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From Maoist revolutionary to Mennonite peace worker
January 20, 2006
Winnipeg, Man. — Dann Pantoja, a former Maoist revolutionary, thanks a driving offense for getting him on track to a gospel of peace.
In January, 2006, together with his wife Joji, he will begin a peace ministry in Mindanao, Philippines, a Christian-Muslim conflicted region in his home country. A partnership including their congregation, Peace Mennonite Church (Richmond, BC), Mennonite Church Canada Witness, and a community of family and friends will support the ministry.
Pantoja rejected Christianity in his youth. It was a hopeless path, he says, to achieving the political reform so badly needed in the corrupt Marcos regime, which featured death squads as a daily part of life in the densely populated archipelago. He grew up next door to the largest US military base in Southeast Asia, and watched as foreign soldiers on leave visited his community, taking advantage of freedoms and pleasures of which he could only dream.
At age 14 he asked a local missionary “What would Jesus do in our society of poverty and injustice and martial law?” The missionary replied, “Jesus will come again and we will be raptured and that will not be your problem.” Pantoja promptly joined the Youth Communist Movement. “You grow up fast in the Philippines,” says Pantoja.
In his early twenties Pantoja bottomed out in a pit of despair, seeing no progress in any of his activism. Encouragement from his ageing father, a Baptist minister, to again try the Jesus way – irrespective of the denominational church – gradually led him back to faith.
Married but still residually a rebel, he arrived in Winnipeg in the mid-1980s to work at the invitation of the Baptist General Conference of Canada, when he was pulled over by a police officer for speeding. Coming from a culture that held law enforcement authorities highly suspect, he demanded to know the exact ordinance number of his offense. Unable to deliver, the officer released him with a warning.
Back at his office Pantoja gloated with a colleague about his defiance. A colleague promptly sent him for anger management and conflict resolution counseling with a Mennonite pastor-friend in Steinbach, hoping to take the edges off Pantoja’s abrasive personality.
Although the experience helped to soften the former revolutionary, the Mennonite influence took much longer to take root; he could not believe that pacifism was a viable alternative in a violent world.
In wasn’t until the terrorist attacks of 9/11, an event that sparked Pantoja to further theological studies, that a professor suggested he was becoming Anabaptist. After re-reading the gospels, Pantoja realized that, “If I am going to follow Jesus, I need to give up violence to make an impact in a post-9/11 world.” Googling on the internet for the words “peace church Richmond” quickly led him to Peace Mennonite Church in Richmond, BC, where he and Joji were embraced and later became members.
Joji shares Dann’s passion for peace, but also strongly identifies with the problems of a consumer culture. As a highly successful financial planner and later a real estate sales administrator she has a deep understanding of the sacrifices families make to live an upper income lifestyle.
The Pantojas are no strangers to ministry. Dann has been a church planter, pastor, and international mission administrator. Joji grew up in a committed Christian home. Their marriage vows included a public, lifetime commitment to ministry. It is rare to see a couple so equally committed and complementary to each other’s ministry. The couple believes deeply in quality ministry versus quantity ministry. They are happy if their ministry succeeds in transforming only one life.
Dann has already funded a personal exploratory mission trip to Mindanao, and found a simple strategy to beginning peace dialogues with local Muslims: Honesty.
Upon invitation, he explains his motives to Muslims in language that treads lightly on Christian baggage. “I am doing this as a follower of Isa Al-masih [Arabic for Jesus the Messiah], because Jesus taught us to love our neighbours, give our life to our neighbours, and you are my neighbour, and I love you. Would you allow me, in the name of Jesus, as a Christian, to embrace you as a Muslim?”
Muslims recognize Isa Al-masih (Jesus) as the name of a prophet in the Quran, the Islamic holy scriptures. Pantoja says this approach has always found a warm welcome, and is indeed absolutely necessary in a context where Christianity has been historically used as an instrument of human conquest. Using Isa Al-masih, releases him from the baggage of Christian colonization.
At the root of his strategy is a belief in what he calls “cosmic” theology of peace. “Harmony with God, harmony with myself, harmony with others, and harmony with God’s creation.”
“We Mennonites have been entrusted, historically, theologically, culturally with a theology of peace, a peace identity. In a world that says only through violence can you achieve peace we say ‘No!’
“This gospel of Shalom is what is needed, so do not give up on our peace theology,” he counsels. “God entrusted this to us. Nourish it. Enhance it. Spread it. Practice it. I am new to the Mennonite movement and Anabaptist theology. I praise God that I have been included and embraced in this community. Peace is at the heart of our growth.”
Even with all their passion and commitment, the Pantojas recognize that prayer support from the wider church is essential. Dann hopes his name is not still on some revolutionary hit list from his past, when the Communist Youth Movement sought to liquidate those who abandoned their revolutionary activities. “I cannot live in fear. I just have to move on and live in God’s hands,” he says, fully cognizant of the risk in speaking out so publicly.
And although Mindanao is a low intensity conflict area, Dann says, “It is just as deadly,” as the situation in Iraq at present. With an expression of heartfelt gratitude, he asks for prayers for courage, humility, and the wise use of knowledge in their ministry.
The Pantojas have three adult children who reside in Vancouver. Support for the Pantoja’s ministry can be sent to Mennonite Church Canada, marked ‘Pantoja’. A documentary video of the Pantoja’s story on DVD is expected to be available in March.