coach, Bing  in the Filipino-American Community Newspaper Asian Journal)

What is inspiration to you? Perhaps the common answer is love. If you are in love, it feels like there is an engine in your body that keeps you going. It’s wonderful to be alive. All of your surroundings are colorful. We often see these emotions in lovers at the park holding hands and kissing each other. Some of us are inspired because of our passion for what we do.

This time our guest is also in love and passionate because of his faith in God. Please welcome Fr. Avel aka Fr. Avelino R. Sapido who was awarded for his dedication to the Filipino community by the city of Barcelona.

Fr. Avelino Sapida (leftmost) received and recognized by the House of Representatives and then by Philippine President Benigno Aquino III after receiving an award from the Barcelona City Government last year.

Congratulations on your award last December 18, 2010 by the city of Barcelona. What can you say about this “Premi Consell d’Immigracio” that was bestowed upon you?

It was a surprise because I’d been away from Barcelona for the last 10 years, I arrived in 2009 to assume the Parish and conclude my services. Friends here told me that they chose me to be the candidate for the Immigration section. I had to write about my life in the Philippines, what I was doing in Manila, when I came to Europe and to what did I dedicate my life? The deadline was November 30, 2010. Then they translated it into Spanish and it was signed and submitted by the Sisters from Centro Filipino.

What was the impact of this award on you? What are the benefits of this recognition to your work?

I say thank you because my work was recognized from 1986 until now. I remember I fought for the rights of the migrants to stay and to work especially from 1986 to 1991. The law was hard back then and there were plenty of deportations because a lot of our Filipinos did not have work and residence permits.

It was a very welcome award and it was an award to the migrants. It indicates that it’s worth standing up and fighting for our rights. I know that our Kababayan are not here to commit crimes. They are here with a pure intention to work. On matters of law and order here, Filipinos are not involved in those crimes. Filipinos are industrious and they are motivated, they even work beyond their assigned hours because they value the good relationship with their employers. They are loved by the Señoras because of that.

It’s high time for this award from the Spanish government and Spanish Church. I think WE deserve this award. I took it not as a personal award but a communal award for all the Filipinos living and working here.

“There is a call for integration of speaking Spanish and Catalan but the reality at the professional level is that the Spanish citizens are the ones who get the jobs…Filipinos are confined to service jobs. The law should facilitate a diversity of jobs…In the future, I hope our children can be fully integrated in the society. Filipinos that are here should dream big!”

What do you mean by Communal Award?

It was given to me due to my work with the community. My objective was to lift up the Filipinos in the eyes of Spanish society. Even though most of their work is domestic it is still dignified work. They are human beings and they deserve respect. It was also the recognition of our religiosity. In fact this is the 2nd award.

The first award was given in 1998 when we got the Personal Parish in the whole of Europe. The Filipino Christians have shown to the Spanish Society how religious we are and how we practice our religion. It becomes an attraction for them on how practical the Filipinos are. You’ll notice that we give life to the liturgy of the Spanish and our community is very Filipino. A Personal Parish according to the Canon law is composed of a different language, culture, and life in your faith. That means a Parish given to the persons who are Filipinos. It was recognition of our culture and language. We are given the freedom to express our faith and our own way of doing it as if we are in the Philippines. It was an award that made Filipinos proud and the whole of Europe. They praise us all here.

Also, I stood for the migrants and stood for our Philippine government to give us a full pledged consulate. For example, to renew your passport before, you had to go to Madrid. It’s about 2 to 3 hours by train. It affected our people economically. We thought there was a need, so recently we got the Philippine Consulate in Barcelona.

What made the Ajuntament choose the Filipinos instead of the other migrant nationalities in Barcelona?

In 1988, we unified our Filipinos. We have the Church and it gave them all the opportunities to practice their faith. It helps them to go there regularly and talk about their problems. If they need assistance in their documents, we have the Center that will implement their medical, social and juridical needs. We have built our community spirit; the Filipinos live in the center of the city, in Ramblas. Our Church itself is in the very center of Barcelona. We all have our family spirit and we are free to interpret our life in the liturgy. It is a meaningful expression of our problems and successes in life as a community of God.

