A Very Inclusive Spirituality

Rev. Tet in Palawan

I met Reverend Tet when a friend in Japan suggested I join her at a Zoom talk by the President of the Unitarian Universalist Church in the Philippines, Tet Gallardo. Her spirituality is very eclectic and includes both Islam and Buddhism. A few days later the two of us talked via Facebook Messenger. Thanks to Tet for the photos.

The Zoom talk began with this poem, which proved to be an excellent introduction and summary of what she had to say:

There’s My Temple

By Ma Theresa “Tet” Gustilo Gallardo

There’s my temple!
Believer, unbeliever or wild one.
You are welcome!
We have no definition of who we are but human.
We have no code but that of respect.
We have no creed but that of equality.

There’s my temple!
Identity-seeker, sinner, stateless or not.
You are welcome!
We have no constraints on expression but space.
We have no code but to listen to poetry
between the silence and the surrender.

There’s my temple!
Nature-tripper, urban-dweller, or saint.
You are welcome!
How shall we divide the world but by our breaths.
We have no pope above us, no infallible bull.
We have no judgement but in terms of harm.

There’s my temple!
History-maker, marginalized, unorganized.
You are welcome!
We have no covenant among us but mutual assistance.
We insist on no assumptions and doubt moral facts.
We are free to theorize with emotion and call it hope.

There’s my temple!
Unbecoming, expert, robe or disrobe.
You are welcome!
We have no dwarfs or giants, Goliath fell long ago.
We have no seal on revelation, tentative is truth.
Lead by your desires and serve by your power.

There’s my temple!
Funny, temperamental, shy, or wise.
You are welcome!
There is not one way of being human, not even Superman.
We have no world but that which we together create.
There is as much wisdom in harmony as in dissent.

Tet’s story

Why don’t you begin with your Catholic girlhood and let us follow you into the present?

Okay, I grew up as a member of a middle-class family, living in a gated subdivision which had a swimming pool, tennis courts, a clubhouse and soccer field and all that. I led a highly insulated life and went to the best schools. It was a privileged upbringing. All my needs were met, and my future seemed secure.

As a kid I was in a Catholic school in the Catholic Renewal Movement, the Pentecostal movement within the church. I had a desired to serve the poor. I worked with the Jesuits volunteer corps in the Philippines as a fundraiser.  I was exposed to people who were assigned to one-year teaching positions in poverty-stricken, remote areas where there was not enough water for bathing or enough food to eat. The teachers would come back from the mountains and tell me their stories.

In college I attended the [left-leaning] University of the Philippines, which is a public school with a lot of low-income students. I joined clubs which were into outreach, giving to the poor, serving the poor and all that. Our motto was ‘I live simply so that others can simply live.”

What club was that from?

That was a political party, Tugon. “Tugon” means “response.” This view of the world  was an eye-opener for me.

While I was at the university, a priest harassed me, like kissed me on the lips when I was in confession. I was 19 years old, and it was quite a shock. I had been doing the reading in church on a daily basis, but after that I just dropped out. I felt maybe there was no God.

There were other pressures as well. Living with my parents was difficult. My mom wanted me to focus entirely on my studies and not take part in any extracurricular activities, and my dad was pressuring me to choose a major. I couldn’t figure out what I was looking for. So I left home and didn’t return. An aunt took me in, and I started working in Catholic NGOs.

One of the NGOs was an ally of the radical extremist Muslims, and someone from that NGO introduced me. At the time the Muslims were extremists because they were opposed to the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, but after Marcos was kicked out of the country, they became moderate and very open to peace talks with the government.  They also helped in building new, post-Marcos democracy in Mindanao.

Some of them sort of adopted me, like their own child, and I could rely on them and trusted them, probably more than the Catholics. Over the years we’ve lost touch and gotten reconnected a few times. The alliance with them was actually more political than religious.

When I was 23, I finally came out as a lesbian, and I suddenly found myself sane again. Once I was true to myself, I could look in the mirror,  and I became very active in social development work and movement work. All the emphasis on social development, serving others, became like an addiction. I worked with different sectors—women, students, farmers, union leaders. I worked with the president of one of the largest unions in the country, who actually called to offer me a job as his assistant the moment he got his appointment from the President of the Philippines. I should explain that a union leader is part of the tripartite leadership (labor, employers, government) of the Social Security Commission.

I made all these connections. I was moving through a revolving door between the NGOs. I found myself asking, “Where is God in all of this?” For a couple of years, I was drifting as an atheist, agnostic, whatever. I flirted a little bit with Zen Buddhism and Raja Yoga or Brahma kumaris and then interfaith assemblies, A Course in Miracles, things like that. I was constantly seeking. So [joking] in the end there was no other way than to become a Unitarian.

I first heard of them when I was in New York and living in the house of a Filipino friend. Her fiancé was a Unitarian student of Ministry at Harvard, and he told me a little bit about the humanist and the transcendentalists. I’d read a lot of Whitman and Emerson in college.

I finally found the church back in the Philippines when I was 34. At the time I had just recovered from a ten-year bout of alcoholism, self-destruction and a complete absorption in a dysfunctional relationship. Anyway, it was about that time that I decided on a sabbatical in New York.

