[Rewind #AwaNgDiyosPH] Wellspring of Pinoy faith found in cosmopolitan desert


For Easter, The Filipino Connection releases articles from its special edition on the apostolic visit of Pope Francis last January 15-19, 2015.


DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES—Some 7,208 kilometers away from the Philippines, a lone Catholic church here serves as an “oasis of grace” for Filipinos.

For some 250,000 Filipino Catholics living near the vicinity of the 48-year-old St. Mary’s Church, the church has been their watering hole —a melting pot of lonely overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) creating a “hopeful community” for them.

This church is, to the handful of priests here, a wellspring of hope for these Filipinos whose love for kin back home sacrifices their desires for regular familial presence.

“This (Church) is an oasis —that in the middle of the desert, you can find a source of water,” said Fr. Chito Bartolo, O.F.M. Cap., the lone Filipino priest assigned to this Arab city. “Ito ang nag-iisang balon ng grasya, kung saan sila ay sumasalok ng grasya [This church is the lone well where these Filipinos get grace].”

Islamic faith and culture bound this small, oil-rich Arab state. There are also some limitations set by the United Arab Emirates government on religious expressions.

But Filipinos have embraced and “loved deeper” their “challenged faith,” becoming “extraordinary” faithful than those in the Philippines, Bartolo thinks.

Filipinos overflowing the compound of St. Mary's Church in Dubai (photo by JASPER EMMANUEL ARCALAS / The Filipino Connection)

Filipinos overflowing the compound of St. Mary’s Church in Dubai (photo by JASPER EMMANUEL ARCALAS / The Filipino Connection)

About nine percent of people in the UAE are Christians, including Roman Catholics. Filipinos are the biggest non-Islam foreign population.

And Filipinos, another priest observes, Filipinos have kept a sense of “tradition” which made them “dynamic and peace-loving people, and always in harmony.”

“They are believers. They have a sense of tradition and they keep that tradition here in U.A.E,” said Fr. Lennie J.A. Conully, O.F.M. Cap., the Indian parish priest of St. Mary’s.

Like in the Philippines, when Sunday Masses are celebrated, there’s singing and dancing.

And like churches in foreign countries where overseas Filipinos hear Mass, there’s eating.

The 2014 Simbang Gabi (nine-day dawn masses leading to the eve of the birth of Jesus Christ) was an example. There’s no Pope Francis visiting faithful there, but the throngs of people here are all but moving.

The Church edifice can only accommodate so much. So at least five big LCD screens were set up around the church’s compound.

The last day of the Simbang Gabi had a small program prior to the mass proper. A group of Filipinos spearheaded and played the Panunuluyan, the re-enactment of the nativity of the Baby Jesus. Various Filipino choir groups like a group called the Buklod Tinig sang different Pinoy Christmas songs.

Brian Azarraga, a teacher for seven years in Dubai, said attending the Simbang Gabi “compensates” for the missed religious obligations due to work. The Simbang Gabi is also somewhat a way to lessen “homesickness” and to feel “Filipino vibes.”

Like what their motherland has, there are various Filipino Catholic groups: Lord’s Flock, Light of Jesus, Couples for Christ (CFC) and others. Even with limited sleep, these groups’ volunteers were hand-in-hand in preparing everything —from setting up a big Christmas tree composed of prayers (written in circular shaped papers) to the controlling and area discipline.

There’s a word for that in Filipino, says Bartolo: bayanihan.

This is my vow to Jesus, says Roy of CFC, one of the Simbang Gabi volunteers doing crowd control work.

But not all Filipinos keep their faith alive, with the rise of Dubai as a hotspot for global investors. Cosmopolitanism living easily makes people swayed by money and the luxuries that come with it, that which the Franciscan Capuchin priests think is “slowly losing their faith and leaning toward ‘materialism and idolatry’”.

And like some countries of destination where Filipinos work, temptations lure the lonely Filipino worker. There’s infidelity and some fits of self-centeredness, for example, which Bartolo says threaten to lose OFWs’ “sense of sacrifice” or the understanding of the reason why they left the Philippines: their loved ones back home.

“Ang Diyos para sa iba ay parang switch na lang; ino-on lang kapag ailangan [The Lord is like a switch for some people. When needed, they turn the switch on],” said Bartolo.

But the throngs of Filipinos in a dark Friday early morning here at St. Mary’s switched on the lights of Filipino-style Catholic “tradition”.

As foreign migrant workers in this Arab city come and go, Filipinos still find time for the faith amid their work and their dealing with a transnational family life.

That’s cultural, the two Capuchin priests think.

Dedication to the faith isn’t just a spiritual matter “but a Filipino culture,” said Bartolo. “OFWs get the sense of belonging this way.”



Media outfits can publish, broadcast and post online this story, provided The Filipino Connection and the article’s author’s are properly acknowledged. Editorial mistakes are the publisher’s. Email: thefilipino.connection@gmail.com.