Father Dandi’s mission in the Philippines relies on support from the Jefferson City diocese’s annual Mission Collection. The collection will be taken up the weekend of July 14-15. Please give generously. Click here to contribute online.
It wasn’t the first threat on Father Donardo “Dandi” Bermejo’s life, and he suspects it won’t be the last.
But with a gift of food and a promise to help build a chapel in honor of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, the priest turned some would-be assassins into friends and fellow disciples.
“I can be a mediator, a peacemaker,” Fr. Dandi said during a recent trip to Jefferson City. “I went to their village and invited them to our health clinic. I brought them some rice, which they love.”
The dispute involved a road and a people whose hopelessness has been overlooked for too long.
“I came back with some shoes,” the priest said. “We talked. They told me they want to build a chapel. They asked me if I could help them. So when I go back, we will build a chapel for the people who wanted to shoot me. And I will be able to say Mass in that chapel.”
Fr. Dandi, who served in the Jefferson City diocese for nine years, has felt the hand of God guiding him since he founded a Catholic outreach to the ostracized sugar-plantation workers on his home island of Negros Occidental in the Philippines.
“Some of the people tell me, ‘You’re like an angel giving us the light,’” he said. “But I’m not an angel, I’m not a saint. I’m Fr. Dandi. I’m full of weakness and sins. But I want to fill people with hope, to give back to the Lord, to show them that God is good, that God does not forsake them.”
Funding for Fr. Dandi’s multifaceted ministry and his St. Joseph the Worker Medical Clinic come from the Jefferson City diocese’s Mission Collection.
The free clinic, staffed with five doctors and four nurses, has gone from serving about 400 patients per month to about 1,000, free of charge. The dental clinic, open one day a week, serves about 100 patients.
The staff also makes medical missions to isolated villages, last year helping an additional 1,000 people free of charge.
Fr. Dandi also started a program that offers about 100 poor high school students free lunches so they can finish their education.
Working with friends in the shipping industry, he is sending young people to trade school and helping them find well-paying jobs when they graduate.
All the while, he is showing the plantation workers how to form stable communities that are united against crime and corruption and where families look out for their own and each other’s children.
He’s providing pastoral and sacramental ministries to people who are so poor, living in areas that are so remote, entire families have not seen the inside of a church for generations.
He pays a catechist to help young people learn about their faith five days a week in school.
The work of Fr. Dandi and his helpers is awakening government officials, business owners and even fellow priests, previously blinded by centuries of prejudice and social stigma against the sugar plantation workers, to their own obligations to help the least among them.
Poor, banished children
Fr. Dandi, a priest of the Kalookan diocese in the Philippines, remembers crying as a child whenever he saw the sugar plantation workers near his home village.
Their faith in God and humanity had been obliterated by centuries of oppression and savage poverty.
“They never experienced the resurrected Christ,” said Fr. Dandi. “And because of that, they carry with them a sense of hopelessness and sadness.”
They work long hours in dangerous conditions for miserable pay and only during the harvest season. For three to six months each year, they have no income at all.
Malnutrition and inadequate shelter are rampant.
Fr. Dandi said the average life expectancy for someone on the sugar plantations is 50.
Many of the workers head into the fields with bare feet, because their shoes hurt their feet. Many don’t go to church or school because they don’t have decent clothes.
Just to get by, they succumb to predatory lending schemes, keeping them poor until they die.
“And this goes on like that, a cycle of exploitation, and it’s been that way for 400 years,” he said.
What troubled him the most was that nothing ever changed for them. They grew up and stayed poor, and so did their children.
“Being a sugar plantation worker carries a deep-seated social stigma,” he said. “If you are a sugar plantation worker there, it means that you will die in the field. Everybody says it’s just the way it is. That’s why they’re neglected.
“Of course, that is why I said I have to do something to empower these people, to help them find inner peace and joy,” he said, “because they are children of God!”
Fr. Dandi was among the first of many international priests to spend time ministering to parishes in the Jefferson City diocese since the early 2000s.
He had already proven himself to be an effective priest and pastor in his home diocese, traveling to eight or 10 remote villages each weekend to offer Mass, and prompting his parishioners to build a large church and open a Catholic grade school, high school, daycare center and medical dispensary.
People wanted to elect him to high office, although his calling was clearly to the Priesthood, not politics.
In Missouri, he served as associate pastor at St. Peter parish in Jefferson City, then as administrator of Immaculate Conception parish in Montgomery City, then of St. Mary parish in Shelbina and St. Patrick parish in Clarence.
He applied for and was granted U.S. citizenship.
