Sunday, January 16, 2011

An adventure with God in Mynmar

CAREER-WISE, everything was going roses for her: a series of job promotions, a hefty salary and a responsible position in a bank, great challenges to prove herself. There was no stopping her rise in the corporate world.

And then she made a sudden, radical shift to NGO work with all its challenges, lived a simpler lifestyle and made do with less money. Yet, she experienced much more joy. Going from corporate chic to a back-pack life, as she called it, the possibilities also seemed endless.
Carol Daria is a Catholic lay missionary who has been working among the youth in Myanmar for almost five years and with Fondacio-Asia, the spiritual community to which she belongs, for some 20 years. An accounting and industrial relations graduate, Carol continues to be amazed at the mysterious ways she had been led to where she is now.
Fondacio is an international Christian community, “a school of the Gospel, at the service of the world.” It has a status of “private association of the faithful” and is listed in the Vatican directory under new communities and movements.

Present in 20 countries, Fondacio gathers and animates people from different sectors of society – youth, students, professionals, poor, elderly, married couples and families. It is involved in works of evangelization, formation and development. (Visit

This is how Carol describes her missionary work in Myanmar: “The mission that was entrusted to me is to help the Church form young people to become leaders at the service of the Church and society. Today, I am responsible for the formation program for the youth.”

Carol also does consultancy work for some international business corporations.

“I feel young when I am with the youth,” Carol reflects. “I am happy to see how they have been transformed. I feel them blooming in the space and freedom that we are giving them. We awaken the aspirations in their hearts. This gives me hope in a land where dreaming has been forgotten.”

Myanmar is hardly the place to which a Catholic or Christian missionary will rush to go. Myanmar (pop. approx. 55 million and composed of seven major tribal groups) could be considered the most restrictive country in Southeast Asia. It is one of the 10 member-nations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

A former British colony called Burma, Myanmar has a mainly Buddhist population and is ruled by a military junta. Myanmar’s long-detained and recently released democracy icon and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi continues to be an inspiration to her people and freedom advocates all over the world.

Carol was recently in the Philippines to be with her family during the Christmas holidays and to touch base with her fellow Fondacio members at the Institute of Formation-Fondacio Asia (IFFA), which runs a formation program for the youth from different Asian countries. IFFA has been in operation since 2005, with Carol among the founders.

IFFA was barely on its feet when Carol was suddenly sent to Myanmar. “It was very painful,” Carol recalls. She had been in Myanmar for immersion in 2004 but she did not imagine Myanmar would be her home for many years. “Imagine a mother who, after giving birth, would have to give up and leave her baby.” But that is all water under the bridge.

Carol now calls Myanmar her home. She has travelled around the country and has reached even the most remote borders. She continues to learn the main language (bama or Burmese), eats local food and could be mistaken for a native. She lives in an apartment in Yangon (the capital city) and has the full support of Archbishop Charles Bo. The Fondacio, she says, enjoys the recognition of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Myanmar.

“I have no cell phone, TV and Internet connection,” Carol says. This is not a lifestyle choice. Such amenities are simply not common there. So how does she relax? “I feel relaxed when I am with the youth,” she smiles. Being an officer of the Filipino Association in Myanmar, Carol is in touch with the Filipino community and with Philippine embassy personnel, particularly Amb. Hellen Barber.

Were there times when she was afraid?

The massive demonstration of the monks in 2007 were tense moments, she answers. “Cyclone Nargis that hit Myanmar on May 2, 2008 was another.” Carol describes her cyclone experience in a reflection piece with pictures of the devastation.

“I learned that international media aired very little information about us until the evening of May 5. I felt we were abandoned and I thought, are we going to die without the world knowing what happened to us?”

As a student, Carol had entertained thoughts of joining a religious order. “And not just any order,” she laughs, “but a cloistered, contemplative order.” After graduating from the Philippine School of Business Administration, she attended search-ins and retreats. She continued her search even while working in a big bank. She had already met Fondacio at that time and was living its tenets and “four points of covenant,” but she didn’t know in what direction her life was going.

One day she tagged along with a friend to apply at the Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement (PRRM), a big NGO by national standards. “I had no experience in community organizing,” Carol says. But her corporate experience must have served her in good stead and she was taken in.

The change was abrupt. “My salary was one-fourth of what I used to get at the bank. Suddenly I was a backpacker, going around the country. I was the credit specialist of the savings and credit program.” Carol associated with people at the grassroots and listened to their needs.

After a few years, Carol decided to move on and joined friends in setting up a consultancy group that would help organizations. She felt the restlessness again creeping in. A brief romantic relationship was not the answer. When the subject of marriage came up, she said, `Oh no, I still have so many things to accomplish.’” That was the end of it. Off she went to pursue a master’s degree in industrial relations at the University of the Philippines.

Already a full-fledged Fondacio member at the time, Carol wanted to deepen her knowledge and the practice of her faith. “World Youth Day 2000 in Rome was a turning point for me. I was praying at St. Peter’s when something happened. I felt God’s call. I felt disturbed. I knew I had to discern and prepare myself for something. I was 29 years old.”

For deepening, Carol went to the Institute of Formation-Fondacio Europe in Angers, France. She took up theology and pastoral ministry at the Catholic University of Angers. She and other Fondacio students stayed at the motherhouse of the Religious of the Good Shepherd. After France, Carol went to Africa for her practicum.

Upon coming home to the Philippines, Carol became closely involved in setting up the Institute of Formation-Fondacio Asia (IFFA). “Fondacio spirituality in an Asean context” was to be the defining mark of the formation program.

And then the big letting go: she would not be there for IFFA’s becoming because she was being sent or called to Myanmar. The pain was made more intense by her father’s illness and her concern that he would die while she was away. That this should not happen was the one promise she asked God to fulfill. And He did.

It was while Carol was briefly in the Philippines to finish her Ignatian course at the Ateneo that God took her father. Grieving a loss but seeing her “baby” (IFFA) coming to life without her, Carol became even more despondent.

She writes: “A few days after the death of my father I felt the struggle. I thought, I helped in giving birth to this school, why do I need to go to Myanmar? A priest friend who was standing beside me at that time asked, ‘Do you understand the mystery of Jesus?’ He looked toward the celebration and said, ‘Go there. It is the only way to understand the passion of Jesus, go through the pain up to the end.’ I was dying at that moment and I understood what it meant to die.”

Carol now looks back and asks, “What does it mean to take up our cross? It is to renounce the things which we believe to be very important in our lives. It was only after going through the pains of fully letting go of the things important to me that I experienced the resurrection. I felt renewed and ready to again have an adventure with my God. After embracing the newness, I experienced a fruitful life in my mission in Myanmar.”

Indeed, Carol’s ongoing mission work in the place she describes as “a pure country” is not just any adventure. It is, for her, an adventure with God in “a land where dreaming has been forgotten.” •