Interview with Ms Salvacion Napano – Volunteer Prison Chaplain in Hong Kong

By Fr Pat Colgan

The author, from Northern Ireland, is a member of the General Council of the Columbans since September 2012 and based in Hong Kong. Ordained in 1994, he worked in Fiji before his present assignment.

Sally, can you tell us something about your childhood and your early involvement in the Church?

Father Pat and Sally

I was born in Guimaras, now an island province in the Western Visayas, on 14 September 1961. I am the fifth of eight siblings, five boys and three girls. My father was a rice farmer and my mom a busy housewife. Although our church was far away from the village, we always went, and I can remember dreaming about being a nun. I used to play at being one, dressing up in a veil!

Filipino Maids in Hong Kong Cope with Loneliness [Video produced by UCAN, an independent Catholic news service].

Tell us about your working life.

Firstly I went to work as a domestic helper in Kuwait. I worked there for a local ‘mother and daughter’ family, who were very considerate to me, not demanding that I dress in full Arab robe and veil – even allowing me to wear trousers at home (unlike most other domestic workers). When the Gulf War drew near, the Philippine government urged us all to evacuate and paid part of our fare to fly out of Kuwait. But it was a nightmare journey going by Jordan and Iraq, the normal routes to Saudi Arabia and Dubai being closed. In Jordan we had to sleep on the street for a week, in Iraq the government found an empty warehouse for us, where we were fed tinned sardines, cucumber and lettuce, every day, every meal for another week. I can never eat sardines again!

In 1991 I came to Hong Kong. My first employers were a British couple for whom I worked for eight happy years. I thought I had enough money by then, and planned to go back home for good. But within two years, and with big hospitalization costs for my sickly mother growing all the time, I realized I would have to return. So I came back in 2000, first to a Chinese and then to an Australian family. I am now with a Korean couple with young children.

How did you interest in prison ministry begin?

In late 2008 I attended a seminar on Suicide Counseling run by a Filipina catechist. I was very interested in this because a number of close and distant family members, as well as neighbors in my village, had committed suicide and I often wondered if I should have ‘seen the signs’ and been of greater help. During that seminar, I met the wife of a Filipino prisoner here in Hong Kong, who happened to be the friend of my cousin. I went to see him, and he gave me the names of two others who wanted a visit. It has mushroomed since then. I now visit four prisons in Hong Kong every Sunday, in rotation, and am in frequent contact with the families of seven prisoners, from the Philippines, Benin, Surinam and Colombia, helping to get messages in, as well as buying them batteries, soaps, magazines, Bibles and whatever they ask for and need.

Do you find the work difficult?

Yes, I often find it challenging. My only day off is Sunday, and I often spend traveling long distances to jails and then waiting for the all the security procedures to be completed. When I eventually do see a prisoner, he is behind a glass screen and we have to use phones. Sometimes it is hard to hear him. It is particularly difficult when a prisoner’s English is poor.

Do you feel your visit helps them – have you any stories for us?

I have one Filipino ‘cuyo’ in prison who is paralyzed. At first he was very silent and sullen, just saying ‘Bahala na’ (‘There is nothing I can do’). I used to cry on my side of the glass, trying to encourage him. I organized lodgings for his wife when she visited in 2011 and then last year kept her in my room, with my employer’s permission. Slowly he has become more positive, praising his wife’s love and his children’s good education. He even joked with me on one occasion, asking me not to cut my hair! I told him, that even though the weather was very hot, I would sacrifice cutting my hair, as a prayer for him.

What gives you the strength to continue?

Even though I am not a formal member of a Church group such as the Legion of Mary my attendance at Sunday Mass is very important to me. I often cry inwardly during priests’ sermons – as if the Lord is speaking to me directly. I promised God that once all my family debts and obligations were cleared, I would live and use any disposable income totally for Him. I have seen miracles even among my employers’ families (who are not believers) when I pray for them – for example the total healing of my Korean ‘grandfather’ from a stomach complaint. I do wonder sometimes if I am really helping the prisoners enough in what I say, because I am not an expert in the Bible, but often it is their words to me that inspire me and keep me going.

Do you have any message for other domestic workers here in Hong Kong?

Yes; I would like to encourage them to use their gifts, especially the gifts of listening and healing that God has given to us Filipinas, for our brothers and sisters in jail. Sometimes we ‘waste’ our day off sitting around the streets and parks when we could give just an hour or two to someone worse off than ourselves. Jesus did say, ‘I was in jail, and you came to see me . . .’

Your birthday is coming soon (14 September) – how do you plan to spend it?

God is so good – I am going home to the Philippines for ten days, arriving on my birthday. I will organize a time of ‘praise and worship’ for the people in my home village. I feel sorry for those simple, peaceful people – they work hard on the farm but still cannot find money for their bus fare to church. I will encourage them. I may finish my contract in Hong Kong next year, so I need to look over my little house and land there. I miss my parents not being alive, but God is our Shepherd always.