I found the Filipino Unitarians a year after I returned from NYC. What I heard about the church got me all excited because I had these romantic notions about poverty, and the Unitarians here are poor. In 2006, I heard they were holding a fellowship circle twice a month. I said I’d love to attend.

They said, “When you come, you’ll be the speaker.”

I said, “wow! An open pulpit! This is the one.” So I was blown away by the liberalism, and I shared my own personal theology fearlessly, thinking “Wow, this is it.” That’s when I started attending regularly.

This whole journey led to getting close to people who still depend on others, who are still connected to each other and do not fear needing each other. That helped me grow, it formed me so that I was no longer a missionary, an outsider. I am now part of their world, inside the inner circle. Roughly translated, that meant I was now poor.

At an interfaith conference on peace in Mindanao

I was ordained in 2013. I’m now the president of the Unitarian Church of the Philippines. All but one of the congregations, about twenty of them, are on Negros Island. I don’t belong to any particular one, but I served Bicutan Congregation in Manila and Ulay Congregation before getting elected. I work in the national office on Negros Island in the city of Dumagette, about 500 miles south of Manila. We usually schedule pilgrimages here once a year, and I’ve been trying to create an annual one in October, when there is usually little chance of a storm.

The churches in Negros are nestled in farming communities, some high up in the mountains. The church in Manila is a shack among the shanties. This is transient quarters for people who have been living there for decades. The dwellings look like they are about to fall apart. That is what drew me to this church. I wanted to be in a world that was closely connected to nature, to reality, that was on the ground.

My parents aren’t giving me any support. I really got rid of every privilege I had—except maybe for my educational background, which still gives me some privilege.

Of course, in the United States the social class is very different. I remember a professor of mine, who I think was a Presbyterian, said the Unitarian church was among the richest. I didn’t realize that when I joined.  I was just looking at the theology and the liturgy. Years later, I went to the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Denver, and I cried.

“Oh my God, this is a real church. It’s not like the shack we called Bicutan. It’s legit.” I’d thought in joining the Unitarians I’d become a member of a fringe society.

Of course, I know Americans were wealthier than us, but it was such an eye-opener. People were making these comments like, “You know, your church now is partnered with one of the top churches with the deepest pockets.”

“Oh, I didn’t know. The   church of Denver, it’s wealthy? Oh, wow. I guess we’re lucky.”

A year later they sent us a check for two thousand dollars, and then they sent us $2,000 a year.That was perfect for scholarships for our schoolchildren and microfinance for women’s groups.

At that Zoom talk you said you’d taken an oath as a Muslim and discussed your personal beliefs with one of the Muslim clerics. 

Last year I decided that I wanted to be with the most maligned religion, the most suffering religion in the world. Muslims are experiencing genocide on the border of China, Myanmar, in Palestine, in Syria, even in the US, right? If that’s the case and the Muslims are still resisting, I would love to be part of that movement. And I would love to learn how they find peace in their religion and if it’s the same as with the people who brought me up before, those leaders who tried to put down their arms in order to rebuild democracy.

For me it is an honor to be branded as a Muslim right now. I want to be targeted as a Muslim. I want people to engage me as a Muslim and to see the consequences when they do. We can talk it out, you know? We can build a relationship which we couldn’t have  imagined before.

I would say it’s a spiritual release. And a spiritual journey that is intersectional, when I say spiritual journey it’s like touching the inner-connected web. It’s like seeing the vibration of that when you can feel the resonance of humanity and find your own humanity.

Now you sound like a Buddhist.

I sound like a Buddhist?  I guess that’s because I am a Buddhist. I go to this daily online sangha. I lead twice a week.

You also have faith healers in your congregations. 

I used to be a faith healer myself. I don’t know if I still am, but when I pray for people they get well unless their journey is done. So I don’t know what it is, but I believe there is an untapped river of energy that when we try to send good vibrations, we get the same back. We pray for healing, we send healing. It’s all part of quantum physics as well, right?

I studied physics for a year and a half as my major in a Jesuit University where I transferred, but I was actually looking for metaphysics. At the time I was constantly looking for the connection in the humanities section of the library, always falling asleep there — it was utterly illogical.

Our ministers—we have about twenty—don’t receive any compensation unless they work for the national office. If they were, for instance, in my position or my staff, they would receive a stipend. My own monthly salary is above the legal minimum wage of 12,000 pesos [$240] and below the standard living wage of 25,000 [$500]. No one can support a family with what I am being paid. So my hustle is to have churches invite me to their pulpit and provide an honorarium.

What do you talk about?

For the next one I’ll talk about my favorite thing for this year, which is “a church of many sensibilities,” basically all-inclusiveness where everyone is welcome. It’s about becoming more open-minded and tolerant. People have to open up to other ways of being human, to diversity.  We can’t be more open to beliefs and less open to sensibilities – to accept more gods than humans.

Videos and an article:

UU Church or the PhilippineB)

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‘Desire As a Moral Compass’ – (Link) h

Prayer for the Movement (Link)

BUILD UU Philippines (Link)

UUSC on the Ground in the Philippines (Link)