An Encounter of the Hidden Treasure in the Field

Sr Winnie with friends at the rehabilitation center - Photo: Sr. Ashwena ApaoSr Winnie with friends at the rehabilitation center - Photo: Sr. Ashwena Apao

"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."

“Life is a series of beautiful encounters.” My encounter began when I was born and baptized; I received the gift of the Holy Spirit and lived out my calling in this religious missionary life. “You did not choose me, I chose you,” (Jn 15:16), was my assurance to accept and believe that this is my vocation, my mission and my life.

The encounters started when my missionary journey began.  Myanmar was my first mission assignment. I was one of the five Columban Sisters who returned to Myanmar in 2003 after our congregation, together with the missionaries from other congregations, were expelled by the Burmese government, 40 years earlier. I was happy and excited to return to Myitkyina Diocese, Kachin State. Experiencing the culture of hospitality and friendship with the people overcame the overwhelming feelings of fear.

I was assigned to accompany young people who were poor because of a militarized government. There were few opportunities for education, employment, leadership, human development and faith formation. I was there to give their lives direction. 

Through poverty of spirit, we can no longer separate ourselves from people who are broken; we learn to 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.

I began visiting youths in different villages, listening to their stories and building relationships with them. With God’s providence, I was able to develop a faith-based formation program that motivated  young people to understand their own value and dignity and to give them a purpose in life. With this program, the youth were encouraged to explore their potentials, their gifts and talents. Slowly, they began to be empowered and transformed. They were moved with a sense of confidence and freedom knowing that they could make a difference in their country. One of them said, “Sister, if only all the youth can experience what we experience here at the center, I think we can change our country.”

After many years of mission in Myanmar, I was given the opportunity to study and incorporate my missionary experiences in a new theological perspective; and acquire a deeper understanding of human behaviour.  After completing my studies and was assigned to run a church-based drug rehabilitation center in Myitkyina. In 2011, civil war broke out again and many people were displaced and separated from their loved ones. The violence caused resulted in many young people and adults acting out their fears and traumas.  Drug use and other forms of bad behaviour mounted and many were infected with HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis, Tuberculosis, and other diseases.

Sr Winnie (standing: center in dark printed blouse) with Kachin friends - Photo: Sr. Ashwena Apao Sr Winnie (standing: center in dark printed blouse) with Kachin friends - Photo: Sr. Ashwena Apao

One of the treatment goals in our rehabilitation center is empowering the clients to claim back their 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 themself and put a price to it. Agustine shared, “I am worth only 500 kyats (US$.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.” I was sad to hear his story. After the session, I spent time with him and listened to him more. I shared with him about the compassionate God who loves us in spite of our sins and shortcomings. After attending more sessions, Agustine started to find God and new hope. He began to help others to change their lives for the better as well.

With a lack of therapists in our center, I introduced Animal and Garden Assisted Therapy. Studies have shown that animals and plants can bring therapeutic results to many patients. We began raising livestock that produced income and food for the center. Agustine and Martin (not their real names) worked together in taking care of the animals and in taught others to do the same. They are two of the center’s success stories and both said that animal therapy has helped them focus on the present because they now have something beneficial to focus on.

Agustine and Martin have become responsible adults, articulate and happy, hopeful that in the future they might be able to run their own farm. We established a vegetable garden that produced fresh 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 that I am working, feeding others and giving life to the center by 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 broken; we learn to 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.

Columban Sr. Ashwena Apao (Winnie)  is from Jimenez, Misamis Occidental. 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.

Columban Sr. Ashwena Apao (Winnie) - Photo: Sr. Ashwena Apao
Columban Sr. Ashwena Apao (Winnie) - Photo: Sr. Ashwena Apao