Called to Mission
California deacon serves the poor in the Philippines and Indonesia
When I was ordained to the permanent diaconate for the Diocese of Orange, California, I understood my vocation was to be divided equally between service at the altar and outreach. While service at the altar was new, as a layman I had been involved in many areas of outreach in my parish and expected these activities to continue. But God would reveal to me his calling to a new area of outreach now that I was a deacon, one that would come at a significantly higher personal cost to me: service in the foreign missions. Between 2015 and 2018 I made four mission trips to Asia, which resulted in both great hardships and tremendous blessings.
I knew in my heart that to live out my “calling” as a deacon, I was to implement this Scripture passage: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free” (Lk 4:18).
I am totally convinced that to be a deacon means to serve the poor. However, how that is manifested takes a tremendous and ongoing amount of prayer. For each individual it is different, and it is important not to compare ministries with other deacons. What is God calling you to do uniquely?
For me, it was apparent that I was to serve the poor in the Philippines and Indonesia. The question became, Did I want to make that sacrifice? What about my other callings? To be a deacon is not for the weak of heart!
Growing Up in California
I grew up in Southern California, married and raised three children with my wife, Mary Anne. I worked as an executive in the pharmaceutical industry and had long been active in my parish. At my pastor’s suggestion, I began studying for the diaconate and was ordained by Bishop Tod Brown in 2007. I launched my ministry, Spirit Filled Hearts (www.spiritfilledhearts.org), in 2014, and have since retired from my professional career and devote myself full time to ministry.
My overseas ministry began with a series of three dreams in April 2015, in which I believe God spoke to me, saying, “I’m sending you to the Philippines to minister to my people, to feed them, love them, care for them and minister to them.” It was vivid and powerful.
Living in Southern California, I’d certainly known some Filipino people, but otherwise I had had no connection to the country. But, I began praying about it, wondering how such a trip would happen. Five months later, I had my answer. A Filipino Catholic group was seeking an ordained member of the clergy to join them on a mission to the Philippines. They requested I come. This was the confirmation I needed that God wanted me to go.
In October 2015, I spent 16 days in a variety of poor communities in the Philippines. In Davao City, I witnessed people living in dire poverty; the Catholics there would literally go into the streets and pick up abandoned children, primarily Muslims, and house, feed, clothe and educate them. They would also give them the love and attention they craved. I was ordained to a ministry of service; I was beginning to see that assisting in these efforts must be a part of my calling. I visited Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center, a maximum-security prison, made famous in 2007 when a video of the inmates dancing to the music of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” was uploaded to YouTube and went viral. It was there that I experienced one of the innumerable miracles God has sent me in my life.
As a deacon, I’m called to preach the Gospel; therefore, I was excited to accept when the warden asked me to address the inmates. As I prepared to speak, however, the facility was hit by a Category 5 typhoon, the worst possible on the typhoon storm scale. The warden was going to cancel my remarks, but after a prayer, I asked him to wait another two minutes. He agreed, and to his astonishment, the weather cleared. I addressed the inmates.
In Manila and Bulacan, we fed the poor. It was here that I again saw clearly that as a deacon I’m called to minister to those whom Mother Teresa called “the poorest of the poor.” Mission trips needed to be part of my ministry.
I was invited back by Augustinian priests to Cebu for a second, 12-day trip during the Filipino celebration of Santo Niño in January 2017. I participated in a celebration at Cebu’s cathedral, where, as a deacon, I was again called to preach the Word. Thousands were in attendance, and God said to me: “There is someone here who wants to kill himself. Tell him that I love him and that I forgive him.” During my remarks, I related this to those gathered. A man later approached one of the priests present to say: “I am that man. I know God loves me. I won’t kill myself.”
I was again moved by the poverty I witnessed in Cebu, but also by the tremendous faith I encountered. Hundreds would turn out for our services, arriving a half-hour early and devoting themselves to prayer, singing and praising God. I was overwhelmed by their love. People would line up so I could pray over them; the hours would pass and the length of the line never seemed to go down. Those I’d prayed over would go into the streets and tell their neighbors, “Come and experience the love of Jesus,” who would line up so I could pray over them. It was my great joy that God used me, an unworthy deacon in his service, to transmit his love and healing to so many.
In May 2018, an Augustinian priest I’d known in the Philippines was transferred to Indonesia, and he asked that I come on a mission to the island of West Kalimantan, formerly known as Borneo. While Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim nation, 23% of West Kalimantan is Catholic.
Sent by the local bishop, I traveled through dense jungles in the region for 16 days and met with Catholics my team and I encountered. We’d come across small chapels in the most remote areas; people would come for our services, and line up for several hours at a time to be prayed over. God again used me, his ordained minister, to communicate his love and healing to the suffering. While many in the Philippines spoke English, in Indonesia we made use of the services of a translator.
It was in Indonesia that I became most keenly aware of the importance of spiritual warfare. The people had virtually nothing, so many would turn to the occult as a means to gain wealth and power. They’d buy potions, charms, bracelets and any number of other occult items in this pursuit.
