Rev. Tet Gallardo is the President & Executive Minister of the UU Church of the Philippines (National Office). Here we talk about Unitarian Universalism within the context of the Philippines.
*Interview conducted on June 19, 2020.*
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Was Unitarian Universalism part of earlier life in any way?
Rev. Theresa (Tet) Gallardo: Indigenous values and princples were much more radical to our colonizers. Our radical hospitality, tolerance to diversity, and beloved communities were generally peaceful (we did not have constantly warring communities) and had a sophisticated order that was covered by cultural covenants. UU values resonated with our deepest concerns and that’s how we affiliated ourselves as part of a larger global tapestry of various legacies of resistance to oppression and struggle for justice.
Jacobsen: When it comes to the Philippines, it is a majority Catholic country. How does this influence the internal dynamics of the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Philippines?
Gallardo: The Vatican City and the Philippines are the last two remaining countries without divorce. Perhaps that’s how tight these two states are. This, despite that we have a now-corrupted culture of philandering husbands, rape jokes, and machisomo and yet we have one of the least gender gap in the world. Before Duterte disrupted our Western-loving narrative, Western bodies ranked us on top of the world as one of the most close-to-equal in rights between males and females, including the World Economic Forum ranking us 5th in the world in 2016. You would think we could muster to get a divorce bill through law, but no. That is the influence of the Catholics here, still in control of the narrative of right and wrong with women expected to be sacrificial as the Virgin Mary. In the UU churches, many women members still feel hijacked by that narrative, athough through the steadfast work of the UU women’s association and liberated women ministers, including LGBTIQA members, we see a mainstream questioning of such narratives and only a few victims are left in the margins. We do not shun Catholic practices like doing the sign of the cross, praying ”in the name of Jesus”, and participation in fun Catholic fiestas, we are still open to all beliefs.
Jacobsen: How does the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Philippines work with the wider culture in the Philippines while securing its own space and place in the society?
Gallardo: We do not evangelize about our theology, we work loud and proud on social justice issues and in correcting oppressions we see around us. That is our faith in action, and we don’t do it for show but because we like to work on our own personal integrity. Every UU has to come to a juncture where they need to clarify their own personal theology as they get exposed to many others. One doesn’t need church to be called spiritual, one doesn’t need to borrow a common creed to validate one’s own experience, one doesn’t need religion to be religious about humanitarian and ecological justice. UUs have a special calling to be in covenanted community helping one another become kinder.
Jacobsen: What is the general theology of UUism within such a populated nation-state as the Philippines?
Gallardo: UUs in the Philippines generally believe in covenants, conversations, and causes. Perhaps the fourth C is coffee!. All are welcome to come in covenant to uphold our principles espousing love, justice, equality, liberty and interconnectedness. We believe that our conversations need to be fearless, genuine, constructive and forgiving. We believe what Dr. Cornel West said, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” We try to work for a society where everyone is free to pursue, life, liberty and happiness while constructing systems that are just and equitable because our communities are not isolated, we are part of an interconnected web. As Dr. Martin Luther King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” We work on causes that seek to dismantle racism, sexism, and colonialism, among others. In the Philippines, we state our belief in God as ,”God is love.” Church members are free to interpret that as they deem necessary for their coherence of reality and their experiences.
Jacobsen: How do you translate those principles and sources into activism, community service, and regular services within the UU congregation throughout the year? What are the biggest events?
Gallardo: This is the only sect that has 90% of its members being farmers in Negros and people living in the shanties of Manila. We cannot be sustained by our own internal donations, but are sustained by the co-investment of members in the future of the church through labours in worship, community work, and leadership. Our church structure is formally integrated with an LGBTIQA organization, a women’s organization, a farmers association, and soon an indigenous peoples and artists association. We go and support Pride, HIV/Aids Day, Climate Strike, and Women’s marches. Our best community services are in providing scholarships to struggling students and loan access for small entrepreneurs.
Jacobsen: What are the general demographics and orientations in theology and philosophy of the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Philippines community/congregation now?
Gallardo: Majority of us are theists, believing in God a a conscious being merciful and loving – the Universalists; panentheists, believing in the force of God as love in all things; and humanists, believing that God works through people’s motivations and interests – the Unitarians. These three may not be mutually exclusive. These are from strongly embedded Asian roots with strong pagan and Taoist influences even now.
Jacobsen: Has the Duterte political context changed some of the issues of immediate social and economic import for ordinary UU community members in the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Philippines?
