[OPINION] Bilibid: A semblance of Paradise
"Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."
I have to admit. I feel so detached and distant from these words. I cannot hear myself praying with these. To me, these are the words of a man who lived a life of wickedness, which I have not. What about these words that made our Lord Jesus respond with such gratuitousness? (READ: 7 Last Words reflection: 'Today you will be with me in Paradise')
"Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise."
Last Holy Monday, I visited the medium security camp at the New Bilibid Prison in Muntinlupa City for the first time. With the facility being heavily guarded – all its possible passage enveloped by an endless loop of barbed wire, visits coordinated with the Bureau of Corrections, and visitors inspected upon entry – I can say that the inmates, or politely called persons deprived of liberty, are much secured inside. (READ: IN NUMBERS: The inmates of New Bilibid Prison)
One thing you might find interesting if you had not known yet – inside the penitentiary is a school offering the inmates mainly a course on entrepreneurship and other programs on fine arts, and technical and vocational skills.
Having the chance to interact with each other, the inmates, ranging from young adults to nearly senior citizens, are students. The younger ones, who proudly call themselves the College Guild, even entertained us with a song, dance, and skit. On May 9, another batch of inmates will graduate and will receive their diplomas.
Outside the school, there are areas that come alive with basketball and volleyball tourneys. There's also a market, a bakery, spaces for crafting products that they sell for a meager income, chapels for various denominations, and the sleeping quarters in crowded multistorey buildings. (READ: They spoke to dozens of jailed extremists, and here's what they learned)
Bilibid is a prison, but it is a community – a community even more alive than the noiseless, walled, camera-secured, and luxurious villages we all aspire to live in. Ironically, people inside find new beginnings even in a desolate situation.
Yet it still baffles me. If you were inside, what could possibly get you up from bed – no, the floor – to rehearse and perfect a performance? What is there to dance, or sing, or to act to if you were given a life-long sentence? What is there to paint, or learn, or to earn an educational degree for, if the shadow of your past haunts you? What is there to live for if a quarter or even half of your life will be spent inside a facility secured with a roll of barbed wire?
With great struggle to find an answer, I was led to the very thing that made the thief say to Jesus, "Remember me when you come into your kingdom…" and that is hope.
Hope is abundant inside Bilibid. I saw it with my own eyes, incarnated in the community, in every individual living one day at a time, joyfully, without minding too much the number of years left off of their sentences.
I enjoin you, my dear brothers and sisters, to visit them and see it for yourselves too. It is far from perfect; it is a prison after all. But because of the glimmer of hope, it bears a semblance of Paradise. (READ: Pope Francis washes feet of Filipino prisoner on Holy Thursday)
Finally, notice Jesus' words, "Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise." The time of fulfillment is today, says Jesus. Not tomorrow, not next week, not next year, but today!
Jesus does not wait until the inmates finish their sentences before he shows them mercy, compassion, and forgiveness. He remembers them right now, even while they are inside. My dear friends, forever is not merely in some future time. It is in the here and the now. We are already living in it. And so look around you.
What paradise has God given you today? – Rappler.com
Jaime Martin P. Candelaria, 26, is a management engineering graduate of Ateneo de Manila University. He aspires to become a Jesuit someday.