Ritual as Gift

They came bearing gifts. They came with poetry, a Subanen prayer, a fragment of an epic chant, dance, a sacred water vessel from the Andes, flowers for the altar, a guitar, and ritual implements that have traveled from Zamboanga in the Southern Philippines to Oakland, CA.

They came — Lizae, Venus, and Frances — because, they said, it didn’t feel enough to respond in writing to my recent email announcing that I am about to step out as director of the Center for Babaylan Studies very soon. They wanted to respond in person. They wanted to respond via Ritual.

These three friends have been kindred spirits to the work that began as a Filipino American identity crisis looking for an answer. We all found each other through our shared telling of grief stories about being colonized. Stories of grief that became stories of healing, of journeying back to wholeness, of getting to know ourselves as indi-genius, a play on the word “indigenous” to refer to those of us who are “indio + genius” as shared with us by Kidlat Tahimik, the original sariling duwende (the trickster) of Philippine independent cinema and an advocate for the flourishing of indigenous cultures and practices, together with Katrin de Guia, author of Kapwa: The Self in the Other.

Frances shared her poem:

I speak/For/They have not severed my soul/I grow my tongue back

I dance/For/They have not severed my soul/I grow my feet back

I love/For/They have not severed my soul/I grow my arms back

I sow/For/They have not severed my soul/I grow my hands back

I choose/For/They have not severed my soul/I grow my mind back

I feel/For/They have not severed my soul/I grow my heart back

Speak now/Dance Now/Love/Now/Sow Now/Choose Now/Feel Now

Back I grow

Lizae offered a Subanen prayer as taught to her by Subanen elders and with permission to use the prayer as appropriate followed by the sacred Pangalay dance. She was joined by Frances while Venus provided the drone accompaniment on guitar.

Venus shared a water blessing via an Andean whistling pot — an instrument that is believed to have been used by shamans to induce a trance. In this almost trance-like state, Frances began reading a narrative that I had written about the epic heroine Mungan from a Manobo epic, Agyu. I culled the story of Mungan from the book, Verbal Arts in Philippine Indigenous Communities: Poetics, Society and History. I have been living with this myth for years now, meditating on it and praying for it to claim me so that I may understand what it wants to reveal to me for today’s time. I shared this with Frances a few years ago and at this ritual she danced Mungan to life.

At the center of the Ritual was the altar offering of flowers, water, candles. As we sat in circle, they all took turns offering words of appreciation, kindness, and affection for the work that we have done together since 2009. This work of thinking and reflecting together about the Medicine that we might offer to our communities as we seek to heal from colonial trauma is the heart of our sisterhood.

Lizae, Venus, and Frances were at the forefront of grassroots efforts to fundraise for the first Babaylan conference in 2010. The first fundraiser was organized by Lizae as a “healing concert” at her home. The gift offerings of song, dance, chant, food, and drumming we gathered at that event set the mark for how we want to do this work — beautiful, heartfelt, soulful, reverent — in praise of the babaylan-spirit that animates our enlivened wholeness as decolonized Filipinas.

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The Center for Babaylan Studies is an all-volunteer organization that has attracted quite a bit of notoriety (in a good way) as we are one of the very few groups in the Filipino diaspora that is advocating for the need for decolonization and re-indigenization of our communities through the dissemination of Filipino Indigenous Knowledge Systems and Practices.

Since 2009, we have organized three international conferences, several symposia, retreats, published a number of books, and supported projects such as the Ifugao Hut Project and the T’Boli School Project as well as individual culture-bearers in the diaspora that have benefited from the platform that CFBS has created.

Sometimes people say we are a Movement, a Beloved Community, rather than a professional nonprofit organization. Indeed, when I read the bible for nonprofits, Fundraising for Social Change, I laughed because we clearly fail in so many ways based on the criteria they’ve set for successful nonprofit management. We do not charge a membership fee; we are not so social-media savvy; we don’t send out solicitation letters; we don’t actively seek grant funding.

And yet at every event we have organized, we have created Beauty that touched the hearts, minds, and souls of folks in our communities. While we are perceived as being intellectually/academically-inclined (perhaps due to my affiliation with a university), those who have attended our events comment that our conferences feel more like spiritual retreats.

I invite you to browse around our website and learn about our work.

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Frances and Venus came all the way from Los Angeles to Santa Rosa to offer this Ritual. Lizae came from Oakland. Ritual fills in the gaps when words fail; when a Facebook post is not enough, when a text is not enough, when an email is not enough.

For this Gift of Ritual, I am grateful.