In one village, we met a 15-year-old girl who was shrieking and crying out. The Augustinian sisters who were assisting us took her into a separate room to calm her, and later I went in to see her as a representative of the Church aided by the sacramental grace of holy orders I’d received more than a decade before. Knowing how the occult had a grip in the region, I told the girl we needed to remove all such items from her home. We went and collected a garbage bag full of items and disposed of them. The girl became calm and radiated God’s love.
Back to the Philippines
My fourth trip, back to the Philippines, in July 2018 was the most fruitful of all. We learned of a school operated by the Augustinian Sisters in Bulacan. Spirit Filled Hearts Ministry (SFHM) made a donation on the spot so the school could finish the year and pledged to continue raising funds to help the school in subsequent years.
I was also introduced to Tondo, a poor neighborhood in Manila, and committed SFHM to help fund completion of San Pablo Apostol Church (see sidebar below). Again the poverty was appalling. The church’s pastor, Father Rey Daguitera, drove me through the neighborhood. The smell was so bad we had to close the car windows. Crime is also a major problem; taxi drivers refuse to go there.
When I studied for the diaconate, I was asked, If you do not go out and help the poor, then who will go? Now I thought, If I didn’t help the people of Tondo, who will? God had called me to help, and I needed to respond. Had I remained a layman, I would not have been compelled to go to the missions in the same way I was as a deacon. I was ordained to serve.
Two Scriptures come to mind: Christ telling the good at the Last Judgment, “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Mt. 25:40), and Christ asking Peter, “Do you love me more than these?” (Jn 21:15).
High Personal Cost
These mission trips have not come without a high personal cost. While in Indonesia, I contracted dengue fever. Transmitted by mosquitoes, this disease zaps you of your strength and takes away your ability to function. A priest friend of mine told me, “Now you are a true missionary because you got a disease of the local people.” As a deacon, to be part of the suffering of the people fulfills me.
A worse experience occurred when I returned from the Philippines. While there, I drank lemonade with ice cubes made from tainted water. It led to a bowel obstruction that put me in the hospital for nine days. I needed surgery and was on a liquid diet for a month. It was the most miserable experience of my life.
There is also the threat of violence and a concern for personal safety. People were carrying weapons everywhere we went. In Indonesia, we drove through a village held by ISIS. Security was a concern all the time, and you always had to be careful not to get separated from the group.
I also experienced conflict at home, as well-meaning family and friends urged me not to go. I’d hear the common refrain: “There are plenty of poor here at home, why don’t you stay here and help them?” My answer? As deacons, we’re called by God in unique ways to serve. This was one way God was calling me to serve.
Proclaim the Word
But knowing all that I know now, would I go again? Absolutely! As St. Paul says, the ordained are called to “proclaim the word; be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient” (2 Tm 4:2). We’re planning our next trip for 2021.
But for my fellow deacons considering similar trips, I stress that it is important to know whether or not it is something God is calling you to do. I’d recommend this three-step formula: 1) open yourself up to God, 2) listen to him with an open mind and heart, and 3) expect him to speak to you. Make use of the guidance of a mature spiritual director, and keep asking God for the gift of wisdom. We are reminded in the Book of James that if we lack wisdom God will give it “to all generously and ungrudgingly … but he should ask in faith, not doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed about by the wind” (Jas 1:5-6).
As deacons, I believe we are called to make a difference: “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied” (Mt 5:6). We are called to be the light of Christ in a world that has much darkness and suffering. We are asked to be instruments of hope, love and peace, and to live through the power and fruit of the Holy Spirit.
We also have a charism to minister to the poor. But we need to pray to God and ask to be used. To the extent that we want to be used is the extent to which we will be used. If we truly want to serve the poor, God will create opportunities for us to do so. We just need to ask, and ready ourselves for his answer.
DEACON STEVE GRECO is a deacon for the Diocese of Orange in Southern California.
Building a Church for the People of Tondo, in Manila, Philippines
The living conditions of the 225,000 who live in the 16 villages of Tondo, a slum in Manila, Philippines, are dire. Most live in temporary housing, collecting garbage for their livelihood. Residents turn to prostitution and selling internal organs, such as kidneys, as a way to make money. Children are sent to work, in some cases making less than $2 per day peeling garlic.
Drug abuse and drug-related violence, crime and human trafficking are widespread. Sickness is common; the local government estimates that 80% are afflicted with tuberculosis. Pollution is a serious problem, with the rivers black and filled with trash and a foul-smelling air. The life expectancy of Tondo residents is 40-45 years.
As part of its efforts to assist the poor of Tondo, Spirit Filled Hearts Ministry is helping to fund construction of San Pablo Apostle Catholic Church, a parish for the poor of Tondo.
Father Rey Daguitera, the pastor, said, “I dream of having a decent church where they can gather, celebrate sacraments, thank and praise God … when we work together, miracles will happen.”
Make a donation at https://www.spiritfilledhearts.org/donate-index-impact.