Gallardo: Duterte has helped shift the rhetoric away from American colonialism where you needed to love all things white while leaving us culturally bankrupt except for the intense consumerist culture of imperial neoliberal capitalism with corrupt corporate cultures. He hasn’t helped in the least bit deconstruct our Chinese ties. The Philippines has the oldest Chinatown in the world and its culture is well-loved among Filipinos who are highly exposed to Hong Kong, Taiwanese and some Southern China cultural threads. On the other hand, the founder in the Philippines has died by extrajudicial killing in 1988 during the honeymoon phase with Cory Aquino’s budding democracy after kicking out the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, so you can imagine how much we have learned early on that the lifting of dictatorship in the Philippines does not equate to the human security of farmers and poor folk. Farmers here have always felt the coercion and intimidation of the extreme Left who are in armed struggle against the government. No one can say for sure who killed our founder Rev. Toribio Quimada as he had made a few enemies. Every president of this country has had to come under the mercies of the Catholic Church, the oligarchy, and the military – this is known as the triangle of power. Duterte has managed to defuse the hold of the Catholic Church by exposing its corruption and connivance with government corruption; defang the oligarchy by showing political will in punishing tax evaders and exposing corrupt deals with past administrations; and gain the loyalty of the military with incentive schemes. Every president has had to come to the juncture of extending their terms through Charter Change courtesy of military ambitions, but as with every president before him, he’s toed the line and refrained from initiating a process that could perpetuate his power. The church will continue to dissociate with seditious forces and any anti-state armed struggle in creating new ways of focusing the discourse on the oppressed. In Negros Island where the National Office of the UUCP is located, there have been eight (8) extra-judicial killings only in my first year in office as president. These persons were mostly pro-Duterte – 2 journalists, 2 lawyers, and 4 government officials. There’s a very different view of Duterte on the ground.
Jacobsen: What are some of the most meaningful times for you, as a leader of and within the community?
Gallardo: I feel like an outsider most times. I am Tagalog-speaking holding office in a Cebuano-speaking Island. I am the first lesbian minister in the Philippines to come out. I am not from the families who built this church from the ground — I serve 3rd or 4th generation UUs, but I am the first of my family. So to be welcomed in this faith and elected as its President speaks volumes on who are the church members I am serving. They are people who live their faith and believe in the principles with their whole hearts. It is heartening, humbling, and inspiring. I still remember being the first ordained out lesbian minister in the nonWestern world, and that was a powerful moment. Everytime I feel the acceptance of my being, my imagination, and my vision in leading this church, I am made better as a person, not just by the affirmation that can be rewarding, but by the promise of commitment that each moment holds in which members willingly invest as much as I do.
Jacobsen: What are some interbelief/interfaith community activities for you?
Gallardo: We attend interfaith meetings whenever we are invited but there is no particular organization in which we are a member. I have an online Buddhist sangha that meets daily except Sundays. We pray in ways that do not alienate people of certain faiths. We invite Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, and others to our church pulpit. I myself served in the Peacemakers Circle for a number of years. It’s an interfaith group promoting greater peace and understanding. But that was when I was still based in Manila before my election.
Jacobsen: How are the current crop of Filipino/Filipina leaders of the UUs leading the way for LGBTI rights and women’s leadership in the Philippines amongst all religions and faiths?
Gallardo: We are very visible in Pride marches. I am about to launch the first Pride Cooperative in the Philippines as its president with some co-founders outside of the UU church. And I am constantly in touch with LGBT members of various churches all over the world.
Jacobsen: Any recommended books or speakers on UUism?
Gallardo: UUism is currently undergoing a lot of anti-racism work as a result of the great fallout of 2017 when many of its top leaders resigned from the white supremacy scandals. So most of our books are undergoing some decentering from white theologies. But very new books have been written that hold promise in better articulating our narrative: (1) Widening the Circle of Concern by the UUA Commission on Institutional Change; (2) Centering: Navigating Race, Authenticity, and Power in Ministry, edited by Mitra Rahnema; (3) UUs of Color: Stories of Struggle, Courage, Love and Faith by Yuri Yamamoto (4) Spriit’s Breath by Tet Gallardo (available on Amazon).
Jacobsen: How can people get involved with the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Philippines or with UUism in general?
Gallardo: People can start engaging by attending online zoom services or watching streaming services on FB or Youtube.
Jacobsen: Any final feelings or thoughts based on the conversation today?
Gallardo: UUs in the Philippines are different from many other UUs in the world in that we are more likely to listen and read nonUU readings and presentations in order to better understand our own personal theology. We are more likely to invite nonUUs in our pulpits and are open to lively spontaneous debates in any assembly.
Jacobsen: Rev. Gallardo, I appreciate the time and the insights.
Gallardo: Thanks for this opportunity. Conversations help me filter my own thoughts as well.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
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