You have mentioned the Centro Filipino, who founded it and what are the programs you offer to the community?

When I came in 1986, I came from Rome as I was the Chaplain in Rome. Bishop Perez assigned me to Barcelona. I was sent here not knowing anybody. I started going to Ramblas looking for the Filipino faces. I talked to them and approached them to invite me in their house just to get ideas about their life. I was already looking for some possibilities to get a church so we could have a mass. Luckily, the Barcelona Archdiocese gave us the Santa Monica church. It was inaugurated in June 1986. Some 300 people came and we filled up the church.

I realized that I would need help. I contacted my contacts in Rome especially the Benedict Superiors of Sisters (The Scholasticans) to come to Barcelona. They told me that they have a church in Madrid but it will be closed. So I invited them to open it in Barcelona. Together we established the center. By October 1986, the center was open to accompany the migrants. We thought we should offer programs as the need arises.

The Church offers masses and the center gives news from the Philippines and news about the laws in Barcelona. We have learned that they need papers so we have contacted people who could help them. Some courses were offered on how to help the people effectively. So I participated in the Assesorial course offered free by the Trade Unions. We took all the advantages and learned the language so we can represent them. We are also learning with them as we help them.

We have an Orientation program for the newly arrived. We have a program of Idioma (Spanish Language Classes). When the children, wives and husbands came, we found out that they will be loosing connection to their roots, so we establish Iskwelang Pinoy to teach them Filipiniana, history and English. Later, when many were jobless, we found out that the Red Cross gave donation twice a year.

Basic Spanish classes taught by Filipino and Spanish professors

Kids from Iskwelang Pinoy participate in one local event.

Did you and the Sisters organize any associations?

We saw that without organizations, we couldn’t do anything and we can’t bargain. We needed to pressure the government so that’s how the associations were born. We have organizations for women, migrants, etc. encouraging them to make it legal so they can represent their sector and share solidarity with other immigrants.

We were the pioneers of so many federations, organizations and councils of migrants in Barcelona. We had to put each of our struggles together so they could become forceful. We encourage them to have a cause underneath the organization. Now, we have the Federation for Filipinos, a civic association like KALIPI. It started when we were organizing the 100 years of Philippine Independence day celebration. KALIPI – Kapulungan ng mga Lider Pinoy sa Barcelona. KALIPI has 14 different associations such as AMISTAD – Ang Migranteng Iisa Sa Tinig Adhikain at Diwa, AFICAT – Asosacion Filipino Catalan, BAFSCOM – Barcelona All Filipino Sports Commision, Centro Filipino, Emprededores, MFYA – Migrants Filipino Youth Association, The Great Commision Ministry, Jesus is Lord Church, Episcopal Charismatic Church,

The Salvation Army, Word International Ministry, Parroquia Personal Comunidad Filipina, The Guardians, United Rinconadians Association in Barcelona.

Who influenced you to become a priest and who most inspired you when you were young?

Rizal and Bonifacio inspired me. In the Philippines, I always worked with the forgotten sectors like the farmers. I used my priesthood as a moral authority. To me that’s what makes the church relevant.

How did you become a priest?

My youngest brother had a Priest-Godfather. He came one day to our house and asked my mother. “Who will you give me to become a priest?” My mother replied, “Of course, your Godson.” But Father insisted: ”He is so small; do you have someone who is bigger?” And my mother pointed me.

We had a Band and my parents were Cantoras. After my first year, they sent me to the Seminary. In there, I realized the objective of a priest. I began to like one of the missions of the church, helping the poor. At that time, Cavite was poor and it’s the place where you throw dead people. I had a dream as a priest that I will do something about the situation.

What was it like being a priest in Cavite?

