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By Gloria S. Canama
Gloria S. Canama, from Tangub City, Misamis Occidental, was a member of the first group of Filipino Columban Lay Missionaries to go overseas, to Pakistan in 1991.
‘The fire which is in the sun, the fire which is in the earth,
that fire is in my own heart.’ Upanishad
My childhood dream was always to be a religious sister. The seed must have been sown by the Columban missionaries, Sisters and priests, who were my educators and friends from my early years. I was baptized by the late Columban Fr Paul Cooney in St Michael’s Parish, Tangub City, Misamis Occidental.
Gloria during Filcom mass, Fr Abid, Pakistani OFMCap main celebrant,
Sr Jean, Filipina Medical Mission Sister -guitarist
I tried to follow my childhood dream and joined the Daughters of the Assumption in Davao City two years after I graduated from college. I am the eldest of the family and my five siblings were still studying with limited financial resources. My mother’s strong resistance and the expected cultural family obligation didn’t stop me from leaving home to answer God’s call. I was happy and always grateful for my life with the Sisters, but it wasn’t for me. After two years, I made the difficult decision to leave. I spent the long hours on the bus journey back home crying and crying. I was fighting with God whom I felt had abandoned me. Amazingly, when the tears and strong emotions subsided, there was peace within me. Was it a similar experience to that of the apostles when Jesus calmed the storm? There was this inner knowing of Jesus very present and in pain with me as I left the community I had come to love. In my life’s journey I always go back to that faith experience of God’s abiding presence and assuring love in my moment of desolation and confusion.
There were more years of searching for God’s will for me, of how to respond to the persistent call within, of how to live a meaningful way of life. The Spirit who kept the fire burning in my whole being eventually led me to the Philippine Catholic Lay Missionaries (PCLM), the pioneering lay missionary group founded by the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers. In May 1986 I again left my family and my teaching job. This time there was no turning back.
My first assignment was in Cuyapo, Nueva Ecija, for a year, a mission of presence and friendship, my first cultural encounter with Ilocanos. They gifted me with a very warm welcome and generous hospitality. Eventually, my wish to be assigned to Mindanao was granted, to Mother of Perpetual Help, the Redemptorist parish in Davao City. I saw those two years as stretching my creativity and the blossoming of gifts and potentials I never thought I had. It was a challenging time in building and strengthening Basic Christian Communities in urban areas with active lay participation in organizing and decision-making. This experience affirmed and confirmed my lay missionary vocation. I continued to savor and to be enriched with the gifts of friendship and the sharing of personal and community transformations even long after I had left the parish. Since then, I have lived and offered myself as a lay missionary, which is my act of gratitude to the Source of all Life. Years with PCLM affirmed and strengthened my lay missionary vocation. By baptism I am called to follow and participate in the mission of Jesus. It was also my baptism of fire. I literally crossed rivers, seas and mountains, ate the same simple meals for days, had nothing extra to buy Christmas gifts on for my family. My cup was overflowing. I received more than I’d given. I had found my pearl of great price. I had found a meaningful way of life and the fire within kept on burning.
In 1990 I joined the Columban Lay Mission (CLM). Pilar Tilos, a public school teacher from Hinobaan, Negros Occidental, Emma Pabera, a public school principal from Candoni, Negros Occidental, and I formed ‘RP 1’, now ‘PH 1’, the first lay missionary (LM) team from the Philippines. Why the Columbans? Partly, it was because of a special affinity with them. Not only had they been significant in my life formation, but the Columbans I knew deeply inspired me by their commitment and way of mission, especially their option to be with the poor, their passion for justice and the care of the earth. This resonated deeply with my own passion and commitment in life.
We arrived in Lahore, Pakistan, on Mission Sunday, October 1990. It was one of those synchronistic moments confirming my ‘Yes’. When we experienced difficulties and doubted our decisions, the three of us found it helpful to remember why we came. Being on mission is a gift from God, our ‘Magnificat’ (Lk 1:46-55) in practice. All three of us had long connections with Columban missionaries as friends and mentors. Now as Columban lay missionaries we joined them as partners, sharing Columban life and mission and witnessing to a new way of being church. Still, I questioned God. My ‘Yes’ was to life on mission as a lay woman but only in the Philippines, preferably in Mindanao where I come from. How could I leave home for three years? Why Pakistan when there are Columban missions in other countries? In hindsight, it was a blessing I didn’t know beforehand that Columbans were sent on cross-cultural mission. It was a blessing in disguise that I wasn’t to know beforehand the many restrictions and difficulties we would experience in Pakistan, especially as single women.
It is over twenty years now since I first set foot in the ‘Land of the Pure’. My first years on mission were purifying. I went with excitement and confidence. ‘I am a woman of experience. I’ve brought with me my faith, my lived experiences of working to earn a living and my voluntary Christian community involvement. Moreover, I know the Columbans!’ Learning the language alone was like being back in first grade, struggling and getting excited when I was able to read the word, ‘Lahore’, in Urdu script. My first big difficulty was the many ‘don’ts’ in the culture for women, myself included. What I considered a simple piece of cloth to cover my head was a cultural symbol of whether I was a good woman or not. The late Archbishop Armando Trindade of Lahore, on our first courtesy call to him asked us, ‘What are you three women doing here in Pakistan? How can you travel on your own in a very male-dominated society? How do you hope to empower Pakistani women?’ We didn’t have the answers and honestly said so to the Archbishop with the assurance that we’d share with him our mission experiences. We did and in the process gained his trust and support.
