Call To Mission

By Arlenne Villahermosa

Arlenne, from Talisay City, Cebu, has worked as a Columban lay missionary in Korea after which she served a term as coordinator of our lay missionaries in the Philippines. She is now in Myanmar (Burma), a country with which the Columbans have had ties since 1936.

‘Arlenne’, with a prolonged hold on the second syllable, was the way people at home called me when I was a child in order for me to do something. And then it was followed by ‘Marika’ (Come here) if it was my mother who called or ‘Dali diri’ (Come here) if somebody else. I would answer immediately saying, ‘O,’ which meant ‘Yes’, and then went to the person who called me. 

Being an obedient child, I always followed what I was asked to do, sometimes willingly, and other times not so willingly. 

This was one of my earliest memories of being called as I am, by my name.

As a child and growing up, the sound of the tolling of the bells inviting all the faithful Catholics in our town to Mass was a beautiful call-sound and I always waited for that sound to come. ‘Primera’ was how we called the first call with continuously repeating slow-interval tolls, thirty minutes before the start of the Mass. Fifteen minutes later, the last call, ‘Remate’ (re-MA-te), came with the church bells ringing continuously in a quick tempo for a couple of minutes. The sound was loud enough to be heard by people living in nearby barangays, strong enough to wake those who were still sleeping or sleepy, and melodious to the ear which gave vibrancy to our town. As the years rolled by, the church bells stopped ringing but we still kept going to church. We already knew in our hearts the schedule of Masses. We kept responding to the invitation of the church.

This was probably one of those early signs or experiences of being called to respond to God’s love and of being invited to share in Christ’s mission, which stayed in my sub-conscious mind.

Years passed and there was another call that was difficult to hear and was not quite clear. It was a stirring from deep within, a tiny voice so it seemed – a different longing that was not easy to decipher, probably being ‘pushed down’ by other calls, concerns and priorities at the time. Looking back, I suppose the seed of mission had been planted early on when I answered the call of my mother and those at home. I said ‘yes’ even without knowing the task they wanted me to do. But I knew it was always something important or something that needed to be done. I was happy in my work back then, with my life, family, friends, apostolate and involvement in the church’s activities and ministries. But the call to mission was persistent though gentle, affirming and assuring amidst its vagueness, unsettling yet giving me a sense of peace. 

This was the call I needed to address and which had been lurking at the side for a long time waiting for the fullness of time – God’s time.

Each one of us has our own calling in life. We are all called to love but we respond differently. Looking back, the experiences I’ve had in life since childhood led me to respond to the call to mission. I was called by my name and was nurtured by people, events, places and experiences of God’s unconditional love which in the process has brought me to where I am now, a Columban lay missionary. I said ‘yes’ to share in the mission of Christ, a mission to love out of love, crossing boundaries of culture, gender, creed and race.

Learning the language of the people in a foreign country is far from being easy, but an essential step. For us, it is the first ministry in cross-culture mission. It’s more than just learning how to speak, read and write. It’s learning how to communicate with the local people . . . hearing and understanding what they are saying and not saying, and being able to respond accordingly and appropriately. It is also a time to listen to one’s own self in a new culture. Oftentimes, it breaks down many defences. Once when I got sick during my first assignment in Korea, it was very difficult to fully express my condition with the little Korean I had. I felt like a child again. I had to learn to entrust myself to other people in order to get some medication. Since I am allergic to some medicines, it was difficult for me to entirely put my trust in doctors who did not know my medical history and to the pharmacists who gave me medicines I didn’t know. I simply followed what I was told to do. I trusted that the God who sent me there was there with me all the way. He knew best.

Now in Myanmar, I’m back to being a child again. I thought it would be easier this time as I’ve already experienced ‘being a child’ in my adult years. However, it’s not totally the case. I have to unlearn again, relearn again and learn again with a heart set in Myanmar, trying to understand the heart and mind of the Burmese people – seeing and experiencing them as they are without judgment or comparison, and knowing where they are coming from. In studying the Burmese language, sometimes Korean words come into play. When English, Filipino and Cebuano words join the mix-up, then I stop and I either smile or sigh, or both . . . just when I thought I was already moving ahead with my Burmese language! Humor and a positive outlook have been a good help. Before I can do anything, I need to be a child again - to relearn the attitude of a child lest I get lost in the world of the ego.

Just like in answering the call, being on mission is a process. In walking with the people I’m also being processed internally by the experiences, purifying my intentions, motivations, my heart and my thoughts. It is only with God’s grace that all these things can happen. He needs me to be open to receive Him so that He can work in me, and through me reach out to others and they to me.
When realities, idealism and values clash, and the urge to do something is strong, I feel the need at times to sit back and see things from the perspective of God’s boundless love and learn again to trust in His goodness. ‘He makes all things beautiful in His time’, as the lyrics of a song go. Oftentimes, it is easier to do than to be. But it is in the ministry of presence, walking with the people in their helplessness and struggles, joys and pains that I learn to understand them and am enabled to reach out to them in compassion, with compassion. 

To constantly maintain an open attitude for God to fill in and to be empowered by His love in reaching out to others is an important invitation in mission. Putting my wholehearted trust in God in everything is easier said than done. I can only keep on trying. But it is only in doing so that I let God, who called me first to life, be God in my life.

You may contact Arlenne at