He returned home for a few months in 2013 to help his family after Typhoon Haiyan, the deadliest storm on record to have struck the Philippines.
That’s when he remembered a childhood promise he had made to God to help the sugarcane plantation workers.
“Going home and seeing them always reminded me of Jesus’s parable about Lazarus and the rich man,” said Fr. Dandi.
In that story (Luke 16:19-31), the rich man lived luxuriously and took no notice of Lazarus, begging for food outside. They both died, and Lazarus was taken up to heaven while the rich man was condemned for all eternity.
“He was not condemned because he was rich, because riches are also blessings of the Lord,” Fr. Dandi noted. “He was condemned because he could have helped Lazarus but did not.”
Fr. Dandi became driven to go back home and help as a priest. But first, he studied for a master’s degree in business administration from Lincoln University in Jefferson City, graduating at the top of his class.
Meanwhile, the people here bought into his mission, even as Fr. Dandi worked to figure out the specifics.
“At first, I didn’t have a clear idea of what I’m supposed to be doing,” he said. “But I put it in God’s hands, and little by little, everything is falling into place.”
Starting with his own money, bolstered by volunteers and by gifts from family and friends in the Philippines and in central Missouri, he opened a health clinic for the plantation workers, naming it in honor of the patron saint of all workers.
Fr. Dandi also preached on the plantations about the love of the crucified and resurrected Christ, Who healed the sick and chose to identify with the poor and downtrodden.
“And little by little, we’re to the point where we’re having a big, big effect on the community,” he said.
Serving with joy
Fr. Dandi has also worked with people in the communities to update parks, playgrounds and common areas where the people live.
He has also distributed clothes, shoes and peanut butter, a good source of protein, to families. People from parishes in this diocese gathered these items, and donations to the Mission Office paid for the shipping.
Education is a key to breaking the poverty cycle. Fr. Dandi’s outreach is paying for transportation and other costs for children to attend schools that are far from their homes.
His E-to-E (Education to Employment) program sent 26 high school graduates to vocational training. Twelve of those are now working full-time, earning several times what they would be making in the sugarcane fields.
The St. Joseph health clinic is open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily.
The requests for medical missions keeps increasing, “so we need lots of resources,” said Fr. Dandi. “I don’t worry. God will provide. And whatever He provides, that’s what we will use.”
He believes the most important part of his ministry is to put the joy of the Gospel into practice.
“They need to see someone, flesh and blood, who loves them not just from the pulpit but all the time,” he said. “I’m happy with that. And I feel at home.”
Several plantation owners have begun helping him, as have priests from three of the four Catholic dioceses on Negros Occidental.
The regional government recently honored the people of Central Manapla/Barangay Purisima as the outstanding barangay — local community — out of about 700 such communities on Negros Occidental.
“I believe the physical, corporal and spiritual development that we have contributed to here in this place was a big factor for this award and recognition,” said Fr. Dandi.
Death by subtraction
Every day brings Fr. Dandi a little farther out of his comfort zone and closer to the margins.
“As you serve, you die!” he said. “You die to your selfishness, to your own desires. You die to your interests. It’s like being a candle. It gives off light, but it also dies in the process of serving.”
He calls it spiritual subtraction.
“You just keep dying to your sense of weakness, little by little, until only Christ remains,” he said.
Some of his family and friends have told him he’s either a saint or a fool for being a U.S. citizen and not choosing to live an easier life in the United States.
“How many times I would like to have gone back to the United States where life is better,” he said. “But still I can hear God saying, ‘Stay here, the blessings are still to come.’ So I’m staying put.”
The people are now ministering to each other.
“People are stepping up to care for one another,” he said. “The landowners are helping. My classmates who are used to being children of landowners are helping. And several of business people are trying to offer some social services.”
Fr. Dandi is humbled and galvanized by what he’s seeing happen all around him.
Criminals, once hardened by hopelessness, are turning back to Christ and their communities. Inactive Catholics are returning to the faith. Young people are saying they want to grow up and help the community.
“I say to the people, ‘What I am doing, will you please do it, too?’” he said. “For you to find success and improve your life, you have to help one another.
“And all of them say, ‘Yes, Father, we will do it.’”
So much to do
This year, Fr. Dandi hopes to continue all of his current ministries, along with increasing the lunch program for poor high school students from three to five days each week; building community chapels in two remote communities; and extending medical missions into the fourth diocese in Negros Occidental.
His long-term goal is to open the Philippines’ first full-service hospital for sugarcane plantation workers.
“To have a hospital dedicated to them would be a statement to them and the whole community that God loves them,” he said. “It would remove the stigma and show them their God-given dignity and importance. It will show them now much God loves them.”