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Worshiping in the Desert

A Letter from Cathy Chang and Juan Lopez, serving in the Philippines

April 2018

Write to Cathy Chang
Write to Juan Lopez Carrasco 

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O God, you are my God; I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory. Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you. . . . For you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy. My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me. Psalm 63:1-3, 7-8

Cooling the soles of my feet and sifting between my toes, the soft sands were a soothing break after the herky-jerky, internal-organ-squashing, white-knuckle-inducing, laughing-and-screaming commotion of the sand-bashing 4×4 ride. This 4×4 ride was jarring and even entertaining. It wasn’t my first time in the desert, but it was my first time on the way to dinner and entertainment in the desert with this mode of transportation. Looking back again on this experience, I wonder if this ride reminded my Filipino hosts of the many experiences and emotions that they have faced as migrant workers: hope, fear, relief, and desperation.

That tenacity of survival amidst the harshness of the desert stayed with me, from my first time in the New Mexican desert until this first time in the United Arab Emirates. Nearly sixteen years ago, I first visited the “high desert” of Ghost Ranch in New Mexico. Here I discerned an opportunity to serve as a Young Adult Volunteer in Egypt. Meeting and knowing the people of the desert, such as Egyptian Christians and Muslims, as well as refugees from sub-Saharan countries, oriented me towards the gritty will to live and survive and thrive. This time, the survival Arabic phrases rushed back to my memory, and now I needed to re-pronounce them with Emirati accents, among my new Filipino friends.

Overseas Filipino Worker (OFW) became less of an acronym and more of a person through this February visit to the UAE. The migrant workers were our hosts. Their youthful energy pleasantly brought back memories of my campus ministry days, which put me at ease with these new brothers and sisters in faith. Our time together reminded me of times when we cherished study breaks with Saturday-night fellowship meetings and followed up with late-night talks and food, because all of us needed a break from the grind of problem sets, papers, projects, computer programs, and exams. However, these Filipino friends were doing more than homework. They were working — for their lives and livelihoods.

It is some of these Filipino friends who gifted us with this sand-bashing desert experience that I shared in the opening of this letter. They are the same youth and young adults who have grown up in United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP) churches, mostly from Mindanao and a few from Luzon. Some are the sons and daughters of UCCP pastors and church leaders. Many work in offices for Emirati and non-Emirati employers as engineers and human resource administrators or in retail jobs or family businesses. Some had only just arrived weeks before, while others had lived and worked here for more than twenty years. Some do not work but raise their children and support their spouses. Some have left behind their spouses in the Philippines. All of them gather weekly and have named their Christian fellowship “Panambahan sa Disyerto” (Tagalog for “Worshipping in the Desert”). This fellowship re-planned their second founding anniversary celebration around our recent solidarity visit.

This was the first time that I was supporting those who are not on death row, but are alive and living and trying to survive in this place. I had accompanied UCCP General Secretary Bishop Reuel Marigza to visit a newly formed fellowship in Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the UAE. I learned about this fellowship from a former UCCP national office co-worker, “Carol,” whose brother “Mark” was an active member. Almost a year ago, Carol helped me deliver a letter addressed to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to advocate for the life of Jennifer Dalquez, an OFW who potentially faced the death penalty because she fatally wounded her employer when he attempted to sexually assault her. Thankfully, the Emirati judicial system overturned the death penalty; however, she remains imprisoned to finish out a charge of theft.

Early during our week-long visit, I shared a brief presentation about the UCCP Migrant Ministry, which included a story about Jennifer and the ways that the church rallied around her and her family. I included a photo of the delivery of our letter to (now former) Philippine Presidential Spokesperson Ernesto Abella. In that picture was Carol, and in this audience was her brother Mark, who had not seen his sister in several years. As I moved to the next slide in my presentation, Mark quietly acknowledged to his fellowship members, “That’s my sister.”

Several years have passed since Mark has seen his sister, and two years have passed since he has seen his wife and kids. Some OFWs still have the benefit of traveling each year to the Philippines. Like Mark, some are unable to leave the UAE because of financial debt or a lack of job credentials. These are but a few of the many hardships faced by individuals and families.

Such joy and confidence in God’s steadfast love are not only found in Psalm 63, but also in the lives of my Filipino friends. Amid the challenges — the instabilities and uncertainties of their lives, their work, their families, and their fledgling faith community — these brothers and sisters have shown me how to worship in the desert.

Our family looks forward to sharing about this and other experiences during visits to churches in the U.S. from June through mid-August. In addition, we will lead workshops both at General Assembly and the Presbyterian Women Churchwide Gathering. And we also look forward to soon celebrating Aurelie’s graduation from kindergarten.

Thank you for prayers and financial gifts that uplift us and accompany our family, so that we can join others in their journeys in the desert and other places of life. Please consider giving towards our support and our work in addressing forced migration and human trafficking in the Philippines, throughout Asia and now in the Middle East.

Christ is risen!

Resurrection blessings from Cathy, Juan & Aurelie

Creative_Commons-BYNCNDYou may freely reuse and distribute this article in its entirety for non-commercial purposes in any medium. Please include author attribution, photography credits, and a link to the original article. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDeratives 4.0 International License.

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