I was a very effective priest in Cavite. I was helping the people to let them know our rights as Filipinos. The Capitalists were taking our lands and so on. I was on that side to protect the people. In 1960’s the church was ready to listen to the world’s voice. During those times, the leaders forgot our people. That also added my sympathy for our Filipinos so I joined the rallies. I realize now that it was the birth of my priesthood!

You have mentioned justice and fairness. Are those a few of your values in life?

Yes, my father was a just man. Cavite at that time had many gangs, carabao thieves and so on. My father was always very vocal. He was a carpenter, a simple man who was ready to stand for what was right. I think I got that from my father. Some people liked him and some people did not. Plus I know now the role of religion and the transformation in changing societies. I learned these principles, from my family and from the situation that I was in. I will fight for justice and fairness no matter what as long as I live my values.

“I used my priesthood as a moral authority. To me that’s what makes the church relevant.” Fr. Avel giving a mass at the Filipino Personal Parish in Barcelona, Spain

What is Leadership to you?

I am trying to be a good leader but I have not perfected it yet. I believe in the Shepherd kind of leadership as Jesus Christ practiced. For me it is serving. In this stewardship, people are entrusted to your hand for your care and for your Christian authority. I am a Shepherd who is always leading my sheep so they can eat and drink water. At the same time a Pastor should be on guard. The priority of the leader is to live and lead better. God came not just to live but also to have a fuller and more vibrant life.

“I will fight for justice and fairness no matter what as long as I live my values…Even if I do the best work that I can do, I know I have limitations. And if I come to my limits, I know God will supply.”

What can you say about our Parishioners here in Barcelona? What are your thoughts about our people in the Philippines, our people in Europe, and our people in the US?

Filipinos are the same wherever they are. They always look for the Church. They believe that it’s by the grace of the Lord that they are outside the Philippines whether they are in New York, Los Angeles or Barcelona. Prior to leaving the Philippines, they understand that it costs a lot so it’s very natural for them to look for a place to pray. They come especially to the Catholic Church but also to other churches where they can express their inner reflections and spirits. Filipinos are very spiritual.

In the Philippines, the Church is relevant as long as it reaches our experience in life. If the Church doesn’t touch our experience, it becomes a ritual. We are obligated to do it but we don’t need to follow it. People will pray out of obligation but not out of devotion. At home, you are supported by the ambiance and the culture.

Abroad, there is much danger in maintaining our faith because of living in the surroundings that are not that religious. The atmosphere can be materialistic or individualistic depending upon whatever tendencies the specific society may have. Filipinos want to go back home during Pasko o Mahal na Araw because of the intensity of our religious events. If we are able to create the Filipino life abroad we can save our values, language, culture and love for Filipino traditions. In this kind of atmosphere our faith can be rooted again.

Catholic membership is declining, especially in European Churches. What are the possible factors that are causing a rejection of our religion?

Religion will lose its relevance if it’s only identified with those who are powerful. We need the Church as an example of Jesus. Most of the churches here in Europe are not in tune with the poorer sector. In history, the Church was for the upper level of the society. My reflection here in Spain is that people are not interested in religion because during Franco’s time the Church had all of the privileges. When the dictatorship was terminated, people said, “We are free; we don’t need to go to Church.” The people lost trust in the Church.

You would notice the difference between one priest who has experienced living and working in a Third World country and one who has no experience in the Developing World. The ones who have are understanding, more compassionate and more pro-people in their approach. These priests who are experiencing life in other developing countries are bringing back the spirit. The migrants also have so much to share in changing the character of the Church.

Yesterday we priests had a meeting on what to do with the Sagrada Familia Church. Only the tourists visit and see this place. The Church did not know what to do in order for people to regularly visit the place. One priest joked, “We will just give it to Filipinos because in a minute that church would be full of people.” It’s a joke but there is truth in it.

I think the Church has to suffer so it can go back to the original Church that was a home for the powerless, and persecuted. We need to realize that we are not here to only serve the powerful.

