Columban Lay Missionary John Din's Story
More than 20 years ago, I left the Philippines for the first time as a Columban lay missionary assigned to Brazil. It was a very long journey that started from Manila to Salvador, Bahia, situated in the northeast of Brazil, its first capital, and where the Columbans worked. One thing that I cannot forget was when the plane took off from NAIA airport in Manila. I felt absolute silence and tears coming down from my eyes. It was indeed a mixture of joy, apprehension, fear, and adventure – not knowing that these feelings would be constant ingredients in my life in the future. I can still hear the small voice inside, “This is it John!” I traveled with three co-lay missionaries, Irma Cantago, Josie Manuel and Ariel Presbitero. This long journey was cut short abruptly when we arrived in Hong Kong. Police officers were there to meet us and took our passports, because we did not have a U.S. transit visa.
We continued our journey to Los Angeles with our passports in the hands of the plane crew. When we arrived in Los Angeles, police officers guarded us until the time we boarded for Sao Paulo. I remember that I went to find a restroom but the guard stopped me and told me to ask permission. We finally got our passports back when we arrived in Sao Paulo.
I studied Portuguese for four months with almost 70 students, mostly missionaries from 27 different countries. It was a beautiful environment of learning and cross-cultural living. After language school, I found myself working in a pastoral area called Nova Constituinte, with a Columban priest, which is part of a parish run by a diocesan priest. The concept of pastoral area was a Columban initiative of living with the people outside the normal parish structure. Part of this initiative was a regular meeting of the team to reflect and plan the activities of the pastoral area.
What caught my attention was the plight of the Afro-Brazilians. They were brought to Brazil as slaves from different countries in Africa to work in sugar plantations under deplorable conditions. I came to love them and assumed their struggle by being involved in the black consciousness group in the suburban area of Salvador. My involvement in black consciousness led me to question the church liturgies, hierarchies, theologies, practices, power and its role during the time of slavery. I owed a debt of gratitude to Columban Fr. Colin McLean for my own growth in understanding of the Afro-Brazilian culture and as a missionary. His gift to work with young people through drama and dance and his commitment to the Afro-Brazilians was a source of inspiration.
My interest and experience in drama and music in liturgies and in different church and social commitments was enhanced and was my point of insertion into the Brazilian culture. My ministry with the youth through drama and liturgy was an expression of this commitment to the plight of the Afro-Brazilians. Because of drama and Afro-Masses, Nova Constituinte became a place synonymous with creative liturgy that addressed the issues of racial discrimination, injustice, plight of the indigenous and against the culture of violence. I cannot count the number of visitors both locals and foreigners who came to join our Masses or theater productions. At one time, participants of the Conference of the World Council of Churches held in Salvador attended one of our liturgies. November 20 is a significant date for me, because it is the National Day of Black Consciousness. It commemorates the life and death of Zumbi dos Palmares, a black leader who fought against slavery.
Working as a justice and peace coordinator, I was involved in the Human Rights Forum of Salvador. At that time, the forum was advocating for a witness protection program for victims of police violence, most of whom are young Afro-Brazilians. I was actively involved in the presidential campaign for Lula (Luiz Inacio da Silva) in 1994 and 1998. In both elections, he lost but then won in the presidential election in 2002. It was also an interesting time to be there when Brazil won the World Cup in 1994 and when they lost in 1998. One can see the expression of tremendous contrast between Brazil’s assumed certainty of winning and the reality of losing the game.
Another important experience was joining the Paulo Freire literacy program in the diocese of Juazeiro. It was a very meaningful time of learning, working with adults and facilitating their ability to read and write. I was shocked to see a town where majority of the people did not know how to read and write but seemed to go on in life with ease. However, it was shocking to see them smile when they were able to read and write after weeks of classes with the non-conventional literacy method developed by Paulo Freire.
One story that stays with me while in Brazil was my encounter with an old woman during one of our marches for the Black Consciousness day. She asked me why I was in Brazil. It was difficult to answer the question. However, she continued, “If you want to save us you can go home because we can save ourselves.” This phrase has been the most disturbing phrase I ever heard, and rightly so, I was only in my second year and thought I knew all the answers, not aware of how my missionary identity was associated with power, privilege and oppression. That day my messianic illusions and certainties were shattered. The breaking up of the delusion of security gave rise to an attitude of befriending and embracing hard questions, and I allowed it to lead me. This is to me the greatest gift I received from mission through the Brazilians besides love for futebol, samba de roda, carnaval, fiesta junina, and warm friendships and hospitality. It was indeed a blessing to have lived in the land of Dom Helder Camara, Leonardo Boff, Chico Mendez, Lula and Frei Beto, with the vibrant organizations such as the Comunidade Ecclesial de Base, CEBs (Basic Ecclesial Communities) as well as the Movimento dos Trabalahadores Rurais Sem Terra, MST (the Landless Movement).
