A learning visit to the Philippines

Anna Brown is the first ‘Faith in Action Graduate Volunteer’, spending a year working with Columban Justice and Peace Education and St Mary’s University Chaplaincy. In the article below she reflects on a recent learning visit to the Philippines.

Under the watchful eye of St Columban at San Columbano Mission Center, Batang, Himamaylan City, Negros Occidental: L to R: Michael Javier, Gilda Comays, Naanise Mo’unga, Fr Brian Gore, Arlenne Villahermosa, Lorna Cañete and Anna Brown.

I was incredibly fortunate to spend an amazing month learning about the Columbans’ work. It was helpful for my work here in Britain as we often talk about poverty when discussing justice and peace issues in schools. Visiting slum districts, rural communities and urban industrial areas of the Philippines, I was able to begin to understand something of the complexity of poverty – there are rich and poor in every community. I am excited to talk to other young people about this, avoiding simple stereotyping and giving real thought to the language we use.

Traditional Sinulog dance at the Basilica del Santo Niño.

Anna Brown (L) with CLMs Gilda Comayas and Lorna Cañete (front seat) and Michael Javier and Naanise Mo’unga behind. Gilda, Lorna and Michael form 'Ph 22' and are due to leave for Chile in May. Naanise, from Tonga, has been in the Philippines since 2007.

The numbers of street children really shocked me, and the ways in which the Columbans use charity and justice together were fascinating. I was humbled to see works of charity, for example in feeding programs, but directly linked to work for justice. The Columban parish in Manila, Our Lady of Remedies, Malate, feeds those who need food, but also empowers them to campaign for their own rights over land and provides education programs and support. One Filipina told me, ‘It is so important we teach people how to use a fishing net not just give them a fish, otherwise dependency will kill my beautiful community’. I will certainly remember this in my ongoing work.

Anna Brown (R) with CLMs Michael Javier, Lorna Cañete and Gila Domayas of PH 22, due to leave for Chile, and Columban Fr Leo Distor, Parish Priest, Our Lady of Remedies, Malate, Manila.

My visit to the Philippines was also valuable in terms of learning about faith. I was in Cebu as a guest of the Salesians for the Sinulog festival, honoring the Santa Niño (Child Jesus). This was a festival to remember, spread across a weekend and filled with boat rides, dancing and the biggest parade you could imagine! It was a privilege to see this unique side of the Catholic Church. I felt uncomfortable at times in the huge crowds and it didn’t always feel like a prayerful, religious celebration – I found myself asking questions about the wealth and extravagancy of the festival. But there was an amazing sense of community and it was a lot of fun dancing with Filipino friends as they enjoyed the festivities. Religion was truly embraced and it was refreshing to see a community really celebrate their living faith. It made me think about how I might express my own faith more boldly in my work, and especially how I witness to our students at St Mary’s.

Anna Brown (R) with Columban Lay Missionaries Michael Javier, Gilda Comayas and Lorna Cañete of PH 22, due to leave for Chile, and Naanise Mo’unga of Tonga has been in the Philippines as a Columban Lay Missionary since 2007.

I was incredibly blessed to visit PREDA and Fr Shay Cullen, and to see their work preserving the rights and dignity of children who have been trafficked and imprisoned. It was really eye-opening, visiting the girls’ and the boys’ homes as well as spending time with the legal team. I learnt so much about the horrors of child sex trafficking and the work needed to end this. PREDA also was an amazing witness to the importance of seeing the ‘crossovers’ in justice issues. The effects of climate change are apparent all over the Philippines. One of the consequences of this is natural disasters. The loss of income and stability caused by these sometimes leads to children being forced into making money through illegal means, sometimes in the sex industry. PREDA works to eliminate both cause and consequence, freeing and rehabilitating children but also working with rural communities to farm organically and support fair trade livelihood projects. It was so helpful to witness first hand (even if I was only scratching the surface of this complex issue) the injustice that is evident in Olongapo City and the work tackling this. For our work here in Britain it is so important that we discuss these complex issues, highlighting that action comes in many forms as often different justice issues are intertwined – something I hadn’t totally understood before my trip.

Anna Brown with Arlenne Villahermosa, Coordinator, Columban Lay Missionaries, Philippines

I have left the Philippines with an overwhelming sense of gratitude. Gratitude for the amazing hospitality of those who looked after me, who told me their stories, shared their lives and let me experience the amazing work they are doing. Finally and extremely importantly I am thankful for the opportunity that I now have to share my experiences and discuss these questions around justice within the education work I do with both the Columbans and at St Mary’s.