Message to the Graduates
Fr. Roberto Layson, OMI
Doctor of Humanities, honoris causa
March 28, 2015


I really thank Ateneo de Davao University, its Board of Trustees, its distinguished President, Fr. Joel Tabora, S.J., for this meaningful Award given to me together with Mike Alon, my longtime Muslim friend.

I have been in the town of Pikit for many years already as coordinator of the Inter-religious Dialogue Ministry of our congregation and the Archdiocese of Cotabato. For the first six years that I have been in this town, I experienced four wars that brought havoc and untold suffering to thousands of civilians. Human suffering is hard to bear I found out. That’s why during those difficult days, we organized the Disaster Response Team composed mainly of young Muslim and Christian volunteers. Whether under the scorching heat of the sun or the pouring rain and amidst bullet fires, we distributed food to thousands of starving evacuees in various evacuation centers.

Helping the evacuees, no matter who they are, is not a matter of choice. For us human beings, it is a duty and a social responsibility. After all, when you hear the sounds of mothers weeping and children crying in the night, you don’t anymore ask whether they are Lumads, Muslims or Christians.

War does not only destroy houses and school buildings. The divisive and its corrosive effect on the relationship of people is even more damaging than the physical destruction. And so, even after the war is over in the battlefields, the unseen war still goes on in the hearts of the local inhabitants. It’s perpetrated by hatred, anger, bias, prejudice, suspicion, mistrust and generalization against fellow human beings.

To address this unseen war, we conducted Culture of Peace and Inter-religious Dialogue seminars in the villages. We even conducted these seminars to police forces, soldiers and rebels. I found out that if people can be trained for war, they can also be trained for peace.

Until now, we still conduct these seminars to teachers, religious leaders, youth, barangay officials and other sectors. The main objective of the seminar is basically to plant the seed of peace in the heart of every person and to restore the broken relationship of people.

As part of rebuilding the communities destroyed by wars, we also assisted the local communities organized their villages as Zones of Peace. Together with Mike Alon and barangay officials, we went to remote areas just to negotiate with the military and the MILF commanders not to make these villages as battleground of their forces anymore. What made us do this was our belief in the basic goodness in the heart of every person, whether you are a soldier or a rebel. After all, no one has the monopoly of goodness in this world. Neither has one the monopoly of evil.

It started in one barangay of Nalapaan inhabited by Lumads, Muslims and Christians. Later, this Peace Zone expanded to another village then to another. Now, there are seven. It is called the GINAPALAD TA KA Space for Peace where the local inhabitants are trying to live together in harmony despite their cultural and religious differences. In fact, during the official launching in 2004, Sec. Ging Deles, Sir Von Al Haq of the MILF, Cardinal Quevedo, Gen. Cachuela, Gen. Zulkifli of IMT (International Monitoring Team) and other national and international personalities from different sectors of society attended the ceremony.

I found out that a dialogical approach is more effective and productive than the adversarial or confrontational approach that some still prefer to use until now.

Promoting peace is always a challenging task. But we have to do it if we believe in peace. That is why, some of us – Lumads, Muslims and Christians are members of Bantay Ceasefire Volunteers assisting the government and MILF monitor the situation on the ground. We are doing this even in dangerous situations because we are also stakeholders of peace and we want to contribute even just a small effort to achieve the peace that we have been longing for here in Mindanao.

Nowadays, we seem to live in a very confusing time. I say this because of the Mamasapano tragedy that resurrected again the deep~seated biases and prejudices of fellow Filipinos. While some Filipinos support Peace there are also others who support war. “We have learned to fly the air like birds and swim the sea like fish, but we have not learned the simple art of living together as brothers and sisters.” Martin Luther King, Jr. said.

That is why what is most challenging right now is how to restore the belief of people in the Peace Process and in Peace itself.

Actually, I really appreciate the sincerity of the government and the MILF in their desire to solve this Mindanao Problem in the negotiating table and not in the battlefields anymore. As the saying goes, “If you want to make peace happen, don’t talk to your friends. Instead, talk to your enemies.” That’s what happened between the two contending parties. They are now talking to each other and they are now partners in Peace. They have already grown matured over the years.

“The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war.”

Dear graduates, we are in a very critical stage in our search for peace here in Mindanao. We need to strengthen our faith, hope and love to continue advocating for peace. We really have to work together to keep it going. We cannot just leave this task to the members of the two panels who have shown their patience and compassion despite the many criticisms that they are experiencing now. We need to support them. After all, what they are doing is for the common good of all Filipinos.

As graduates, you are now sent into the world to make a difference. It’s now time to translate the knowledge you have learned from this University into personal commitment. Our world today needs engineers who will not only build roads and highways but also build bridges of reconciliation and unity; nurses who will not only care for the sick but also heal the wounds of division and hatred; teachers who will not only teach knowledge and skills but also teach people how to love and forgive. Our world today needs lawyers who will not only uphold the rights of others but also to defend universal, human and religious values; businessmen who not only contribute to the global economy but also invest in the transformation of society and also address the plight of the poor; social scientists who will not only promote freedom of ideas but also create an inclusive and peaceful world.

Let us continue to promote these universal values which are deeply rooted in our religious beliefs. That is why religion still plays a very important role in todays secularistic world. As I always say, there is only one God who created us. We are all brothers and sisters. We belong to the same human family. This world is our only home while we are still here on earth. Therefore, we have to take care of it to make it a beautiful place to live in for all of us human beings.

Let us promote peace and harmony through inter~religious dialogue. As what the great scholar Hans Kung said, “There is no peace in the world as long as there is no peace among religions. And there is no peace among religions as long as there is no genuine dialogue among believers.”

“Think big, start small.” That’s what we are doing in Pikit town. In Pikit, we continue to plant the seed of goodness not even knowing if and when it is going to grow. But we trust in God’s Providence that whatever goodness we have planted will blossom only in goodness and that goodness alone will remain in the end.

You know what I love to do as a priest is to go to the remote barrios to say mass. During the month of June, when rains start to fall, you see the vast fields totally bare. It does not mean though that nothing is happening just because you don’t see anything on the ground. Actually, on that same month, the seeds have been planted and soon they will grow.

I wish you all dear graduates a more promising and productive future and may each one of you be an instrument of peace and healing in the midst of our broken and wounded world. We have to help each other as fellow Filipinos. I remember the African proverb that says, “If you want to go near, walk alone. If you want to go far, walk together.” As brothers and sisters, let us all walk together.

Congratulations and good morning!

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