After 13 years of being assigned to the Philippines, I am now back in my own country doing mission in one of the areas where the Columbans are located at San Martin de Porres and Ventanilla District in the north of Lima, Peru.
It was my desire to return and continue working in the Philippines but because of the uncertainty brought by Covid-19 pandemic, all my plans have been brought to a halt.
When I heard from the Philippine Immigration Office that I had to leave the country at such short notice, it frightened me to the core that I had to take a long-haul flight back to Lima in the midst of the pandemic. Even more so at a time when the cases of Covid-19 in Peru were surging. I had to undergo several bouts of quarantine before leaving the Philippines, during layover in Chile and upon arrival in Lima. A total of four quarantines and series of RT-PCR tests! It was the longest journey back home.
After my second quarantine, I felt some comfort that I could adjust to this new reality. I was pondering on how I could continue to serve on mission. There are many people who are suffering, a number have died an untimely death. Life is so fragile. These occupied my thoughts while I was still halfway towards home. What can I do to help was a question I asked myself.
In normal circumstances, before Covid, families came to the airport to welcome an arriving family member especially when one had been away for a long time. But arriving in Lima, the busy and vibrant airport looked like a ghost town. No one was at the airport to welcome me. The place was dead except for a few taxi drivers. The roads were empty. I have never seen the city of Lima that empty!
Initially, I found it challenging to adjust to my own culture, even to speaking my own language, but in the process, I have noticed myself slowly reintegrating. While waiting for my return to the Philippines, I have occupied my time in visiting and involving myself in the communities of Villa lsolina, Jerusalem and Huertas del Paraiso. These areas have a great number of informal settlers who belong to San Martin de Porres Municipality. However, people from these communities prefer to belong to Callao Province because they can get access to hospitals, schools, markets unlike in San Martin de Porres where the only available facility is a preschool for the whole community. It is disheartening to note that these people have been living in these communities for more than 30 years, but they don't have water and drainage systems. The only source of water is from the water trucks and water tanks.
I have been visiting a soup kitchen called Olla Común Dios Proveerá (The Soup Kitchen That God Provides for Those Who Need It). It was a project initiated in March 2021 in response to the dire need of families whose economic situation is tremendously affect by the pandemic. Almost 65 persons regularly collect lunch. They have to pay a very minimal amount for each plate, however, the elderly, the sick and other social cases who cannot afford can also avail of the lunch packs for free. The Columbans support the Soup Kitchen with groceries. Beneficiaries take turns in preparing food from early in the morning until 12pm. The recipients come to collect their food bringing their food containers.
The women in the Soup Kitchen are not just focused on preparing food, but they also make the space to listen and share about their struggles and challenges in their families, a place to listen about their health concerns, financial difficulties and other domestic problems. The need of the children is so palpable that made me decide to help the children in their studies. It is a very good experience for me as it feels like going back to being a teacher - a way to help children in the community.
I believe I am not doing a lot, but I am spending my time with them as much as I can. Being present with them made me understand and appreciate their presence in a different way. At times I help in cooking and courageously introduce some recipes I learned in the Philippines. I interact by sharing funny stories at times which temporarily brings us to a space of “getting out of the pandemic” even for just few minutes. I don't know what it will be for me but I re member what Pope Francis said to be with the people and listen to their experiences and problems and journeying together - it's SYNODALITY. I continue to be present and continue to be hopeful that the best that is yet to come.