My childhood dream was always to be a religious sister. The seed of this dream must have been sown by the Columban missionaries, Sisters and priests, who were my educators and friends from my early years. I was baptized by the late Columban Fr. Paul Cooney. I worked as a teacher for several years before deciding in 1990 to join the first Columban Lay Missionary team from the Philippines.
Why did I chose to join the Columban Lay Missionaries? Partly, it was because of a special affinity with them. Not only had they been significant in my life formation, but the Columbans I knew deeply inspired me by their commitment and way of mission especially their option with the poor, their passion for justice and the care of the earth. There's a deep resonance with my own passion and commitment in life.
Assigned to Pakistan
After completing the lay missionary preparation course, we were assigned to Pakistan. We arrived in Lahore on Mission Sunday. It was one of those synchronistic moments confirming my "yes" to God and His calling. Whenever we experienced difficulties and doubted our decision, the three of us women in the team found it helpful to remember why we had come. All three of us had long connections with Columban missionaries as friends and mentors.
Now as Columban lay missionaries, we joined them as partners, sharing Columban life and mission and witnessing a new way of being church. Still, I questioned God. My "yes" was to a missionary life as a lay woman but only in the Philippines. How could I leave home for three years especially to Pakistan, with all those restrictions on single women?
It is over 20 years now since I first set foot in Pakistan, the "land of the pure" as they call it. My first years in mission were difficult years, years of purification. I had come with excitement and confidence. "I am a woman of experience," I thought, "I've brought with me my faith, my lived-experiences of working for a living and my involvement in Christian communities. Moreover, I know the Columbans!"
Learning the language alone was like being back in first grade, struggling and getting excited when I was able to read the word Lahore in Urdu script. My first big difficulty was the many "don'ts" for women in the culture, myself included. What I considered as a simple piece of cloth to cover my head was a cultural symbol as to whether I was a good woman or not.
In the Philippines, I had worked in parishes with both female and male leaders. In Pakistan on the other hand, I found myself confined to working with women and their aspiration to be treated with dignity and justice. My years in the Columban parish of Sheikhupura were very meaningful and fulfilling, a lived-experience of Jesus' words: "I have come that you may have life, life to the full."(Jn 10:10)
I left that parish over 10 years ago now, yet I continue to enjoy the friendship of many families there. My experience there was a lasting missionary gift, a living well where I continue to draw water of joy, nurturance, strength and hope. On the other hand, I continue to share the pain of my women friends still carrying the multiple burdens of being a woman and being poor. Whenever I wonder whether my presence with them had made a difference, these women assure me it did.
My present ministry for the last five years has been with the Columban Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation team focusing on ecological awareness about God's creation through workshops, talks and developing organic gardens. I also support the Filipino migrant community in Lahore.
In over 20 years as a lay missionary in Pakistan, I have experienced sickness, the deaths of fellow lay missionary Pilar Tilos and two Columban priest friends, armed robbery in the Columban house, deportation from Karachi airport and the challenges of being here as a lay woman who is part of the minority Christian community in an Islamic country which has been fighting against terrorism, violence, intolerance and the many forms of poverty and injustice.
Recently, I received news from home that both my parents were in the hospital. It was too much to bear. I cried to my God in the depths of my being. I couldn't make sense of what was happening. Was it time to go home for good and be with my aging parents? I have been through this struggle and insecurity many times before regarding my concern for my aging parents and my commitment to my missionary vocation. In the end, I know that I will make a responsible decision through prayer and trust in God.
I realize that all is grace. I am not alone in the journey, never have been, thanks to my family, the Columbans and the widening circle of friends as a member of the earth community. It's a privilege to be involved creatively in ministries that I love such as promoting awareness of God's creation, an important missionary challenge.
Filipina lay missionary Gloria Canama worked with the Columbans in Pakistan since 1991. She has left the CLM and is now back in the Philippines caring for her parents.