Elbert Balbastro talks about his experiences working in Pakistan.
Coming from the Philippines which is a predominantly Christian country, I can truly feel being part of the minority here in Pakistan where most of the population are Muslim.
In the Philippines, we usually celebrate the feasts of saints and Christmas and New Year with elaborate decorations and preparations. Here, however, this is not the practice.I often remind myself that as a missionary I may miss a lot of things I had been used to, but I need to adjust to the country where I was sent to, and now belong.
As I continue my journey on this side of the world, I can honestly say that it is good to know religions other than my own. I came to realise that despite the diversity of religions, there is always a prevailing human factor that is common to all: the capacity to love, care and pray for each other. This insight dawned on me during a stay in one of the villages in my parish.
I was on an exposure for three weeks in one particular village where we have schools catering to Hindu and Christian students. The area is a community of Christian, Hindu and Muslim families. One afternoon I asked Master Michael, one of the teachers in the village, if he could accompany me to visit a Mandar (Hindu temple) being erected near our Christian colony. The Mandar we visited was in the centre of the houses of the Hindu families. Master Michael asked permission from one of the families living there.
One woman approached us and I asked her if I could get a glimpse of what is inside the Mandar. She replied, “Brother, this is the house of God. You are very welcome to come in.” Then she opened the door and I saw many pictures of their gods and goddesses. Then I asked her, “Do you have any statues inside, Auntie?” She replied, “We don’t have those because ours is a poor community. However, what is important is our faith in God.” I responded, “Indeed that is very important.”
After that encounter a man came and invited us into his house. I found out that he was the father of one of the kindergarten students whom I and Master Michael were teaching. The man offered us cold drinks and asked us to sit on a bed.
He asked me if I was married. He was very much surprised when I replied, “No, Janab” (Sir). He then said, “So, what will happen to you? No one will take care of you!” In my limited Urdu, I explained that being unmarried is part of our life as missionary priests in the Catholic Church.
His response was, “You know, brother Ji, even though you are not a Hindu or a Parkari, you are very much welcome to visit here in our community. We are family here and I always pray to Bagwaan (God) that you will be protected.” I replied, “Thank you so much, Janab. You are in my prayers, too.” Then we shook hands.
While walking back to the school where I was staying, Master Michael told me that the Christians and Hindus live together harmoniously. I told him that I was happy that, for the first time in my life, I met a Hindu, who, not only accepted and treated me like part of the family but also prayed for me. It was a moving experience for me knowing that I am loved and prayed for, not only by fellow Catholics, but also by people of other religions.
I had another memorable encounter with a Muslim man. In that same village one evening, the children invited me to go to a farm owned by a Muslim landlord. I helped out weeding and planting onions. I had a great time laughing and sharing stories with the people.
As I passed by the store on my way home, the Christian storekeeper offered me cold water and invited me to come in. As I sat outside the store, a man approached me and said “As-salamu alay-kum” (peace be with you) to which I replied, “wa-alay-kum as-salam” (and peace with you). I knew that he was a Muslim by his greeting. He said, “I heard from the people that there was a guest in our community so I came to visit you.” I was surprised to hear that, especially coming from someone I did not know.
I responded, “Thank you, Janab” with a big smile on my face.
Afterwards, we had a conversation about our families. He asked how many siblings I had. I learned that he was married and had five children. He said, “I saw you in my farm today working together with the children. At first, I was surprised to see a Chinese man working in my field and I wondered who this man was. Then, I realized that you are the guest that the people are talking about”. I said, “Yes, that’s me. But I am not Chinese!” He jokingly said, “Please, Brother Ji, don’t work in my field again. I cannot afford to pay you. Besides, you are a guest here.” As we conversed, I felt that we were the same, just two people talking and laughing without thinking that we are of different race and religion.
As I reflected on my experience, I learned that every person is capable of loving and relating with others, no matter what religion or culture they belong to. For me, the first step is to reach out with respect to people of different religions, bearing in mind that they are just like me, capable of loving, caring and respecting others. As a missionary involved in inter-religious dialogue I feel that the main ingredient of dialogue is love. As St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta once said, “Every act of love is a work of peace, no matter how small.”.
Elbert Balbastro is a Columban seminarian from the Philippines and is on his First Mission Assignment in Pakistan.