While on mission in my own home country, I was working closely with community leaders, men and women alike. In Pakistan I found myself in the midst of women sharing their deep aspirations to be treated with dignity and justice. My years in the Columban parish of Sheikhupura were very meaningful and fulfilling, an experience of Jesus’ words ‘I have come that you may have life, life to the full’. I left the parish over ten years ago now, yet I continue to be enriched by the continued friendship with some families there and the countless life-giving mission moments. It is a lasting gift of mission, a living well where I continue to draw the water of joy, nurturance, strength and hope.
On the other hand, I continue to share the pain of my women friends still carrying the multiple burdens of being women and of being poor. Many times I wonder if my presence, my journey with them had made a difference. Razia always assured me that I did have an impact on their lives. Many of them have educated not only their sons but also their daughters. Razia’s own daughter is now teaching with her in a village school for the children of brick kiln workers.
Joining the Columbans was a gift and a privilege but not without cost. Partnership in mission, especially 20 years ago, was more an ideal, a dream. It took a lot to change attitudes, to be seriously valued as laity on mission and to be integrated in the Columban life as partners in mission. Early on, LMs were often asked, ‘What do you do on mission?’ There was no easy answer as many of us, if not all, joined with no blueprints except the faith and commitment of disciples to actively participate in the mission of Jesus.
Sometimes the light within seemed to be flickering, dimming as I struggled to find seeds of hope and meaning in chaotic, worsening situations, locally and globally. A quote from Clarissa Pinkola Estes resonates with my own experience, ‘Struggling souls catch light from other souls who are fully lit and willing to show it.’ It was sheer joy to be with Shaina, my five-year-old friend who called herself ‘Madam’. Her laughter was infectious and her gift, a pair of socks, was priceless. It was a precious gift to be part of their lives even as I struggled with my helplessness. I can partly identify with St Paul who went through many trying moments in his missionary journey. I experienced sickness, the sudden deaths of Pilar, Fr Pat McCaffrey and Fr Tanvir O’Hanlon, armed robbery in the Columban house, deportation from Karachi airport and the ‘given’ challenges of just by being here as a woman, lay, part of the minority Christian community in an Islamic country that has been fighting against terrorism, violence, intolerance and the many forms of poverty and injustice.
When I almost gave up this CLM journey, I realized that the cost of continuing was nothing compared to the gifts I had been lavishly blessed with. I highly value this partnership, this sharing of Columban life and mission. It is indeed a pearl of great price to be part of peoples’ lives - Pakistanis, Filipino migrants in Lahore and the whole community of life.
For the past five years I have worked full-time with the Columban mission of Justice and Peace and Integrity of Creation (JPIC) focusing on ecological awareness and our ecological calling as members of the earth community. We had a strong JPIC team in Lahore, with Columban Fr Tanvir (Tommy) O’Hanlon and Pakistani layman Aqif Shezad. Slowly, we were gaining momentum with more positive responses from different groups, including the Conference of Religious Leaders. The team’s energy and creativity were at their height. My own immersion with the story of the universe, tilling and caring an organic garden, being inspired by the living witnesses of individuals and groups caring for Mother Earth, these and daily encounters with life made the fire within flare forth.
And then the untimely death of Father Tanvir on 6 June 2010. His death was just over two weeks after another great Columban missionary in Lahore, Fr Pat McCaffrey, had died of a heart attack. The shock and grief were shared by many. Father Tanvir had been a very close companion and partner in mission all my years in Pakistan and his death pained me to the core. [Editor’s note: Father Tanvir had spent his early years as a missionary in the Diocese of Ozamiz, Philippines, where Gloria is from.]
Two months later, I got news from home that both my parents were in hospital. How long would I be tested? How could I bear all this? I cried to my God in the depths of my being. I couldn’t make sense of the recent happenings. Was it time to go home for good and be with my ageing parents? Five years ago I wrote in my journal, ‘I was crying most of the afternoon and night. I woke up the following morning feeling that I’d risen.’
This is still true for me now, even more deeply. In my grief, concern for my ageing parents and my own share of insecurity, there’s peace, courage, hope and gratitude. All is grace. I’m not alone on the journey and never have been, with my family, the Columbans and the widening circle of co-creator friends with the earth community. It’s a privilege to be involved in ministries that I love and very happy to initiate, to be part of creative, relevant responses to changing missionary challenges. There is this inner knowing that there is always enough cosmic grace not only to continue but to thrive and glow on my missionary journey. ‘Only in burning itself does a candle give light’. May my life be always an offering of love and gratitude in faithfulness to the God who called me from my mother’s womb, with fire and energy from the primordial flaring forth of the universe.
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