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a glimpse of bilibid.

It was a cloudy day. The skies were gray, somewhat deceitful for it kept me guessing if it would rain or not. Despite the nonstop chit-chat we had in the car, I can't remove the nagging feeling inside me. It was a strange sensation, like having butterflies in your stomach -- or wait, maybe pterodactyls would be a much appropriate winged specie. Nevertheless, there was no turning back. This was bound to be an experience of a lifetime.

We reached the New Bilibid Prison in Muntinlupa at around 8:30. From the outside, it looked different from what we see on television. It was like a city hall, but of course with a large number of police officers from almost every corner. We were asked to sign our names and surrender our IDs at the first gate. I had nothing with me -- no cellphones or money. Only my trusty handkerchief and myself. As we walked along the corridor that led to the main gate, my buddy for the day Steph, who was also a first-timer like me, held hands so tightly. I looked back at Cathe and saw that she was a bit frightened too. It was gloomy and dark. Only five people can enter the main gate at once, and only with the permission of the chief, along with more signatures. Steph and I stood nervously by the door, not knowing what to expect. A part of me imagined Azkaban, the dark and dreadful place where the wizard criminals go. The inmates are probably much like those in the story, whose happiness were sucked out of them by the Dementors. I wondered how I can ever go through what seemed to be a saddening experience. Alas, the gates were opened. I held Steph's hands tight and we walked in.

Orange. Lots of men in orange looking at us, greeting us politely with huge smiles on their faces. A group of men wearing blue held umbrellas for us to protect us from the heat. In one straight line, we were led to the chapel. I have never seen a criminal in person, so imagine my surprise when I saw thousands of them. There was a basketball game going on in the court, and most of them were so engrossed with the game. Meanwhile, the others were just there, hanging out like they were in school or in the village. The Mass just started when we arrived so we settled in the seats they reserved for us in front. All throughout the Mass, I had this huge urge to cry. The inmates were so devoted to their singing and were actively participating. It gave shivers to my spine. The feeling it gave me was like that of the Youth Camps we had in YFC, the feeling of extreme adoration for the Lord. For a moment, I felt ashamed of myself because of how seemingly little my faith was compared to theirs. Throughout the Mass, tears kept welling in my eyes. Steph and Nica kept asking me if I was okay and I said I was. I didn't really want to cause a commotion there, so I really held back the tears with all my might.

After the Mass, they gave us a presentation. Their choir gave us song numbers which were mostly their compositions about life, love, and God. Another group of men danced and they were REALLY good, our jaws dropped to the floor! Extremely skilled, I tell you. They were obviously prepared. They asked us to do a number, and we performed an impromptu. I stood before the mic stand and the moment I said, "Yo!" they screamed their heads off. Haha. The whole Student Council sang Power of Two and Torete with Trixie on guitars. It was moving, especially when some waved their hands and sang along with us. I never enjoyed singing Torete as much as I did that moment.

After the small program, we immediately gave out the "gifts" we had for them. These contained the toiletries we bought using the proceeds from the Aring Kring-Kring Raffle Draw we held in which the whole school participated in. As we gave away the plastic bags, I cannot help but feel teary-eyed again. We were informed that the selected inmates to receive our donations were the old and those who rarely, or never, receive any visits from their relatives. Some were on crutches, others blind, others were obviously so sick. You know what people usually say, that a smile and a thank you is enough? I thought that was an overrated, showbiz answer. But a while ago? MAN. Just a simple "Salamat, iha," was all I needed. They just pierced right through me. I believe I've never felt such a rush of emotion in my life. My heart sank as I saw the unfortunate others who were not chosen by the coordinators. Later, we were led to a room where we ate and had a few chats with some inmates.

They weren't scary as some of you might think. They were like normal, everyday people you talk with. They were kind and very accommodating. You wouldn't think they were capable of illegal recruiting, thief, rape or even murder. Once I talked to them, all the fear just vanished. I didn't see them as the evil people they were, instead I saw in their eyes their genuine transformation. I saw it. I just know. I can't explain it. I talked to several Kuyas, and the other one told me he would be set free in 2009. I told him I was happy for him, but he said he was worried because he had nowhere to go anyway. He wouldn't be able to find a decent job because of his conviction, and his family is ashamed of him. I think most of them are happier there inside, where they are all equal and treat each other as brothers. They are not judged by their peers because they all did something horrible in the past. The other one who befriended me, Kuya Francis, told me that I should return next year. I said I'm about to graduate in March. But he said that even if I'm graduating already I can still get the chance to visit them because most universities like Ateneo, UST, and UP also go there for their outreach programs. I was thrilled. My heart really went out to them.

The Bilibid Outreach Program has been the project of the Student Council for quite some years already. Our school has already been awarded because of our generosity to their institution. Most people will think that these prisoners don't deserve the love we've been giving them. They killed people, ruined other's lives, and brought shame to their families. And yes, a part of me also goes out to the people they have hurt. I probably will never understand the pain they all went through. But here's one thought: Jesus was persecuted, ridiculed, and crucified on the cross. And yet He, who was God and all powerful, found it in His heart to forgive those who tormented him. So why can't we, who are only mere humans, do the same? Most of the inmates' families already forgot about them, and would never want to see them again. Where can they get the love they still deserve? What would be the purpose of their stay in prison if no one will recognize their willingness to change? PEOPLE CHANGE. Sometimes, it takes years, but they do. We all do.

The experience today was most definitely life changing. I left the correctional facility a different person. I will never be the same person again. It was nothing like an Azkaban experience, or even the dreadful encounter we see on the news. It was like entering a new world, but with a feeling of familiarity. I was there with them and I was, for a moment, one of them. I will never forget what Kuya Francis called out to me as I left their gates:

"Ingat ka sa labas, Ate. Thank you."

For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger, and you invited me in; I was naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you visited me; I was in prison and you came to Me.

Matthew 25: 35-36