A Letter from Cathy Chang and Juan Lopez, serving in the Philippines
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Before the pandemic and initial lockdowns in the Philippines, my last long-distance international trip was to Quito, Ecuador, in November 2019. Mervin Toquero and Joanna Concepcion were my companions from Manila. Mervin is the Program Secretary of Faith Witness Service, with the National Council of Churches in the Philippines (NCCP), and Head of the Secretariat for Churches Witnessing with Migrants (CWWM). Joanna is the Chairperson of Migrante International, the largest alliance of overseas Filipino workers. NCCP, the CWWM and Migrante International are PC(USA) global partners. As the only volunteer with the CWWM secretariat who is also a pastor, I often prepare prayers and devotions. For this CWWM international consultation at Quito, Mervin asked me to prepare interfaith reflections, since there would be at least one Hindu, Jewish, and Muslim faith leader among the participants.
This inter-religious participation among other observations from this Quito consultation prompted questions that have stayed with me until now. I decided to write a research paper about these observations for an academic conference this March about “world Christianity.” World Christianity is a topic that I first discovered during my seminary days – which is the study of the diverse expressions of Christianity from the past and now. Thanks to a grant from The Fund for Theological Education, I chose to learn more about this emerging field by interviewing church historians and missiologists. Mostly I interviewed them via Skype, but I also traveled to Edinburgh, Scotland, to attend an academic meeting, in the hopes of meeting and interviewing more scholars. After this experience, I met with Dr. Iain Torrance, then Princeton Theological Seminary president to share my excitement and propose that this topic be included in the upcoming curriculum review process.
Born to middle-class parents in the Philippines, Joanna played with street kids and wondered why people lived differently. Her mother valued education but couldn’t afford tuition for three children, so they immigrated to the United States. Joanna spent summers with her grandfather’s sister who invited her to share meals and dental appointments with children from impoverished families, leaving her with lasting impressions about faith in action.
Volunteering with the Filipino Migrant Center after college opened Joanna’s eyes. For the first time, she met migrant workers who were human trafficking victims and experienced wage theft. “The more I saw, the more I saw the policies about why we had to come to the U.S., about my parents’ job situation as middle-class professionals,” reflects Joanna. After almost a decade of living in the U.S., she understood more about her family situation and home country. After college graduation, she returned to the Philippines for the first time to participate in an exposure program where she lived with the most marginalized sectors of society. This was Joanna’s turning point. Although Joanna grew up at every stage of her life with an obligation to remember where she came from and give back, she brought back this experience to Los Angeles.
When volunteering with and on behalf of migrant workers, Joanna gained more experience in direct services, organizing, and advocacy. She became skillful in initiating the pain-staking process of educating and empowering migrants to lead collectively, to take action for themselves, and to build alliances and support networks which include churches, faith leaders, professionals, students, and supporters from different backgrounds. This groundwork laid the foundation for launching Migrante Southern California, the precursor of the national Migrante USA. Since Southern California boasts the largest number of Filipinos outside the Philippines this was a major accomplishment.
Roman Catholic and United Methodist churches provided the most “reliable and consistent support” for the campaigns that were supporting Filipino human trafficking victims. Joanna used the Tagalog phrase, “lakas ng loob,” loosely translated as “empowerment” that the campaign organizers attributed to the contributions of faith communities. They provided safe spaces for the newly escaped migrant workers. They introduced church members to the testimonies of the migrant workers. They accompanied migrant workers to meetings at the Philippine consulate, praying for them in front of the consulate. Migrants were not used to outspoken faith leaders. Joanna recounted how migrants made comments such as, “They’re not even Filipinos – and they know more than us migrants do about our country and our conditions. How can they be like this?”
Using this new Tagalog word, our family is grateful for your prayers and financial support backed up with “lakas ng loob.” March 5 is the fifth anniversary of our arrival to the Philippines – 2021 is also the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Christianity in the Philippines. Today this mission partnership is lived out with Filipino colleagues like Joanna. Join us in this ongoing partnership for God’s mission in southeast Asia and around the world.
Your friends in Christ, Cathy, Juan & Aurelie
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Tags: Buddhist, CWWM, Fund for Theological Education, Hindu, Iain Torrance, interfaith, Joanna Concepcion, lakas ng loob, Matthew 25, Mervin Toquero, Migrante International, Migrante USA, migrants, Muslim, NCCP, OFW, Overseas Foreign Workers, Princeton Theological Seminary, Quito, world Christianity
Tags: Cathy Chang and Juan Lopez
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