From Manila to Musgravetown

Rick Barnes
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Rev. Nancy Mojica-Fisher has followed her calling from one island home to another

During a service at the Heritage United Church in Musgravetown, Bonavista Bay, the petite Filipina minister squeezes her eyes shut and gives the familiar blessing, "May the Lord Jesus Christ be with you." She says it with such conviction, it's reassuring to even a chronic doubter like me.

Later, seated in her living room at the Musgravetown Manse, Rev. Nancy Mojica-Fisher is as animated as she was in the pulpit. Youthful and energetic, she leaps from thought to thought, pouring out details of her life history with a rich vocabulary of heavily accented English, injecting phrases borrowed from the Bonavista lexicon - "Yes my dear!"

Photo by Rick Barnes/Special to The Telegram

During a service at the Heritage United Church in Musgravetown, Bonavista Bay, the petite Filipina minister squeezes her eyes shut and gives the familiar blessing, "May the Lord Jesus Christ be with you." She says it with such conviction, it's reassuring to even a chronic doubter like me.

Later, seated in her living room at the Musgravetown Manse, Rev. Nancy Mojica-Fisher is as animated as she was in the pulpit. Youthful and energetic, she leaps from thought to thought, pouring out details of her life history with a rich vocabulary of heavily accented English, injecting phrases borrowed from the Bonavista lexicon - "Yes my dear!"

At 51, she is a veteran of parish postings ranging from her birthplace in Manila, to remote regions of the Philippine archipelago, to the rural Newfoundland towns of Whitbourne, Campbellton and Musgravetown.

Manila, the capital city of the Republic of Philippines, has more than 1.6 million people jammed into an area of only 38 square kilometres - one of the world's most densely populated cities. Hot and humid, it's a far cry from Musgravetown - a community of 600 on the western edge of a long Bonavista Bay inlet called Goose Bay.

It took a while for "Rev. Nancy," as her Bloomfield/ Musgravetown area parishioners call her, to embrace the strange terms of endearment used freely in Newfoundland. She thought it quite odd to be called a "cute little thing," and even now she cringes a bit when a man refers to her as "me lover." But Rev. Nancy quickly learned that her neighbours' odd expressions stem from a huge well of underlying goodwill.

"Oh my goodness, (they are) awesome people, wonderful people!" she says.

Rev. Nancy was the fifth of six children raised by working class parents in Manila. Both her parents worked for a Swiss-owned match manufacturer. Their paycheques didn't go far, but her parents did their best to prepare their children for life.

"Although both my parents were breadwinners, my mother had the say. She had a strong personality. ... They say I am like my mother."

The Mojica family priorities were religion, discipline, education, and a work ethic that would put many of us to shame.

"I really loved church. ... We spent Saturday and Sunday in church. I finished my homework as soon as I would get home Friday afternoon. The afternoon of Saturday ... we would do prison ministry. ... We would hand out literature ... provide a sing-along ... worship with them. Rain or no rain, flood or no flood, we would visit ..."

An exemplary academic record meant young Nancy easily qualified for a scholarship in nursing - her first career choice. But her parents couldn't afford the required books and course materials. So, her mother approached the minister of her church, the United Church of Christ, and asked for help to give Nancy a university education. Church officials proposed sending Nancy to Philippine Christian University on a church scholarship that would earn her a BA in Christian education. It would prepare her to teach Sunday school and lead youth groups. Nancy desperately wanted to attend university, so she reluctantly embraced the compromise.

"I have to admit, the first three years of my course, I was ashamed of it ... but I was doing good, despite the fact I didn't like it."

But Nancy soon changed her mind about her career, and about life. Late one night while waiting for a ride on a public transit "jeepney" in a part of Manila well-known for prostitution, a young woman running and screaming for help was shot dead at her feet. Rev. Nancy still gets goosebumps when she recalls how the woman's blood spilled into the street.

"I believe in my heart that was a turning point. ... Our church is not just about myself and God. We were taught, too, to understand the political situation and how this is related to our faith."

After receiving her degree, Nancy continued to work her way through university on church scholarships while her eldest brother helped out with her living expenses. She earned a second degree, in psychology, and then went on to a master's program in divinity. Nancy was the only woman in a residence filled with men. She graduated magna cum laude.

Another experience Rev. Nancy will never forget was an assignment to work with the urban poor of Manila. She was placed with a family of nine living in a slum at the notorious Smoky Mountain garbage dump, where she helped her host family sift through truckloads of garbage for anything of value.

