If at all there is glamor in missionary work, it is only through the stories missionaries alone can tell—should they live to share the tale.
The time: the mid-’90s. The place: Papua New Guinea. The moon hung low over the horizon. The day had been no different from other days: fervid, almost rabid with work. A Salesian’s job is never done, and Fr. David Buenaventura, a teacher and cleric of the order of Don Bosco, made sure he accomplished his function in light of his calling as missionary for the young.
As was his practice and faith to end a busy day with some peace of mind, Fr. Dave and the other clerics joined each other in prayer. Minutes into their silence, a group of men barged in the door, and with the intention of robbing the priests, pulled out a gun. As a precaution, should the priests put up a fight, the two other men pulled out their bush knives.
Caught unawares, Fr. Dave and the other clerics refused to move. His long experience as a missionary had taught him a thing or two about managing tight situations. This wasn’t his first, and sure enough it would not be his last. It was to be the beginning of a long line of experiences proving the words of the Master, “Surely I am with you always to the very end of the age”.
One of the men made his slow approach and poked a vintage Japanese firearm on Fr. Dave’s head.
“Sirip! Sirip!” the man shouted, forcing the priests to either sleep or look the other way. Aghast at having to consume his time translating the command, Fr. Dave looked in the direction of the man’s hooded face. Feeling perhaps he’d been exposed, the felon slammed his head on Fr. Dave’s forehead. At the end of the ordeal, no one was killed.
Japan, early 2000. It was the height of the exodus of Filipina entertainers to the land of the Rising Sun. Fr. Dave took this chance to minister to the poor, defenseless Filipinas in a country that had exploited our women for many years.
It was easier said than done. Fr. Dave Buenaventura’s day began by paying each one a visit in their homes, have them tell their stories, or provide whatever need they may have while working in the area. As a daily chore he would visit junk shops and stores within the area for any and all items that he thought might be of any use to the women. He would thereafter haul these items to their homes to the consternation and shock of the Japanese priests in the local parish. That level of personal service was foreign to the local clerics who believed it a better tact for the members of the congregation to pay their pastor a visit than the other way around.
At other times Fr. Dave braved a trip to the very nightclubs where the women worked so he could hold confessions. Oftentimes, this caught the ire of Yakuza oyabons who mistook his missionary work for womanizing.
“I had my share of dangerous situations,” Fr. Dave told the Philippines Graphic. “The situations I find myself in as a Salesian missionary are not always easy. Missionary work is risky. But since God’s on my side, I have nothing to fear.”
The seven years Fr. Dave stayed in Japan saw him reach out to more and more of our women who worked as entertainers there. The work hardly got any easier for Fr. Dave who did everything he could to give these entertainers a new lease on life.
In fact, at one crucial point in his missionary work, he even smuggled these poor Filipinas to Osaka and Tokyo, away from the violence, beatings and exploitation that they had to endure at the clubs.
“I once paid a Filipina entertainer a visit,” he recalled. “I knocked on the door and there was no answer. I leaned forward and I heard someone crying. As I took the liberty of entering, I saw a Filipina mother with her daughter. From the looks of it, she recently went through a serious beating. She told me that her husband went out to gamble, leaving them with no food in the fridge. It was one o’clock in the afternoon and they haven’t had a bite to eat. I checked and what I saw was dog food for a couple of German shepherds who lived with them in the house. Imagine having food for pets and not for people. I immediately told them to pack their bags and fly to her sister in Tokyo. She can ‘disappear’ there. I handed them some money for the trip. In situations like that, we have to decide quickly.”
Unknown to many, Filipina entertainers suffer some of the most brutal acts of exploitation and abuse in Japan. It was, in fact, normal for an entertainer to sign contracts for multiple jobs. In most clubs, they were required to sing, dance, wash dishes, serve and entertain the customers. Fr. Dave said most of these entertainers were squeezed dry for the measly salaries they got.
“I once met a group of seasoned entertainers who went to me for help,” Fr. Dave said. “They were veterans, having worked in the industry for years. As part of their assignment, they were sent to this club owned by the Yakuza. One night, the club owners sent them to a hotel where, upon arrival, they found out that they were to strip naked on a table and dance to Japanese customers. Without warning, they bolted the club and went to see me. They asked if they could hide in the convent. The convent had an underground, a basement, and it was there that I hid them.”
The next few days saw the members of the Yakuza searching the area where the convent was located, Fr. Dave said. The gang introduced themselves to the local parish priest and asked if he had seen the entertainers and the missionary. He said no, even while he knew where we were hiding.
“The Yakuza thereafter guarded the seaports, the airport, and the train stations,” Fr. Dave said. “Good thing I owned this customized car which I used to bring the women to Osaka. I brought with me three drivers. We reached Osaka in the nick of time, but at the behest of the Philippine embassy, we surrendered their passports for fear of being blacklisted.”
The succeeding years brought him to Milan, Italy. Shortly after, he was pulled out of Milan to begin his ministry with Filipino youth. As a Salesian whose work primarily revolved around the poorest of the poor and with the young, he accepted the job immediately and proceeded to set his goals.
