The year was 1977 and Elenita Belardo was fresh from formation as a missionary nun. There was excitement in her steps as she walked for five hours, crossing a river six times, to the mountains of the northern Philippine province of Isabela. With five other nuns of the Religious of the Good Shepherd
, Sister Elenita was on her way to work in a tribal community in a forest. "We were young and full of energy," she recalled. "We were in search of adventure," she said. It was the late Bishop Julio Xavier Labayen, chairman of the social action arm of the Catholic bishops' conference
, who made sure young religious would have the "adventure" of their lives.
Thank you. You are now
signed up to our Daily Full
"For the longest time the church has forgotten the village people," the prelate had said, noting then that the church had "concentrated its presence" in towns and cities. So it happened that Sister Elenita and her band of young missionaries ended up in the town of Palanan, a place they described as "paradise." It was just "apostolate of presence," she recalled. "We visited households, taught literacy, and prayed with the people." They spent most of their time teaching tribal people to read and write their names. "I taught them how to construct a sentence with their names. I told them to write the phrase 'is a human being' after each name," recalled the nun. When the sentences were read, the tribal people were surprised. "They told me it was impossible. 'We are not humans,' they said." "I asked them, 'Who told you that?' They said it was the Christians." "What else is going on out here?" Sister Elenita wondered as she continued teaching the tribe more complex sentences and how to deal with numbers. Through Bible studies with tribal families, the nuns were able to understand more deeply the situation of the poor people. They started projects to address the needs of the community, including raising farm animals for the use of everyone. A nun was assigned to help farmers have their lands titled and appeal for government assistance to sell locally grown produce. "It was a learning experience for us," said Sister Elenita. "The rural poor were the ones who taught us how to become real followers of Christ." It was just the beginning. As the days, weeks, months, and years passed, the nuns were able to assimilate themselves into the life of the community. It was not about trying to convince the tribe to become Catholics, said Sister Elenita, but "to show them that the church was there every step of their journey." The nun admitted that what her congregation and the other missionaries were doing was "just scratching the surface." "We know that people are poor, but we have to find the root cause of poverty," she said. In 1980, the nuns sought help from the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines
, an organization of religious men and women and lay workers. The group, which was established in 1969, facilitates the "integration" of church people in poor communities and provides support services in rural areas. With the help of the organization, Sister Elenita and her colleagues looked into the causes of poverty especially among farmers and tribal people. Her experience opened her eyes "into a new concept of mission ... to become a bearer of the kingdom of truth, justice and peace." From the northern Philippines mission to the other areas where she was assigned, Sister Elenita saw "the unjust distribution and utilization of land." "The rural poor till the land yet they have no control of them, and that's the irony," she told ucanews.com. To combat what she described as the "systematic root cause" of poverty, the nun decided to "address the mission of the poor in all fronts." She became more involved with the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines and became its leader in 2016. She has initiated various programs that advance the rights of peasants and tribal people, saying that it's "a long way to go" and church people, especially missionaries, should not stop walking "with the most abandoned."