November 2011

A heart for the poor

Despite the presence of many long-established religious orders in the Philippines, it’s interesting that Germia Tocama chose to join the Australian-founded Good Samaritan Sisters.

BY Stephanie Thomas

Despite the presence of many long-established religious orders in the Philippines, it’s interesting that Germia Tocama chose to join the Good Samaritan Sisters, an Australian-founded congregation of religious women with only one small community in the Philippines.

Born and raised in Bacolod City on the island of Negros, Germia (pronounced Hermia) first met the Good Samaritan Sisters through a family friend in 1998. She had not long finished a business degree at the University of Negros Occidental-Recoletos, and was working as a finance clerk for a local non-government organisation.

Recalling her first encounter with the community of sisters in Bacolod City – which comprised two Japanese, two Filipinas and two Australians – she was surprised to find that none of the sisters wore habits, unlike most religious in the Philippines.

“I liked that idea,” says Germia. “I feel happy about it, because for me, I believe that is a real person that I am encountering when I met them; it’s not the habit. And I believe that the holiness of the person is not on the way that they dress, but in the relationship you share.”

Germia had been interested in religious life since high school. During university she got to know the Carmelite Missionary Sisters but didn’t pursue a formal association because of a desire to find work and to help her family financially.

However, after a number of encounters with the Good Samaritan Sisters, Germia became increasingly attracted to their simple lifestyle and spirit of hospitality. “When I joined with them I feel at home. I feel like I belong here. You don’t feel like you are just a visitor. I feel that I am part of them already,” she explains.

Over time, Germia’s relationship with the Good Samaritan community in Bacolod grew stronger, and in June 2002, she was received as a pre-novice. Three years after that, she made her first profession.

In 2011, the Good Samaritan community in Bacolod remains small in number but is a vibrant mix of Filipina, Japanese and Australian sisters. Germia finds this cross-cultural dimension to be a great gift. “It [has] opened my eyes and my mind, as well [as] in my understanding of other cultures,” she explains.

While each of the sisters in the Bacolod community has her own ministry, all are involved at the Good Samaritan Kinder School in some capacity. Opened in 2004, the school provides young children from disadvantaged families in Bacolod City with valuable pre-school learning experiences. A health clinic and feeding program are also part of the school.

With her background in business and finance, Germia is a great asset to the school, helping the teachers in all matters administrative.

Each week Germia also visits two large squatter areas in Bacolod City – Boulevard and Mambuloc – where she supervises a feeding program, teaches catechetics to the children and provides general pastoral care and support to the many families who live there.

Most people in Boulevard and Mambuloc live in extreme poverty because of limited access to basic infrastructure and services. Their housing is inadequate and health levels poor. Living under the threat of relocation to a place further away and not yet developed, means it is difficult for them to get to work.

“I feel that this is a good ministry and an opportunity for me to reach out,” says Germia. While not without its challenges, Germia finds her ministry fulfilling. The people have come to trust her and anticipate her visits, but it’s not a one-way relationship. “They’re teaching me a lot: to be strong, to be hopeful in the presence of this poverty,” says Germia.

“They really strive so hard in order to have their children fed; they struggle so hard to send them to school… I really learn how they love education… because they know that’s the only way that their children can survive in the future away from poverty,” she explains.

Germia believes her strong commitment to social justice is something she absorbed from her mother, who was influenced by the Church’s efforts to support people’s rights during the authoritarian regime of President Marcos during the 1970s and 1980s.

Like her mother, Germia is also involved in raising awareness about the perils of human trafficking in the Philippines and worldwide, an industry she says is driven by poverty and hardship.

At the moment Germia is concerned by the debate among Filipino politicians about a proposed reproductive health bill. She believes the government, in advocating for this bill, is attributing poverty in her country to overpopulation, when the underlying issues are corruption, mismanagement and the inequitable distribution of resources.

“They are trying to rationalise that we need to have family planning because our number is getting big and that makes us poor. But according to some research from pro-life [groups], compared to last decade, this generation’s babies are fewer,” she explains.

In the joys and difficulties of her life and ministry, Germia is reassured by her favourite passage from Scripture: “All things work together for good with those who love God” (Romans 8:28). Reflecting on St Paul’s words encourages her to be aware of the presence of God in all of life’s circumstances.

If you would like to republish this article, please contact the editor.