A mission that needs many helping hands

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The international pilgrimage-congress on Our Mother of Perpetual Help was an occasion for me to learn more about the National Shrine of Our Mother of Perpetual Help in Baclaran, metro-Manila in the Philippines.  I wanted to learn how this church, which attracts hundreds of thousands of people every year coming to pay homage to Mother Mary, serves as a platform for social change. While speaking with a fellow Redemptorist, he told me about the great work being done by the OSR sisters (Oblatas del Santissimo Redentor) among women involved in prostitution. The priest arranged a meeting with them, at which I met Sisters Nancy, Susy and Gau.  We spoke at length about the disheartening reality of prostitution, drugs, child abuse and violence against women that the sisters encounter in their everyday life as part of their mission.

OSR (Oblatas del santissimo redentor) Oblate Sisters of the Most Holy Redeemer

The Oblate Sisters of the Most Holy Redeemer is a Catholic religious congregation founded in Ciempozuelos, Madrid, Spain on June 1, 1864 by Bishop Jose Maria Benito Serra, OSB and Antonia de Oviedo Schonthal, OSR for the evangelization and integral human development of marginalized and exploited women.

In the middle of the 19th century, Spain was in extreme political turmoil with profound social changes. The economy suffered severely with poverty affecting the less fortunate of the social classes. The economic situation of the country forced some people to migrate to the big cities.  At that time, it was not unusual for the young girls who were alone and without work to engage in prostitution for a living.

Today, the congregation has branched out to 15 countries carrying out its mission of liberating the women in situations of prostitution and violence.  Presently they have four communities in the Philippines (Tagaytay, Pasay, Paranaque, Cebu).

The Baclaran reality…

Over the years when the Shrine of Baclaran became very popular and when pilgrims flocked in great numbers the Redemptorists kept the church open  24 hours a day.  They noticed that many women who are engaged in prostitution also were visiting the shrine during the early hours of the day, especially on Wednesdays. They studied the situation and invited the OSR sisters to come to the church and consider the possibility of helping these women. The sisters came in May 2014 and studied the situation extensively They decided to accept the Redemptorist’s invitation and began their ministry at the Baclaran Shrine by December 2014. Marivic Listana, the social worker at the Shrine introduced the sisters to some of the women and the Sisters enthusiastically carried on.

During the first two months, the sisters merely watched and learned the profound reality of the situation.  Then they heard the Lord telling them it was time to get moving!  One day a group of women who worked in a bar in the city of Makati came to the Shrine.  The sisters met them during their visit and both groups found each other very approachable.  This was the beginning! Little by little, the sisters began to get to know them.  They began talking with them and more importantly listening to them.

On Tuesdays and Saturdays, the sisters come to the Shrine.  They spend the night there getting up the following day as early as 2 O’clock in the morning.  They go out at this early hour in search of these women to extend a helping hand and an open heart.  The Sisters’ flock ranges in age from 18 to 43 years. They come to light some candles before the image of Our Mother of Perpetual Help and pray in the church. Some of them spend time around the statue of St. Therese of Lisieux which is located on the Church grounds. Many speak the Bisaya/Cebuano dialect. Initially, they are hesitant to open up. But eventually, they speak about their lives, the situation in the bar, their family, etc. The sisters give them snacks, drinks and with their permission register their names for files.  For the most part, poverty and lack of education prevent them from getting a job and so are almost forced to end up in prostitution.  Child prostitution is also rampant in Manila and Cebu.  Sometimes they are living with someone and their ‘partner’ forces them to earn ‘rent’ money and so they turn to prostitution. Many of the women come from Bisayas islands, Dvavo, or Mindanao.Their “customers” who come to the bar are mostly foreigners. In many of the bars, the women are paid 150 pesos (about $3 or £2.3 per night.  However, if a “customer” chooses them they may earn as much as 3000 pesos depending on the situation and rules of the bar.

Some of the women are into alcoholism and drugs. They say at times they need those to endure the nights. They do so to overcome the deep shame and guilt they feel since most of them are born and brought up in a catholic environment. One woman recounted that she drinks as much as five bottles of wine to endure the nights.  When the police stage a raid on them, they need to avoid being caught at all cost.  The police arrest them and at times take them and rape them inside the jail.

They also face danger from their “customers”.  They are often treated very cruelly by their clients and the bar managers will not step in to help or defend them.  Some of the bars are run by foreigners. They marry a Philippine woman and usually it is the wife who manages the bars. There are no social security benefits nor proper medical services made available to the women. Recently one woman who was affected by tuberculosis came to the sisters and the Redemptorists helped her get the needed treatment for her disease.

