First missionary experience
Andrei Paz, a Columban seminarian spent two years in Wuhan, China.
In the course of our training and education, all Columban seminarians participate in a First Missionary Assignment. I set off for Wuhan, China, with two other FMA students, Alito de los Santos and Tae-Moon Kwon from the Philippines and Korea respectively.
Wuhan is a booming city in central China. After our arrival, we found that in China, parents must be residents of the city in order for their children to be registered in a regular school within the city. Otherwise, if someone is not officially a resident of the city but just lives and works there, the children must go to poor private schools which are poorer than the city schools.
In Wuhan, one of our weekly ministries was teaching English in a private middle school that caters to the children of internal migrant workers, that is, workers from outside the city. All the students come from poor, working families. All are from villages quite far away from Wuhan. When their parents come to the city, they work as janitors, factory workers, taxi drivers and at other blue-collar jobs. They are not official residents of the city of Wuhan.
We were introduced to this school by a Catholic Sister whose community was founded by Bishop Edward Galvin, the Co-founder of St Columban’s Mission Society. The Hanyang Cathedral, where the Sisters live, is not far from the school. I liked the idea of teaching at the private school because the school served those who are marginalized within Chinese society. The migrants and their children do not have many opportunities within the wider society.
When we presented ourselves, we were hired immediately as the principal/owner of the school was happy to have foreigners teach in his school for free.
Tuition fees at the school are minimal in order to make it affordable to the migrant community. Therefore, teachers’ salaries are meagre as well. The low wages cannot compete with the better paying city schools so private schools don’t attract many well-trained teachers. Simply stated, the schools do the best they can with what they have, which
is not much.
In fact, the principal told us that during the previous year only two students from a class of approximately 20 students were able to go to college. Furthermore, he said that most of the students at the school would end up working as helpers in small restaurants or as factory workers rather than pursuing additional education.
Our eyes were opened
Working and doing ministry in China for my FMA has been a wonderful experience. It opened my eyes to numerous and various forms of ministry. Since missionaries are not allowed to engage in public pastoral work in China, we had to assess and initiate things independently, or with the help of friends, in looking for pastoral placements. And that’s what we did when we applied to teach English at the private school.
Working there opened our eyes to the “other side” of China’s economic success. While many Chinese people are enjoying financial wealth, our students and their families are not. In some families, the parents work all week and are home only on weekends. For some students whose parents are gone during the work week, living with grandparents is an option. Those without grandparents must live alone.
Marginalised in society
My students are marginalized in Chinese society. They are not welcome in regular schools. Their opportunities are curtailed by the poverty in which they live. When I saw their situation, what came to mind were the opening lines of the Vatican II document, Gaudium et Spes, which say that “the joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men and women of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ” (GS #1).
Being a follower of Christ, I thought that I could contribute something to the students there. When I was allowed to teach in the private school, I really prepared well for my classes. I wanted the students to learn English so that they would be able to continue studying even after high school, as knowledge of the English language is required for college.
Being with them
Working at the school is not just about teaching English to the students. It is also about being with them and listening to their stories, what makes them happy and sad, their fears and hopes for the future. Even if some of the students are not interested in the class, their stories and the opportunity to be with them are reason enough for me to keep going back each week.
Andrei O. Paz returned to the Philippines where he was ordained to the priesthood in 2009.