Pilgrims in the Wilderness: Religion and Filipino Women in the Context of Migration

Resources »Eapr »East Asian Pastoral Review 2009 »Volume 46 2009 Number 4 »Pilgrims In The Wilderness Religion And Filipino Women In The Context Of Migration

Gemma Tulud Cruz


The Exodus:  An Introduction

Migration has always been part of the fabric of humanity’s story.  People have moved from one place to another since ancient times for much of the same reasons that encourage or compel people to move today, namely, economics, politics, or religio-cultural conflicts.  The current phase of migration, however, is profound and distinct in that it is more massive, its “pull factors” more attractive, and its “push factors” more repulsive.  Moreover, its ripple effects are more comprehensive.  No individual, family, community, or society is left untouched by it.

In the Philippines, for example, there have been four recorded waves of labor migration.1  The first wave (in the 1900s) saw Filipino men migrating for cheap labor in sugar and pineapple plantations in Hawaii and later to the US mainland as apple pickers.2  The second wave (1940-1960) brought the movement of thousands of Filipinos to the United States, Canada, and Europe as war brides and highly-skilled workers as a result of more open immigration policies.  The third wave (in the 1980s) was more massive with the institutionalization of labor migration through former President Marcos’ Labor Export Program (LEP).3  The “trade” then covered almost all occupational groups from doctors, engineers, teachers and nurses, to seamen, combo singers, domestic helpers, chambermaids, and construction workers.

Globalization, however, ushered in not only new shifts in destination, i.e., from Europe and North America to the tiger economies in Asia, e.g., Singapore, but also created areas of job concentration and “gendered” Filipino migration.  This resulted in an unprecedented out-migration of Filipino women mainly as nurses, entertainers, and domestic workers which led to the fourth wave in the 1990s.  This period which continues today is known as the feminization of Filipino migration.  In 2007, for instance, 67% of overseas Filipino workers were women.

The following excerpts from a poem titled “Where Have All the Women Gone?” offers us a glimpse into the often untold tragedy of Filipino women labor migration:

They’re swept away
In a savage Diaspora
Forever banished from their own land
Their homes in their own land
Except for a lucky few who
Return in first class splintered
“Rest in Peace” boxes
Mothers, daughters, and wives
Of an entire nation exiled
Since birth to an inherited
Life sentence of economic shackles
Their existence commodified
Their bodies objectified
Their voices denied
Steadily trafficked
Through seedy roads, intersections and free ways
The Labor Export Policy
The Live-in Caregiver Program
Mail Order Bride destinations
Licensed to agencies, pimps,
Husbands and middle class families
Who vilely impose their
Extreme malicious liberties
On Third World women
Who bear no importance
Third World women
Who bear no
And still you ask
Where have all the women gone
Polishing silver in
West Van homes from
Dusk ‘till dawn
Caring for babies that are
Not their own
Listening to their children’s
Strangeness over the
Cold hard phone
Serving the needs of others
Until their bones crack dry
Disposing their cheap labor
Until there’s nothing left to buy
Stripping in Japan
For the golden yen
Selling their sex to
Foreign gentlemen
Chasing pipe dreams that
Will never come
Working, hoping, praying
Until their bodies are cold
and numb
Execution in Singapore
Was it for slaving Pinay maid Flor
100 bloody slashes was
Vanquished upon
Sloven Sara B
And still you ask,
Where have all the women

Bread for the Journey:  Religion and Filipino Women in the Context of Migration

As is the case for most Third World women, migration clearly brings death-dealing consequences for Filipino women.5  It cannot also be denied, however, that it has life-giving effects6 and religion is embedded in these two conflictive but intertwined faces of migration.   Noted Filipino sociologist Randy David, based mainly on his experience with Filipina migrants in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Japan, for instance, asserts that in the midst of “the loneliness that grips [them]… the terror and insecurity that they must deal with on a day-to-day basis as unprotected guest workers in foreign lands…the resilience of Pinoy OCWs is legendary.  Their joys and celebrations are louder than their distress.  Only in rare instances do they crack; they gently bend with the wind.”7  This, according to David, is due to their spirituality. 