Mostly what they need and hunger for is someone to talk to. They also desperately want to go to confession. When they open up to the sisters or social workers, they just cry in helplessness.

The Social Mission by the Shrine

The OSR sisters and the social workers encourage the women to come to take part in a ‘follow up’ program which meets every Wednesday. They are helped to become aware of the reality of their life situation and are motivated to escape to a new and fuller experience of life. Various kinds of training programs are offered by the Shrine to help these women gain the skills necessary to escape their lives of slavery to prostitution. Training is given primarily in the areas of housekeeping, culinary arts, beauty care, and the food and beverage service industry. This training program is also known as ALS (Alternate Running System). Some are given scholarships to go to the college, and even in some cases, their children are also given scholarships to attend school. Every month there is a meeting for these women that is especially aimed to give value formation, spiritual enrichment, skills for life and lessons on reproductive health. Within the last two years, they were able to save at least 10 women from prostitution and helped them to find a livelihood from other jobs.

Sr. Gau, a registered social worker, spends a good portion of her time providing counselling to the women. Azeneth Cuentas, a lay social worker, is on duty at the Shrine, 5 days in a week, from 9 am to 5 pm. The limited financial resources available from the Shrine for this ministry are primarily spent for the home visits, transportation, food, monthly activities, recreation, visits to the bars where the women work,  and also for medical as well as legal assistance. The sisters help them enrol in the social security system.  According to Sr. Nancy, although the majority of the ladies do not want to continue this way of life, there are some who find this kind of life an easy road to easy money. The sisters also accompany homosexuals of which some engage in prostitution while others only take part in the activities of the bar such as concerts, dancing and other entertainment.

Francis Toby Regala a Social Worker who works for the Crisis Intervention centre, sponsored by the Redemptorists, is also part of this mission to help the women in prostitution.  Basically, he assists in the area of crisis intervention. They are individuals, families or groups, who are in serious distress and come to the Shrine to pray. “After seeing them and getting to know more about their situation, they are invited to the various social mission programs so that they can be helped to adequately respond to their crisis, says Toby. When he encounters women in prostitution he refers them to the women centre of the Shrine. Mr Francis Toby works five days a week on the premises of the shrine. He also encounters LGBT groups, mendicants and elderly beggars.

Francis Toby Regala a Social Worker who works for the Crisis Intervention centre

A personal experience

After visiting and talking with the sisters, they invited me to accompany them to meet the women and talk to them so that I might better understand their struggle. I got up at 2.30 am and sat along with the sisters where they have a usual place to encounter these women. I met no less than 20 lovely young women who came in to pray before the Icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help before they returned home.  They were hesitant to open up to me, though they said that they are privileged to meet a priest who is concerned about them.  In the evening of that same day, I went with the sisters to a bar in the neighbouring city of Baclaran. Sr. Nancy had already telephoned a woman who had been working for almost 20 years in the same bar and so it was easy for us to get in and meet some of the women. It looked like a nightclub with a lot of singing and dancing. The women Sr. Nancy and Sr. Gau knew came to greet them and they introduced me to them.  It was easy to sense the trauma these women faced as soon as I looked around and started to understand how the bar scene functions.

Sr. Susy, Sr. Nancy and Sr. Gau with two women who came to the shrine

The women were touched deeply by the visit of a priest. One woman said to me “Father, I know that I am not doing the right thing. Please forgive me. I want to make a confession since I have not made one since last so many  years, but I am unable to talk to you here in the bar.” Then she began to cry. I just held her hand and I told her not to worry, that I am not there to judge anyone.  Noticing that my presence and words had touched this girl’s heart deeply, Sr. Gau persuaded another woman to come and talk to me.  She began trembling and said almost the same words of the previous woman. She a beautiful girl of just 19 years old. I assured her that God loves her unconditionally and that there would come a day when she would no longer have to be in a place like that bar.  Slowly she began to open up. Suddenly she hugged me tight and began crying while the others were watching. I held her close to my heart and I told her she is not a bad person. It took some time to control her sobs, and I was feeling a deep pain within myself for her.

There was little else I could do to help them since I would be returning to Rome the following day. Around midnight, when they gathered around to say goodbye to us, I said to them “I am your brother and I will pray for you.” Each one of them came forward to hug me, and I felt that they are like my own family suffering from the sickness of poverty and corruption. Their helplessness wounded my heart deeply and the tears of the little girl wounded my conscience to the point of barely being able to sleep that night.  I saw the wounded and suffering Christ in them!

Biju Madathikunnel, CSsR

(If anyone likes to reach to this mission of the OSR Sisters in Baclaran, please contact Sr. Gau Pausal: Mobile +63 921 488 3696, Email: gaupausal68@gmail.com)