By Fr Alvin Ng, SJ
A convoy of vans and MPVs slowly making its way through the city streets on a Saturday morning is nothing to get excited about. But for the people inside the vehicles, there is a hint of excitement; a sense of mission and purpose.
For packed into each car is a collection of foodstuffs – sacks of rice, bags of canned food, biscuits and instant noodles, long beans, potatoes, carrots and cabbages wedged in between bottles of cooking oil and packets of sugar, salt and ikan bilis.
Another car is filled with bales of blankets and boxes of assorted goods including sealed packs of face masks. Yet another car carries a precious cargo of fresh chicken eggs, trays and trays of them.
At the receiving end of these goodies are another group of people, waiting in anticipation, assured of not going to bed hungry that night and indeed for the next two weeks, hopefully.
This is the food aid distribution organised by the Ministry to the Migrants of the Archdiocese of Kuching. What started as a once-off response to an urgent appeal for food supplies at the end of the three-month pandemic lockdown in May 2020, became a regular bi-monthly activity for the rest of the year. Supplying food packs to hundreds of migrants spread throughout the city and its environs is no walk in the park.
It starts weeks before the actual delivery with the word being passed around the migrants’ network and grapevine, eliciting names and numbers of persons needing food aid. These numbers depend on who among the migrants have resumed working and are in less dire need than others who may still be unemployed or jobless for months with little to no savings left for basic survival.
A leader is appointed among groups in each locality to co-ordinate with ministry workers. A flurry of texting back and forth ensues, names are checked and cross-checked.
Once consolidated, an order is placed with a local supermarket to prepare food packs according to a shopping list that is vetted to ensure a healthy and balanced diet. Many asked why donations for foodstuff are not asked of generous parishioners and the food packing undertaken by Catholic volunteers instead.
The answer lies in two pandemic-coined words – social distancing – which makes it unsafe for volunteers to congregate to receive, sort out and pack donated foodstuff. Thus, comes this new normal way of proceeding, which turned out to be convenient and time-saving for all.
At the appointed time, the food packs from the supermarket are delivered and received by enlisted volunteers and loaded onto designated vehicles used in the actual distribution. What is heart-warming is the wonderful inter-ministry collaboration witnessed in response to the Lord’s call in the Gospel of Matthew 25:35-40.
Members from other church-based social ministries such as the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Divine Mercy Apostolate, Legion of Mary and the Youth Apostolate readily volunteered to help with the distribution. Others pitched in through the load of vehicles (the vans are courtesy of St. Peter’s College), personal financial contributions or conducted their own fund-raising to add to the small cash donation given on top of the food aid.
In the pandemic, one quickly realises the importance of cellular and internet connectivity. These RM50 to RM100 cash handouts often help the migrants to stay connected as it allows them to top up their phone credit and data plan especially when they are not receiving regular salaries due to fluid job market of a pandemic-stricken economy. For others, it simply goes to paying rent or buying medication.
A final safety (SOP) briefing and a prayer to “See, Judge and Act” while labouring in the vineyard of the Lord are in place before the convoy of joyful mercy embarks on its mission. Many of the volunteers are first-timers; some young working adults, some retirees, a number of teenagers but all eager stewards of God ready to get their hands dirty and ask nothing in return except the sweat and toil in the sun.
At each stop, each volunteer (having been briefed beforehand) is assigned a specific food stuff to put out in its required numbers. While interactions between volunteers and the migrants would have been highly encouraged in normal times, safety requirements allowed only for hand waves and praying hand gestures as signs of being one with each other in these challenging times.
The gratitude from the recipients came almost instantly through their repeated words of thanks, followed by text messages of hope and appreciation (despite reminders not to use their limited phone data on this).
A sample of the food aid given can be seen in the picture herein. The lesson learnt is that while it involves more work, it makes economic and practical sense to give food aid rather than complete cash assistance. A recipient informs me that the RM100 worth of foodstuff he receives can feed his family of four for almost two weeks.
Simple math will show that that the same amount will last no more than five days if they were to “tapao” meals. On a sadder note, some of the migrants encountered actually could not leave their work premise to shop for food. This is due to either the remote location of the factory they work in or the absence of transportation or in some cases, the fact that they were locked inside the business establishment, especially at the height of the MCO lockdowns.
That is the reality for them as migrants caught in the midst of a pandemic. For the volunteers, this is only an external view of the same world we live in.
Jesus of Nazareth famously concluded his parable of the Great Judgement in Mt. 25:40, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Feeding the hungry and the thirsty, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and welcoming the stranger are basic identifiers of what it means to be a Christian.
Perhaps we need not wait till a pandemic occurs for us to do all these. The invitation is always there and the opportunity to do something, however small, is always available. Perhaps what we need is for God to grant our eyes to see, our hearts to judge and our hands to act as those of Christ’s Himself.
So, the next time you see a convoy of vehicles heading out of St. Joseph’s Cathedral on a Saturday morning, pause and pray for the migrants in your midst. But pray with joy because some groups of people will not be going to go to bed hungry tonight.
If you like to help or even join in the next convoy of joyful mercy, kindly contact the Ministry to the Migrants (Fr Alvin Ng, SJ at email@example.com).