Taking cue from David’s claim, I argue that we cannot ignore or separate the centrality of faith in Filipina migrant women’s lives, particularly among those who work in 3D (dirty, dangerous, and disdained) or SALEP (shunned by all the citizens except the poor) jobs like domestic work.  I argue further that religion for these women plays a double-edged role, that is, as a means of oppression and, at the same time, a tool in their struggle for survival and liberation.   The experience of the Filipina domestic workers in Hong Kong illustrates this.

Religion as a Source of Oppression

At the outset religion becomes a problem for the Filipina domestic helpers (or DHs as they are more popularly called) as Hong Kong is not a predominantly Christian country like the Philippines.  Moreover, the majority of the DHs’ employers nowadays are non-Christian Chinese who may not be tolerant when it comes to Christian religious practices or holidays.  Nevertheless, DHs immediately find the nearest church and join a religious group as soon as they arrive.   Eliseo Tellez Jr., a Filipino NGO worker in Hong Kong, alleges that the strong reliance on religion for comfort lays them open to strained relations with the local people who frown at the crowds in church grounds and consider their presence as “nuisance.”   Tellez maintains “[a]nyone who utters the name of Jesus is their friend [and that] this makes them easy prey for charismatic groups which do not ordinarily concern themselves with things mundane like the migrants’ almost slave-like conditions.”8

F. J. Pidgeon, a Redemptorist priest who worked for many years with the DHs, says the indifference of the local church at the grassroots level leads to the proliferation of these commercialized charismatic groups many of whom exploit the migrants’ hunger for religion or deep desire to experience the comfort of religion.9 This exacerbates faith-related problems faced by DHs, especially since historically most Filipino women have a strong religious piety that dates back to colonial times.  Citing Filipina feminist theologian Mary John Mananzan, Jane Corpuz-Brock traces the colonial (Spanish) roots of this deep piety in “Gospel, Cultures, and Filipina Migrant Workers”.  There she points out how the Filipina’s  “freedom of choice in important aspects of her life was curtailed by the imposition of new laws and mores [and that,] confined in her area of action, the [Filipina] woman poured all her innate sensibility and energy into the activities allowed her, developing a religious fervor which would verge on fanaticism.”10

Today, this preoccupation with religion persists among Filipino women.  All the more so when they are in a foreign land and are confronted with loneliness, isolation, discrimination, and oppressive working conditions.  To them religion is a cogent and authoritative tool in behaving in light of their oppression.  Whether superficial or deep, exploitative or responsive, religion is a, and oftentimes, the norm to view and confront personal and social oppression.  Not surprisingly religion is used, at best, to cushion the impact of and, at worst, to rationalize or justify their oppression.

They rationalize their oppression, for example, by seeing it from the perspective of religious-based notions of dependence on God and suffering.  They become even more submissive when the latter is linked with sacrifice and becomes “redemptive suffering.”  They reckon that it is acceptable, even good, to suffer if it will mean “redeeming” someone.  Like Jesus, the dutiful Son, they just consider their submission to the oppressive situation as an act of a dutiful daughter, wife, mother, or Filipino citizen.

Social psychologist Kimberly Chang also notes how the DHs “define themselves as servants of the Lord rather than the physical world of men” and “describe this service to God and Church as cleansing, filling them with a sense of ‘righteousness’ and ‘completeness.’”11  Chang contends that statements like these cleanse the notion of the Filipina DHs’ service of its sexual overtones and turns it into an almost sacred activity, giving the women a sense of moral identity and purpose but, in reality, masks the oppression.