After Brazil, I was assigned to Peru. One of the things that called me for Peru is poverty—a poverty that builds neighborhoods, a poverty that enhances reciprocity, community and solidarity. However, the same poverty breeds violence, domination and racial discrimination. It preys on the helpless victims who are mostly indigenous Peruvians considered second-class citizens. I arrived in Peru during a key moment of its history, the downfall of Alberto Fujimori’s corrupt and narcostate government, the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and finally, the guilty verdict for Fujimori.
My insertion in Peru was like starting over again but this time it was different. I had my experience in Brazil to build on. Learning Spanish in the Maryknoll Language Institute in Bolivia was more manageable after my experience learning Portuguese.
My interest in music and playing the Andean native instrument also helped in learning Spanish. After a ten-week refresher course, I found myself working in the parish of Our Lady of Peace in Motupe, San Juan de Lurigancho located in the east side of Lima. I really appreciate the practice of the parish where all foreign missionaries (religious and lay) regularly meet to plan and divide the work in the parish. Like other religious, I was asked to work and accompany the parish youth program. This program tries to reach out to young people and offer other ways of involving them besides the regular parish sacramental programs by means of organizing artistic groups such as drama and dance. Again, my interest in drama and music had been instrumental in relating with different youth groups inside and outside the parish structure.
Lay missionaries assigned in Peru had always dreamed of starting a sending program for Peruvian lay missionaries. We were always asked why are we not sending Peruvian lay missionaries and seemed to be content with receiving foreign lay missionaries. It became more urgent after the Columbans celebrated their golden jubilee missionary presence in Peru. In a sense, this question resonated with me. I have had a feeling that a sense of fulfillment happens when a Region is able to send and receive lay missionaries. When the proposal was accepted, I was asked to coordinate the orientation program in 2007.
My other involvement was with the Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation (JPIC) office in the Region. I found myself giving workshops, promoting the new story of creation of Thomas Berry in different parishes and schools. At the same time, I also participated in the foundation of the Climate Change Movement in Lima (MOCCIC) investing time and funds for organizing its events. This movement was born from the initiative coming from civil society groups, various non-governmental organizations and from different religions. In many instances, I met people in this movement who have known the Columbans and especially remember them because of their commitment to justice and defense of the poor. Indeed, it is a source of inspiration to draw from and continue our commitment with the poor by committing ourselves to a healthy environment threatened by the government’s economic model that privilege the extractive industries over the common good.
The Happy Earthworm Ecological Center project was another area of my involvement where I drew my inspiration and strength. It is a one-of-a-kind of recycling project in an urban setting. It has thrived for more than 20 years, certainly not without its ups and downs. It continuously serves more than 300 poor families by collecting their garbage, ensuring a healthy and clean environment and producing organic fertilizer through vermiculture. It has won the national environmental award from the Government’s Ministry of Environment.
My missionary experience has affirmed the primacy of our Christian identity; laity and priesthood are roles that we assume. These roles are supposed to enhance our Christian identity of service and not debilitate nor succumb us to the temptation of power. I have had the privilege of belonging to the Brazil Mission Unit (BMU) and the Region of Peru and can see a lot of difference and similarities. My experience in the BMU has shown how structures can enable and free missionaries to assume their commitment in a more creative way. Smaller numbers encourage visibility and participation while big numbers can nurture anonymity. Columban contribution to the whole church can be summed up in the way ordained Columbans and lay missionaries relate to each other. Ordained Columbans and Columban lay missionaries working together in cross-cultural mission is a Columban gift to the wider church.
This relationship of partnership is equally visible in the way Columbans work in their mission. Many times, I hear comments from the people we work with about how inspired they are because of the way they are treated with respect, equality and dignity. Columbans’ heart for the poor as expressed in our ministries with the disabled, women, children, interreligious dialogue, care for the environment and commitment to truth and reconciliation speaks to the Gospel values to other groups and the people with whom we work.
The Columban Society’s sending lay people to mission is an expression of the Columban commitment to participation in the Catholic Church. The way Columban lay missionaries do things, relate with the people, relate with ordained Columbans, initiate finding creative and pioneering ministries are our contributions to the wider church; we are part of the many manifestations of the gift of the Spirit, who breathes where she wills for the Church and other institutions or persons of good will. This truth enables me to be at home with the Brazilians and Peruvians and wherever God calls me to be.
Now that I am working back in the Philippines, the challenge of reconnection presented itself. Not only with family and friends but also with the church, society and environment. This has been in the background in the last three years in coordinating the sending program in the Philippines. It is with the spirit of gratitude and openness that I came back after almost twenty years of working overseas. I am grateful for the gifts received from Brazil and Peru and at the same time free to be continuously surprised with the breath of the Spirit.
The challenge of being a lay missionary is to discover who we are, what we are good at and put ourselves at the service of God’s mission. Openness to give and receive support and challenge from co-lay missionaries and from the people we work with continues to be a demand for every lay missionary in order to be faithful to the Gospel. Experience taught me that it is an art of harmonizing our person with the demand of Columban mission to ensure that it is enhancing and life giving for both.
Columban lay missionary John Din lives and works in the Philippines.