18 December 2014

I met St Joseph in Manila

The Dream of St Joseph,  Georges De La Tour, c.1640
Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nantes, France [Web Gallery of Art]

Gospel for 18 December: Matthew 1:18-24
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
 ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
    and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’ When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife.

Museo de Santa Cruz, Toledo, Spain [Web Gallery of Art]

Today's beautiful gospel, which I read at the third of the novena of pre-dawn Masses celebrated here in the Philippines to honour our Blessed Mother and to ask for the grace of perseverance in the faith, reminds me of Mang Pepe and his daughter Ligaya whom I met in Manila just over 12 years ago. Columba Chang, a Columban lay missionary from Korea who worked for some years in the Archdiocese of Manila with families affected by HIV/AIDS, tells the story of Pepe, his wife Maria and her daughter Ligaya, one that is both heartbreaking and inspiring. Columba is currently based in Hong Kong and will be assigned to Myanmar/Burma in 2015.

Mang and Aling are Tagalog terms of respect used when one is speaking to or about a man or woman older than oneself. Tatay means 'Papa' or 'Daddy' and is used throughout the Philippines. The names have been changed. 'Ligaya' is the Tagalog word for 'joy' and is a common name for girls in the Philippines. The real name of 'Ligaya' was equally beautiful. When I met her we got along famously and from time to time after that I was able to speak to her through Columba's mobile phone. Sadly, 'Ligaya' died less than a year, as I recall, after we met.

'TNT' is from the Tagalog term 'tago ng tago', meaning more or less to hide, and is used for Filipinos who are living illegally in other countries. 'OFW' is the common term for 'Overseas Filipino Worker', of whom there may be as many as nine million now. The article was first published in MISYON, the Columban magazine I edit here in the Philippines, in the November-December 2003 issue.

National Shrine of Our Mother of Perpetual Help, 'Baclaran Church'

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 stay 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 herTatay 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 her Tatay 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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