Migrant ministry during a pandemic

Fr Gonzalo with migrant workers. Photos: Fr Gonzalo German Borquez Diaz SSC

Fr Gonzalo with migrant workers. Photos: Fr Gonzalo German Borquez Diaz SSC

Every year thousands of people around the globe are forced to leave their family, friends, homes and dreams behind in search of a better life somewhere else in the world. I am a Chilean Columban and was involved with young people at a university in the city of Mokpo, when I received a phone call from a number I did not recognise.

I thought it might be a call centre offering me something I did not need, so I did not answer. However, another call came from the same number about an hour later. I did not answer for a second time. When it came a third time, I did answer it, intending to tell the caller I was not interested in what they were selling. But I got a big surprise.

The caller introduced himself as a priest from Gwangju called Fr Anselmo. He was working with migrants. He asked me if I would be willing to help him in his parish on Sundays, because he was struggling to communicate with the community of migrants. Though he could read English, his parishioners could not understand him when he spoke.

Members of the migrant community in Suncheon, South Korea  welcome Fr Gonzalo to a small home gathering.

Members of the migrant community in Suncheon, South Korea welcome Fr Gonzalo to a small home gathering. Photos: Fr Gonzalo German Borquez Diaz SSC

I told him I would help him out. It was the start of something new for me. The following Sunday I went along to the Catholic Migrant Centre to celebrate the Mass in English. I was shocked at the number of different nationalities there. This was how I started in the migrant ministry. I really embraced this new calling and asked the Columbans to appoint me to this ministry in Suncheon.
No Columban priest has served here for 60 years.

In the beginning, before the COVID-19 pandemic, I visited people that had come to South Korea from Vietnam and helped them with challenges like having their medical needs seen to. I was doing this with a Korean sister. In one case, we helped a Vietnamese woman expecting a child to get the medical attention she needed. Migrants are often extremely poor. Their working conditions and lack of rights leave them vulnerable. If they end up in hospital, they can lose their job, because their employer does not want any problems with the migration office.

Part of my ministry is celebrating Mass and preparing the children of migrants for the sacraments. Most of them are from the Philippines, others Vietnam and East Timor. A few are from the United States, Britain, Ireland, Eastern Europe and South Africa.

Sadly, due to COVID-19, my ministry was interrupted in a way I could never have anticipated and so I had to rethink how I could reach out to this diverse community. I could not go to the hospital anymore, nor celebrate public Masses. However, at a certain point, it became possible to meet in small groups to share biblical reflections, listen to people’s problems and share their worries.

I have come to the realisation that our lifestyle is not going to return to the way it was, and we, as a Church, need to understand that and move with the times. It is true that our faith is based on the Eucharist and the real presence of Christ, but in order to make this more tangible when churches are closed, we have to seek out that presence.

I believe the Spirit is pushing us to go to the peripheries, not only the physical peripheries but also the existential ones. We must follow the example of Christ, who spent most of his time on the peripheries. I believe that by being with people, sharing their food, listening and sharing God´s gospel with them, we are celebrating the presence of Jesus in people’s daily lives.

So when we celebrate the Eucharist in our churches, Jesus is not only present in the sacrament, but also in life, love, compassion, mercy, understanding and patience.

Columban Fr Gonzalo German Borquez Diaz is living and working in Korea. 

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