Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Guiding Faith and Guarding Fortitude: SU Church in the Contemporpary World

By Allianah Junnice Bolotaulo | The Sillimanian Magazine

Still the faith and truth she gave us, will remain our guiding star. 

Among the famed five Cs of Silliman University’s (SU) education venues, is the church, which functions within the context of “while we think globally, we act locally.” Incorporating the values of  Via, Veritas, Vita (Way, Truth, Life), it prides itself in programs that emphasize on a Christian pedagogy, nurturing students, faculty, staff, and alumni. 

Behind SU’s long history of societal involvement are students coming from different walks of life uniting for joint causes. At present, Sillimanians can be seen taking on roles as advocates, champions, and protestors against local, national, and even international issues. 

Sillimanians and social reforms

Termed “activism,” the practice is defined as employing direct vigorous campaigning in support or opposition of controversial issues. It makes quite a negative impression on critical minds since it is often linked with aggression and hostility. Hence, the terms “advocate” or “supporter” for a lighter and much contextualized association. 

Sillimanians carrying their own causes, whether as current students or graduates, continuously serve as voices for their stance. 

Yet, in a school that is powered by Christian faith, how does the SU Church fit in students’ calls for social reforms? 

The church is not a separate entity from the university. While it also caters to a public congregation, students are amongst its top priorities with its ministry revolving around proclamation, stewardship, and discipleship and nurture. 

Through various services and activities, the Church aims to integrate spirituality in the university life of Sillimanians. In events such as the University Christian Life Emphasis Month (UCLEM), pastors and worship teams use different approaches in hopes of making an impact on students as they work towards their goals. 

But, to understand its cultivated passion to be at the forefront of fighting for what’s right, one must look into the roots from where it all began. 

History

The SU Church is a distinguishing feature of the university, both in architecture and function. On top of it sits a cross that no building within the campus supersedes its height. More than a place for weekly praise and worship, the church involves itself in the educational growth of Sillimanians. 

Along with academic endeavors, students also attend Galilean Fellowships, midweek services, convocations, and devotions that are meticulously organized for the promotion of Christian faith in all undertakings.  

It is quite easy to get lost in awe of its structure and goals, but the history of the SU Church makes it even more interesting. Tracing back to 1899 when the American Presbyterian missionaries came to the Philippines, the church arose, only 2 years before Dr. and Mrs. David and Laura Hibbard founded Silliman Institute.

The establishment of the Presbyterian Church of Dumaguete, which later on became the Dumaguete Evangelical Church, on December 6, 1911, signified the founding of a Protestant (Presbyterian) church in Dumaguete. The church was composed of two congregations: Dumaguete townspeople and the Silliman community. 

However, in 1916, the congregations had to separate for reasons including difficulties of functioning under one structure and reorganization of groups. While the town church became  part of an independent Philippine Presbyterian church, the Silliman Student Church came to be with Dr. Paul Doltz as its first pastor. This church later on became the Silliman University Church known today. 

While it may have a Presbyterian background, the SU Church extends its services to all students regardless of denomination and religious affiliations. Aside from allowing students to practice their own religious beliefs, the congregation also provides them with opportunities to “broaden their spiritual horizon” and “translate their faith into active commitments.” 

Activism vs. virtue signaling

In the modern world, activism is viewed as parlous since it usually involves controversial matters relating to politics. However, for Dr. Lily Apura, Associate Professor from the Divinity School, student activism is a positive thing that they encourage among students. 

She said, “Jesus, the Via, Veritas, Vita, is a person who was really involved in what was happening around. He was born at the time of  the Roman Empire and it was a time of political  turmoil. Jesus is not political, but he was very much involved in what was happening.”

She explained that when humans lobby for change, it is the Gospel’s way of showing that humans are the “main locus of change.” This refers to how reforms can only be accomplished if individuals initiate actions for such changes. 

However, while Apura acknowledges students’ willingness to take part in something impactful, she also warns them against virtue signaling wherein public deeds are carried out for the sake of showcasing good character or moral faultlessness. 

“What students can do at this time, for me, see for yourselves [first]. Even if laws may be changed and individual persons are not, there’s no real change there,” she said.

She added, “It’s so easy to say ‘I’m concerned for social change,’ ‘I’m concerned for the poor, the oppressed, the animals.’ It’s so easy to do that and carry a placard. But how about in your room? How about in your family? Within your individual? How can one be later on, a leader of a barangay or your community,  when you are not even able to  manage yourself well and put things in your lives in order?”

As a course instructor in the Divinity School, Apura believes that guiding students in the classroom is the best way to start social change. 

