Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Three Confident Christian Women

By Fr Neil Collins, SSC
Misyon Vol.8 No. 3 July - August 1995 issue

A couple of years ago, I spent a week in Pakistan, visiting our three Filipina Columban Lay Missionaries: Pilar Tilos, Emma Pabera and Gloria Canama. As the Columban Lay Mission Co-ordinator for Mindanao in the Philippines, the experience was invaluable for me. It has coloured all I’ve said and done since. 

First Impression 
My first impression of Lahore, where Emma and Pilar worked, was formed in a night drive through streets packed with cars, buses, weaving motorcycles, bicycles and wagons hauled by oxen or buffaloes. I admired the skill and the coolness of our driver, Fr. Mike Gormly. But I remember even more the driver of a truck who gave us directions, and then followed to make sure we didn't get lost. Such courtesy was one of the constant themes of my visit. 

Filipino Meal
The lay missionaries had prepared a Filipino meal to welcome us. For me, after living in the Philippines for ten years, it was like coming home. 

In the morning I realized I was far from the Philippines. I awoke puzzled by a thump, thump, thump and the sound of children's voices coming from downstairs. It turned out that a game of cricket was being played against the front door. That was another of the constants, cricket in the streets, on every patch of dusty, waste ground, everywhere. At the time the Pakistanis were the world cricket champions every boy seemed to see himself playing on the national team.
Lahore, 1992, Emma with the children in the village
Women Only 
As it was a Sunday, we went to Shadbagh parish where Mass was celebrated. Emma and Pilar went off to speak to friends and organize some meetings. I took off my shoes and went inside. I found a space near the back of the hall which was almost full. Something was bothering me, but is was only when Pilar came to rescue me that I realized that I was sitting on the women's side. When I saw that at least half of the congregation were men and boys, I was impressed.

Only Crawling 
Emma told me she gets letters from home, asking, "What are you doing there? Why aren't you here where the action is?" I think she is tempted at times to agree with the writers. "We're still only crawling," she confessed.

Presence as Main Contribution
I was struck by the reaction of various people to our lay missionaries. One young girl in the family who came to lunch was obviously taken by Emma and her way of acting. Fr. Finbar Maxwell summed it up by saying that the main contribution of the Filipina missionaries may well be, "Presence, as confident Christian women, leaders in their communities, free". Evening brought Pilar and me to another Catholic family for a hot and spicy meal. Pilar had to drink three glasses of water.

Street Sweeper 
Pilar Tilos
Like many of the Christians, the father was a street sweeper, working in the middle of the night. He had a second job also. His wife worked cleaning a house. They managed to have a comfortable home, and the were putting their son through technical school. Half of his school fees are paid by the government.

Pilar told me one story about her friendship with them. One evening when she was eating with them, the boy ordered his older sister to get him a glass of water. Reacting to this example of the male dominant culture, Pilar snapped. "Get it yourself!" For a second everyone froze, then the boy got up and poured his own glass saying, "All right." The girl looked at Pilar as if to say, "If I tried that my parents would have punished me." It's a small example of how a foreign missionary can sometimes do what a local can't do.

Very Hospitable 
The Pakistanis were very hospitable to me as a man. Each time I went to a mosque, someone would approach me, grasp my hand and say,"Welcome to Pakistan." When I went out alone, and becoming confused had to ask for directions, people would go out of their way to guide me. In shops, in a very fine local museum, at the airport, it was always the same, a little initial suspicion, then a handshake, a huge smile and helpfulness.

Look Straight Ahead 
But when Pilar and I shared a horse-drawn buggy with a Muslim family, Pilar had to sit in the middle, with the mother on one side and me safely on the other. "I have to walk like a buffalo," Pilar complained, meaning that a woman could look neither right nor left, in case she caught the eye of a man.

Gloria Canama with Filipino migrants in Pakistan

Pilar, Emma and Gloria 
In the prayer groups that Pilar, Emma nd Gloria organize, they help the women to reflect on their lives and on their faith, so such incidents and the attitudes that underlie them must be discussed. But it's their own example and freedom that is the loudest message.

How About You? 
Since I've come back to Mindanao I have met many possible lay missionaries, men and women, married and single, who wish to go as partners in mission with the Columbans. I carry a packet of photographs from my visit to Pakistan, and I find that they explain what lay mission is all about much more eloquently than I can. Difficult, still crawling, effective - all of these describe the work of our Filipina lay missionaries and, Emma would add, 'very enriching.'

This article first appeared in Misyon Vol.8 No. 3 July - August 1995 issue. Fr. Neil Collins was the Columban Lay Mission Program's Mindanao District Coordinator then. Emma, Pilar and Gloria were the first Filipino Columban Lay Missionaries sent to Pakistan in October 1990. Emma (Candoni, Negros Occ.) completed one term of three years in Pakistan and then joined the Formation Staff of CLM - Philippines from 1994 until her retirement in 2006. Pilar Tilos served in Pakistan for five years before she joined our creator while in mission. Gloria Canama was a Columban Lay Missionary from 1990 until 2013 spending most of her mission work in Pakistan.

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