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Maryknoll priest ministers to Filipinos working abroad

Born in the Philippines and having shifted to the US to seek work, Father Tajonera, now 63, knows what it's like to be an immigrant
In Taichung, Taiwan, Maryknoll Father Joyalito Tajonera (center) and volunteers prepare a meal in the Ugnayan shelter he founded, which is run like a Catholic Worker house

In Taichung, Taiwan, Maryknoll Father Joyalito Tajonera (center) and volunteers prepare a meal in the Ugnayan shelter he founded, which is run like a Catholic Worker house. (Photo: Paul Jeffrey/Maryknoll Magazine)

Published: September 20, 2023 05:37 AM GMT
Updated: September 20, 2023 05:45 AM GMT

Maryknoll Father Joyalito Tajonera describes in one word the almost 2 million workers who travel abroad from the Philippines each year and send money home to keep a troubled economy afloat.

"Martyrs," said the missioner, who has served Filipino workers in Taiwan for more than two decades. "I call them martyrs. They support their children, parents, and siblings. They sacrifice everything to make a better life for the people they love."

More than 150,000 Filipinos worked in Taiwan at the beginning of the year, manufacturing camera lenses and computer chips and caring for aging Taiwanese.

"Migration breaks apart families," Father Tajonera told Maryknoll Magazine. "Children who only know their parents by video call. Parents trying to raise their children by long distance. Your children know your voice and face, but there's no physical contact. You can't walk them to school or go to the park."

But, he said, "that's the life of poor people. They have to make sacrifices."

Father Tajonera, now 63, knows what it's like to be an immigrant. Born in the Philippines, he immigrated to the United States in 1982 to seek work in New York City.

"My impression of America was that it would be a land of milk and honey, everyone driving big cars and living in big homes," he recalls. "I was shocked at the number of homeless people living on the sidewalks in Manhattan."

In response, he volunteered with church groups working with the poor. He began to visit Maryhouse, a Catholic Worker community that offers a home to women who would otherwise be on the street.

Those experiences revived the young Tajonera's childhood dream of becoming a missionary priest.

He started by studying theology at the Maryknoll seminary and, by then a U.S. citizen, he soon entered Maryknoll's formation program. Maryknoll sent him to Taiwan for a year of language study, with the idea he would go to China. But just as he had been shocked by the number of homeless people in the United States, in Taiwan he was surprised by the number of migrant workers.

After his ordination in 2002, the priest returned to Taiwan, charged with providing a pastoral presence for Filipino migrant workers. He established a shelter in Taichung and named it Ugnayan, a Filipino word for "connection." The Catholic Worker provided a blueprint.

"I ran the ministry like a Catholic Worker house, a place where migrants could hang out, relax, eat and play games. A house that feels like home. And we've done that for 22 years," he said. "We don't make too many rules except meal time and cleaning time. We're open 24 hours a day. People know that if they walk in, they will be welcomed."

Life is often difficult for new workers when they arrive in Taiwan. The community created by Father Tajonera -- affectionately called "Father Joy" -- provides comfort and safety.

His response to migrants in need is very practical, said Guilervan Omnes, a young volunteer.
"Many times at midnight there will be migrants seeking shelter, and Father Joy never asks them where they're from or what religion they profess," Omnes said. "He just asks, 'Have you eaten?'"

At the center of Father Tajonera's ministry is his belief that each migrant is the person best suited to solve their own problems. That often collides with the work of "brokers" -- Taiwanese intermediaries whom the workers must pay to act as their agents. In practice, however, the brokers' true allegiance is to employers.

"Ninety-nine percent of migrants can't speak or read Chinese, so they assume you don't know anything. And if you don't know anything, you have no rights," Father Tajonera said.

As a result of pressure from Father Tajonera and others, some things have improved.

"There's now a toll-free number for migrants to call the government ministry of labor and file a complaint. But the psychology hasn't changed," Father Tajonera said. "That's why we do extensive education that focuses on empowerment."

Melody Caling worked in a factory. When she hurt her back lifting heavy bins of electronic scrap, her employer denied her request for compensation, claiming she suffered from a preexisting condition. Her broker urged her to sign a document in Chinese that she didn't understand forfeiting her rights to compensation. When she found out what she had signed, she turned to Father Joy for help.

"After they fired me, I really began to think I was stupid. But then Father Joy and the church helped me realize that I am a human being, I have rights," Caling said.

Another young Filipino volunteer, Jeros Amparo, works with Caling on her case. He remembers when she first came to Ugnayan. "She had lost her face, her dignity," he said. "We've journeyed with her. In the end, Melody may get nothing. But at least she will have regained her dignity."
Staying at the Ugnayan shelter means sleeping and eating well. Migrants often show up depressed and malnourished, but after a few weeks, they are better equipped to tackle their problems.

"Father Joy insists that eating well and getting good clothes are essential preparation for facing an abusive employer. So that they will see a new face," Amparo explained. "When Melody first appeared before her employer in the appeal process, he was stunned. It was as if Melody had come back from the grave."

Besides empowering individual workers to speak up for themselves, Father Tajonera also encourages workers to band together to force large corporations to act responsibly. With assistance from Charles Niece, a Maryknoll lay volunteer, Maryknoll formed the Supply Chain Due Diligence Program, which has pushed more than two dozen companies to improve their employment practices, ranging from enlarging the size of dormitory rooms to assuming the costs of worker recruitment and transportation.

"We also encourage dialogue between employers and workers," Father Tajonera said. "Last year 30 workers came to us about expensive and unhealthy conditions in their dorm. We researched the case and found that the corporation is headquartered in New York. So Charles and I wrote them and asked for a dialogue between them, their workers and the government's ministry of labor. They sent people here and we all gathered in the church for negotiations. As a result, they changed their policies."

It's not surprising that Father Tajonera's Sunday Masses are packed, including in the Tanzi neighborhood of Taichung where worshippers gather in a converted former cinema.

"The Mass of the migrants is so alive, so colorful and rich. The local church is enriched by their well-lived faith," said Bishop Martin Su Yao-wen of Taichung. The number of migrants is only expected to grow, he explained, partly due to Taiwan's low birth rate. "We're going to need more and more migrants to take care of our elderly," Bishop Su said.

Father Tajonera, who serves as Maryknoll's superior for the Asia region, said, "Everywhere Maryknoll works, the church is being transformed by migrants, and we've been pioneers in places like Japan and Taiwan in starting ministries." He added, "The church of Asia today is a church of migrants."

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