“[In the] classroom, students need a little bit of push or opportunities to really explore [social change]. I have encouraged my students to go out there and talk to gasoline boys, parking boys, and people on the streets and just ask them about  what their life is like, what are their dreams,  and introduce yourself.”

For Apura, reaching out to the marginalized, hearing them out, and embracing them can be an avenue for students to learn about other people. In turn, by sharing the Gospel, these people also get to learn from the students. 

Apura urges students to “engage” their minds and do research to understand things before taking part in activism. With this is assessing oneself to see if the advocacies really match with one’s own core convictions. 

“If it really comes from your personal passion, then it can really be an expression of it and [it would] bring fulfillment and meaning to life,” she said. 

The activist spirit   

For Dr. Karl James E. Villarmea, another Associate Professor from the Divinity School, activism is about staying consistent and committing to one’s principle.

With his advocacy work for the LGBTQIA+ community, Villarmea carries with him experiences of being a pioneering advocate. According to him, there was a struggle in acceptance and support among members of the university in the past. 

Having only a few advocates with him in the beginning, he likened it to being a “lone wolf in the jungle.” 

He said, “I was not thinking that I’m going to package my [advocacy] in this way so that it will become effective. What I was thinking [was] as long as you’ve got the integrity and the commitment to do in the long run, you know what is good, just, and holy, I think it will be okay no matter what.”

Sillimanians have always had what Villarmea called an “activist spirit.” Various concerns and issues come to light with their involvement in discussions and public expressions of support. 

However, for Villarmea, the SU church remains neutral when it comes to social issues. He explains that while the SU church welcomes everyone “in the spirit of religiosity and spirituality,” it has not declared stances on certain societal concerns. 

“‘Don’t disturb. Just pray.’ And that’s sad for me. Since this is a university church, a church should have been and should be a space where students can ask honest questions about faith—questions about  science, technology, and the role of faith,” said Villarmea. 

He added that students should “feel safe” to ask when they have questions, instead of fearing negative feedback from the church. 

Despite this, Villarmea is “still proud” of the church he is part of, explaining that it tells him to do something for the least and the marginalized. 

“This is something that we need to do.  We do something for the poor, the farmers. And, so I do something for the excluded, the LGBTQIA+ [for example], I do something for them because I think this is the spirit of the Gospel. Otherwise, faith for me is dead,” he said. 

On activism, Villarmea said that it is important to reach out to people who share the same values. He encourages fostering support among fellow students with the same goals as necessary to sustain the calls for reforms. 

He said, “If you look at the [vision, mission, and goals] of Silliman, it’s really about concern for our country, it’s concern about others. It’s about society, it’s about this world  that we are a part of.”

“You know, we can have an excellent education elsewhere, but I think what we’re trying to do here is to embody that kind of spirit [that] concerns for the plight of the least.  Concern for the  betterment of our country and the environment,” he added. 

To Villarmea, Silliman’s unique ability to have excellent education while also embodying “that kind of spirit [that] concerns for the plight of the least” and contributing to the “betterment” of the country and environment are remarkable qualities.

The works of a university church

“Everything we do is really embedded in our faith,” said Rev. January B. Alpuerto, the Minister for Students and Campus Chaplaincy for this school year.

For Alpuerto, students must immerse themselves in information so they may develop the capacity to think better and make decisions as members of a greater community. This goes beyond social media discussions which, according to her, carry no value without action. 

“If your foundation is a solid foundation: Via, Veritas, Vita, you will never go wrong in terms of thinking what is supposed to be right and what’s supposed to be done,” she said. 

Alpuerto also believes that faith is an expression of caring for oneself, other people, and the environment. Faith should be used as a guide in conducting advocacies so that there would be reason and direction.

In SU, spirituality is inculcated among students in ways beyond worship and praying. The church, most especially when requested by the administration or student government, prepares activities and materials that fit the needs of students. 

“We don’t just look at numbers, but we do want that the students would see the Church as an integral part of their education.”

Along with this, Alpuerto revealed that the SU Church is trying to address challenges that students are going through such as matters related to mental health. 

According to her, “It’s very, very alarming, I would say. We do recognize that a lot of students nowadays are having problems with life. You are so exhausted. You are worrisome.  You are so anxious.”

The minister also explained that they are striving to “come up with very concrete plans” to help students who are struggling with mental health. These platforms just take time to process. 

“We’re hopeful that we are able to find an avenue where you can speak and share. Personally, I want a space for you where you feel safe. That when there are people having anxiety, mental breakdown—whatever kind of breakdown—you know that you can go there,” she said. 

Alpuerto reminds Sillimanians that they are always given access to the services and activities of the Church. Among these are facilities such as the Prayer and Meditation Room at Scheide Chapel and services such as devotions and fellowship.

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