When the Taiwan Mission Unit (TMU) welcomed our group in June 2011, part of our three-year commitment as Columban lay missionaries was to be in a oneyear fulltime language apostolate as part of our preparation for ministry. Even now, I am still in awe regarding how I was able to enjoy my Mandarin learning and survived the challenges that go with it. Now I feel less nervous in conversations. I feel more courageous in speaking and less afraid of making mistakes.
As I am about to complete six months of being involved part-time in the migrant ministry, our God of surprises continues to shape my heart for the upcoming months when I would be starting to work fulltime. Each day, I discover more about my gifts as well as my weaknesses. Being away from my family and friends as well as leaving behind the kind of lifestyle I was used to in the Philippines entailed a lot of coping to be able to adjust in this new life God leads me to. Now that I am beginning to realize this big shift in my missionary journey, I feel how God moves me from being just self-centered towards being other-centered.
When I was having my exposure to some of the ministries where the Columbans are present, I never imagined that I would find myself looking after the needs of the survivors of human trafficking living in our Hsinchu Catholic Diocese Migrants and Immigrants Service Center (HMISC) female shelter. I thought I would be working with the indigenous people in the mountains. We were told that it is necessary that you know how to ride a motorbike if you want to work in the mountains. After some attempts of learning how to drive a motorbike, I never had the courage to move it even just a few meters forward.
I did not get what I wished for, but clearly God sends me where He wants me to be. I remember what one of our Columban priests would say, that “it is not our mission, it is God’s mission.” Living with the ladies in the shelter, finding meaning and inspiration in visiting fellow Filipinos detained at the local detention center, and having joy in assisting our English teachervolunteer for our English class program with the female detainees from Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines are God’s greatest blessings for me on my fresh start in mission.
At first, living together with around 20 Indonesians, a few Filipinos, and a Vietnamese woman was overwhelming for me. We come from different countries, have different religious beliefs and practices, have different personalities, life experiences, challenges, and we speak various languages. It took me several weeks to be able to finally remember their names and their faces. It would be the same challenge whenever a new group of women would arrive. There was even a time when I’ve mistakenly thought a fellow Filipina to be an Indonesian.
I remember feeling awkward and strange during my first few weeks. I felt uncertain with how I should relate with them. I am grateful for the guidance given to me by Sr. Joyce Arevalo, OSA, who used to supervise the female shelter. It is also a big relief that Columban Fr. Peter O’Neill is working in partnership with me in the migrant ministry. Aside from being the diocese’s chaplain for migrants, immigrants and their families, Fr. Peter serves as the HMISC director. He is my pastoral advisor, and he also shares with me some of the ways he supervises our HMISC male shelter. Presently there are 37 survivors of human trafficking living in our male shelter.
I was a bit nervous about how to relate with some ladies with very strong personalities. I have experienced getting reactions during the first time I tried organizing their schedule for the household chores. I found out and realized that I was introducing a new and different way compared to what they have been used to. That was among the many other things that I have learned. It is important to first observe, build relationship and trust among the group before slowly suggesting some ways which I think would be helpful in getting things organized for harmonious living in the shelter.
Our common language is not English but Chinese. Most of the women speak very good Chinese, because they have worked as caregivers for years living in the homes of their Taiwanese employers. I try hard to stretch the little Chinese that I know whenever I try to ask how they are, whenever I call their attention to some shelter policies, and every time I conduct regular meetings with them. They are very patient with my limited Chinese, but at times I feel sorry and frustrated for them too. There was one time a woman approached me and expressed her anger towards another woman. She was speaking so fast, and I was just looking at her, waiting for her to finish. Maybe she knew that I didn’t understand everything that she said with so much energy and feeling. I just gave her a pat on her shoulder. She took a deep breath and said thanks for listening. When I share my challenges with my companions, they would always say that sometimes words are not important…that one’s presence is enough.