She carried her ministry to remote villages on some of the most isolated islands of the Philippines, often at great personal risk. The intrusion of a bold, Bible-toting woman from Manila with a mission to empower indigenous people was not always appreciated by the military. Tasked with keeping order and protecting the central government during the Marcos regime, the military minions were the law in outlying regions, and some were not above killing and raping.

Rev. Nancy's mother died before her ordination in June 1986. Nancy transformed her mother's final gift to her, a modest inheritance, into a gift of freedom for a rebel and his pregnant wife. The young couple, hiding in the mountains for fear of being shot by government troops, secretly contacted Nancy and asked for help. Using the last of her mother's savings and her contacts within the Church of Christ in the Philippines, she negotiated their safe return to society and travelled to the mountains and escorted them back to Manila herself. They now live in freedom and Rev. Nancy is their child's godmother.

"This, to me, is how the church is supposed to be. This is really acting the gospel in reality," she said.

As an ordained minister, Rev. Nancy worked at a frenetic pace. As well as duties at her own parish, she worked for the national office of the Church of Christ, and taught at Philippine Christian University. She was accepted to the doctoral program at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, but the United States - a longtime political ally and big brother of the Philippines - refused her immigration request, twice.

Immigration Canada had no such reservations. After the McCormick debacle, Rev. Nancy had abandoned the notion of study and work in the west. Then the United Church of Canada came calling.

"The philosophy and the goal of the United Church of Canada was to bring in a new trend of a missionary program into the North American context," she said.

The thought of more immigration hassles made her reluctant to begin the process, but things progressed smoothly. Soon she found herself headed for a province at the eastern edge of Canada. When her plane reached Toronto on June 28, 1992, Rev. Nancy thought she was already in Newfoundland and Labrador.

"I remember the minister from the national office in Toronto met me at the airport, and you know, they took me in the shuttle bus. And here I was, I was saying, 'Hi, how are you? How do you do?' to people in the bus, and the minister said, you'll fit really well in the Newfoundland context. I didn't know what he meant at that time, but now I know!"

Enthusiastic as she was, coping with the transition to a new way of life and a different approach to theology was overwhelming. And, after moving from her tropical home to a cool, windy island she was dogged with a stubborn outbreak of psoriasis.

"I think it is the stress of the cultural shock, too. My first two years was so lonely," she said.

Seeking an effective psoriasis treatment led Rev. Nancy to become a victim of medical error at the Clarenville hospital last year. Instead of medication to control her condition, she was mistakenly given an intravenous chemotherapy cocktail that had been prepared for a cancer patient. Since then, her psoriasis treatment seems to have lost its efficacy, and that worries her.

But Newfoundland and Labrador brought Rev. Nancy great happiness, too. A local man, Garry Fisher, became her partner.

"I fell in love with a Bonavista b'y! And he fell in love with a Filipino girl, so we got married. God has brought me a wonderful partner from out of the 'blues.' I have an amazing partner," she said.

The Musgravetown Manse has been Rev. Nancy's home for nearly six years, and she is thankful for the support and kindness of her congregation.

"They opened their hearts so I could grow with them ... and so that I could also, you know, be able to fulfil that ministry that God has called me to do. Thanks be to God, they love me here and I love them, too."

But there is sadness within the congregation with the news that their first female minister will be moving on.

Rev. Nancy says she will feel the pain of that separation, too.

"I'm sure they still have a lot to share with me and I have more to share with them, but there is a point in your life when you need change."

Nothing is yet carved in stone, but she is certain of one thing - she won't be going far.

"Newfoundland and Labrador will be my home forever," she said.

telegram@thetelegram.com

Organizations: Heritage United Church, United Church of Christ, Philippine Christian University BA Nancy's McCormick Theological Seminary United Church of Canada North American Clarenville hospital

Geographic location: Manila, Musgravetown, Bonavista Bay Newfoundland and Labrador Philippines Whitbourne Goose Bay Canada Toronto Chicago United States

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  • Fern
    July 02, 2010 - 13:23

    Rev Nancy, you will be missed here in these communities. We will miss staying late on Sunday mornings and all the food times, especially your Philippino treats. May god bless you in your next endeavor. Bob and Fern

  • Fern
    July 01, 2010 - 20:08

    Rev Nancy, you will be missed here in these communities. We will miss staying late on Sunday mornings and all the food times, especially your Philippino treats. May god bless you in your next endeavor. Bob and Fern