We all know about the sex scandals that are on going in our Catholic community especially in Europe and in the USA. What is your stand on this controversial issue?

I find it very theological in the sense that the Church has probably forgotten a lot of things. Thus, the Church needs to humble itself to the level of ordinariness so it will be the Church of the people. These humiliating events can help to humble the Church to reflect on its role. I am not discouraged and I am not angry for I look at the situation with much hope. It might be long years of trials but in the future we will come out as a stronger Church in our mission. We have to be a wounded savior not a triumphant savior.

What about the priests that molested the children?

It may be the dark side of the history of the Church. We are expected to be the savior of the innocent but the leadership of the Church is questioned. We have to accept that we are also human beings. These witnesses that quest for truth are purifying the Church. The Church needs to experience this humiliation for everyone has sinned. In the history of Israel, when God purified his town, it was an embarrassment for they were occupied and were made the followers. All the things that they kept were lost. However the messages of scriptures were saying that God was preparing them for something great in the days to come. History has now repeated itself. That is the way of God. It’s a reminder for people. This is the communal history of our Church so something good can come out of this. Crisis means you can go down without hope or you can hope for something better.

The church is in crisis but it can turn into good. I am optimistic!

Barcelona Vice Mayor Ignasi Cardelús i Fontdevilla, Fr. Avelino Sapida and Pastor Diosdado Sabado during the recent celebration of Philippine Independence Day in Barcelona.

Spain is also one of the countries that were hit hard by the economic downturn. What effect has this had on our people?  If so, how do you convert their hopelessness into positive action?

In general, they seem to blame the migrants for the crisis. We have to remind them that the poor people did not start it. It was the rich people from America, the bankers, and the speculators. Along the way there are a lot of people who are affected. For example, the employers who have plenty of workers fired some workers. Their salaries were deducted. The workers’ starting salary is very low and they added a labor law so that the employer could easily fire them. Before this new law was enacted, companies had to pay 45 days severance pay when they let you go and now they are obligated to pay for only 20 days. They have risen the retirement age of 2 years to increase payments to Social Security. It used to be 65 years old and now it’s 67 years old. Also, there are many people who are unemployed.

For workers, we have to make our organization stronger. We are constantly looking for Trade Unions to defend our rights. We have to know what is given by the law to defend ourselves in this time. Sometimes companies take advantage of the crisis to fire or lower people’s wages. These things are abusive already. We are encouraging our workers in the restaurants to come and join the Trade Unions so they can defend their rights. In our organizations, we invited Spanish leaders who can explain the law to us. We are also watchful for other Filipinos who are taking advantage of immigrants. They say that they will take care of the husband or family if they come to Spain but they scammed them instead. So we are vigilant against the abusers on both sides. We make people aware of all of these things.

In church, we tell them of the value of dignity of work, nobility of man, the rights and the teaching of the Church. We believe in justice, equality of opportunities, and business that is not only guided by profits but also by Christian principles.

“Yesterday we priests had a meeting on what to do with the Sagrada Familia Church. Only the tourists visit and see this place. One priest joked, “We will just give it to Filipinos because in a minute that church would be full of people.”

As a Life Coach, I am actually interested in your work/life balance. How do your values help you balance what is important to you?

I know my work is not my work. Yes, I am a Priest and I am taking care of this community. However, this community is not mine. I am the Steward and a Caretaker. I will try to serve the community according to the way the community likes me to serve them but not according to how I like to serve them. I am nothing without the community. Even if I do the best work that I can do, I know I have limitations. And if I come to my limits, I know God will supply. I have faith. No matter how good your intentions are there are always mistakes or problems that you will encounter. It could be mistakes from me, from others, accidents, etc. but I let it be as long as I know I am doing the best I can. I may be wounded but I take the wounds as part of the process. I dedicate my life and balance it with my health and capacity. Sometimes my brain is stronger than my tuhod.