Religion as a Means in the Struggle for Survival and Liberation

But turning to religion also helps the DHs constructively oppose their oppression.12  The church, for instance, is not just the principal site of celebration for Filipino identity and community for the DHs.   It is also the central source for dealing with and combating their multidimensional oppression.  It is their refuge in times of crisis and their home when they want to shout for joy.   Sunday ― the day of freedom and the most favored day-off ― will not be complete without going to a religious service.   In Hong Kong, it is common knowledge that it is the Filipinas who fill up the churches on Sundays.  Saint Joseph’s Church, the most popular Catholic Church, has countless of them flocking to it not only because a number of the Masses are said in Tagalog but also because almost all of the church-goers are DHs.13   The sight at Saint Joseph’s Church on a Sunday is indeed extraordinary.   A handful of men and a sea of women.

For the DHs, Sunday religious service is a non-negotiable weekly event or ritual.  Amidst the confusion and isolation wrought by their marginalization, the service is a powerful means for defying their feelings of negation.  Even the lack of actual church buildings is not a problem for them.  If there is no church building available for them, they “create” and “build” their own “church” out of parks, gyms, and auditoriums.  Tellez says that Filipino NGOs in Hong Kong even establish and forge links with DHs by “visiting churches and hanging around church grounds” since the church is where the DHs meet.14

Indeed, the establishment of literally “Filipina churches” provides what could be the single most important source of continuity in their world that has changed in so many ways.  David describes one such experience of this power of religion in the DHs’ life in Hong Kong:

I recently sat through a Sunday service in one such gym in Hong Kong, and wondered what it was that drew in the participants.  It could not have been the long high-pitched and thoroughly uninspiring lecture-sermon of the pastora, who certainly did not deserve her audience’s reverential attentiveness.  I am more certain now that it was the community, and the bonding and the comfort they derived from each other’s sheer presence, that made them come…For when it was time to sing …the gym came alive.  A band started to play a rousing tune, and costumed dancers with ribbons and tambourines took center court.  I thought for a while it was a prelude to a basketball tournament.   Three thousand Pinoys, almost all of them women, stood up.  With eyes closed and arms raised, they swayed their bodies to the rhythm of a prayer.  They cheered, they clapped and they shouted God’s name; and in that anonymous collective drone, they cried out their individual pain.15

In fact, Asian-American sociologist Shu-Ju Ada Cheng, in her comparative study of migrant women domestic workers in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan , singles out this religious practice of the DHs in Hong Kong as a factor that explains their ability to break the isolation and engender visibility.  She specifically extols Church attendance as one that “provides an important opportunity and space for Filipino women to establish their support system and networking, which is essential for breaking the isolation of the household.”16

One interesting phenomenon is the emergence of the image of God as a host or as God of strangers.  These are not common God images in the Philippines but they are discovering and embracing these in an apparent resistance to how their host society treats them as migrants.  One of their songs in a Mass I attended in the Philippine consulate in Hong Kong illustrates this:  “The Lord is my shepherd.  He is Lord.  And I’m His guest.  Fresh and green are the pastures.  Where He leads me to my rest...”17

Pilgrims in the Wilderness:  A Conclusion

So what does this double-edged role of religion offer us for theological reflections?  What challenges does it present as far as theological (re)imagination is concerned? 

I think that this points us, first and foremost, to the enduring value of religion in human history and life itself.  Religion has, arguably, never gone through so much significance, dynamism, expansion, and transformation as in the context of contemporary migration.18  One can see this in how it features significantly in the lives of the DHs in Hong Kong.  Away from their home country and in search of company, pleasure, intimacy, and all sorts of help, religion becomes a formidable anchor in their lives. Even historians and sociologists point out the salience of religion in the lives of migrants and contend that any study of migrants that ignores the role of religion will most likely be incomplete and skewed.  In 1978, for instance, sociologist Timothy Smith went as far as to say that immigration itself is a “theologizing experience” since immigrants often make sense of the alienation that is inherent in migration in religious terms.19  Hence it would be a tragedy if Christian theology does not put this phenomenon under closer scrutiny.

