They surrendered and lived to tell their stories.
And to these men and women who, only months ago, could not even imagine giving up a life of drugs, it was a day like no other.
Wearing green shirts with a scripture text proclaiming a rebirth in Christ, at least 25 individuals who were once enslaved to illegal drugs walked down the church aisle on Thursday night to celebrate what they consider a significant milestone in their lives.
All of them — the first group of drug surrenderers in Cebu who underwent a barangay-based recovery and reintegration program — were cleared of illegal drug use for the past six months.
Their road to renewal was deemed a breakthrough by church and government leaders who jointly launched the pilot program for drug dependents in Barangay Subangdaku, Mandaue City, in August 2016.
Cebu Archbishop Jose Palma personally met with each of the surrenderers who completed the program on Thursday and are set to proceed to the next phase where they will be given livelihood training.
“This is no ordinary day for these people who longed for change. In life, there are instances when we stumble and commit mistakes. But we should not stay there. We learn the lessons of life and make efforts to change for the better,” he said in his homily during a Mass at the San Roque Parish in Subangdaku.
Since drug rehabilitation is a continuing process, Palma reminded the drug surrenderers to never give in to their addiction once more but to instead remain in Christ.
“We pray that God’s grace will sustain our brothers and sisters who made a decision to leave their dark past and be renewed in the Lord. We draw strength from Him who is the source of love. When times are rough and when you run out of strength, come before the Lord,” he added.
Present during the Mass were Subangdaku Barangay Captain Ernie Manatad along with other village officials, policemen, businessmen and members of the academe who helped the church reach out to drug dependents in a program known as “Labang” or “Lahat Bangon (Everyone rises ).”
At the start of the Mass, the 25 drug surrenderers were all eyes on Palma, who walked to the altar as the congregation sang “New Life.”
Printed at the back of the surrenderers’ shirt was a passage taken from the second letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians: “So whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come.”
Before the Mass ended, each of the 25 surrenderers and recipients of the recovery and rehabilitation program received from Palma a rosary and medals bearing the image of the Holy Family: Jesus, Joseph and Mary.
In an interview, Palma called on other parishes and barangays to replicate the program for drug surrenderers in Subangdaku.
“Although the process takes a while, we have to invest our time and resources. We believe that change is possible through the grace of God, and we know that it will be all worth it,” he told Cebu Daily News.
Cooked over slow fire
At least 60 drug surrenderers are set to undergo the same recovery and reintegration program in the coming days, said Fr. Carmelo Diola, the lead convenor of the program carried out by the Ugnayan ng mga Barangay at Simbahan (Ubas).
“It has been six months of pastoral accompaniment. Yes, it’s as if we’re cooking something over slow fire, but that is the right process. They are not machines. They are human beings that need to undergo procedures one step at a time,” he explained.
After seeing the former drug users complete the six-month program, Diola said he was “completely overjoyed.”
“There’s truly more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous ones who do not need to repent. In this case, there are 25 of them who responded to the call for repentance,” he added.
At the start, Diola said, the kind of help addicts need should be determined. Those who need extensive treatment must be brought to the rehabilitation centers, but those who do not will be offered free counseling and spiritual transformation in the community-based facilities.
The surrenderers underwent daily interventions that included personal counseling, proper hygiene management and other activities that divert their attention away from using illegal drugs.
They also take part in the Lectio Divina or divine reading, a traditional practice of scriptural reading, meditation and prayer intended to promote communion with God and to increase the knowledge of God’s Word.
“During this activity, they are given the chance to share their thoughts and experiences. The Lectio Divina, coupled with the support from different groups, are the twin pillars of the recovery program,” said Diola.
The opposite of addiction, the priest said, is not sobriety but connection.
“As they say, misery loves company. And so, we want these people (drug addicts) to know that the church, the government and other sectors are here for them,” Diola said.
Ubas’ program consists of four stages: admission of addicts into the program, psychosocial intervention, capacity building and reintegration into society.
Diola said the 25 surrenderers who finished the six-month program will undergo livelihood training to be facilitated by the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (Tesda). Afterwards, Ubas will help them find jobs.
Fighting drug addiction is a continuous process that needs constant care and attention, stressed Diola.
“Once an addict, they are inclined to addiction. Like diabetes, they could never be completely healed. However, through maintenance medicines, in their case the word of God and the support from various sectors, they will be able to take each day as it comes,” he said.
“We provide them a positive environment. It’s their decision to completely stay away from illegal drugs,” he added.
Subangdaku Barangay Captain Ernie Manatad tried to hold back his tears while seeing at least 25 drug surrenderers return to the folds of the government and the church.
“Our efforts paid off. This goes to show that drug addiction is never a hopeless case. Addicts are capable of changing their lives for the better,” he told Cebu Daily News.
A changed man
Vincent Adlawan, 35, one of the recipients of the Labang program, was a witness to the evils of drug addiction.
The former welder was hooked on shabu (crystal methamphetamine) for 17 years, starting at the age of 18, as his form of escape, first from his parents’ verbal abuse and later from the hardships of life.
He did not stop even after he got married and had children, supporting his addiction by selling his home’s appliances and other household belongings. His wife, with their three children aged seven, four and two in tow, eventually left him.
On June 30, 2016, Adlawan, the top drug personality in Subangdaku in 2010, decided to voluntarily present himself to policemen who conducted an Oplan Tokhang to persuade drug users and pushers to stop their involvement in illegal drugs.
He was recorded and interrogated. His fingerprints were taken.
A month after, he learned about the drug recovery and rehabilitation program of Ubas and decided to join the group.
“Niabot ko sa point nga sadsad na kaayo ko. Tanang tawo nawala lakip na ang akong pamilya. Gikapoy na ko. (I was in the lowest point of my life. Everyone I loved, including my family, was gone. I was tired),” he said.
It was hard to let go of illegal drugs.
“Lisud g’yud kaayo sa first three months. Naay craving. Magkurog ko, mag-alindasay kon dili ko makagamit og drugs. (It was extremely difficult for the first three months. The craving was there. My body was shaking. I felt tormented if I could not use drugs),” he said.
But determined to change his life, Adlawan said he never gave in to the temptation.
God in the center
The more he craved drugs, the harder he prayed.
“Gi-surrender na nako sa Ginoo ang tanan. Down na kaayo ko. Siya na ang bahala nako. Grabe. I can’t imagine unsa kadako ang tabang sa Ginoo nako. (I surrendered everything to God. I was so down and out. I let God take over. I can’t imagine how much God has helped me),” he said.
Last November, Adlawan began communicating with his wife, who brought their children to Ozamiz City. And he has reason to hope for a happy family reunion.
“I’m excited,” he said after his wife promised to return to Mandaue City within this year.
Adlawan is now active in the Labang campaign. Each week, he talks to other drug surrenderers and drug dependents, encouraging them to renew themselves.
For seven months now, Adlawan has been cleared of drug traces in his body based on drug tests made on him.
“I could never have ridden myself of drug addiction without God’s help. It is definitely hard to stop using drugs, but if you pray, you can overcome. I was enslaved by drugs because I forgot God,” he said in Cebuano.