We have many funny moments in trying to understand one another. I remember I wanted to express how irritated I was with some not so good habits of some of the residents. I was trying to formulate the sentence in my mind, and because it took me some time to get my Chinese organized, my anger was already gone by the time I was ready to say it out loud. My friends would tell me, that perhaps God was teaching me not to say things which I would regret in the future, that God holds back my Chinese tongue so I can take things slowly and be mindful of the things I say or do.
Listening to the sentiments of 28 different personalities is not simple. At times when I don’t know what to say and do, I would find myself casually asking God, “what shall we do about this?” Despite the challenges I’m experiencing now, I feel joyful and fulfilled journeying with them. I am thankful for the gift of time when I get to sit down and have meals with them, watch television together, go out for a walk at a nearby park, and listen to their stories of struggling, surviving, and living forward. They teach me life lessons. I feel sad whenever somebody’s time to go home has come, but there is even more sincere and deep happiness to realize that their going home means freedom for them and another chance to have a better life.
For a few months, I had the opportunity to go with our Filipino social worker to the foreign detention center in Hsinchu City. Every Tuesday morning, we visit the undocumented Filipino migrant workers detained at the center, follow up on their cases and assist them whenever possible, and listen to their concerns. All of them came to Taiwan as documented migrant workers and for various reasons left their legal employment and became undocumented workers. Some of them were caught by the immigration officers in common places such as the train stations and public markets, while others chose to leave their illegal employers and surrender voluntarily to the immigration police.
I have met both young and old Filipino migrant workers. I have heard stories which I thought could only be seen in the movies. I have shared with them both tears and laughter. I have been inspired and moved by their faith and hope that soon they would be able to go back home and try other means of providing for their families. I have also witnessed how they can be Jesus to one another in going through this difficult moment in their lives.
A detention cell has around 40-50 detainees of different nationalities. There is an overwhelming number of Indonesians and Vietnamese. One time, I was able to go inside one of the cells. They share a common bathroom and a couple of doubledeck beds. They have a fixed wakeup call and clearly specified time for taking a bath, brushing their teeth, taking an afternoon nap, eating their meals, etc. They each have five minutes every day to take outside calls. They need to observe the rules or else they would be reprimanded and even have their stay inside be extended.
Aside from the visits to the Filipinos, I also have the opportunity to meet the Indonesians and Vietnamese in a two-hour English class every Thursday morning. Every week, an average of 20 women attends the class facilitated by our Canadian teacher-volunteer, Laurence Dean. We are grateful to him and to his wife and children for allowing him to share with us a precious time that could have been spent with his family or at possibly earning additional income from his work as a professional. I assist him in guiding the women to read some books and to practice their conversation skills, and here my Chinese would again be stretched to its limits because the only way to explain to them what a particular English word or sentence means is by translating it into Chinese. When I run out of my Mandarin, we would all just result to making facial expressions or acting it out to be able to understand one another and share a good laugh.
I am not an English teacher at all, but I hope that more than correcting someone’s spelling or grammar or pronunciation, being with them for at least two hours in a week makes a difference. When we have more relaxed time in class, I also get to know the women and listen to their concerns. I would always hear from the women how boring and depressing it is to stay inside their cells, how they miss their children and how they worry about their families’ financial needs. We end each class by singing a few English songs they like. As I look at their faces when I sing with them, I would always see signs of hope in their eyes and their smiles. Most of them are Muslims, but I never felt I was different from them. We would talk about praying and never stop hoping that soon they would go home. When the class ends, I would always tell them how I desire not to see them again the following week, because that means they have already gone back home.
It always amazes me when I’m able to go through the day surviving the different challenges, most especially in dealing with the language. I believe God speaks a very good Chinese through the people I encounter each day because despite not getting fully what they mean, at the end we are still able to understand and relate with one another with love and respect. I look forward to the coming months of more witnessing how God’s love is present and I am excited to share my own experiences of this love to others.