18 December 2012

'I Met St Joseph in Manila'

The Dream of St Joseph, Rembrandt, painted 1650-55) (Web Gallery of Art)

Gospel for Tuesday 18 December
Matthew 1:18-25 (RSV Catholic Edition)

Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit; and her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to send her away quietly. But as he considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, "Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: "Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel" (which means, God with us). When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took his wife, but knew her not until she had borne a son; and he called his name Jesus.


Today's gospel reminds me of the story below which I published in the November-December 2003 edition of Misyon, the Columban magazine in the Philippines that I've been editing for more than ten years. At the time it was a printed magazine. Now we publish only online. The author, Columba Chang, on the left in the photo below, has been a Columban Lay Missionary for more than twenty years. She has spent most of those years in the Philippines but more recently has worked in the Diocese of Myitkyina in northern Myanmar (Burma). She is now based in Hong Kong as a member of the leadership team of the Columban Lay Missionaries.

It is estimated that there are now around nine million Filipinos overseas, most of them contract workers, known here as 'OFWs' (Overseas Filipino Workers). 'TNT' is from the Tagalog 'tago ng tago', 'going into hiding', and refers to those illegally resident in another country. 'Mang' and 'Aling' are informal Tagalog titles of respect when addressing or speaking of a man or woman older than yourself. 'Tatay' means 'Daddy'.

Columba introduced me to Ligaya - a popular name for girls that is the Tagalog for 'Joy' - and Mang Pepe. Ligaya lived up to the name used here but her real name is also a very beautiful one. We met only on this occasion. I spoke to her a number of times on Columba's mobile phone. Sadly, Ligaya died about nine months later. I'm certain that St Joseph welcomed her home.

'I met St Joseph in Manila'

By Columba Chang

There may be as many as 7 million Filipino overseas workers spread all over the world.  They greatly help our country’s economy by the money they send home.  However sometimes we seem to take them for granted, thinking that they have an easy life abroad.  Read Aling Maria’s story below and find out the dangers our OFWs face and the abuses they experience.  We thank ‘Mang Pepe’ for his help in writing this article in which we’ve changed the names.

I met Mang Pepe and his daughter Ligaya through my work with Caritas Manila.  I visit the family regularly.  They live in a poor part of the city and Mang Pepe makes a living by doing odd jobs.  My work takes me to families affected by HIV/AIDS.  I knew Mang Pepe’s story before he shared it with the congregation at the Saturday evening Mass in Baclaran Church on 7 December 2002 at the end of a celebration organized by Caritas Manila for World AIDS Day.

A Greener Pasture

Mang Pepe and his wife Aling Maria were having difficulties putting their five children through school.  This sometimes led to arguments.  Eventually Aling Maria decided to work in the Middle East.  She felt happy when accepted as a nursing aide with a two-year contract in the UAE.  She prepared her documents.  She and Pepe sold their house and lot for her fare and placement fee.  She flew out on 5 February 1989, full of hope for her family’s future financial stability.

Aling Maria soon discovered that her contract as a nursing aid was terminated just a few months after she arrived, without any hope of renewal.  But she didn’t want to go back to the Philippines with an empty pocket.  She decided to take the ‘TNT’ route.  She managed to find a series of jobs as a saleslady, cashier and office worker.

Hope turns into a nightmare

As an illegal worker, she was often subjected to different abuses like underpayment, long hours of working without a day off and so on. But the worst thing was when one of Aling Maria’s employers took advantage of her and made her pregnant.  When she came home to the Philippines in October 1993 Mang Pepe and the family were very shocked to learn that Aling Maria carried a child in her womb.  She hadn’t mentioned anything about this before.  However, despite this they still welcomed her and the child with joy . . . but deep in their hearts there was a shadow of sadness, fear and uncertainty.

After a few days the tabloids reported that three Filipino overseas workers had been sent home because of being infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS – and that one of them was Aling Maria.  These stories, and the rumors they spawned, continued for a month.  Some relatives, neighbors and friends rejected Aling Maria.  The children of Mang Pepe and Aling Maria were torn apart.  Some wanted to quit school and leave the area.  The family suffered greatly because of the stigma.

Confirmed HIV

Aling Maria and Mang Pepe went to the Department of Health for a series of blood tests.  The tests confirmed what Aling Maria knew already, that she and her ‘little mercy child,’ as Mang Pepe called his wife’s daughter had HIV.  The doctor gave them counseling and advice and information about HIV/AIDS.

Ligaya is born

Aling Maria decided not to say in the hospital and continued to work as a pension plan insurance agent.  In time she gave birth to a baby girl whom they named Ligaya.  Gradually, however, Mang Pepe saw his dear wife turning into a picture of misery as she suffered from constant headaches and flu.  Aling Maria was hoping for a miracle that would ease her agony.  It was not to be.  The HIV developed into full-blown AIDS.  Her appetite disappeared until she couldn’t eat anymore.  Mang Pepe and the children saw Aling Maria slowly dying.  He prepared the family to accept her death as the will of God.  She died on 15 December 1997, aged 46.

Like everyone else in Baclaran Church, I was deeply touched by Mang Pepe’s story, even though he had told it to me many times.  I was touched by the great love of this simple man who accepted as his own a daughter who was the fruit of the brutal violation of his wife.  Mang Pepe is ‘Tatay’ to Ligaya.  Her schoolmates sometimes tease her because her features clearly show her Middle Eastern origins.  But her Tatay stands by her, as do her brothers and sisters.

Proud to be her Tatay

Tatay Pepe is proud of Ligaya’s singing ability and smiled as she sang at the celebration in Baclaran.  Ligaya is very proud of herTatay and knows the depth of his love as a father.  She has very uncertain health and is often in the hospital.  The shadow of AIDS hangs over her.
St Joseph named Jesus, the Son of Mary, and thereby became his legal father.  He loved Mary, his wife, and raised Jesus as his own son.  Mang Pepe has gone through the agony of knowing that his wife was violated overseas, after dishonest employers had taken advantage of her in other ways.  When she brought home a child who was not his, he made her his own.  This latter-day St Joseph in Manila has given much joy to his daughter Ligaya as she has given much joy to him and others, like myself, who have come to know and love her.

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