China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2014/May

Mary, solace of the wandering people of God

Jesus said, “Let the person who is without sin cast the first stone” and to his surprise, a big stone rolled down the hill. He looked up and said, “Not you, Mother!”

I begin with a joke because our relationship with the Blessed Virgin Mary is often one of deep or shy reverence. The Church honours Mary as the Mother of God. But the Lord gave her to us as our mother, when he said from the cross to his beloved disciple, “This is your mother.”

In the month of Mary, let us honour her by retracing what life would have been like for this working class woman, whose Jewish name was Miriam and who lived 2,000 years ago in a small village in Galilee under Roman rule.

Mary’s yes to God changed history. Today, a group of women in China are trying to overturn lives and history too, as they move from their villages to the city. Known as women migrant workers (女農民工), their condition, dreams and needs may not be much different from the many women who leave home to work overseas.

Full of grace

The last chapter of Dogmatic Constitution on The Church (Lumen Gentium) from Vatican II is devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God. She has been venerated through the ages by people who express their devotion in colourful cults.

The Church approves, but with a firm reminder that Christ is the one and only mediator.

Dressed in resplendent costumes, Mary looks delicate, unearthly. This image is far from how she saw herself, the lowly servant (Luke 1:48).

Merle Salazar’s Miriam of Nazareth: A Jewish Galilean highlights recent quests for the historical Mary, including Elizabeth Johnson’s Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints (Continuum, 2003).

I draw upon their works and the Jewish Women’s Archive for the sketch below.

What were Mary’s options growing up in Palestine around the first century? “Up to age 12-and-a-half, a young girl did not have the right to refuse a marriage set up by the father.” A man could acquire a woman by paying a token sum to the bride’s father.

“In Israel, the family household was an economic unit as well as a biological one. It produced and processed virtually all food, clothing and other implements necessary for survival.” Mary would have been sowing and harvesting, drawing water, cooking, sewing and sweeping.

Mary also wielded influence at home by keeping rituals and passing on values of the faith, like lighting the Sabbath candle and setting aside baking dough as an offering to God.

Mary’s husband and son were both carpenters. The family probably did not own land. They paid heavy taxes: a good portion to the Roman Empire; then to local rulers who undertook massive building projects; and finally to the Temple in Jerusalem.

There might not have been enough work in Nazareth, a poor, agricultural village. Joseph and Jesus may have worked on construction projects in Sepphoris, a Roman city nine kilometres away, or Tiberias, by the Sea of Galilee.

Mary would have known from experience what it meant to be poor, downtrodden and powerless. Imagine her joy in the Magnificat, when she glorified God, “The Almighty has done great things for me.”

But Mary’s song went beyond the personal. It was a song of solidarity – with the lowly and the hungry.

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
And has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
And the rich He has sent away empty.

Mary did not stay on a pedestal. Ambrose, an early Church writer, linked Mary and the Church, “‘How beautiful thy sandaled steps, O generous maid!’ Yes, generous and beautiful indeed are the Church’s steps as she goes to announce her gospel of joy: lovely the feet of Mary and the Church.”

Both are prophets and missionaries. The Holy Spirit has commissioned both to carry the good news to the lowly and the hungry, to those who are lost (Johnson, p. 259).

Full of grit

In 2009, Time Person of the Year featured four women migrant workers. They represented The Chinese Worker, who, amidst a global recession, kept up the country’s eight per cent annual growth rate. Who are these workers?

According to 2014 national statistics, 268 million agricultural workers have moved to cities in search of work and a better life. Most work in the service, construction and manufacturing sectors. Many are young women. Some industries, like electronics, hire only women aged 16 and 23.

A majority of these migrant workers have low education. They endure poor working conditions and receive less pay. Lacking official residence (戶口) in the city, they do not enjoy many of the benefits that registered urban workers do.

Low awareness of rights affects migrant workers’ health and safety. Without labour contracts, employers do not have to contribute to their employees’ social insurance. In 2007, there were 33 per cent of Shenzhen’s migrant workers lacking social security compared with 9.4 per cent of the urban population.

Many live in dormitories, far away from city amenities and local residents. A study in 2005 in Shanghai found that 66.7 per cent of migrant workers felt discriminated against by local people.

Life after work is boring, so making friends is important. But these friendships often lead to sexual relationships. In 2011, the International Labour Organisation did a survey on sexual/reproductive health among 3,029 migrant workers from 10 companies in Shenzhen.

The results are troubling

.Premarital sex – of 1,555 unmarried migrants who took part in the survey, 78.6 per cent stated they had had sex in the past year (87.9 per cent of males and 70.7 per cent of females).

.Cohabitation – 32.1 per cent of unmarried migrants were living with their partner.

.Unplanned pregnancies – 36.5 per cent of respondents reported having an unplanned pregnancy.

.Abortion – a study conducted in four cities (including Shenzhen) found that 38.7 per cent of unmarried female migrants had had abortions and of these, 32 per cent had had three or more and 22 per cent had their first abortion before they turned 19. Some are carried out in non-hospital settings.

Resilience and Social Force

In Factory Girls (Verso, 2009), Leslie Chang presents close-up the lives of several workers in Dongguan, another city that rose from the fields in the Pearl River Delta. She notes how amid “solitary struggles, individualism was taking root. It was expressed in self-improvement classes… and in the lessons that were painstakingly copied into notebooks: Don’t lose the opportunity. To die poor is a sin.

One worker proudly recalled how with the money she had sent home, her mother hired a puppet troupe to perform for the village at the New Year and to ask for divine favour on the daughter. Such honour had never been bestowed on girls before.

Some girls go back to the village to get married and raise children, because neither the city nor the employer provides maternity care or child-support. These returned women workers in turn affect life in the village. They are more stylish and confident. Their children use disposable diapers and drink formula milk instead of breast milk. They want better education for their young.

Women migrant workers contribute significantly to household income. Through their elevated status in the family, they are able to renegotiate gender relations with their parents, husband and in-laws.

When the International Monetary Fund argues for ways to let more women join in the global workforce, the reasons they give are economic. But as we saw in the scenarios above, economic liberation, while powerful, does not guarantee social, physical and spiritual wellbeing.

Faith in the city

A good number of workers come from Catholic villages, the mainstay of Catholic life in China. Though there are few studies about Catholic women workers, the impact of their migration prompts dioceses in China to rethink pastoral strategies.

Fast pace and long work-hours in the city mean less time for worship. Due to cultural and linguistic differences, it is harder for migrants to fit in with the urban Church. While piety shapes faith in the village, city-folks prefer more intellectual approaches to faith.

Sometimes migrants also find that values, including faith values that they learned at home seem irrelevant in the city.

How does the Church minister to migrant workers, both Catholic and those who do not know God?

.What is the good news that migrant workers need to hear?

.How to make faith relevant to life in the city?

.How to nurture faith in the villages when the young and middle generations are gone? What are the physical and spiritual needs of elderly people and children who are left behind?

.Women migrant workers have catapulted social change, through their courage, perseverance and enterprise. How can the Church help these women channel their capacity and leadership?

These are some questions the Church has to answer, as China becomes more urban, fast.

Of the many titles given to Mary, the one invoked in the Pastoral Constitution, Solace to the wandering people of God, has special meaning in this age of global migration of labour.

We ask for Mary’s intercession “until all families of people, whether they are honoured with the title of Christian or whether they still do not know the saviour, may be happily gathered together in peace and harmony into one people of God” (Lumen Gentium 69).

God has remembered his promise of mercy. Remember the joy, the uplifting when the poor and the lonely recognise they are loved in the eyes of God!