Christmas in Negros, Philippines
What was it like to a Myanmarese and three Fijian Columban seminarians to spend their first Christmas in the Philippines at the Negros Nine farm in Kabankalan, Negros Occidental in 2016?
L to R: Fijian Seminarians Iowane Naio, Kusitino Saro and Antonio Saula Seeto with Myanmarese Columban Nhkai Hkun Myat Aung (front)
All the experiences I encountered at the farm really touched my heart. The most special one was “touching with nature”. It really gave me energy and inspiration as I continued my vocation journey. I would sit down and meditate on the beautiful scenery that I encountered throughout the farm. There I discovered the place of God in my life. In the planting of a few trees, it felt like I had started doing some small things in the mission to take care of the Earth.
I encountered God up on that mountain in Oringao. I encountered the love of God through the beauty of nature that surrounded me and through the people I met.
The people shared their love and kindness. I was a stranger to them, but they really made me feel the love of God and taught me how to love a stranger. When we were there, all the people came and shared their kindness and love because they knew we were Columban seminarians. It made me ponder and reflect on how the Columban priests walk with the people and touch their lives. Like now, Fr. Brian Gore is helping the people and the people really remain thankful for how Fr. Brian has been walking with them. This really made me reflect on my own life and showed me how to become a good missionary in the future.
One day while the Cooperative members were having a meeting, they brought their children with them. The children were playing and having fun together. I went out with them and played with them. We sang and danced together. Playing with the children of these people really made me joyful and uplifted my spirit.
Participating in the games for the adults at the Christmas party was also fun. In our group, no one could speak English well. I, too, could not speak English well, let alone Ilonggo, the language of the people. Instead, we communicated with body language and still won the game! We were really happy. I learned that even though I could not speak well, I could communicate because I just wanted to be with the people, to be present to them. Whether I was with the adults or the children, I talked with them and listened to them as we found ways to communicate. It was really a nice experience. It made me so joyful; it made me feel the true meaning of Christmas. Columban Nhkai Hkun Myat Aung, Myanmar
So far, it has been my best experience in the Philippines. It’s a blessing going to new places and being surprised at many unexpected things. I discovered that I could endure waking up very early in the morning. This was no small discovery since I am not an early bird. The Simbang Gabi at 3 o’clock in the morning for nine days before Christmas was a very memorable experience, not only because I got up so early, but also because, where I come from in Fiji, we only have mass twice a year.
I had heard a lot about the Negros Nine, but coming to the farm and experiencing what Negros Nine Foundation is doing for the school, for the Cooperative, and for the farmers was a good experience that I will not forget. Celebrating with the Mangao family and the Negros Nine organization was a beautiful experience for they were not only assisting the families, but helping them to learn to give life to their families. It was an abundant Christmas for me with everyone gathered together. At home, in Fiji, I would probably be drinking Kava with only a few members of my family. It was very good for me to experience the typical Filipino Christmas celebration. This was the first Christmas that I was away from home, and to celebrate it here was memorable.
I thank the Columbans for giving us this opportunity. It was a wonderful experience with all of us traveling together. At first, I thought it was a bad choice to come to Negros. I had wanted to go to Mindanao since there are other Fijians assigned in Mindanao. But, after this experience, I think I will come back. It's always good to go to other places to explore and see. Antonio Saula Seeto, Fiji
When we were going up to the Negros Nine Farm, we had a problem with the truck. It was raining and it was difficult for the truck to pull through. So we had to get down and pull the truck. It was a memorable experience especially coming to a new place. It was actually fun. We enjoyed that. I did not get irritated because we normally experience that in Fiji. When we arrived in the place, I was really inspired by the hospitality of the people. Everything they did for us was very touching.
The Tuko (geekos), I think, was the only thing that I was afraid of. It was everywhere!
The planting of trees was very meaningful to me. Many people are still cutting down trees, so, for us, planting the trees was like bringing back the life of the forest. Before planting, we said a prayer together. It was a unique moment. I had a feeling of being in union with my brothers, the family and with everyone who had journeyed up there with me. The prayer was an act of giving life to nature. We planted trees for the future generations. It was very touching–that feeling of being part of something that is bringing back life to the environment.
We took time to play with the chuldren who lived there. Playing with the kids, with them climbing on my back, reminded me of my own nieces and nephews. It was really great to see them happy.
I am very grateful, very lucky, and privileged to have come across this experience. The experience of having spent a month at the Negros Nine Farm in Oringao, Negros will stay with me for the rest of my life. The challenges of my stay there were just part of the journey. They were but little challenges because I know that there are other people living there who have lived through much greater challenges.
I am very grateful to the Columbans, and to all those in the Negros Nine farm for accommodating us. I am indeed very grateful. Kusitino Saro, Fiji
When we were about to land at the Silay airport I thought I could have a somewhat similar experience in Fiji. I come from a place of a bit similar environment. We too have many sugarcane plantations.
I had been looking forward to this experience for some time. When I came to Manila from Fiji, I had a different experience of the Philippines. It's very hot, specially in Manila. And the people in Manila are not like those in Negros who are really friendly and they really care. They are totally different in the way
they relate to us. It was an even better experience when we got to stay with a family. It was there that I got a bit of an actual picture of the Filipino people and it's a good thing, for now I love the place and its people. My experience was very good and encouraging.
During the Christmas party in Colambo Elementary School, we would have loved to sing many songs in Pilipino for the kids, but we were not prepared. It had been a spontaneous invitation. We were coming from somewhere else and now they were expecting something from us. So, we sang some Christmas carols that the kids were familiar with. Still it was a great moment to do something for those kids. In Fiji, we also have Christmas celebrations and the family day in schools. But we don't have those kind of celebrations where you can run and have games. Ours is a different kind, so this was new and a very nice experience.
One thing that really struck me is that I could still feel the inﬂuence of the Columbans in the area. When they learned that we are Columban seminarians, they looked at us in a completely different way. They were very hospitable and treated us well with respect and care because that was the way the Columban Missionaries treated them. I wonder why the Columbans are not still sending young priests and lay missionaries here? It is still a good place for missionary work.
We also do in Fiji the kind of work for Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation (JPIC) that Columbans are involved here. We work with Columban companions, a group of ex-lay missionaries and families who have connections with the Columbans. Because of our work in JPIC, the people here know us but we didn’t know that there is a mission area here. I think that it might make a difference if lay missionaries are also working in this part of the Philippines.
Looking back, this was a good experience for me and I would love to come back, if I become a priest and given the chance to work here. Iowane Naio, Fiji
Antonio receiving a Christmas give-away from Columban Father Brian Gore
Seminarians at the Christmas party of Colambo Elementary School