As a freshman student in Manila when martial law was imposed, Filomena Asuncion concentrated on her studies and shunned any political involvement. Like many other youths hoping to finish their education, find jobs and help their families, she refused to be diverted from her goal.
When they tried to include her in their activities, she would tell her schoolmates at Harris Memorial College, where she obtained a BA in Christian education in 1976: “Let others do it. Our work is the work of religion, work of the soul.”
After graduation, she returned to Isabela as a deaconess of the United Methodist Church. She took the post of Christian education and music director, and taught Sunday school, conducted Bible studies and led the church choir. A natural leader and cheerful organizer, she became the president of the district-wide United Methodist Youth Fellowship in the district and made many friends.
In 1979 she was drawn into an ecumenical movement of Catholics and Protestants called Timpuyog dagiti lglesia or TIMPI. One of the group’s aims was to address the plight of exploited farmers. TIMPI wanted to help tenant farmers by organizing cooperatives as a defense against farm cartels. Land and politics in Isabela were monopolized by a few families, who controlled access to capital, farm machinery and buying stations.
That was the time when Asuncion, a small farmer’s daughter, realized that her calling was to address the needs of the many who were not necessarily members of her church. Her direct interaction with them convinced her so, more than any study groups or theoretical discussions. In her Sunday sermons, she began speaking out against the oppression suffered by local peasants. This did not please the landlord members of her congregation. She was soon branded a “subversive.”
But the young deaconess was determined to continue acting on her beliefs; in fact she blamed herself for not having been an activist earlier in life, for she could have done more. In 1981 she was among those arrested at a farmers’ protest rally in Ilagan and jailed from April to October. That was when she came to the conclusion that the military would never see the legitimacy of protest actions, and that her church might not defend her if she pursued her commitment to the farmers’ struggles.
Asuncion thus left her post in the church and joined the revolutionary underground then operating in the area; she now worked fulltime in organizing the local farmers in defense of their rights. She now saw them as being part of her extended, spiritual family. “The time has come,” she wrote a friend, “when real involvement is needed for me to prove that I am indeed on the side of change.”
Known in the area as Ka Liway, she was killed in 1983 after an armed encounter between armed guerrillas and government forces in Ilagan. Witnesses said she was captured alive, maltreated and abused before being killed.
Although she had despaired about the lack of support from her church, hundreds of church members and friends gathered at the Central Methodist Church in Manila in July, one month after her death, to give recognition to the work of Filomena Asuncion, the deaconess who believed in giving her life for others.