Sunday, December 19, 2010

Where advent means waiting with joy

THEY come from different walks of life and circumstances—each with a special life story to tell. Somewhere, sometime, at a certain point in their lives, they had reached what looked like the end of the road. For most of them, there was no one and nothing left except a last painful stretch of a life that had yet to be spent.

To whom will they go while they wait?

The residents of Anawim, Home of God’s Poor, have indeed found a place at last. Here, in the sunset of their lives, they wait for the final call to the great beyond. For these elderly and poor—materially and otherwise—everyday is Advent, a beginning.

Anawim is Hebrew for “the poor of the Lord,” often mentioned in the Bible.
Advent, the opening season in the Catholic liturgical calendar, means a time of expectant waiting and preparation for the celebration of the birth of Christ, or Christmas. But not many people, the elderly poor especially, have the privilege of waiting with joy and peace in their hearts. And in a special place at that.
Nestled on a sprawling five-hectare property in Barangay (village) San Isidro in the outskirts of Montalban (Rodriguez), Rizal, the Anawim home is run by the Anawim Lay Missions (ALMS) Foundation Inc., the “mercy mission” of the Light of Jesus (LOJ) Community. LOJ is a Catholic charismatic group founded by lay Catholic preacher and author Bo Sanchez.

Marisa Chikiamco, LOJ missionary and former center directress, recalls how in 1993 the LOJ community acquired this property on hilly terrain. Sanchez simply stated the home’s vision: “Anawim will open its doors to whoever God will send.”

Many have since entered its portals. When the Inquirer visited in 2004, there was Fred Sevilla, a former University of the Philippines professor and author of a book on Philippine literature. He was badly paralyzed by a stroke and had no one to care for him. He has since gone to his eternal reward.

The Inquirer again visited recently and found Judith Jobahib, who has Down’s Syndrome and is now 54, still there. Her elderly restless father has, however, left for parts unknown. Background story: Judith’s father Jose was about to jump with Judith from the Quiapo bridge when someone stopped them.

Jomar Brillantes, now 31, was a badly battered and scarred mental retardate who literally lived in the gutters and off scraps thrown to him.

Ricardo Ponce, 86, is still there. Feeling rejected by his children because they claimed he was not there for them when they were young, Ricardo protests: “But I never stopped sending money.” He is the old man being embraced by Jesus in the now-familiar painting by the late Joey Velasco. He is the man on the Anawim welcome tarp.

Born in 1920, Rosario Liberato was a teacher of English at a Manila university for more than 50 years. The 11th of 13 children, Lola Chayong was born in Jolo, Sulu where her father was assigned. “We were orphaned early,” she says. She tried to join a contemplative order of nuns but stayed for only three months. She never married. “My students called me mataray (sharp-tongued) but many thought I was witty,” she says laughing. “I used to read a lot without eyeglasses. I could finish one novel a day.” Her favorite author: Zane Grey.

Lola Chayong retired from teaching in 1995 and continued to live alone until she told “Father God, I can’t do this anymore.” Friends brought her to Anawim.

As colorful as her choice of attire must have been, so must be the early years of Victoria “Lola Toyang” Cameron Espinosa, 99. In flawless English she says, “I was born on Dec. 23, 1911. Sometimes I would tell a lie and say 1912.” And why? “That would make me younger,” she laughs.

Gliding about in her wheelchair, Lola Toyang is always dressed in colorful clothes and wears a yellow flower in her hair. She carries with her memories of a distant place and a family secret. “My mother told me never to speak of it.” But she reveals it anyway and asks that it not be written about.

“My mother was beautiful,” she says as tears threaten to flow. Her siblings have passed on ahead of her and there is no one to care for her. She never married. Alone and slowly losing her sight because of cataract, Lola Toyang found herself at a dead end. But not anymore. Her parting words of advice, “Do not forget our new government and our new president.”

Anawim has 52 residents—21 male and 31 female—mostly elderly and poor. In their sunset years, some could be living a more comfortable life outside, but their families have refused to care for them or spend for their care, and chose to forget them altogether.

Prayer and social activities are part of Anawim’s daily routine. Visitors come and go, donors turn up and give. LOJ veteran Marisa Chikiamco has countless miracle stories of generosity that have kept Anawim running.The chapel—entirely donated—is proof of this.

Anawim has nine bungalows that serve as dormitories and several bamboo-and-nipa cottages that will soon be replaced by five new concrete bungalows and a social hall. Also within the compound is a burial ground for those who have passed on.

Some 30 or so LOJ workers under center director Carlos “Caloy” Ferdinand Dimson keep Anawim running. Students doing on-the-job training complement the staff. Caloy recently married a doctor who did volunteer work at Anawim. With some help, he is eager to revive the sustainable organic and integrated farming that they started some years ago.

Able-bodied at 68, Lucilyn and her 75-year-old husband Ben Zambrano live in the Anawim compound. They are a picture of peace and contentment. Lucilyn does volunteer work at Anawim while taking care of her husband.

A member of LOJ since the 1980s, Lucilyn worked with a government agency for many years until she was accused of malversation of P1.2 million in public funds. Convicted and jailed for the crime, she insists on her innocence and says that while she suffered in jail, her bosses went scot-free and forgot all about her.

It must have been all in God’s plan, Lucilyn muses now. If only because she was able to bring the LOJ ministry into the Women’s Correctional, it was all worth it. Pardoned after five and a half years in prison, Lucilyn decided to spend the rest of her life with the LOJ ministry and Anawim.

And so they came, some hurting, others pitiably poor in many different ways. They had no one or had been stripped of their possessions and memories, and then abandoned, disowned, forgotten. God’s poor come to Anawim with different life stories. Anawim, to them, is home sweet home. For some who have searched a lifetime, it could be their first. And for most, maybe their last. •