Starting over: From drug addict to shepherd to the homeless
He was a man of sin, a reckless young man who moved with delayed inertia, time slowed down by the effects of a downer. High on meth, he once carelessly ripped through the streets in his father’s car, feeling invincible, until he blacked out and crashed onto another car. He landed in jail.
He lied, sold stuff stolen from his own household and indulged in a life of “sex, drugs, and rock and roll.”
Who’d have thought that Fr. Flavie Villanueva could redeem himself and become a shepherd of those as self-destructive as he once was?
Middle of last year, the priest established Arnold Janssen Kalinga (Kain at Ligo ng Ayos) Center at the Catholic Trade Building in Manila, a holistic shelter for the homeless, named after the saint who founded his order, the Society of the Divine Word (SVD).
An unexpected quiet corner beside a noise-polluted thoroughfare in Tayuman, the center has been serving as rest place for street dwellers, ex-convicts and former addicts. The mission, said Fr. Flavie, is not doling out, but helping the poor and wounded regain a sense of self—indeed a struggle he had gone through in overcoming his addiction.
“There is hope for those who have fallen victim. I, perhaps, would be a classic example and a hundred others of my friends,” said Fr. Flavie, head of the SVD’s Office of Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation (JPIC).
“I share (President Duterte’s) passion for curtailing and abolishing the drug problem. But first, do it in a proper way, with respect for human life. Because one problem cannot be solved by another,” he said.
The ’90s rebel recalled how he got into drugs as a pampered son who wanted to break free of parental control. He got his chance when much older cousins came to Manila for college, bringing with them youthful vices that stoked his competitive spirit.
He wanted in on the fun, said the then sixth-grade varsity swimmer. From smoking in his elementary grades, he graduated to alcohol and drugs such as Mogadon and marijuana in high school, said the priest, now 46.
“[I got] a sense of belonging and forgot all the worries and pressures,” he said, explaining that somehow, he was able to balance drug use and competitive swimming and managed to hide his vice from his family. At this computer school in Magallanes, he and his friends from high school had the time of their lives.
“That was a beautiful all-out year: sex, drugs, and rock and roll. We would start drinking at 9 a.m.,” he recalled. At the same time, he started feeling bothered by his lifestyle.
“I realized that that was not the kind of life I wanted to live. (God) was there. My conscience was very solid,” he said.
When he and his classmates founded a mountaineering club that would go on treks in different parts of the country, Fr. Flavie learned to stop smoking, “but then I switched to marijuana,” he said. His addiction took its toll on him and his relationships.
“I had no savings, I was getting into more fights, I couldn’t get along with my family. I lied to my girlfriend, who had money (which) I spent on good time and drugs,” Fr. Flavie said. Once, he sped down Antipolo to Makati City in just 32 minutes while driving his father’s Mercedes-Benz. Another time, while drunk and loaded, he crashed his car on Ayala.
By the middle of 1994, Flavie had decided to quit his job and take time off for reflection. It was the runup to the World Youth Day in 1995, and he wanted to get clean so he could participate.
He found himself in a hermitage place in Munting Bukal in Tagaytay City, which was known to host retreat
“Of course, I was in total denial,” Fr. Flavie said of his addiction. “But it came to a point that (I said) maybe I have to face this.”
He believes it was the place itself that helped him get through it. “It was a place of healing, a place of listening, a place of encounter. Basically, it was God’s grace that helped pull me out,” Fr. Flavie said.
Some months later, as he served as guide to Canadian delegates on World Youth Day, he received his calling. “A voice said, ‘Why don’t you, Flaviano, become a communicator of His faith, hope and love?’ It was a very serene voice, without judgement,” he recalled.
That was when he decided to sign up for missionary work, spending time with communities in Mindoro, Davao and Bicol. He fell back to drinking
several times, as a way to build rapport with the locals but would always find a way to emerge sober.
In 1997, after a three-year mission in Bicol, he took some time to seriously consider entering the priesthood. But
the former addict still felt unworthy until a conversation with a bishop helped him find the answer.
“The bishop pointed to my priest friends and said: ‘That one is a drunkard, another loves to tease, that one is like a military guy, the other one is lazy. But they’re all priests’,” he recalled of the life-changing conversation.
“The point is, no one is really worthy, but it is [through] our ‘yes’” [to the call] that God makes worthy the unworthy. It is (through) our openness that He is able to work in us,” Fr. Flavie said, quoting the bishop.
Some 10 years later, in 2006, he was ordained at Church of the Spirit at Divine Word Seminary in Tagaytay. Since then, Fr. Flavie has spent time serving in East Timor, and is now pursuing several reform programs as JPIC lead at the SVD, including the Kalinga center.
Unless one is “high” or drunk, no one is turned away at the regular feeding and hygiene programs on Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays at Kalinga, where the homeless are given meals and a refreshing bath. The experience also comes with a bonding session with fellow beneficiaries and volunteers, and a moment when each speaks affirmations to oneself.
Literacy sessions are held Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays, to help those out of school undertake nonformal education.
“The change I advocate is holistic, beginning with recreating one’s self-image and reclaiming one’s self-respect through the ALS (alternative learning system),” the priest said, adding that what follows is “restoring one’s self-worth by providing opportunities for livelihood and employment.”
The center has given a second chance to former drug user Lito Manaligod, 47, an Isabela native who was separated from his family after he committed murder while high on drugs in 2013. He has been homeless since he got out of detention. Charges against him were dropped after he settled with his victim’s family.
“I came here because I wanted to stay away from trouble,” said Manaligod, now a Kalinga volunteer. “Here, I learn the word of God, which has helped me understand myself. I have also learned to understand and relate with other people.”
The center also helped instill discipline in Joselito Catad, 18, whose family lives by the train tracks in Blumentritt, Manila.
“I wanted a new life,” said Catad, who only finished sixth grade but is now continuing school through the shelter’s ALS sessions.
Apart from handling the center, Fr. Flavie also leads fora on extrajudicial killings, bringing together officials, experts, representatives of the church and civic groups, and even witnesses, to discuss the dire consequences of the all-out war on drugs.
As one who voted for President Rodrigo Duterte, the priest said he believes in the change promised by the country’s top executive, but hopes for a change in his approach.
“Of course, I believe in (the President’s) reforms … But the process (he uses) to achieve them might bring more damage,” he said. What he would like to see, Fr. Flavie said, is “due process for everybody.”
As for those who’d like to leave behind their life of addiction, his advice is for them to recognize the problem, seek help, seek God and never quit even if they falter.
“One has to have a higher power,” Fr. Flavie said. “You will fall, but don’t quit. Don’t lose your goal of change. A new life awaits,” he added.
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