Opportunity for a New LifeAna Flores Huaman is a Columban lay missionary with nearly eight years of experience, and this is her story. I first knew Ana when she was accepted into the Columban lay mission sending program in Lima, Peru, in 2007. She and her family live in the Columban parish of Our Lady of the Missions (Nuestra Senyora de las misiones) in an area called Puente Camote (sweet potato bridge) just off Carlos Izaguirre Avenue on the north side of Lima where she first met the Columbans. I always found her to be a passionate and outspoken person with a great capacity to empathize with others, especially the poor. It was no wonder then that as a new Columban lay missionary, she found herself appointed to the region of the Philippines in 2008 where she found a new home in Mindanao among the emotionally warm and friendly people who live in the city and Diocese of Cagayan de Oro.
Ana now works in Mother of Divine Mercy Village out of Cagayan de Oro City and is a member of the pastoral team led by Fr. Paul Finlayson, a Columban from New Zealand, who is now working fulltime in the village along with Ana to support families who were victims of the typhoon that destroyed many homes and lives in 2011.
I asked Ana how she came to work in the village. She relates her story like this: “My first mission experience was in Agusan parish where I became involved with the social action program run by the Diocese of Cagayan de Oro. I was also helping the Saint Vincent de Paul Society in Agusan parish with their outreach programs to the poor. One of the groups with whom I formed a special bond was a group of very poor families living in an area called Makasande on the banks of the Calacal River in 2008 when I first arrived. When the typhoon struck in 2011, more than 500 families were left homeless in the Agusan area alone. They ended up being housed under the tin roof of a nearby, open basketball court and were left with only the clothes on their backs. Our first response was to bring food to the victims, but when I discovered that over 120 of these families were the poorest of the poor from the community of Calacal River, my heart went out to them and I decided I had to continue visiting them, bringing them clothes, shoes and medicine. That was the first step that led to my being here in Mother of Divine Mercy Village.”
“What happened then?” I asked. “Well, when it became obvious that very little was actually being done to help the victims of the 2011 typhoon on a local level, the missionary congregations decided to band together and do something. Fr. Paul joined with other missionary groups to form a planning commission, and together they decided to buy land. That was the beginning of the village. When I saw that help was needed I joined in and quickly became involved in the plan to build the newly projected village. However, at that stage we were just beginning the project. A lot had to happen in between before the village became a reality. Things didn’t happen automatically! There was a transition period when we still had to accompany the typhoon victims while the village was being set up. The original 120 families from Makasande on the Calacal River first spent six months in shelters in Agusan parish, then a further year in a government shelter while the different congregations raised the money to begin building Mother of Divine Mercy Village. While we were waiting for the village to be built, I just kept accompanying these families trying to help them get birth certificates and organize communal marriage celebrations. It was a confusing and somewhat anxious period when we weren’t quite sure what was happening, but I saw my role as that of helping the poor affected by the typhoon become recognized officially as persons by civil and religious society, no mean feat for people who have never been officially recognized as even existing until the typhoon made them visible in all their wretchedness.”
My questions continued, “And what challenges did you face when the village finally began to be built and the people began arriving”? “My first job, would you believe it, was to help select the families who could come here before they even left the shelters in Cagayan de Oro! Unfortunately, not everyone is suitable to come to an organized place like the village. For example, many of the poor we’d like to help have never lived in a social system with rules. Some were squatters; others just lived under bridges and most have never even had a private bathroom. Many also have been products of violent families and have been traumatized since childhood. The typhoon not only destroyed the little security they had but brought all this pent-up trauma to the surface again. Hence the biggest challenge at the beginning, and even now, is WWW.COLUMBAN.ORG March/April 2017 21 that of expressing how I feel in their language and being able to guide them in a way that helps them to find solutions to their own problems while allowing them to make their own personal decisions about whether they want to be here or not. Some families too, already had a house outside but only wanted to take advantage of the possibility of getting another house and land without having to pay for it. I did a lot of work in the initial stages interviewing the people in the shelters, making sure they could make the transition to living in the village and really wanted to come here. It wasn’t easy!”
Finally I asked, “And now that you’ve settled into your work in the village do you think you’ve made any significant changes to the lives of the people originally affected by the typhoon”? Ana happily was able to respond in the affirmative. “One things for sure,” she responded, “There is never an idle moment in the village. I spend a lot of my time in the day care center which I had to organize from scratch. We now have two teachers paid for by the local municipality working full-time in the center. There’s also a health care center for malnourished children for which Fr. Paul buys medicine. I’ve also been looking for teachers who can train the women to make curtains and schoolbags so they can earn a little extra income. That’s up and running! I’ve also been involved in organizing beauty courses to teach women who were previously involved in prostitution to become beauticians. We now have ten women earning their living in this way. I also meet with the youth every Thursday to offer them formation on acquiring new life skills. The team and I visit the sick as well teaching their families how to take care of their medical needs. I thank God that as a lay missionary from Peru I’ve been able to make a difference to the lives of the people who are now members of the Mother of Divine Mercy Village. However, ultimately it is not me who has to make the changes necessary to find a new life here; it is the people themselves. Hopefully they can take the opportunity we’ve given them and do just that.
After many years in Peru, Columban Fr. George G. Hogarty lives and works in Australia.