The birth of Fr. Dave’s ministry came on the heels of three children from Jolo in Mindanao. With the help of Carmelite nuns, he was able to work with the three children by introducing them to his own brand of holistic training, instilling core values including honesty, fidelity, and a sense of justice into the game plan.
“I use the simplest activities to instill in them these core values, like washing dishes, for example,” Fr. Dave said. “Or the bathroom. If in these small endeavors the children can learn the values of honesty, fidelity, and justice, then we move onto bigger tasks like livelihood skills. I started with baking, something they could share and teach to other family members. Then I opened a modest coffeeshop to teach them crewing. I also developed their culinary skills, and even opened a carwash, carshop, tailoring, and a barbershop. In a farm in Batangas, we started out with eight boys who wanted to be good in agriculture. One of the young men wanted to study Criminology and I said go right ahead, I will help you. Now he’s a police officer assigned at airport, Terminal 2. My culinary graduates, believe it or not, are now working in different establishments—Oakwood, Herald Suites, etc. This year, one of our graduates will be an architect, next year, an electrical engineer. But unlike other institutions where they are required to pay them back, I tell my kids, once you’re empowered, you’re on your own.”
In all of the 10 years in the ministry, only one among close to a hundred boys decided to become a priest. “He is now a Salesian brother in Tarlac,” Fr. Dave proudly said. “Others, of late, have expressed their interest. But I always remind them that this is a vocation and it’s not something I force on the kids. The priestly or missionary vocation is not for everyone. First, they finish college. That’s more important.”
Fr. Dave said that most of the kids come from the poorest of the poor. That, in fact, is the sole requirement. As for religion, the one rule stands: you respect ours, we respect yours. Everyone is welcome for as long as they understand and practice respect. If at any time they feel we are teaching them something wrong, they are always free to leave. We also look for kids who have the drive to learn and make something of themselves. We give them elbowroom to adapt within six months.”
Hence Don Bosco Pugad was born, a home for poor and needy migrant youth.
In the years following their graduation and eventual “exodus” from the center, where in the course of the training not a centavo was demanded from the children, Fr. Dave said some return to the center, of their own volition, to lend their support to the livelihood programs.
“A good example was the Mangyan boy who now works as an OFW in Saudi Arabia,” Fr. Dave recalled. “He’s 100% Mangyan. He was up for a vacation and asked me to meet him after he had left the airport. We met at the office and there he said he wanted to give me something. He proceeded to enter the bathroom and after a few minutes, he came out with a wad of cash which he hid inside his underwear. At another time he came back with a backpack filled with money. I asked him where he got it. He said he saved up all his tips for Pugad. It was worth P20,000. In time I also helped him invest his money. We put up a honey farm where he earned his share from the proceeds. Today, all the livelihood projects are managed by our graduates. My job now is to simply supervise. One hundred percent of those who finished our training are now employed. In fact, we are approved by the Securities and Exchange Commission and registered with the Department of Social Welfare.”
In the course of this interview, I asked Fr. Dave what he thought of a recent headline where priests and pastors are said to be arming themselves in the wake of the killings of three priests. I quickly presumed that after having risked his life doing missionary work abroad, Fr. Dave would be the best person to consult when under dangerous situations.
“Martyrdom is not new to Christianity,” Fr. Dave said without blinking. “There is really no point of arming oneself. Arm yourself and you will be tested. Just like what happened to one of our Salesians. He put up a security agency in Papua New Guinea. What happened? He was tested. Suffice it that he and his agency started to look stupid. Men of the cloth have a lot of work to do. If we only concentrate on our work, doing what is expected of us, then killing you would be the last thing in their minds. Instead of dealing with politics, get busy with the young. And they appreciate that.”
The priestly vocation, Fr. Dave said, runs along the very basic tenets of what the Lord Jesus said, “Deny yourself. Take up your cross. Follow me. Jesus did not say take up your firearms. Any obstacle that you find in you that will prevent you from taking up your cross and following Jesus Christ, get it out of the way. We’re not in the business of image building. Guns–that’s for image-building. While I know some take up arms as a mere hobby, there are hobbies, I believe, that do not suit a priest. If you love your vocation, then leave your guns.”
While it may be a matter of curiosity for some to see priests arm themselves in the wake of the murders, for Fr. Dave, there ought to be no compromise. He stressed the importance of going back to basic Christianity each time believers find themselves in tight situations.
“What is Christianity? Christianity is life. Life is about relationships. Relationships, they grow and they bloom if at the heart of it is the love of the Master. And what is the love of the Master? If you love me, you will keep my commandments. Love equals obedience. Now, love has many expressions. Of all the apostles, it is only Saint Paul who understood these many expressions. In 1 Corinthians 13:4-7: Love is patient, love is kind, etc. Precisely. Patience, kindness, generosity, humility, honesty. These are the things that strengthen relationships. These are the virtues that give life to you, to a Christian. And the best way to possess these virtues is through practice,” Fr. Dave concluded. G