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Joyful servants of the poor

Missionaries from the dumpsites of the Philippines have visited Queensland to promote awareness of their work, MATT EMERICK spoke to them about the mission

THREE pioneering missionaries from the Philippines have become the first members of their religious order to set foot on Australian soil.

The three Missionaries of the Poor, based in Naga City, visited Brisbane, Toowoomba and Townsville dioceses to promote awareness of their order’s work and their new mission in Indonesia.

Fr Kulandairaj Ambrose, Br Jose Deleon and Br Rogelio Funtanares made the journey in October.

The Missionaries of the Poor (MOP), who have their headquarters in Kingston, Jamaica, are an international monastic order of brothers dedicated to the “forgotten people” of society, the poor, the destitute, the lame and the crippled.

Bishop Michael Putney of Townsville invited the missionaries to Queensland after he visited their Naga City Mission last year.

They were hosted in Brisbane by MOP supporters Trevor and Tina Lambkin, and their flights to Australia were provided by benefactors of the order.

“The trip has gone beyond our expectations,” Fr Ambrose, the regional superior of MOP in the Philippines and Indonesia, said.

“We’ve found the people here to be very warm, it’s our first time in Australia, the first ever Missionaries of the Poor coming to Australia.

“We were a little bit unsure of what to expect and what the reception would be.

“It has been a very pleasant trip so far, we have found everyone very warm and receptive.”

But the missionaries were surprised by the lack of poverty that could be seen on the streets.

“The city of Brisbane is organised, clean, people follow rules, we have not seen any poverty here so far,” Fr Ambrose said.

“There’s no-one begging on the streets, no street children, unless we haven’t been taken to those parts.
“It’s a big difference.

“For us it’s part and parcel of daily life – street children, poor people, the homeless.

“Of course with our missionary apostolate which is situated right in the midst of squatters, people who live in extreme poverty, that’s our daily way of life.

“There’s a big difference. As I said we may be wrong, but we don’t see any poverty as such (on the streets in Brisbane).

“But it also shows how the Australian people and perhaps even the state takes care of its people who are in need.”

Fr Ambrose said he and the brothers had been welcomed by parishioners, school children, priests and religious in Australia.

The missionaries celebrated Masses at Sunnybank parish, attended Faith on Tap, visited Holy Spirit Provincial Seminary, several schools, Holy Spirit Hospital Northside, met with representatives from Strategic Air who’ve helped with flying supplies to the Indonesian mission, and had many other meetings and functions during their three-week stay.

“We have been taken by the generosity of the people especially where we have been in Sunnybank parish …,” Fr Ambrose said.

The MOP, founded by Fr Richard Ho Lung in Jamaica in 1981, had about 10 to 12 brothers during their first years.

Today there are 750 professed brothers and priests, making the MOP one of the fastest growing orders in the world.

The brothers take a fourth vow of free service to the poor, meaning they can earn no money.

Despite the lack of funds, the brothers feed about 30,000 poor people every day and have built monasteries, homes for the homeless, a haven to combat abortion, a centre for lepers, a children’s home for orphans in Uganda, a retreat centre and more across the globe.

The three visiting religious all became missionaries as teenagers.

“We all joined when we were quite young, around 17, so being a missionary has been our life all along,” Fr Ambrose said.

Fr Ambrose was born in India, then moved to Jamaica after finishing high school, to join the MOP.

“The last five years I have been working in the Philippines,” he said.

“In the Philippines we started our mission there in a place called Naga City, which is one of the poorest regions of the country, because we are right on the path of the typhoons every year.

“We also started a community in Cebu, and just last month we started a mission in Manila.

“We have three missions in the Philippines and last year we opened a mission in Indonesia at a place called Labuan Bajo on Flores Island.

“There is no local support in the area because the people are so very poor and in need.

“Our charism is ‘to the least of our brothers and sisters’.

“As such we really help those who have no families, or whose families are extremely poor and cannot help themselves and there are many of them in these situations in many countries.

“There are a lot of agencies and organisations that cater to those who can help themselves and that’s good, but there are so many who are just abandoned because they cannot help themselves, like special children, people with multiple disabilities, the elderly.

“In countries who don’t have state welfare they are just left on their own and often then everybody forgets them and they just die and so this is our mission to the least of our brothers and sisters.

“We do this hopefully with joy. That’s our motto, to give joyful service, and in a way it’s really the other way around, the more you serve, the more joy you have.”

Fr Ambrose said, like every other religious they took three vows – poverty, chastity and obedience – plus the special vow of free service to the least, meaning that they did not charge for any services.

“The vow of free service is a great challenge because you are really putting yourself out there,” he said.

“We rely on God, divine providence, and on people’s kindness.”

Br Jose is in charge of the apostolate centre in Naga City with 140 homeless people, with the elderly and children with disabilities.

“Most of the people are abandoned by their own families,” he said.

“Every day we take care of them, we give them proper clothing, their basic needs and of course interaction with them making them feel loved by God through the brothers.”

Fr Ambrose said many sad stories were experienced when they helped people who had been abandoned and forgotten by their families.

“Mothers abandoning their children on the dumpsite, leaving them at the doorstep of a Church and disappearing … but when we work with them and take them as our own you really find there is rich exchange of God’s presence,” Fr Ambrose said.

“We don’t do it self-consciously every day … but it becomes a natural exchange of Christ. They give Jesus to you and you give Jesus to them.

“There is a richness of God’s presence. That’s why I always remember what (US Franciscan priest and author) Fr Benedict Groeschel said when he visited our centres in Jamaica a few years ago he said ‘I really feel today that I’ve entered the kingdom of God’.

“For this man, who is such a holy man, to say that was very humbling.

“But I think he said it because he felt there is a richness of God’s presence.

“You really can’t help but come away with a richness and a joy when you’re serving the poorest of people, those who otherwise would have been totally forgotten … they would die and nobody would even know.”


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