A Christmas reflection to help us remember the Spirit of Advent...
Called by Love
by Cassey Fernandez
For many, God’s calling often comes at unexpected times. Similarly, my call to serve on a mission trip came when I was studying in a polytechnic and was going through some personal issues. When I heard how my sister, Kim, shared about her wonderful experience in Anisakan, it compelled me to take a leap of faith and submit my application. I was curious and wanted to experience this same joy.
My experiences during mission week
During the trip, I was blessed to have met Sister Filo, a Salesian Sister of Saint John Bosco, serving in the village of Pyin Oo Lwin. I worked closely with her and spoke a lot to her in between lessons. She also shared how her life had been devoted to caring for those around her and how she lived by the providence of God. In the Bible, Jesus spoke of having a “mustard seed of faith”, which I saw and admired in Sister Filo. She showed me, a complete stranger whom she had just met, genuine love.
During our many conversations, Sister Filo patiently listened and shared many honest replies. One, in particular, struck me: “You are never alone. I am always praying for you and I love you”. That helped me to realise that the essence of mission work is conveying God’s love.
The Myanmar mission is just one of the many organised by a Catholic lay missionary organisation called ACTS Singapore (A Call To Share). ACTS first came about when a small group of parishioners from Singapore visited the students of the Don Bosco Elementary School in Phum Chreh, Cambodia, in 2006.
What began as a small parish initiative slowly grew to a multi-parish programme, gathering participants of all ages, races and even religions to serve others as Jesus did.
Understanding ACTS Myanmar
During the mission, Church of St. Vincent de Paul (SVDP) parishioner Gabriel Ong shared about his first ACTS mission trip to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in 2011 where he was moved by the Spirit of Charity and Love. After serving in Cambodia for some time, Gabriel was asked if he could lead a mission to Myanmar. Together with his wife, Julie, the couple went on their first trip in 2012 to meet different religious orders and began planning for its maiden mission.
The ACTS Anisakan mission officially started in 2014 with only 33 participants and has slowly doubled in numbers yearly since then. Currently, we are serving 3 main Salesians of Don Bosco communities — Nazareth Centre for boys, Mornese centre (a vocational school for girls) and Maria Romero centre in Pyin Oo Lwin (a village 20 minutes away from Anisakan). In addition to Anisakan, the ACTS Myanmar mission has grown to include another 2 missions at Hlaing Thar Yar/Yangon and Chanthagon in order to support the Salesian sisters in these places as well, drawing more than 100 participants for all three Myanmar missions.
Currently, service teams conduct activities and programmes such as education, life-skills sessions, sewing and baking classes, catechism sessions and medical screening and triage.
“Caring for the needy is something very close to Jesus’s heart and mission work allows us to walk the same path Jesus did,” Gabriel said. He also shared how he had personally witnessed the fruits of the Holy Spirit — one of the participants and an SVDP parishioner, Charlene Chua, joined the Salesian sisters after attending one of the ACTS missions.
In 2014, SVDP also became patron parish for the ACTS mission in Myanmar with the support of the parish priest, Fr Michael Sitaram. Going a step further, contributions from SVDP parishioners also helped to fund:
• The construction of a new kindergarten in Hlaing Thar Yar.
• The construction of an elementary school in Anisakan.
• The education for a student, Htet Htet, for 5 years of medical school. She has since returned to assist the mission every year.
ACTS Myanmar today
Looking at ACTS Myanmar today, mission leaders and former catechists, Joyce and Raymond Chan shared that serving has to go beyond the doctrinal points they teach the youth in catechism sessions.
As leaders, Joyce and Raymond always emphasise on how the pre-mission programme can help mission participants deepen their faith and be better prepared. With the prep work starting many months before, the participants would have gone through at least 2-3 spiritual formation and lesson-planning sessions.
As the Anisakan missions take place over the Advent period, families usually participate together to share the Christmas spirit. “It is the joy you see in both participants and the poor that really makes all the difference,” Raymond shares.
When asked what serving in Myanmar is like, Joyce simply put it as “Heaven on earth”. She explained it as finding meaning in doing God’s work and sharing the “hope in Christ that they too are loved and remembered”.
For Raymond, being physically present is important, it is how “We bring God’s love to them - an overwhelming, never-ending love”. With the perspective of attending multiple missions, he adds that “We are contributing to their dignity by showing the poor that Christ loves them so much that He brought volunteers to be with them”.
Mission work allows one to explore their faith. It challenges participants to reflect and serve humbly to understand what God is asking of them. Many face uncomfortable situations like long days, unfamiliar people, language barriers and unforeseen circumstances. It is during these times that we really do see a community of Christ-like individuals coming together to help one another.
With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic around the world, ACTS mission leaders are finding new ways to serve the local communities. As this pandemic has affected many Southeast Asian nations, many are without work and unable to feed their families. ACTS has also contributed funding for emergency food relief to more than 800 families in Anisakan and Pyin Oo Lwin, Myanmar. The ACTS Anisakan team will also be undertaking a virtual mission to reach out to the youth in these 3 areas.
Looking back at the week that I spent in Anisakan, I grew to understand Joyce’s anecdote for spiritual journeying. She said, “Like an onion with layers, we embark on this journey, allowing God to slowly remove those layers to reveal Himself to us”. For myself, God worked through me when I was teaching the children from the local village. I taught them life-skills and how to inculcate positive habits. In that one week, I was a part of their life and it felt so good to have found a home away from home.
To all those who are wondering - if you are keen to serve a mission but are unsure, come with the spirit of curiosity. As the Myanmar mission leader Joyce says, “If you have thought about [serving a mission], it means Christ is already stirring in your heart”. Be open and let your heart be changed.
I leave you with this message I took away from ACTS Anisakan 2017 - “You can give without loving, but you cannot love without giving”.
Experience God's love by surrendering yourself entirely and accepting the journey he has called you to.
ACTS Photo1 – Cassey with Sister Philomena (Filo)
ACTS Photo2 – Gabriel & Julie Ong at a mission session
ACTS Photo3 – Raymond Chan visiting the villages in Anisakan
ACTS Photo4 – Joyce Chan with the Mornese Girls