Spirituality and the OCW

My friend Dodong Nemenzo, who lives near 2 churches in UP but never visits any of them,  tells me that in Japan where he is currently a visiting professor, he goes to church when he wants to eat  balut or dinuguan.   I am sure however that it is more than the meal that follows the Mass that draws him to church.

In 1990, while doing sabbatical research, I too found myself regularly attending Sunday Mass in Kyoto.  And so did countless other Filipinos, including non-Catholics, non-Christians, and assorted agnostics.  We all came for a variety of reasons.

But whether one came for the food or the company or the religious service, the end result is the same everywhere – the celebration of Pinoy identity and community in a foreign land.  Wherever the Pinoy OCW has settled, there the church has become the principal site of this celebration.

All over the world, the Filipino OCW has breathed new life into countless  empty churches.  In Europe, beautiful cathedrals that were due for demolition or conversion into restaurants or discotheques, because they had outlived the local parishioners, have become, once more, centers of  vibrant spirituality — thanks to the Pinoy presence.

In Hong Kong and Singapore, secular gyms and auditoriums are transformed once a week into homes of prayer for these pilgrim workers.  I recently sat through a Sunday service in once such gym in Hong Kong, and wondered what it was that drew in the participants.  It could not have been the long, high-pitched and thoroughly uninspiring lecture-sermon of the pastora, who certainly did not deserve her audience’s reverential attentiveness.  I am more certain now that it was the community, the bonding, and the comfort they derived from each other’s sheer presence that made them come.

The sermon could have been part of the penance.  For when it was time to sing and be released from the lethargy of passive listening – the gym came alive.  A band started to play a rousing tune, and costumed dancers with ribbons and tambourines took center court.  I thought for a while it was a prelude to a basketball tournament.  Three thousand Pinoys, almost all women, stood up.  With eyes closed and arms raised, they swayed their bodies to the rhythm of a prayer. They cheered, they clapped, and they shouted God’s name; and in that anonymous collective drone, they cried out their individual pain.

Once more, the pastora approached the microphone, and as if on cue, silence descended upon the congregation.  Final prayers were said, followed by some announcements.  Then it was time to go – for lunch, the much-awaited communion.  In the afternoon sun, the faithful spread out and shared their food – vernacular viands that bound them to one another and momentarily brought them home.

The loneliness that grips our OCWs is unimaginable.  The terror and insecurity that they must deal with on a day to day basis, as unprotected  guest workers in foreign lands, are experiences for which our culture prepares none of us.  Yet the resilience of Pinoy OCWs is legendary.  Their joys and celebrations are louder than their distress. Only in rare instances do they crack; they gently bend with the wind.

It is their spirituality – this is the magic of the Pinoy OCWs’  unusual strength.   It is their personal defense and necessity. Their deep and abiding faith – their intimacy with the unknown — allows them to imagine that nothing will happen to them, even in the most threatening circumstances.  How else can we explain the serenity with which our women migrants especially, seem to approach the vagaries of work in foreign homes ruled by strange cultures and foreign nightclubs controlled by criminal syndicates?

I once visited a bar in the suburbs of Tokyo where the hostesses were very young Pinays.  I was very impressed with the way they dealt with the more aggressive among their Japanese customers.  These girls were in total command of themselves and of the situation, even if their Japanese was barely understandable.   One of them told me that all five of them prayed together at the beginning and at the end of every night – before an image of the Santo Nino which was magnificently enshrined right there among the cognac and whisky bottles.

I also remember sitting in a plane beside a sexily-dressed Filipina bound for Japan.  She must have carried with her more than a dozen novenas to various saints.  She did nothing but mumble her magical prayers through the entire trip, her contemplative pose only occasionally disturbed by the chatter of her Japanese recruiter.  I asked her if she was nervous and if this was her first time to leave the country.  No, she was not, and this was her third time.

I have never ceased to marvel at the courage of Filipino workers abroad.  I feel sometimes that they have an insufficient appreciation of the extent of their vulnerability in the societies in which they have settled.  They take risks that are beyond the comprehension of local people.  Their spirituality is mystical.  They seem to clothe themselves with its powers, its magic enabling them to step outside of their selves, and allowing them to bear their suffering philosophically.

What I have been trying to describe here, I think, is the substance of religion and more.  It is the strength that comes from valuing the intangibles, the meanings that are continually created and understood, when human beings come together to share their lives and their fears, their meals and their memories.


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