A gig at a detention center

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE – Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) – December 15, 2019 – 12:00am

I had been looking forward to this particular appointment at 2 p.m. last Thursday, Dec. 5. I brought my guitar. I joined Leah Navarro, Bertie Lim, Melie Nicolas, Dan Songco, Charito Cruz, Gina Ordonez, Narz Lim, and Vicky Garchitorena all EDSA veterans and warriors to visit a common friend of ours in jail.

We agreed to meet at Camp Crame by 1:30 p.m. I came a few minutes late. After a long process where we had to submit identification cards, sign in as visitors, get bodily inspected, we were finally let inside the gate. There was a handful of police in this guarded area. In front of us was a long open-air corridor. We walked passed it towards a detached detention room. The clouds were heavy. It looked like strong rain was going to pour any minute. I walked briskly just in case.

When we got into the solo detention place, we were bodily inspected once again. They checked my guitar, the food someone brought and the Christmas party hats we intended to wear during the visit. At last, we were allowed to enter the receiving area, which was a bare room with a red leatherette sofa and some white monoblock chairs. And there, we waited.

Soon enough, the most feared prisoner of this government Senator Leila De Lima walked in. She had a big smile on her face. She was clearly happy to see us. We were also quite excited to see her. The last time I talked to her was during the EDSA celebration three years ago. It was a few weeks before she was arrested and jailed. Noel Cabangon and I even had a photo with her then.

I noticed that she had lost a lot of weight since the last time I saw her. She looked good, healthy and even slightly fit. She was happy to see us even as I noticed a calmness about her.

After a few minutes of greetings and some chit chat, the rain poured outside. The loud pitter-patter made conversation a bit hard because of the noise level. At that point, Leah Navarro suggested we sing Christmas Carols. The group (minus myself) had met two days before the visit to practice. We were raring to sing. Everyone had lyric sheets and wore party hats over their heads. I brought out my guitar and started playing. We started singing Pasko na Naman Muli. Then we segued to Silver Bells, Silent Night, Pasko ay Sumapit and a few other songs. We sang them cheerfully and with gusto. After a while when the rain eased a bit, we paused from singing and resumed our conversation.

Leila talked to us about her living quarters, which we did not get to see. It is a room that is away and isolated from other prisoners’ quarters. In fact, she has had zero contact with any other prisoner. There is no kitchen in her quarters and so she cannot cook. But they allowed her to have a microwave oven to heat her meals. She has no access to television, radio, cell phone and definitely no social media. Once a week, they bring a television monitor to the receiving area where she watches a movie all by herself. The movie, which is on a USB, is submitted days before so that it can be reviewed by her guards before she can watch.

She is allowed visitors, but the rules change from time to time. Lately, her visitors have been going through a hard time getting permission. She said she noticed the tightened restrictions ever since some US senators publicly asked for her release.

After about 30 minutes of conversation, we went back to singing again. Next on the lyric sheet was the song Pasko na Sinta Ko. I noticed how poignantly we sang this compared to the other songs. While it was sad, it felt too beautiful and appropriate to skip it. We sang a bit more until we finished all the songs on the list. I then went solo and sang Tuloy na tuloy and Pasko, a light, delightful APO Christmas hit which emphasizes why Christmas will always go on despite hard times. The message of the song is, as long as Jesus is part of it, there will always be Christmas to look forward to.

Then I started singing APO’s classic song Ewan, and everyone including Leila sang joined in. It was a light, joyful moment. What a unique gig this is, I told myself smiling. Leah Navarro, the only other singer in the group sang her classic hit song, Kailangan Kita. I accompanied her on the guitar. We were all having a great time as we all broke into applause after her song. At that moment, we seemed to have been transported to a free, happy place far from the depressing detention center. We were happy to see that Leila was especially relishing the moment.

We continued conversing about this and that. We talked about the goings-on in our country hoping to update Leila on the latest happenings. To our surprise, she seemed updated on a lot of things. We also shared happy stories and speculated on how everything would turn out. Someone joked that Leila would not be too happy living outside her jail since traffic has become more severe and almost hopeless. And then, there are water shortages, flooding, pollution, crowded and expensive Christmas shopping, etc. She laughed. She shared a few very interesting stories about her court trials which one day soon she will hopefully be able to share publicly. We mentioned to her that she was always in our thoughts and prayers. She smiled. It clearly buoyed up her spirits.

We were only allowed to visit for two hours. Time was running out. After a few more stories, we stood up to say goodbye. I thanked her for the handwritten thank you letter she had sent me a few weeks ago for attending the rally and Mass on the occasion of her 1,000th day of detention. I hugged her and told her what an honor it was to have sung for someone like her who was in jail because of her principles. We all sang a reprise of Pasko na Naman Muli before we left the reception area.

I felt good I signed up for the visit. I admit I felt apprehensive about saying yes due to personal security concerns and being possibly included in some negative government list, but in the end, I was happy I overcame my fears.

I will be the first to admit that I am far from being a good Christian. I am remiss in many of my religious obligations. But something inside tells me that it is a good thing to ease the suffering of others when we can. One of the few Bible quotes I remember from Mathew is, “I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” Often, I think perhaps these simple phrases sum up all the Christianity we need to know.

In times of trouble, I like to go back to another thing I read somewhere. It says we should not worry because everything will be all right in the end. If it is not all right, then it is not yet the end. I know and believe Leila will get her vindication. Truth and light will always triumph over falsehood and darkness.