What makes you happy? How do you relax?

I walk a lot and I sometimes go out to Montjuic, I drive to different places. We go with my Co-Workers Group. We go out and evaluate things that are happening and plan for the days and months to come.

Tell me your thoughts on the uses of technology?

We are better related in communication through the Internet such as in finding agencies and other groups. There is a growing realization in Europe that we need to come together and talk. Milan and Rome, Barcelona and Madrid, Amsterdam, Athens, and London. We’ve had several meetings and we communicated through computer technology. This year we have plans to host an important meeting for leaders from Greece, Amsterdam and London to talk about future plans.

You have mentioned politics, what’s your take on our very own new president Noynoy Aquino?

Noynoy gave hope after Gloria Macapagal. More investments are coming in now. It’s a reminder that it’s rooting out corruption. I hope he can avoid the influence of wrong people because some political leaders might get ambitious and will take advantage of his administration. He should be conscious that Filipinos are hopeful and he should take advantage of that. It’s his time to slim our politics. Politics has become a business. Politics is everywhere: at church, in communities, and the work place. Hopefully he can provide a good kind of politics!

“We can dream and plan so that the immigrants are not the gatasan (milking cows) by the ones who are in the Philippines but through our contribution that create systematic sustainable development.”

What questions did I not ask you that you wished I had asked?

1. What’s next?

Filipinos are confined to service jobs. We are not given other jobs. The law should facilitate a diversity of jobs. I am interested in the future so that we can integrate the Filipinos into different places in Barcelona. How I wish some Filipinos could get into the political world so they could inject some human touch to the law and its administration. We are starting that in the Church. I am now going to Poble Sec to develop this integration. I combined the Catalan Mass and Spanish Mass to facilitate our integration. Some of our Filipinos teach Spanish Catechism as well. Later, I will ask the Government to teach our children in Tagalog because almost of them are Filipinos.

I wish that our Filipinos here could dream dreams for our people. Aside from their jobs abroad, how about helping the Filipinos stay in the country by helping the immigrants? They have already skills such as cooking, etc. I know some entrepreneurs that went home with their skill set. Or the money that we have here, we could invest in business in the Philippines so it would create jobs there. Whatever development you can do, farmers for example, can establish a cooperative there.

Filipinos that are here should focus on how they can be stable here. And Filipinos at home should help and do something in the Philippines. We can dream and plan so that the immigrants are not the gatasan by the ones who are in the Philippines but through our contribution that create systematic sustainable development.

In our center we have a plan, we can create certain funds through the Filipinos who return home. I have a lot in Cavite that I want to donate to implement this livelihood project. This is an ongoing project.

2. What’s my dream?

Our Filipinos should really be citizens of Spain and no longer seen as immigrants. In the US, there is equality of job privileges that are given to both the immigrants and natives. Yes, Rizal and others had already migrated here. Somehow there is still inequality. There is a call for integration of speaking Spanish and Catalan but the reality at the professional level is that the Spanish citizens are the ones who get the jobs. The rests are treated as 2nd class citizens. In the future, I hope our children can be fully integrated in the society. Filipinos that are here should dream big!

Finally, how do you define happiness?

When your aspiration becomes reality, your dreams are fulfilled. That is my happiness!

So did Fr. Avel inspire you? What action will you take today to do something for our Filipino community?

The writer with Fr. Avelino Sapida

Carlyne ‘Bing’ Kohner is a Life Coach. She was trained at the prestigious Coaches Training Institute in the USA. She is a member of International Coach Federation (ICF.) Bing is a certified trainer for True Colors and a regular columnist for the Asian Journal in Los Angeles, California. She is a also a member of the Sitges International Holistic Networking group, Co-Meetings, and Barcelona Women’s Network (BWN) in Spain. She and her husband, Eric co-owns Limitbusters Coaching & Training, Inc. (LCT). LCT has other affiliates in Asia, Europe, and the USA.

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