IT HAPPENED on March 16, 2020.

Government had just ordered a nationwide lockdown amid a surge of coronavirus disease (Covid-19) cases, many of them fatal. For the team of pastors of the Christ of the Agony-Gethsemane Parish in Casuntingan, Mandaue City, the church needed to be present among and for its faithful during this critical time.

Rev. Fr. Junly Cortes, one of the parish’s team members, recalls the adjustments they had to make in order for them to be with their parishioners at a time when they were most needed. In-person masses and assemblies were strictly prohibited as a measure to prevent the spread of the deadly virus.

“Asa ang simbahan during the time nga ang mga tawo nangita sa presensya sa simbahan?” (Where is the Church at a time when the faithful need its presence?) This was the team’s point of reflection as they planned their next moves to beat movement and mobility restrictions.

And the answer to this was —“kay dili man paanhion ang mga tawo, kita ang moadto sa mga tawo” (Since the people are not allowed to go to church, we, the priests, will go to them.)

The plan was set into motion June 14, 2020, during the Feast of Corpus Christi. Parish youth volunteers, equipped with quarantine passes, went house-to-house and distributed packed meals of spaghetti and chicken to children in the three barangays within the jurisdiction of the parish.

“It was our way of reaching out to the people at a time when people were not allowed to go to church,” Cortes added.

The main objective of the parish community feeding program dubbed Kusina ni Juan (Kitchen of Juan) was to reach out to the people during the pandemic, he adds. Youth volunteers would prepare the food and distribute them.

The weekly food distribution mode later evolved to chapel-by-chapel. As of last count, the parish volunteers have set up 41 feeding stations in chapels in the three barangays belonging to the parish.

At least 5,000 children are able to avail of these free meals weekly. Excess packs are given out to people of other age categories.

The menu also evolved over time—from chicken-and-spaghetti to lugaw (porridge), pospas (porridge meal with chicken bits), champorado (chocolate rice pudding) and ube-porado (ube rice pudding).

The ingredients are sourced from donations in cash and in kind. Since birthday parties and similar gatherings were not allowed during the pandemic, expenses intended for these celebrations were instead donated to the parish for its feeding program.

Even non-parishioners and former parishioners now living abroad also shared their resources to keep the community feeding program alive. The members of the team of pastors have also lent their own personal vehicles to help transport the food ingredients to the chapels.

Youth volunteer Nino Lutchavez, one of the prime movers of Kusina ni Juan, said they are now firming up a process flow to make the feeding program more efficient and cost-effective.

The process involves menu preparation, which is largely dependent on the availability of ingredients, budgeting, purchasing, packing and distribution of raw ingredients, cooking (now handled by chapel leaders), catechizing by the animators and, finally, feeding. The entire activity takes about one to two hours.

Children aged 2-11 years also get a one-year supply of vitamins, courtesy of a collaboration among the parish and Ceelin-Unilab Foundation.

To help fund its Parish Caritas programs, the parish started in July 2020 a resource mobilization campaign called Kantahan, Sayawan, Luto-an (Kasalu), a weekly entertainment program live streamed via the parish’s official Facebook page.

Aside from Kusina ni Juan, the parish, through the efforts of program formator Fr. Jeffrey V. Uy, rolled out the Parish Intervention Family Collaborator, a pastoral counseling course under the auspices of the Commission on Family and Life.

The 54-hour course covering three-hour sessions over 18 Sundays targets to graduate 53 students, 28 of whom are parishioners, on July 10, 2022. It is the only parish in the Cebu Archdiocese offering this course, says Fr. Uy, who holds a PhD in Human Resources.

“We aim for restorative Christian justice,” he says. “Kung nakasala ang tawo, hatagan siya’g kahigayonan nga magbag-o.” (If someone has committed a sin, we give him a chance to redeem himself.)