By ANNE MARXZE D. UMIL
MANILA – For more than two decades, Rev. Glofie Baluntong has been serving in the communities of indigenous peoples in Mindoro. But the serious threat against her made her leave the province.
Baluntong was among the church workers who were slapped with trumped-up charges because of their work. She is facing attempted murder charges and violation of the Anti-Terror Act of 2020 filed by state forces.
Church groups denounced the filing of charges against Baluntong as harassment and praised Baluntong for her contribution in the indigenous people’s struggle.
The National Council of Churches in the Philippines (NCCP) expressed their support, demanding the dropping of charges against Baluntong.
The group said Baluntong stood in solidarity with the Mangyans’ fight to uphold their rights and the environment.
“She was also actively involved in many relief and rehabilitation programs for the most vulnerable communities and people in Mindoro. She supported and collaborated with the ecumenical organizations in advancing human rights advocacy, and offered sanctuary to those fleeing from violence and attacks,” the NCCP said in a statement.
A family that serves the church
Baluntong is the eldest among four siblings. Her parents were both church workers. Her father is a pastor and a farmer while her mother is a deaconess and a public school teacher.
Despite having both parents working for the church, Baluntong said she did not instantly think of doing the same.
“Even them, they don’t want me to take the same path. Because we are not rich, somehow they also would need help in generating income for the family,” Baluntong said.
She tried her luck by applying for a nursing course. “I wanted to be a nurse, just like my aunt who was abroad then and sending money to the family,” she said.
But she was not admitted in the scholarship program for the said course.
“The administration said that I missed a few points to reach the score for the scholarship. They said we can still enroll and try again to apply for the scholarship after a year. But we didn’t have the money for the enrollment and to pay for the tuition” Baluntong said.
She then applied for a Bachelor of Arts in Christian Education at Harris Memorial College in Taytay, Rizal. She passed and graduated in 1990.
Since then, Baluntong has worked for the church and served in the communities of Mindoro.
She has been a deaconess for 24 years and became an ordained clergy in 2014.
Serving in the communities
Serving the community may have been innate in her as she was born the same day that the church traditionally celebrates the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, Dec. 25.
Although she was not able to pursue the degree that she wanted, Baluntong wholeheartedly served and accepted the tasks given to her.
She has been a deaconess from 1990 to 2013 and served as a local pastor from 2014 to 2017. In 2017, she became the district superintendent until 2021.
As an ordained minister, she became involved in the campaign against mining, human rights and for the welfare of the indigenous peoples.
“I am usually asked why I became a deacon and how I found out about my calling, I just tell them that I saw the need to serve since I was a child,” she said, adding that growing up, their life was also not that comfortable.
Her mother, although a public school teacher, still sells goods to somehow augment the needs of the family.
Baluntong also said that her exposure to the oppression of the marginalized was a factor in her decision to serve in the community. One incident that she can never forget was when she, along with the other youth of her church were walking in a community in Calintaan, Mindoro Occidental when they were blocked by the roving police for no reason.
“The police opened the guitar and checked if there was a gun inside. But there was none,” she said.
During this time, she said there was a bombing incident in an indigenous people’s community in the province, displacing many families.
“It was very vivid in my memory. Those families who were displaced because the military was bombing their communities and targeting the NPAs [New People’s Army]. And they were only sleeping in tents,” she added.
Aside from Jesus Christ and those who mentor her in the church, Baluntong said the Mangyan also give her inspiration because of their willingness to learn and their resolve to fight for their rights.
“Right now, their communities are highly militarized. They were being forced to surrender but they never did and then a Mangyan told us ‘Our spirits are strong,’” Baluntong said.
Harassment against Baluntong started after she allowed members of the fact-finding team of human rights group Karapatan-Southern Tagalog to spend the night in their church sometime in June 2019. The group was assisting families to claim the bodies of guerilla fighters killed in a clash with the military from a funeral home in the area.
At that time, Baluntong was the superintendent of the Oriental Mindoro-Romblon-Marinduque district of the United Methodist Church and was deployed to the municipality of Roxas in Mindoro.
She said the group was planning to just camp outside the funeral home until they claimed the bodies. But soldiers have surrounded the place, she said, therefore it was not a safe place for them to stay.
She said that the group initially coordinated with the local government. But on that day, she said, their contact in the local government was nowhere to be found.
“So they called me. I let them in because the church is always open for those who need it,” Baluntong told Bulatlat in a phone interview.
Since then, she had been put under surveillance by the military.
“A team leader of the retooled community support program told me that they are there to monitor me. Every day they go to the compound of the church, taking pictures. They are also asking me why I give relief goods to the Mangyan,” Baluntong said.
Soldiers also conducted a training on how to make salted egg inside the church. “Why inside the church when they can do it in the barangay hall?” she said.
In December 2019, Baluntong requested a dialogue with the military at the barangay hall. There, the team leader alleged that she was seen in an NPA camp. Eventually, she said, the military produced a witness, a purported ex-NPA who claimed that she was in the said camp.
“So I challenged them to file a case against me if I did something wrong so I can answer their accusations in the court,” she said, adding that as a superintendent, she was often going to different places in the province.
On August 18, 2021, Baluntong, along with others, was charged with attempted murder, for an incident that allegedly happened on March 25 of the same year.
Baluntong said that during that time, she was providing necrological services in another place.
She is currently out on bail, with funds gathered through the support of different organizations and the church.
In addition, Baluntong was also slapped with alleged violation of the Anti-Terror Act of 2020. She received a subpoena last August 5, 2022, requiring her to answer the allegation, which she did by filing her counter affidavit. The new charge is based on the attempted murder charges.
Meanwhile, the UMC is backing Baluntong, saying that “her ministry is in line with the vision of The United Methodist Church – to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
In a statement, the UMC Philippines Central Conference Board of Church and Society claimed that these cases were designed to stop Baluntong from performing her prophetic duties of mercy and justice.
“Loving the poor and working for justice are the imperative of the church. It is vile to weaponize the law and courts against those whose work exemplifies a profound commitment to serve the poor. It is immoral to accuse anyone a terrorist when she does the mission of justice and peace,” they added.
While she prefers to continue her ground work in Mindoro, however, she also acknowledges that safety comes first.
“The threat is there, and yes I am frightened too. But we also needed to be safe so we can continue working,” she said.
She also said that the support of the local churches, other groups and the international groups also meant a lot for her.
For now, she sees her new work as an opportunity to further disseminate and raise awareness to the injustice in society.
“I cannot see myself doing other things. This is my calling and vocation,” she added. (RTS, RVO)