Secondly, with its concomitant misery, migration is clearly emerging as one of the critical components of what is laid out in Gaudium et Spes as the “grief and anguish of people of our time” (GS, 1).”20  But there’s more that we can learn from it from a theological perspective aside from the tragic.  The fellowship or salo-salo(shared meal) that usually follows the DHs’ religious gathering, for instance, offers us a glimpse into the rich possibilities that Filipino migrant women’s faith expressions can offer for feminist theological reflections. 

I have been to some of these in Hong Kong and in the mostly women-run Filipino-Dutch communities in the Netherlands and I am inclined to say that the salo-salo after the service could actually be the real eucharist.  Seeing one is like witnessing the gospel at table.  The spirit of joy, the atmosphere of warmth and affection, and the sense of community are such that the experience itself becomes a God-experience.  It is like seeing “the substance of religion and more... the strength that comes from valuing the intangibles, the meanings that are continually created and understood, when human beings come together to share their lives and their fears, their meals and their memories.”21  It is the eucharist in the flesh rooted in the resiliency, tenacity, and beauty of woman-spirit.  It is a reminder of the times in the New Testament when Christian communities, which we now call  churches, were based in households and women exerted some influence.  The fellowship that the present-day migrant workers cherish also points to the fact that Christian life is not just about individual salvation but also about collective liberation.  It teaches us that Christian spirituality must not just be about fasting but also about celebrating; it must not just be about families but also about communities.  Most of all, it reminds us that spirituality must never be confined to prayer or any other religious activity but that it embraces anything and everything that celebrates our humanity.

Migration for many Filipino women is undeniably a journey.  It is not a trip; not a vacation.  It is a process…a discovery… not just of how low our fellow human beings can go but also of how, when exodus becomes exile, their faith becomes bread for the conflictive journey.  This is because for the in-between, like Filipino migrant women, reality is always someplace else.  They are like Israel in the wilderness who embarked on a journey believing that the promised rest lies ahead.  As a people who travel across deserts and seas in search of “greener pastures” and of their own “promised land”, Filipino migrant women’s journeys are like a pilgrimage.  A pilgrimage unites the seeker and the traveler and insofar as Filipino migrant women’s journeys force them to survive and, to a certain extent, thrive in strange places, their journeys are a pilgrimage in the wilderness.  They are also a pilgrimage in the wilderness in that they are journeys of hope rooted in courage, nurtured by a strong and creative will to resist, and empowered by a steadfast faith.

These journeys consequently challenge us to reconnect with our Christian fundamental identity as pilgrims, to view Christian life as a constant coming and going, as a continuous departure and arrival and, ultimately, as a process.  As a people of faith, we are a people on the move and we are challenged to rediscover the God of revelation in the context of leaving, of going out to other places as Naomi, Ruth, and Sarah did.  As Silvano Tomasi writes “migration is a symbol that reveals the underlying reality of the church as a pilgrim people….almost a sacrament, for it is like a mirror in which the People of God views its own reality not only as a problem but also as grace that…transforms the church when its members embrace their [migrants’] poverty as wayfarers in a passing world.”22

As the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium affirms we, the Church, are the Pilgrim People of God (LG, 48-51).  As pilgrims, we are called not just to search for or discover traces of God in the world but to also take the path toward God no matter how difficult it may be.  To be sure Filipina migrant women’s lives are marked by this constant struggle to take the road less traveled and this faith-informed struggle will be valuable for the hundreds of Filipino women who will someday choose or will be forced to join the exodus.  Their struggle drives home the point that the divine is both present and absent and life is both horror and love.  It highlights the cries of the oppressed for the recognition of the “doubleness” of their experience as both children of God and the rejected of humanity.  It challenges theology not just to recognize and hold in awesome wonder the deep complexity of human experience.  Ultimately, it challenges theology to re-imagine and give a multi-faceted voice to the truth on how redemption’s “already” aspect is as real as redemption’s “not yet.”




