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SANDAKAN – Archbishop John Wong of Kota Kinabalu said the Feast of St Matthew paved the way for the AMOS Conference to look at migrant ministry as a vocation. He delivered this insight in his opening homily at the third AMOS Conference hosted by Sandakan Diocese on 21-23 Sept 2017 at the Sandakan Pastoral Centre here.
One hundred and fifty participants, comprising two bishops, 11 priests, six religious from the three arch/dioceses of Sabah and Miri gathered for the conference themed “The Church: Advocate for the vulnerable and voiceless.”
Matthew was considered an outcast for supporting the Roman Empire in his role as a tax collector, Abp Wong said. But he was called by the Lord to follow Him.
“Those involved in migrant ministry might also be viewed negatively for reaching out to foreigners,” said the KK prelate.
He continued, “But when they responded to serve the vulnerable and voiceless, they are, in fact, doing the will of God, who says, “I was a stranger and you made me welcome.” (Mt 25:35b)
Both Bishop Julius Gitom of Sandakan and Kletus Muyuk, head of Sandakan Diocesan Human Development Commission, provided an overview of the conference.
They spelt out the two conference objectives: (a) To deepen the understanding of migration and to strengthen the spirit of service to the migrants, and (b) To increase inter-diocesan cooperation in pastoral care to migrants.
To achieve these, the organising team has incorporated a session on the legal aspect of migration and a session on collaboration.
Romo Lukas of Larantuka Diocese gave an input on “Advocating Human Dignity: Basis for Pastoral Care to Migrants.” In his talk covering the issue of migration and its pastoral care from social, historical, biblical and ecclesial perspectives, Lukas quoted the UN Charter on Human Rights and some church documents, specifically Erga Migrantes Caritas Christi, to support his view that ministry to migrants is, in fact, advocating their dignity as “imago Dei,” persons created in the image of God.
However, the reality of pastoral care to migrants is not easy. Bishop Julius shared the complexity of the matter the next day. Many a time there is a choice to be made: which comes first – pastoral or legal? He said given the immense presence of migrants in Sandakan diocese, pastoral care to them is not an option but part and parcel of building the local Church there.
Jellferlyne Joseph, a programme officer at Pusat Kebajikan Good Shepherd (PKGS), supported Bishop Julius in her personal testimony of working for migrants. She used to be against them. But over the years in PKGS, she realised that migrants, too, are humans who need livelihood, education and security. She learnt to see God in the faces of the migrants and saw her service as a vocation.
In spite of the complexity in migration issue, if it is done in a peaceful, legal and dignified way, there should no fear. This was assured by Bapak Konsul Krishna Djelani of Tawau and Elsie Primus who spoke as a magistrate of the Kota Kinabalu High Court.
Both highlighted the relevant Immigration Acts that determine the legality of migration in both countries. Many heard for the first time how such laws could actually facilitate a person to cross national boundaries in a dignified way if he/she abides by them closely. No doubt there are syndicates who exploit the process for economic or political gains. But that should not prevent a migrant from violating the laws.
The session was followed by Q & A from the floor. Many asked about matters related to marriage between locals and migrants, on labour law, documentation issues, statelessness and status of fourth generation migrants. However, answers to such complex matters could not be dealt with satisfactorily in a short time.
In the afternoon Romo Lukas shared from the perspective of a “Sending Church” – why people of Flores choose to migrate, how the local churches prepare and help the families who are left behind. He felt that the frequent exchange of information and collaboration between the two sides (Flores and Sabah) would further ease the burden encountered by the migrants, especially in living their faith in a foreign land.
Reports from the three arch/dioceses were then briefly tabled to provide a glimpse on what the local churches have done in ministering to the migrants. It was clear that the responses varied from diocese to diocese, from locality to locality.
Msgr Gilbert Engan who represented Bishop Cornelius Piong of Keningau admitted that his presence might be providential. He sensed the urgent need for the three arch/dioceses in Sabah to collaborate as migrants are mobile. Without common pastoral policies, they might look for a locality where reception of the sacrament of matrimony is lax.
The final session facilitated by Dominic Lim was aimed to get the Sabah dioceses to move together as “Receiving Church.” Participants were divided into groups to propose concrete ways based on items agreed in the Tripartite Pastoral Gatherings in 2013 and 2015. The proposals would be screened through by the Organising Team before a Final Statement could be issued from the AMOS-3 Conference for the attention of pastoral institutes and agents in Sabah.
Bishop Julius, in his farewell remarks, hoped that AMOS-3 has instilled a deeper sense of commitment among the participants. Though there might still be uncertainties among them, especially those who were there for the first time, he believed that at least the sessions have convinced them that defending the vulnerable and voiceless is very much the mission of the Church.
AMOS-1 was hosted by KK Archdiocese in February 2011 at the Bundu Tuhan Retreat Centre while Keningau Diocese hosted AMOS-2 at the Tatal Retreat Centre Keningau in February 2013. – AHDC