MANILA, Philippines – As the band of protesters approached a red stoplight, a cry went up from the priest leading them: “Run! Run! Run!”
The Rev. Robert Reyes jogged out into the clogged Manila street, raising his hand to the traffic – a small act of disobedience in a life punctuated with them. The group of about 40 followed him at a brisk clip, waving banners with slogans against the eviction of slum dwellers to make way for a new shopping mall.
“Running has a Pied Piper effect,” said Reyes, an activist priest with a buzz cut for whom running, either with others or alone on multiday ultra-marathons, is a preferred form of protest. “It draws people in.”
For more than 30 years, Reyes, dubbed the “running priest” by the local media, has been a constant critic of corruption in the Philippines and often in the church itself, which he charges has abandoned its obligation to help the poor and sided with those in power in Asia’s largest Roman Catholic nation.
He has spearheaded numerous campaigns, big and small. He’s protested against the tobacco industry after his brother died of lung cancer. He has blamed mining companies for environmental degradation. He’s targeted corporate conglomerates, especially mall developers. He opposes the presence of U.S. troops in the country.
Reyes, 59, said Pope Francis’ emphasis on social justice has given him an extra shot of motivation. But his activism and outspokenness apparently has rankled church leaders.
When he was younger, Reyes fit into the church quite well under Manila’s Cardinal Jaime Sin, who was a leading voice in the “people power” campaigns that led to the ouster of the U.S.-backed dictator, President Ferdinand Marcos, in 1986, and later President Joseph Estrada in 2001.
Reyes said his relationship irrevocably soured with church leaders in 2005, when he led a hunger strike in a Manila park against then-President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo over allegations she rigged elections. Asked by a television crew why the bishops were not supporting him, he answered that they had “betrayed God and betrayed the people.”
“After that, it was downhill as far as working for the church was concerned,” he said.
Reyes claims church leaders refused to give him a position as a priest overseeing a parish unless he stopped protesting. So last year, he tried a different tack: After a year of silence and monastic life, he was ordained as a monk in the Franciscan order, which is more sympathetic to his activism.
The nation’s bishops’ conference did not respond to requests for comment.
Reyes unashamedly courts the media, saying doing so is vital in getting the message of social justice to a wider audience. Critics charge he is a self-promoter who jumps from issue to issue, depending on whatever is getting attention.
His friends said his concern for the poor continues when the cameras aren’t around.
“Someone will call up and say, ‘My father is being taken to hospital. Can you come?’ and he will leave right away. There is no question,” said Dennis Murphy, an American urban poor activist in Manila who has known Reyes for years. “It’s something that comes natural to him. He feels that this is something he should do.”
Reyes’ father worked for an U.S. shipping company in the Philippines, giving him a comfortable childhood before joining the church. Reyes heavily was influenced by liberation theology, a Latin American-inspired view often influenced by Marxist thought that Jesus’ teachings imbue followers with a duty to fight for social and economic justice.
His father was proud to see him join the church, but didn’t like the direction he was taking.
“Up to his dying day, he would ask, ‘Why don’t you keep quiet so they can make you a bishop?’” Reyes said. “I would say to him: ‘It’s too late for that Daddy, I’m on a blacklist.’”
The 1.5-mile protest run Reyes organized started amid the ruins of a destroyed slum, where families still were showering in the open and living under tarpaulin. After stretches of walking, it ended at the gates of the country’s housing authority, where Reyes leaped onto the fence and waved a placard, ignoring the unease of the guards posted there.
The run hardly qualified as exercise for Reyes, who in the 1990s ran daily legs of 30 miles or more in a series of cross-country runs to raise awareness of social and environmental issues. Reyes now is planning his next long run: the length of the Philippines, pushing a modified stroller containing tent, food and a statue of Pope Francis, to raise awareness of the plight of the poor.
Faith doesn’t make the long runs any easier, he said.
“While you’re running for 12 hours, a lot of thoughts rise in your head, like ‘I’m hungry,’ ‘This is stupid,’ ‘Why am I doing this?’” he said. “There will always be moments in a run when I think of God and pray, but I’m not thinking of him all the time.”
Reyes’ testy relationship with the church recently was on display when he led a prayer to bless two low-rise apartment blocks for slum dwellers alongside a fetid river. A large church building backed onto the slum, and no one from it attended the ceremony. He joked the church was unhappy now because the new apartments would block its sunlight.
“Anywhere in the world you will see two kinds of churches: the church that spends time with owners of big corporations, with politicians and the money and a church that sides with the majority, with the poor,” he said.
That characterization was unfair, said the Rev. Francis Lucas, president of the country’s Catholic Media Network and a former spokesman for the bishops’ conference.
“This is maybe his personal opinion. He may have had his own experience that his work was being obstructing by those in power with the church,” he said. “There are many bishops who are doing their jobs who put their lives at stake in helping the poor.”
On the way to blessing the new apartments, Reyes came across a street protest against a bus company whose fleet had been involved in recent fatal accidents. The protest was led by the widow of a victim.
A frequent customer of the bus company, Reyes quickly found himself joining the protest.
“Before I knew it, I was arranging a prayer rally that I had never really planned,” he said.