1.   For a more detailed and comprehensive account, see The Labour Trade:  Filipino Migrant Workers around the World (London:  Catholic Institute for International Relations, 1987).

2.   Destination: Middle East: A Handbook for Filipino Women Domestic Workers (Quezon City:  Kanlungan Centre Foundation, Inc., 1997), 8.

3.   The goldmine that came in the form of remittances sent by OFWs or Overseas Filipino Workers which was then instrumental for the creation of the LEP by the Marcos administration continues to strongly motivate the Philippine government to promote labor migration.  In 2006 alone OFWs sent $22 billion, even exceeding by 25% the country’s national budget for the same year.  Manuel Amora, “A Closer Look at the Filipino Diaspora,” available at http://www.globalnation.inquirer.net; accessed December 17, 2007.

4.   Charlene Sayo, “Where Have All the Women Gone?” Migrant Monitor Issue 2 (March 2007):  12.

5.   See Gemma Tulud Cruz, “Gendering the Quest for Global Economic Justice:  The Challenges of Women Labor Migration to Christian Theological Reflections,” Voices from the Third World 28, no. 1 (June 2005):  128-46.

6.   See Gemma Tulud Cruz, “Between Identity and Security:  Theological Implications of Migration in the Context of Globalization,” Theological Studies 69 (2008):  357-375, for a more general perspective on the positive dimensions of migration.

7.   Pinoy is a popular shortened name or reference for Filipinos.  OCW or Overseas Contract Workers is the former name for OFWs.  See Randy David, Public Lives:  Essays on Selfhood and Social Solidarity (Pasig City:  Anvil Publishing, 1998), 50-52.

8.   Eliseo Tellez, Jr., “An Overview of Filipino Migrant Workers in Hong Kong,” in Christian Conference of Asia, Serving One Another (Kowloon, H.K.:  CCA Urban Rural Mission, 1991), 82.

9.   F. J. Pidgeon. “Challenging the Christian Community,” T. T. Hong Kong 5, no. 4 (April 1999):  6-7.

10.  Mary John Mananzan, “The Filipino Women:  Before and After the Spanish Conquest of the Philippines,” in Essays on Women, ed., Mary John Mananzan (Manila:  Institute of Women’s Studies, 1991): 34-5, quoted in Jane Corpuz-Brock, “Gospel, Cultures, and Filipina Migrant Workers,” International Review of Mission 85, no. 36 (January 1996):  66.

11.  Kimberly Chang and L. H. Ling, “Globalization and Its Intimate Other:  Filipina Domestic Workers in Hong Kong,” in Gender and Global Structuring:  Sightings, Sites, and Resistances, ed. Marianne H. Marchand and Anne Sisson Runyan (London:  Routledge, 2003), 38-39.  An example of this is DH Erlinda Layosa’s “Chosen People to Be Helpers of the World,” a “love letter” supposedly written by God to Filipina overseas workers.  In the said letter God supposedly urges Filipina domestic workers to embrace their work as servants, bringing to it their “true Christian values, your resilient, cheerful, persevering, and helpful qualities” and humble ways.  See Erlinda R. Layosa, “Into Thy Hands,” Tinig Filipino (April 1994):  6, quoted in Nicole Constable, Maid to Order in Hong Kong: Stories of Filipina Workers (Ithaca:  Cornell University Press, 1997), 39.

12.  See other references to this in Gillian Youngs, “Breaking Patriarchal Bonds:  Demythologizing the Public and the Private,” in Gender and Global Restructuring:  Sightings, Sites, and Resistances, 44-58.

