A Letter from Cathy Chang and Juan Lopez, serving in the Philippines
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In early April, Pastor Sol and I traveled to West Timor, Indonesia, to learn about human trafficking there and around Asia with partners mostly from south and southeast Asia.
Pastor Marie Sol Villalon was the first Filipino pastor I met whose ministry is focused on overseas Filipino workers (OFWs). Known in true Filipino style by her nickname, “Pastor Sol” is also known by many in ecumenical circles for her advocacy and solidarity work.
My first memory of meeting her dates to June 2016, a few weeks after moving to the Philippines. Sitting in a passenger van with other Filipino women from the United Methodist Church and two men from Migrante International, she welcomed me during our three-hour journey from Manila to the regional trial court in Nueva Ecija. Her broad smile and approachable manner, as well as the familiar clergy collar from our shared vocation, put me at ease. After we fortified ourselves with breakfast, we boarded the van and headed out to pray with and meet with the family members and other supporters of Mary Jane Veloso before the trial later that day.
More than two years later, Pastor Sol and I have become partners in ministry. Earlier this year, I interviewed her, and I am happy to share highlights from our conversation:
Describe the nature of your work.
I do advocacy work through education. I attend conferences of the United Methodist Church, youth groups, and even with other denominations that invite me [as a resource person]. Sometimes I provide a “migrants situationer” [Taglish word for situation report] or a “human trafficking situationer” in the Philippines. Especially for OFWs who work in the Middle East and Malaysia where trafficking is rampant, education is important as a form of prevention for those who want to go abroad.
Second, I provide services. This is the big and challenging work: OFWs contact me through Facebook Messenger, and sometimes their relatives and friends contact me when someone they know is in prison [or] locked in their employers’ homes. I contact their families and the agencies here in the Philippines who will do something to repatriate them or do something about their situation. Especially in Qatar, Riyadh, Kuwait — these are places where human trafficking is happening. Agencies abroad who contact agencies here in the Philippines … bring OFWs who are sold from one employer to another….
Sometimes I accompany victims in going to their employment agencies to receive their salaries. Sometimes the situation is not good, and I accompany them in fighting their cases with the Department of Justice, the Inter-Agency Council against Human Trafficking, the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) and other government agencies for OFWs. The next program is organizing their families, especially when the women decide to return home and work here in the Philippines. Sometimes they need more education.
From your description, it sounds like you mostly work with women. Is that true?
Since 2013, I’ve only worked with two men. I’ve mostly worked with women as part of my ministry. Most of them are working overseas for the first time. Although my advocacy mostly begins with the United Methodist Women constituency, my ministry encompasses mostly Roman Catholic women.
For all the work that you do, you are only one person. Do you have a team?
I am the only staff person. I am inviting other women from the church to help me. Back in 2014, I had one volunteer [a female] who helped me when an OFW was beheaded in Libya in accompanying me to the airport to retrieve other dead bodies from the security officer at the airport. Most of the time, it’s a one-person job. I do tell other United Methodist Church women what I am doing so that they can help in the future. Going to the airport at midnight, receiving text messages or FB messages from OFWs at two in the morning: this is my work as a person in mission, doing this for victims of human trafficking.
How did you get involved in this work?
Back in 2001, I transferred to Manila from Mindoro. Our bishop was Solito Toquero, who had previously served as a pastor in Hong Kong, where there were many cases of migrant workers. I was studying for my master’s degree at that same time, and I volunteered for Migrant Ministry. In 2005, when we had a formal launching of this ministry, I was taken as staff for this program. Since 2005, this has been my work.
How do you keep going (in this work)?
I think because of the increasing numbers of cases, I can’t stop. As tired and burned out as I can become, even earlier this year, I can’t stop. If I stop, who will help them? I have to continue. This ministry is not yet [fully realized]; it’s still sidelined in the church. If I stop, who will continue? I’m waiting until the church can address this ongoing issue. This ministry is an important special ministry of the church.
How can churches become effective advocates for migrant workers?
In doing my advocacy work with churches, I encourage them to set up migrant desks so that when there are cases like [what was mentioned before], they can respond right away. There is already one pastor in Nueva Ecija who is doing this very work. In Mindanao, I’ve also worked with Migrante as a partner to set up training … [in] how to respond to these situations and let OFWs know about their rights and what to do [when] their rights are being violated in other countries.
Pastor Sol’s ministry in advocating for human trafficking victims and empowering churches to strengthen their support for migrant workers is what makes her a true partner in this ministry. Her tireless efforts inspire me to continue working for the Filipino people and all migrant workers throughout Asia. Her indefatigable spirit strengthens me.
During these first two years of mission service, our family gratefully received your prayers and financial support. This funding is vital for our family. Please continue in your prayers and financial contributions.
In addition, you have a new opportunity to provide financial gifts that will strengthen partnership and solidarity with migrant workers and human trafficking victims. Please consider adding your gifts to support the actual programs and services rendered through various partners like Migrante International, the National Council of Churches in the Philippines, and Pastor Marie Sol Villalon. You may contribute to these programs directly online or via mail. To give online, please visit www.presbyterianmission.org/donate/e052147/. On the comments line on the billing information page, please enter “Migrant Workers/Human Trafficking Victims.” If donating by mail, please write “E052147-Migrant Workers/Human Trafficking Victims” on your check’s memo line. If donating using the envelope enclosed with this letter, please write the above giving information on the inside of the envelope.
Thank you for partnering with us in God’s mission.
Cathy Chang and Juan Lopez
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Tags: advocacy, beheading, burnout, Department of Justice, education, Facebook Messenger, human trafficking, imprisoned, kuwait, Marie Sol Villalon, mary jane veloso, migrant workers, Migrante International, OFWs, overseas Filipino workers, Qatar, repatriation, Riyadh, women
Tags: Cathy Chang and Juan Lopez