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Unique group from around the world travels to the Philippines and Hong Kong for a PC(USA) Peacemaking study seminar on forced migration

The group included leaders and participants from the United States, Africa and Asia

by Layton Williams Berkes | Presbyterian News Service

A campfire following a community dinner at the United Church of Christ of the Phlippines in Beda, where a recent Travel Study Seminar group experienced homestays with families in the community. (Photo by Carl Horton)

For 12 days in February, 10 travelers came together in the Philippines and Hong Kong to learn about the root causes and current challenges of forced migration and labor trafficking. Both the group’s itinerary and the combination of participants made for a unique and uniquely powerful experience.

The travel study seminary (TSS) was organized as a joint effort between the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program and Presbyterian World Mission. The group spent the first week in the Philippines, which is the fourth largest country for remittances, as well as leading global supplier of nurses and seafarers. This portion of the seminar focused on why forced migration and labor trafficking came to be. The second half of the seminar took place in Hong Kong, exploring the reality of migrant workers there and some of the challenges they face.

The Rev. Carl Horton, who coordinates the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program and was one of the seminar’s co-leaders, emphasized that these events are called “seminars” rather than “trips” for a reason. “Participants commit to study before the trip and they commit to advocacy after it’s over,” Horton explained.

Over the course of the two weeks, the seminar group met with migrant worker individuals as well as faith communities and organizations both run by and made for migrant workers, hearing countless stories. Though the original intention of the trip was to explore both forced migration and labor trafficking, the stories they heard largely focused on the former and the ways that migrants working overseas are uniquely vulnerable.

A Sunday afternoon gathering of migrant laborers in Statue Square/Charter Road. The group pictured was practicing the motions to “Rise Up,” a movement demonstration that is part of “One Billion Rising.” (Photo by Carl Horton)

The Rev. Cathy Chang, the seminar’s main leader and a mission co-worker to the Philippines, said one of the objectives of the TSS was to explore how faith communities could care for and walk alongside migrants and their families. Significantly, both portions of the seminar began with a time of worship. On the first day of the seminar, the group worshiped with a United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP) Cubao community and then shared traditional Filipino food. The second leg of the seminar began with worship alongside a UCCP community made up of Overseas Filipino Workers in Hong Kong.

In both cases, the time of worship was followed by a time of engaging in small group conversation and listening to stories of fear, discrimination, trauma and abuse workers had faced.

Worship with the UCCP Hong Kong Fellowship, a worshiping migrant community of Overseas Filipino Workers. (Photo by Carl Horton)

“While listening to these stories, it didn’t seem enough only for me to listen,” Chang wrote in reflection, going on to say that she felt called “to hold each life and story, as in prayer before God, and recognize the holy space that we were sharing with one another.”

The seminar group included six participants and four leaders from around the world. According to both Horton and Chang, it’s unusual for a travel seminar to include multiple countries as this one did, and perhaps even more unusual to have participants hailing from so many different places.

The latter component developed out of the seminar’s “intentionally invitational format,” said Chang. She said planning for the seminar began almost five years ago, in 2018, but encountered multiple delays. Both lack of interest from U.S. Presbyterians and unrest in Hong Kong made it difficult for the seminar to gain traction. Then, Covid brought everything to a grinding halt.

Rather than give up on the idea entirely, the TSS organizers waited until the time was right. When the moment to move forward finally came, a surprising array of interested travelers signed up.

The group ended up with only two participants who are U.S. Presbyterians: John Wallace, a retired chemist and ruling elder from California, and Sheryl Hnizda, and a communications director and former director of children’s ministry from Michigan. Joining them were two mission co-workers — Christi Boyd based in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Doug Tilton based in South Africa — and two global partners, Lee Choo Phang from Malaysia and Helivao Poget  from Madagascar. Poget ministers to labor trafficking survivors in Madagascar.

Alongside Chang and Horton, the seminar was co-led by the Rev. Joram Calimutan, a UCCP serving a congregation of migrant workers in Hong Kong and ecumenical worker with Asia Pacific Mission for Migrants, and Pastor Roceni Bakian, also a UCCP pastor based in North Luzon, Philippines.

Meeting with migrants and their families following worship at the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP) church at Cubao, Quezon City, Philippines. (Photo by Carl Horton)

Both Chang and Horton commented on the gift of having such a diverse group assembled. In particular, Chang mentioned that Lee Choo Phang, the global partner from Malaysia, spoke multiple languages including Bahasa with the Indonesian workers they encountered.

“Never in my wildest dreams would I imagine hosting colleagues from different parts of Africa and Malaysia. Only the Holy Spirit could bring about such an opportunity,” Chang wrote in a World Mission quarterly newsletter article about the seminar.

The group is still discovering how this seminar has impacted each traveler and what its broader implications will be. They will reconvene on Zoom in April to process and reflect more together.

Chang hopes that this experience may serve as a template for the future, encouraging more collaboration with global partners and thinking beyond just U.S. participants. She hopes this unique travel seminar is the beginning of something much bigger and longer-term.

Reflecting on her own experience, Filipino seminar co-leader Roceni Bakian commented that, “Although the Travel Study Seminar has ended as scheduled, as a participant, this experience serves as a continuing enlightenment for me to keep on learning and stay updated on the issue concerning migrant ministry.”

Meanwhile, Boyd, a seminar participant and mission co-worker serving in Africa, was particularly impacted by the Hong Kong Christian Council’s commitment to working ecumenically in support of migrants and their families. Boyd observed that, “the Council exemplifies the potential that larger ecumenical and interfaith platforms hold for any work on systemic issues.”

A walking tour and orientation to family mining in the Loacan region of the Philippines with Pastor Virgilio Aniceto and Rev. Joseph Agno, Administrative Pastor with the UCCP in Beda. (Photo by Carl Horton)

For his part, Horton shares Chang’s hope that this seminar will demonstrate to others the value of such a diverse collaboration. He also hopes it spurs larger conversation in the PC(USA) and elsewhere about how to be a truly migrant-serving church and how the experiences of migrants are connected to the PC(USA)’s Matthew 25 movement.

Finally, Horton carried one key moment from the seminar with him as an exhortation and instructive. Describing a testimony the group heard following a homestay portion of the seminar, Horton said they were encouraged to return home and “not simply to tell the stories they had heard, but to create the conditions in which those stories can be heard, and received, and cared about.”

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