13. This, in itself, constitutes a survival strategy for the DHs as class issues make the other (read: skilled) Filipino Christian migrants in Hong Kong and the local Christians dissociate from the DHs. On the part of the local community, this is affirmed by the following excerpt from the national report on Hong Kong presented at a symposium on Filipino migrant workers in Asia: “As we appreciate the contribution of our Filipino brethren to the Church of Hong Kong, we also recognize the difficulties in establishing a Church that is both Filipino and Chinese. We are aware that we still need to inculcate among our Chinese people that the Church is universal and that two cultures can proclaim the same faith in the same Church, in different ways and languages. The Diocese of Hong Kong would like to see the Chinese and the Filipinos join one another at Mass and gatherings, as equals and as friends.” See “Filipino Migrant Workers in Hong Kong,” Asian Migrant 7, no. 1 (January-March 1994): 7.

14.  Eliseo Tellez, Jr., “An Overview of Filipino Migrant Workers in Hong Kong,” in Christian Conference of Asia, Serving One Another, 82.

15.  Randy David, Public Lives, 50-1.

16.  Shu-Ju Ada Cheng, “Migrant Women Domestic Workers in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan:  A Comparative Analysis,” in Asian Women in Migration, ed. Graziano Battistela and Anthony Paganoni (Quezon City, Philippines: SMC, 1996), 119.  It is also in church, particularly during their church activities or during their fellowships, that many Filipina DHs who are at the forefront of the struggle for justice got their inspiration and started their “mission.”  Connie Bragas-Regalado, who is now back in the Philippines working as an officer in Migrante (a political party for/by OFWs), witnesses to this:  “When I first came to Hong Kong, my first Sunday’s off was at the Church of All Nations in Repulse Bay.  An old friend who was already involved with the Filipino Fellowship of the said church fetched me.  It all started with Bible Studies and Choir service…I volunteered to be part of the Church Board of Social Ministry.  Then the group decided to request a paralegal training, which was conducted by the Mission for Filipino Migrant Workers.  Then I learned about the Mission and UNIFIL…and their work.”  See “Talks with Connie Bragas-Regalado,” Migrant Focus Magazine 1, Issue 2 (Oct.-Dec. 2000):  24-5.

17.  Emphasis mine.

18.  See, for example, Peter Beyer, Religion and Globalization (London:   Sage Publications, 1994).

19.  As early as 1960 Will Herberg pointed out how the early U.S. immigrant would “sooner or later… give up virtually everything he had brought with him and the ‘old country’ ― his language, his nationality, his manner of life ― and will adopt the ways of his new home,” except his religion for “it was largely in and through his religion that he, or rather his children and grandchildren, found an identifiable place in American life.”  See Will Herberg, Protestant-Catholic-Jew:  An Essay in American Religious Sociology (Garden City, NY:  Doubleday, 1960), as quoted in Religion and the New Immigrants:  Continuities and Adaptations in Immigrant Congregations, ed. Helen Rose Ebaugh and Janet Saltzman Chafetz (Walnut Creek, CA:  Altamira Press, 2000), “Introduction,” 7.

20.  Carmem Lussi, “Human Mobility as a Theological Consideration,” in Migration in a Global World, ed. Solange Lefebvre and Luis Carlos Susin, Concilium 2008/5 (London:  SCM Press, 2008):  50.  One could speak of migration, in other words, as one of the “signs of the times” which Richard McBrien defines as those events of history through which God continues to speak to us and summon us to respond for the sake of the reign of God’s love and justice throughout the whole of creation.  Richard P. McBrien, Catholicism (New York:  HarperCollins, 1994), 95.

21.  Randy David, Public Lives, 52.

22.  Tomasi Silvano, “The Prophetic Mission of the Churches:  Theological Perspectives,” in The Prophetic Mission of the Churches in Response to Forced Displacement of Peoples, A Global Ecumenical Consultation, WCC, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 6-11 November 1995, p. 41.



Paper presented at the John Felice Center’s International Conference on Migration, Rome, Italy on 1 April 2009.

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