Joe O’Brien, a nurse from Stockport writes a personal reflection about her participation on the Columban’s Invitation to Mission programme last Easter.
Hello. My name is Joe and I am a nurse, wife and mother. I am writing this on Good Friday in a sunny England whilst looking back to this time last year, which I spent with the Columbans in Malate Parish in Manila, the capital of the Philippines. Prior to this I consider myself reasonably well travelled but had never been further east than Italy or Germany. My motivator for volunteering to become involved in the ‘Invitation to Mission’ programme was that I grew up on tales of missionaries, told by my mum and by my church. My hero has always been Eric Liddle, of Chariots of fire fame. I felt a longing to become involved and to find out what this life looked like.
Everything in Manila was different. The heat for starters. 40 degrees anyone? It’s hot. But our hosts at the Columban Mission House made us comfortable and my adventure began. From then on, it was go,go,go. Sleep mustn’t be high on your agenda if you commit to a trip like this, but I figured I could sleep when I got home.
I stayed with a family in a poor district of Manila for Easter and it was remarkable. I’m no romantic – I moved from one of Scotland’s most deprived areas to one of England’s as a child but the hospitality shown to me was second to none and it opened my eyes to how people can have amazing faith not just despite the conditions they live in but maybe because of them too. My hosts looked after me well and went out of their way to ensure that I tried local delicacies such as fresh coconut (not the raw unhatched chick I had heard tales of I am glad to say) and had the chance to have a good look around their neighbourhood. So many families in so little space! And what a truly amazing Easter I had. The Easter Vigil was amazing. My party was treated to seats at the front of the church and the view when we looked back was breath-taking. The parish church is huge, and it was packed. Families from several generations were there and it was standing room only. It was inspiring to see so many people of faith coming together to remember Jesus and to start the Easter journey. The celebrations were colourful and vibrant and involved a large number of participants. I has seen photographs of the parades but it was even better being there.
Highlights? There were so many…the wonderful old priests who took time to tell me about their life and sign my Bible; the lay missionaries who are absolute stars in the care they take of God’s creation and of the people around them; the Filipino parishioners who took time to laugh at us and make us laugh in return (my cleaning skills in the church were a source of merriment); the food – known and unknown; the indigenous tribe who welcomed us and proudly showed us how they lived; the candle makers who shared their story and their tears; Helen from Ireland who inspired me with her leadership, turning rubbish from the streets into bags and a living for families; Fr Shay for his work changing the lives of children for the better and of course…the earthquake!
A lasting impression for me was that the environmental awareness here was so much more advanced than at home. Since returning, I have carried on with this theme inspired by people in the Philippines. I am selling bags for Helen and her ladies and am about to order more. I have arranged for a speaker from the Columbans to come to my parish to educate us in how the Columbans look upon Gods creation in light of Laudato Si. There is so much more we could be doing to look after our world and those who live in it, realising that what we do in England has an effect as far away as the Philippines.
Of course, this Easter is about as different as it could be. In place of packed pews and colourful, bustling streets, there is self-isolation and quietness. From an easy fellowship with strangers I am spending this Easter more reflective and looking back at what was meaningful about my Easter last year. The most important thing was fellowship. With the organisers and the group that I went with. For their trust and support, their laughter and sense of adventure. With the lay missionaries and priests who hosted us. With the people who took time to to teach us more about the care of God’s creation. With the students on the Jeepnees who laughed at us for only just fitting in the bus because we were so big. For my host Tess, who taught me about the Santa Nino and had such an inspiring faith and commitment to her church and community. I am blessed by my time there and am very grateful for the opportunity to take part in the programme. If you are wondering about the programme and whether you should take part, I would say a resounding “yes!”