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Maid in Hong Kong

Alone and far from him in 'Asia's World City,' domestic workers from the Philippines find faith and family with a Church of Christ.

HONG KONG – Gray mist obscures the spires of omnipresent skyscrapers on a Sunday afternoon in this Asian metropolis.

One by one, worshipers file through the clanky metal door of an office building — nearly hidden by bamboo scaffolding from a nearby construction project. Squeezing into tiny elevators, the congregants rise to the first floor, the meeting place of the Wanchai Church of Christ.

Inside the “L”-shaped auditorium, minister Felix Olidan leads an old-time hymn with lyrics projected on screens behind him.


“Be not dismayed whate’er betide, God will take care of you.”

On this damp Lord’s Day, 111 souls sing praises during the English-language service.

Five of them are men.

The rest — save for a university student from Singapore, two visitors from Malaysia and a few others — are domestic helpers from the Philippines, a nation of islands about 700 miles away, across the South China Sea. 
 Domestic helpers from the Philippines pause for a photo during Sunday after worship activities in Hong Kong. (PHOTO BY ERIK TRYGGESTAD)

The Filipinos leave parents, husbands and children to spend years at a time here, serving middle- and upper-class families in “Asia’s World City,” Hong Kong’s adopted name.

They cook, clean and care for children and elderly parents, working shifts that can begin as early as 5:30 a.m. and end after midnight.
Sunday is their day off.

Marites Diones“I have to work, but at the same time I have to serve the Lord,” says Marites Diones, who moved to Hong Kong after working as a maid in the Middle East. There, “I had no chance to worship for five years, so I was lacking, I was praying, I was crying. I said, ‘Lord, this is not for me.’

“But then, answered prayer,” she says, gesturing to the women seated around her.

Diones grew up in a Church of Christ in the Philippines, home to about 1,000 of the fellowship’s congregations. There, people tend to gather for two hours on Sundays — and then go home, she says.

“But here we spend the whole day together,” she adds. “We have lunch together, we worship, we have birthday celebrations.

“We get to talk to each other.”

After worship and Bible class, the Filipinos serve dishes from their homeland. (PHOTO BY ERIK TRYGGESTAD)
They also share the Gospel with the hundreds of Filipinos who congregate in Hong Kong’s massive shopping malls on their day off. Alone and far from the villages of their homeland, many yearn to find a caring family among the cold, steel skyscrapers.

One of the maids, Arcis O. Legawen, saw a church member headed for worship on a Sunday afternoon last year and asked to join her.

“It was no accident,” Legawen says. “When I came to this church my heart was so happy. I could not express my joy, so I cried.

“I could just feel I am at home with God’s presence. So I decided to be with the church.”

Baptized Nov. 15, 2015, she spends Sundays with her sisters in Christ.

“I’m learning, I’m learning,” she says of her newfound faith. “God has opened my spiritual understanding … no turning back.”
SERVING THOSE WHO SERVE
Some 336,000 migrant domestic workers live and labor among the 7.2 million people of Hong Kong, a special administrative region of China.

The migrants comprise 10 percent of the workforce — one of the highest densities of such workers in the world, according to labor statistics. One in three households with children here employs a domestic worker. About 98.5 percent are women.

Most come from the Philippines and Indonesia, where job creation struggles to keep pace with growing populations. In their home villages, moneymaking opportunities for women can be few, and many incur sizable debts to the companies that train them to work as domestic helpers abroad.

In Hong Kong, life can be “a never-ending cycle of misery” for these workers, said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, a non-governmental organization that conducts research and advocacy on human rights. Often, the migrants’ jobs include “morning-to-night work accompanied by verbal abuse — and sometimes worse — under exploitative conditions that in far too many cases can become forced labor,” Robertson told The Christian Chronicle.

In a recent report titled “Coming Clean,” the nonprofit Justice Centre Hong Kong shares the results of interviews with more than 1,000 domestic workers — half of them from the Philippines. More than 80 percent of those interviewed showed strong signs of forced labor or exploitation, according to the study’s criteria (unfree recruiting, work and life under duress and impossibility of leaving).

More than one-third of the respondents said their employers don’t give them a weekly, 24-hour rest period, as required by Hong Kong law.

During Bible class, Melody Gamit looks up a verse from Daniel 7 on her phone. (PHOTO BY ERIK TRYGGESTAD)Melody Gamit is one of the lucky ones. A native of the island of Luzon in the Philippines, she came to Hong Kong 13 years ago. She has two grown children and six grandchildren.

“I seldom see them,” she says. But she has an understanding employer who gives her Sundays off to worship.

“This is our family,” she says. “We will always be here, counseling each other, encouraging each other to be patient. We came here to work as domestic helpers, but we need to show our employers that we are Christians.”

The English-language service is a throwback to the days when missionaries from the U.S. worked with the church, says Siu Ka Ming, minister for the church’s Chinese-language service, which meets on Sunday mornings before the English service.

As more and more Filipinos attended, the church launched a support ministry for them in the mid-1980s.

“We are very blessed with a good group of Filipino sisters,” Siu says.

“They can do it on their own,” he says of the ministry. “We just help.”


‘HERE, WE CAN USE OUR GIFTS’

Felix Olidan came to serve — albeit reluctantly — as minister for the English-language service in 2008.

The former minister for the Midtown Church of Christ in Baguio City, Philippines, applied for the position but thought other candidates were more qualified. A graduate of Philippine Bible College, he hoped to emigrate to Canada and minister there. He wasn’t sure he effectively could serve an overwhelmingly female congregation.

“I said ‘No, no, no, no,’” the minister recalls. “We had plans. But God also has a plan.”

His wife, Luz, once worked in Hong Kong as a domestic helper and is an invaluable part of the ministry, Felix Olidan says. She remembers the long hours, the loneliness. and counsels the church’s members one-on-one.

In addition to serving the Wanchai church, the couple makes bimonthly visits to Macau, another special administrative region of China, to work with a young, predominantly Filipino Church of Christ there.

Felix and Luz Olidan with their children, Krystelle and Felixander, after worship in Hong Kong. (PHOTO BY ERIK TRYGGESTAD)
Their son, Felixander, was 11 when the family moved to Hong Kong. At age 12 his father asked him to lead singing.

In the Philippines, Churches of Christ are full of men who preach, lead worship and serve communion, “so I didn’t have to stand up and do anything,” Felixander Olidan says. Now he and the handful of men who worship with the church perform all of those duties.

“My peers are thinking, ‘Why are you doing these things?’ Because I have to!” he says. “I am also serving God, and I am happy to do it.”

The Olidans’ daughter, 22-year-old Krystelle, says she missed out on some of the activities big youth groups enjoy in her birth country.

“But it’s also been a blessing,” she says of her years in Hong Kong. She teaches church members songs from her youth group in the Philippines and helps support the church’s younger members who are away from home for the first time.

In the Philippines, men do almost all of the Bible teaching, says Marites Diones, the domestic helper who grew up in a Church of Christ there.

“Here, we can use our gifts,” she says. In Bible classes and in shopping malls, women teach the Gospel to other women.

As he serves those who serve others for a living, Felix Olidan says he learns more about how God uses the humble — those who feel unworthy, such as the Old Testament prophet Amos and countless others in Scripture — to accomplish great things.

“I see the potential of the women,” he says. “God can use them — can use all of us — to do the work.”
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Filed under: From The East Headlines - Secondary International

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