Post-service dinner at New Life Fellowship

The New Life Fellowship Church – for Filipinos, a home away from home

In Shek Tong Tsui, the New Life Fellowship Church is as much a centre of worship as it is a thriving community centre.

Amid lively events from Wednesday to Sunday, 600-700 attendees and 450-500 bonafide supporters – 99% of whom are domestic workers from the Philippines – remember and celebrate life back home. That has become increasingly important as abused or terminated domestic workers continue to turn up.

Pastor Plaza

Pastor Plaza

Pastor Nilo Ocho Plaza, who has been New Life’s pastor for eleven years, says that perhaps five to 10 domestic workers arrive seeking shelter each month. They hear about the shelter here through friends, social networking, and from a group of outreach volunteers who go to Central each Sunday, where they distribute flyers but also listen for stories of abuse.

Pastor Plaza has been listening for a long time. Before he was asked to come to Hong Kong to be a pastor in 2004, he was a minister in his home city of Mindanao for five years. But unlike some veterans of shelters or outreach missions, who stow away their vulnerabilities while on the job, he appears to break each time he recounts a tale of abuse. Occasionally at a loss for words, he pushes through silences as though by piecing himself back together.

There is one story, he says, that he “cannot forget”.

“This is eight or nine years ago. She was working with a Chinese employer, and she was locked in the toilet for three days … The employer did not give her enough food, and she was allowed to sleep only at 12:30 in the morning. But she continued the contract until it was finished. There was a lot of suffering, and many abusive words … And when she finished the two-year contract, the next employers were [better], and it was easy.”

Another had occurred just last week. “Her [the domestic worker’s] mother had a stroke and went to the hospital, so she needed money immediately, but her employer wouldn’t advance her salary to her. That night, her employer said: ‘Pack up your things, you are terminated.’ It was raining so hard, and she could not find a taxi. It was already midnight. She had come to this church one time, and she called a friend, ‘I have no place to go, I cannot find a taxi, my things and my clothes are already wet.’ But her friend contacted the church, and we sent two people to assist her, to get her.”

But there is more happiness and celebration here than there is sadness. On Sunday night, after officially dismissing at 5, the airy carpeted space where the main congregation gathers was still alive with activity. At one end, a group of children and one or two adults careened from wall to wall, restless after organised events which included discipleship lessons from 10-12, group lessons from 1-2, singing and workshops from 2-3, and a service proper which lets out between 4:30 and 5. At the other end a group of musicians sat bantering inside a small bandstand, either preparing to play or just finishing up. Some of them – the domestic workers who work in their employers’ homes the rest of the week – had arrived before dawn to pray, left for Central to be with their friends during the morning and afternoon, and at last returned. “Actually it’s not a rest day for them, it’s very busy!” said Pastor Plaza.

Part of the purpose of New Life is to create a sense of connection back to home in Philippines – as Pastor Plaza says, to provide “a home away from home” for abused workers as well as all others. But he recognises that New Life cannot substitute for a real home.

“If they have enough money, we encourage them to go home to be with their family,” he says, explaining that a working life away from home, especially when conditions are strenuous, can tear a family apart. “The problem here is working. Because of distance, relationships can be broken, their husband has another, you know. So as much as possible, we teach the word of God, and then we give them what is reality.”

Nevertheless, New Life’s long history here speaks to the important role that it does play in Hong Kong, as a place to study the faith and as a surrogate home. Under the leadership of the United Pentecostal Church International, New Life Fellowship Church was established by American missionaries in 1984. In 1986, as the population of domestic workers from the Philippines continued to grow, Filipino missionaries came on as well. There are three other Chinese congregations, in Sheung Wan, Tsing Yi, and Yuen Long, and several outstations, including in Discovery Bay and Macau. The Shek Tong Tsui branch is the only Filipino congregation.

Yet the spirit of this church seems not confined to any place, whether in the Philippines, here at the congregation, or three MTR stops down the line in Central, where a choir, among other groups, spreads their message each Sunday. At any rate, it is a reminder that home, perhaps, is not so far away.

Scott Carpenter


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