When the clip of Professor Robert E. Kelley’s interview with BBC News went viral, several of my Filipino friends and I feared that the Asian woman in the background might be a Filipina, one of the countless women who had left their families to care for the children of wealthy families in other countries.
If she were, that cute interruption had likely cost her job. Instead, the woman turned out to be the professor’s wife, the kids’ mother, a yoga teacher, and a Korean. Despite our relief, I couldn’t forget about “the Filipina nanny” and how quickly their circumstances could change, as they had for Mary Jane Veloso.
Like millions of other Filipinos, she had left her young children in 2010 for an opportunity to work abroad. She had tried this once before, working in Dubai, but quit when her employer attempted to rape her. She hoped and trusted that her godsister was offering a better opportunity this time. Having two young kids, it seemed like a good idea to take her relative’s invitation.
Like millions of other Filipinos, she had left her young children in 2010 for an opportunity to work abroad.
Unfortunately, by the time Mary Jane discovered that her godsister had smuggled heroin in her bag, a capital offense in Indonesia where Mary Jane was arrested, it was too late. Despite maintaining her innocence, Mary Jane was convicted and remains on death row today.
Mary Jane’s case has brought international attention to the treatment of these nannies, giving a name and face to overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) who are intentionally kept invisible. While working 3D jobs abroad (dirty, dangerous, and demeaning), they are considered bagong bayani, or new heroes, back home, because of their sacrifices and contributions to
the Philippine economy.
Mary Jane’s case has brought international attention to the treatment of these nannies, giving a name and face to overseas Filipino workers who are intentionally kept invisible.
Galvanized by Mary’s case, many have since mobilized to pray, petition for her release, and even demand their own rights as foreign workers. They are more than poor migrants at the bottom of the global economy. They are sisters and brothers with much to teach us.
Theirs is a faith that is both tested and proven, and Mary Jane embodies this faith in ways that humble me as a Filipino American pastor.
Mary Jane reminds us that faith is also concerned with the material world. It can be tempting for us Filipino Americans whose lives are relatively comfortable to distance ourselves from OFWs’ because we aren’t confronted with the same questions of survival that they face. Or worse, we might even judge Mary Jane as selfish or consumeristic for leaving her children for work.
I’ve observed this colonial tendency even among those of us who fight for social justice; we’re quick to remind others that history and generational poverty have lasting effects in the United States, but we withhold the same mercy from our fellow Filipinos who want to answer God’s call to work.
When we consider that Mary Jane is a poor single parent with less than a high school education and that the Philippines has arguably the worst unemployment in Asia, we can understand how she saw the chance to earn wages as a blessing when her godsister first proposed the idea to her. As anyone in poverty would, Mary Jane saw this overseas opportunity as an answered prayer. She loved her children enough to receive any economic opportunities as God’s providence. She recognized that God cared for her family’s physical needs through her own physical sacrifices.
As we seek distance from our evangelical forebears (an easy target these days), we often criticize our parents for elevating the spiritual at the expense of the material, but Mary Jane shows us that Filipino Christianity is in some ways more integrated than we might think.
Mary Jane’s story also reminds us that Filipino Christianity is matriarchal. Generally speaking, this is a feature of Filipino family life and society that is often overlooked. For instance, while many countries — including the United States — have yet to elect a woman to their highest political office, the Philippines has already done so twice.
Women are not only visible in family and civic life, but this is a feature of lay Filipino Christianity, especially among the country’s Catholic majority. There is an important connection between the prominence of Mary in Catholic tradition and the leadership of women in the Filipino family.
There is an important connection between the prominence of Mary in Catholic tradition and the leadership of women in the Filipino family.
As we focus on Mary Jane’s case, we need to recognize that this relationship exists before debating its biblical merits or historical development.
Acknowledging this matriarchal aspect of Filipino Christianity helps us to see Mary Jane as the faith hero she has become. She represents not only the estimated 2.3 million Filipino contract workers sent overseas each year — the largest segment comprised of women employed as nannies or maids (including more than 173,000 in Hong Kong alone), but through her continued pleas of innocence, she has taken on a near-Marian status among these millions of prayerful, sacrificial mothers.
When asked by her own mother how she remains strong while awaiting her death, Mary Jane replied, “This is God’s will.”
Sociologist Anna Guevarra has pointed out that the over-valorizing of OFW suffering must be criticized for its commodifying invocation of Mariology and Catholic ideals of sacrifice, especially because the Philippine government depends on OFW remittances and encourages its citizens to work abroad.
But Mary Jane’s case is unique. And she remains confident that God will rescue her, because her death has been “miraculously” postponed more than once, while others on death row with her were executed. In any ministry serving Filipinos or Filipino Americans, even among conservative Evangelicals, there is a strong heritage of faith lived out by Filipina women and mothers; we must learn to celebrate them.
Perhaps the greatest lesson I am learning through Mary Jane’s story is that God sees even the most invisible among us. Beyond the 2.3 million officially counted temporary workers, millions more Filipinos work cheaply and invisibly in other people’s houses, enabling wealthier people to leave their children and homes to earn much higher incomes in corporate settings. In the eyes of their employers and host countries, these Filipinos do their work successfully when they do not cause distractions. Ironically, God has worked through Mary Jane’s circumstances to bring her into a very visible role.
God sees even the most invisible among us.
No doubt, her freedom and dignity would be far better than visibility. But until that day comes, her will to live calls us to pray and act for those who suffer unjustly — to see them as God does, and to take action.
Recently, President Rodrigo Duterte, waging his own war on drugs and hoping to reinstate the death penalty in the Philippines, had the opportunity to advocate for Mary Jane in one of his private meetings with Indonesian President Joko Widodo but reportedly refused to do so. According to one of his spokesmen, he didn’t even mention her. This presidential dismissal of Mary Jane’s plight despite pressure from politicians, celebrities, and faith leaders is a painful reminder of many complex challenges in Filipino life that many Filipino Americans would rather not see.
Many of us are not excited about this president, his leadership, and the kind of community that empowers him. But Mary Jane and the millions like her get little to no mention from Filipinos in America, which makes us just like Duterte. We would rather unsee the struggles of our fellow Filipinos, even as we fight for the marginalized in the United States.
Seeing Mary Jane means looking at ourselves more honestly and appreciating how faith in God is far more complex than it appears. As Mary Jane hopes against hope and entrusts herself to God, she bears witness to the one who sees us without ever turning away.
As Mary Jane hopes against hope and entrusts herself to God, she bears witness to the one who sees us without ever turning away.
By Gabriel J. Catanus
Gabriel J. Catanus is the Lead Pastor of Garden City Church, a Chicago church serving young urban professionals and Filipino American families. He is a former hiphop DJ, a Bulls season ticket holder, and Ph.D. candidate in Christian ethics at Loyola University.