An Encounter of the Hidden Treasure in the Field
by Sr. Ashwena Apao, SSC
The author is a Columban Sister from Jimenez, Misamis Occidental. Sr. Winnie, as she is known to some, got her name from the fact that she was born on Ash Wednesday. She was assigned to Myanmar for many years and is now back in the Philippines serving in the leadership, accompanying the youth and working with and for those in the margins.
“Life is a series of beautiful encounters.” My encounter began the moment I was born and baptized; I received the gift of the Holy Spirit and lived out my calling in the religious missionary life, leaving my own homeland to be sent to foreign lands. John 15:16, “You did not choose me, I chose you,” assured me to accept and believe that this is my vocation, my mission and my life.
The beautiful encounters began when the journey of my missionary life unfolded. Myanmar was my first mission assignment.I was one of the five sisters who returned to the Myanmar Mission in 2003 after our Sisters, together with the missionaries from other congregations, were expelled by the Burmese government, 40 years earlier. I could never forget how happy and excited I was when our train arrived in Myitkyina, Kachin State. The encounter of the culture of hospitality and friendship with the people overcame the overwhelming feelings of the existing culture at that time – the culture of fear and passivity because of the military government rule.
I was assigned to accompany young people who were led into a false future as a result of poverty and a militarized government. There were very few opportunities for education, employment, leadership, human development and faith formation. Many young people with no direction in life recklessly and prematurely died.
I started visiting the youth in different villages, listening to their stories and building relationships with them. With God’s providence, I was able to develop a formation program that is based in faith – motivating young people to understand their own value and dignity and determine the purpose of their life. With this program, the youth were encouraged to discover their hidden potentials, their gifts and talents from God. Slowly, they were empowered and transformed. They were moved with a sense of confidence and freedom that they could make a difference to their wounded country. One of them said, “Sister, if only all the youth can experience what we experience here in this center, I think we can change our country.”
After ten years of my missionary journey in Myanmar, I got the opportunity to study and integrate my missionary experiences in the new theological perspective; and acquire a deeper understanding of human behavior in its life span and development.
I came back to Myanmar after my studies and was assigned to run a church-based drug rehabilitation center in Myitkyina Diocese, Kachin State. In 2011, a civil war broke out again. Many were displaced from their own homes and separated from their loved ones. This war resulted to people using drugs and turning to other forms of delinquent behavior as a way to cope with their trauma.
The distortion and violence caused by this war resulted to many young people and adults externalizing or acting out their fears and traumas by using drugs and resorting to other forms of delinquent behaviors which can be violent at times. Many of them were also infected with HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis, Tuberculosis, and other diseases.
One of the treatment goals in our rehabilitation center is empowering the clients to claim back their own value and personal dignity. In the group session, I met Agustine (pseudo name). We had an activity asking each one to draw an image of oneself and put a price to it. Agustine shared, “I am worth only 500 kyats (.50 $) because I am nothing, no value and nobody. I have HIV and Hepatitis B. I’m an addict and a sinner. Nobody likes nor loves me anymore.” I was very sad to hear his sharing. After the session, I spent time with him and listened more about his stories. I also shared with him about the compassionate God who loves us in spite of our sins and shortcomings. After attending some more sessions, Agustine started to hope and claim the abounding love of God. Now, he is one of the wounded healers in the rehabilitation center who is helping others to change their lives for the better.
Since we lack therapists in our center, I introduced Animal and Garden Assisted Therapy. As proven by research, animals and plants bring therapeutic results to many patients. Another purpose of raising livestock and produce was to raise income and provide food in the center. Agustine and Martin (not their real names) worked together in taking care of the animals and in teaching other clients how to do the same. They are two of the center’s success stories and both of them said that animal therapy has helped them focus on the here and now because they are now occupied with something to work on, instead of dwelling on the past. Animals-as-therapy is a great step in the rehabilitation process.
They have become responsible, articulate and happy, hopeful that in the future, they might be able to run their own farm as well. “If I’m out and can not come back on time, I get worried about what will happen to my pigs and other animals. I miss them, too…”, as expressed by both of them individually. Martin added, “When the sow pig delivers her piglets, I remember how my mother gave birth to me, too. And I just take for granted the love and care of my mother for me.”
Our vegetable garden bloomed and we were able to enjoy fresh and organic vegetables. Our garden was taken cared of by Reynaldo (also not his real name), a recovering volunteer staff. He said, “Working with plants and animals constitutes a rich, rewarding experience for me and I wish that for everyone as well. I am now focused and I feel connected with creation. I am happy and proud of myself thinking I am working, feeding my other clients, and giving life to the center in this small act.”
My missionary experience in Myanmar is captured in the words of Gaudete et Exsultate: ‘We are all called to be holy by living our lives with love and by bearing witness in everything we do, wherever we find ourselves. Holiness is nothing other than charity lived to the full…we model our whole life on his.’
According to Pope Francis, we have to go out and smell the sheep. Finding the sheep, is like finding the treasure in the field. When we see God in all living things, we are able to revere and respect their presence whoever/whatever they are or wherever they are at. If Christ is the center of our lives especially in our mission, we are able to find the hidden treasures in the field. It is only through the eyes of God that we are able to seek and find the lost. Through poverty of spirit, we can no longer separate ourselves from people who are shattered and broken; we learn to let go of our preoccupation of the self and can now empathize with others in their pain and suffering. Only then are we able to see and appreciate their beauty and worth – to see them as treasures. And with this, we see the Kingdom of Heaven in our midst. It is a glimpse, a taste of heaven, an encounter, but one that lasts.