“GOD’S embrace” has made all the difference in Percy Pamo Lawrence’s life but, at 54, she still finds herself yearning for her mother’s hug.
That’s something she missed so badly as a child when her mother Rosa left the family in the Philippines to search for work in London.
Percy’s family was one of thousands struggling to make a go of life in the slums of Manila in the 1970s, and Rosa decided the best she could do was to go abroad to find work and send money home so her late husband Basil, their two daughters and the nephew they had adopted could have a better life.
Percy, who has worked for Brisbane archdiocese for 25 years and is part of the Evangelisation Brisbane team, remembers clearly what it was like when her mother left.
She told the story in a Lenten reflection for Evangelisation Brisbane this year.
“I was 11 years old … I remember crying myself to sleep because I was terribly missing my mother,” she said.
“She had left earlier that night for London where she found work as a domestic helper …
“I remember waving at an airplane as it took off earlier that night.
“My mother told me she would come back. To an 11-year-old that meant the next day.
“Of course my mother didn’t come back that next day and, to me, she was gone for an awful long time, and I missed her every day.
“We all missed her – my father, my sister and my cousin who lived with us from birth.”
Percy knows well that Rosa’s move to London for work was so her family could have a better life but the feeling of separation is still real.
“Thinking back now – I’m 54 and I was 11 years old then; I never had a complete mother. I never had a complete mother for a long time …,” she said.
“It’s a mother … who I seem to keep wanting to return to, but I didn’t leave her; she left me.
“And, no matter how much I want to be with her, we’ve grown so differently but she thinks I’m still a child and I think that she’s still that same cuddly mother that used to hug me, and she’s not.
“So it’s just that I love my mother when she’s away … And I do really miss her.”
Percy retold her story as she was in the middle of organising Brisbane archdiocese’s annual Multicultural Mass for the 25th time.
It will be held at St Stephen’s Cathedral this Sunday (September 27) – livestreamed at 2.30pm because of COVID-19 restrictions.
Percy said her story was typical of millions of Filipino migrants, and a multitude of others from all over the world, who had left their homeland in search of a better life.
She lived in the slums with her family for 10 years, before her mother was able to buy them a house to move into.
Rosa also earned enough money to educate her children, with Percy and her sister attending Catholic schools and a Catholic university.
Apart from missing her mum, Percy has happy memories of her childhood in the slums.
“In the slums I found the most generous, loving and kind-hearted people,” she said in her Lenten reflection.
“In my mother’s absence, it was this neighbourhood that helped my father nurture us three children.”
More recently she recalled the fun she had.
“The slums were good … I would like to say it was the happiest moment of my life, I think, probably because I was still a child …
“No matter what situation you were in – poor or rich – you don’t really care, do you, when you’re a child?
“I was happy climbing trees, I was happy being dirty and playing with playmates; nobody really cares how you look.
“I think the start of the difficulty was when, not only when my mother left, but you lost that mother’s touch …”
Rosa would return every few years for visits.
“These family reunions were filled with hugs, gifts and unspoken guilt … because she had missed many special family celebrations – birthdays, graduations, milestones – but money kept coming and this afforded us good education and better prospects,” Percy said in her Lenten reflection.
She said the family was forever grateful to her “pioneering migrant mother”.
Percy’s dad and sister eventually moved to London to join Rosa but, instead of following them, in her twenties, she migrated to Australia to start married life with her English-born husband.
The marriage ended after about 10 years, and Percy and her daughter Grace were left on their own.
Faith has been Percy’s bedrock.
In her Lenten reflection, she said faith sustained many people “in this wilderness of migration”.
“When you move countries, we lose half our lives; what we never lose is our faith in God,” she said.
She said her only support was her workplace, “which is the Church”.
She sought out the Filipino Catholic community where she met Canossian Sister Necitas Esguerra, who was the community’s pastoral associate, and Sr Esguerra pointed out to her a job advertised with the Centre for Multicultural Pastoral Care.
CMPC leaders at the time Jose Zepeda and the late Mary Gavin welcomed her onto the team, beginning deep and lasting friendships with the two of them.
“That’s the start of my 25 years (with Evangelisation Brisbane – and its predecessors),” Percy said.
CMPC ceased to operate as a centre after 10 years but “continued on in little ways” under the umbrella of other agencies, the latest being Evangelisation Brisbane.
Percy said CMPC “felt secure to me”.
“It felt like home because I was around people who are like myself, who have come from somewhere needing company and who have experienced the same thing of dislocation and are wanting also the same thing – welcome,” she said.
“We were all wanting welcome, so we were providing welcome to each other.
“I was providing welcome to the people who wanted to be welcomed but by doing that I felt welcomed by them as well.
“And Mary Gavin, when she was there, was providing the same (to us).
“I would like to think that she was the Australian-born person who tried to welcome us.
“And I’m not really sure how I welcomed her but I introduced her to our culture, and she was introduced to the many cultures that she had been with.
“It’s the company; it’s being a companion … It’s God’s companionship, I would think, when you feel comfortable with the people you are around.
“It’s God embracing you, really.”
The most important lesson Percy learned from Jose and Mary was “faith in action”.
“I came from a faith where I knew there was my childhood God, where I go to church, I pray and I go home,” she said.
“There’s no community afterwards. It’s praying for myself.
“Whereas Jose and Mary introduced me to that kind of work – I suppose it’s the nature of the work of multicultural pastoral care – you bring God to other people and you meet God from other people by encountering them, by working with them.
“It’s faith in action that I learned from them, and the vision of how they see a multicultural Church.
“It’s not a Church of charity, but a Church of inclusiveness, which I’m beginning to see now.”
Percy’s faith has been further enriched as her administration work in Evangelisation Brisbane has immersed her in other areas such as adult faith formation; justice and peace; disability outreach; and work with members of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities – “learning about the way Australians worship …”
Percy, preparing to celebrate her 25th Multicultural Mass at St Stephen’s, said in her Lenten reflection she believed “God is with us in this wilderness of migration, transition and transformation”.
“We place our trust in the Spirit; we’re open to a life of hope,” she said.