A rare picture of Até Vergie who “hates” to take pictures, seeing herself as not photogenic
Since the beginning of February, I have been living in Navotas, one of the most depressed areas of Metro Manila. I am drawn back to this place because I have a strong sense of God’s presence, with the people. I am blessed to be here among God’s poor.
My first host mother is Até Vergie, a widow with four children. (“Até” means “older sister”). Her house is too small, so we stayed with her older brother and his family. One afternoon, she took much effort to share with me her story. It’s no small feat for one who never had a chance to study beyond the 6th grade. Yet, her command of English makes it possible for her story to touch my heart.
Até Vergie turns 47 this year. Her father died in an accident when she was only one year old, and her brother was two. Her mother soon remarried and had to shift care toward her new family. At twelve, she had to quit school to work as a house servant for 60 pesos a month, an equivalent of $1.30 USD. She eventually married. But her husband suffered from diabetes and kidney failure; and because they did not have money for treatment like dialysis, he died five years ago, leaving her with four children, ranging from 3-19 years old. Since then her difficult life became even harder. Cleaning, cooking, selling, making clothes were her constant work and unceasing worry. The long life of hard labor, exacerbated by intensified anxieties in recent years, took a toll on her health. Two year ago, she was diagnosed with tuberculosis and a bad shoulder. Doctors advised her to lessen her work and worries.
Fortunately, her brother intervened. He invited her and her two youngest children to live with him, to help out around the house to lessen her stress level. Soon after, she joined a prayer-based group, a non-profit organization called PPF (the acronym stands for “Offering of the Heart”). At first, she had great reluctance to share her story or her faith. For one who had to rely on herself for many years in order to survive, “to be open and vulnerable - to let God and others in - is very difficult” she admitted. Gradually, through the help of this group, her heart became “more tender and receptive.” She now looks forward to sharing and learning more about God’s love.
She pointed out a surprising reversal of roles. Whereas before women in her prayer group were the ones who helped her, now she is the one who is God’s instrument to help them. Smiling with her missing teeth, she tells of a joke she uses to console others experiencing hardships. She would respond to one who is financially overstressed, “You have no money, but you still have honey. I have no money and no honey.” After the laugh, she would continue: “It’s not helpful for me to hug my problems. I try to give my problems to God. Then I have no problems, just challenges. Trusting in God’s help, I don’t hug my worries and anxieties as tightly.”
She ended her sharing to me by thanking God. “Everything is gift,” she said. She is thankful for her brother and people in PPF. Two years ago, she could not imagine being open to share her story. There are days when she is even grateful for her hardships. Her eyes became misty with tears at this point. She asked me to pray for her and her children, for her oldest sons to have the means and finish technical school in order to find a decent job. Gratitude and hope flowed into tears.
Hearing her story and being around her for a week, I catch her trusting spirit. One that is quietly contagious. Her story and living witness becomes for me (and others around her) a gateway of grace. As she opened her heart to me, I find myself caught up in a sense of connectedness, of being one. One with my mother, who is also a seamstress and hard-working woman; one with my deceased grandmother, who died after seven years of dialysis; one with several young women I know who are currently overburdened by life’s challenges; one with Jesus, poor and humbled, who offers his gentle yoke in solidarity, as the resting place so we can un-hug our problems (Mt 11:28-30) …
Até Vergie’s story transcends the barriers of language and others of cultural, socio-economic, and personal circumstances. Her sharing not only invites me to engage my own story and connects us in a deep way. It also joins us with the larger narrative of God’s love for each of us, for all of us. It invites us into the communion of love which is God.
Take the risk to share your story, take the time to listen … to be drawn into this communion of love …