Lola Monika

What is the distance between Bern, Switzerland and the southern island of Mindanao, Philippines? I checked google and it is approximately 11,290 kms, a fourth of the circumference of the earth. Looking back, I am awed by the fact that I traveled that distance way back in 2015 when I attended a conference in Geneva and made a side-trip to Bern, which is two hours away by train.

Even more amazing was the person I met in the small town of Jegenstorf in the outskirts of Bern. Thousands of miles away from home, in a thoroughly alien landscape, at least for me, amid the rustic view of manicured farms and patches of woodlands of the Switzerland countryside made modern and first world by a high speed train whizzing by, I never thought of meeting a person who had such deep affinity and concern for my people and homeland of Southern Philippines, Mindanao.

The trip was a visit to one of Rural Missionaries of the Philippines – Northern Mindanao (RMP-NMR) partner organizations in Europe, Theresa Laden. The charity institution is run by the warm and gracious lady Monika Baumann who has become a loved and revered figure among Filipino members of progressive groups whom she shelters in her home for a day or two. Together with Sister Famita Somogod, MSM, I had the privilege of staying in her beautiful place for an evening where we were fed and given warm beds in my first sub-zero European experience.

I learned the next day that aside from opening the doors of her house, she and her organization Theresa Laden has been supporting the programs of RMP-NMR and many other Mindanao-based people’s organizations. I found out that the organization operates like Salvation Army’s thrift stores where people donate their usable dry goods to be sold again in order to raise funds.

What is interesting about their operation is encapsulated in Theresa Laden’s motto: “Bring what you need not, take what you need, and give what your heart commands.” There are no prices for the goods on display here, and buyers are encouraged to donate what they can to support the programs of Theresa Laden with many partner organizations in the Philippines.

These programs range from the installation of potable water systems in far-flung rural villages, scholarship for poor but deserving students from remote communities, and financial support when indigenous people’s communities are forced to evacuate or when there are victims of human rights violations.

The organization is also quick to respond to request for assistance in campaigns by sending solidarity statements and petitions to the Philippine Embassy in Switzerland such as the recent moves to drum up support for the #stoplumadkilling campaign of 2015. In the picturesque town of Jegenstorf, it is interesting to note that there are a handful of Swiss nationals who may be wearing the campaign’s statement shirt in solidarity with the struggles of our Lumad leaders, schools, and communities under attack – thanks to the solidarity campaigns of Monika and her organization.

We visited Theresa Laden’s Christmas bazaar at an old barn at the town center of Jegenstorf and displayed prominently at the façade of the preserved structure was a Lumad painting depicting how important land is to the life of Mindanao’s indigenous peoples. When we went to her office at a government center building where she runs the charity organization at the huge basement below, side by side to the stock of old clothes, electronics, winter jackets, and shoes, we were greeted by banners of thanks from Filipino children and communities who have benefitted from Theresa Laden’s assistance.

In a tour of the postcard perfect Bern countryside, Monika remarked that she was embarrassed to point out the huge barns that serve as houses for the well-off Swiss farmers especially since she had seen the small rickety homes, if they can be called as such, of Filipino farmers. It was a mystery to her why in their country, the farmers represent one of the most affluent sectors while in the Philippines, they are the poorest and most oppressed.

There is much love from Monika and her colleagues at Theresa Laden for the Filipino people’s struggles, that is proven with their many years of support for the programs of many Mindanao-based people’s organizations including the initiatives of RMP-NMR. Monika’s important work with Laden and her organization’s continuing partnership with Mindanao-based people’s organizations has made her an honorary grandmother to many Filipino children, rural villages, and Lumad communities who have benefitted from her efforts.

For sure, when Monika traverses the same distance between Switzerland to Mindanao soon, they will be welcoming their Lola Monika with warm and firm hugs of solidarity and thanks.

Sister Fam and Monika Baumann, November 2015.

The old barn that houses the Christmas bazaar in the heart of Jegenstorf.

[ED: Monika Baumann and the Theresa Laden women run a bazaar that supports projects of Mindanao NGOs and people’s organizations such as Panday Bulig, Community-Based Health Services, Kasama-Bukidnon, Misamis Oriental Farmers’ Association, Health Bukidnon, Kalumbay, Mindanao Farmers’ Resource Center, RMP-NMR and many others. The writer, Arnold P. Alamon, is the executive editor of the RMP-NMR established Mindanao Interfaith Institute on Lumad Studies.]