It was hot and humid Sunday afternoon of November when bells began ringing in a sing-song manner in St. John’s Cathedral, Hong Kong. Parishioners, mostly women in their 20s who are busy chatting in Tagalog and Visayan languages, started to occupy the few remaining seats in the pew. Six middle-aged women wearing “volunteer” IDs ushered newcomers to vacant seats and distributed missals printed in green bond papers. A group of around forty women, all dressed in white cassock with red hood, started to form a line at the entrance of the church. The leader carries a long brass cross, while two others carrying huge and thick candles positioned themselves on her sides.
A man emerged from the sacristy. He was wearing green vestment with a red chi rho embroidery, a superimposition of the letters P and X which means Christ in Greek. As he walked down the aisle of the cathedral to the formation near the entrance, some women reached for his hand and placed it in their forehead. He cheerfully responded to their kind acts, asking how they are or their relatives, remembering them with their first or nick names.
The church organ started to play a joyous melody. The leader lifted the brass cross and started walking towards the altar. Behind her is the priest, the man in the green vestment, carrying a bible. The rest of the women who are all choir members followed them in two lines. The Aglipayan mass has begun in the Gothic-style century-old cathedral in Central.
The celebrant is Reverend Father Dwight Q. Dela Torre. His family name is a Spanish phrase which means “of the tower,” which aptly describes his position as the Philippine Independent Church’s first Chaplain of the Mission for Migrant Workers in Hong Kong, like a beacon that guides the sea of distressed Filipino workers in a land far away from home.
Fr. Dela Torre was born in Oroquieta City, Misamis Occidental province in southern Philippines sixty years ago. After finishing his Associate in Arts and Bachelors in Theology degrees from St. Andrews Theological Seminary in Quezon City in 1978, he was ordained as a priest of the Philippine Independent Church, popularly known as Aglipayan, a catholic denomination independent from Rome. He finished his Bachelor of Science in Psychology in 1994 from Trinity University of Asia, formerly Trinity College of Quezon City.
After his ordination, he was assigned to different parishes all over the country from the town of Alubilid in Misamis Oriental and Cagayan de Oro City in Mindanao, to Bacoor, Cavite in the island of Luzon before becoming the Executive Assistant to the Obispo Maximo or Supreme Bishop, the highest leader of the Church.
When the Mission for Migrant Workers (MFMW) was organized in 1981, General Manager Cynthia Abdon – Tellez said she handpicked Fr. Dela Torre to lead the congregation because she has high regards for him. At that time, a member of the clergy is needed to substantiate the mission’s presence in Hong Kong. Thus, in 1994, Fr. Dela Torre started his new job as the Chaplain of Filipino Christians in Hong Kong and eventually, of the Mission for Migrant Workers, including Indonesians and other nationalities.
Church and Personal Mission
“The problem with many Filipinos is they easily forgive,” said Fr. Dela Torre in between sipping soup from a bowl of Chinese noodle and checking his iPhone for incoming messages. He was wearing a light blue polo-barong, the short-sleeved variation of the Philippines’ national shirt for men, commonly worn in offices and schools. His clerical collar gives him the aura of dignity and respect.
“So even if their employers wronged them, did not give what is due them, they tend to forgive them (employers) easily. They always think it is better to keep their jobs even if there is injustice than to see their families starving back home,” he continued in Tagalog language as he wiped his mouth with a paper napkin from the cozy restaurant below Cheung Kong Center in Central.
Parallel to his church’s character, Fr. Dela Torre is a fighter for the oppressed. It has been his advocacy to seek justice for the abused, maltreated, wrongly-accused, and physically-assaulted migrant workers in Hong Kong. The Aglipayan church, founded by activist Isabelo Delos Reyes in 1902, has a reputation of being radical. Fr. Dela Torre believes that he advances the causes of the church if he stands for truth and seek justice.
“I will not be true to my ministry and the history of the church [if I will let people suffer],” he said
“Once there was a group of 40 airport construction workers,” he shared. “They signed a contract with the agency, and they are receiving a fairly big salary for their work. But what they received is less than what was stipulated in their contract. We found out that the agency deducts certain percentage from their wage, which, if you will compute, will amount to large amount of money too.”
“These are the kinds of cases we lobby in arbitration courts here in Hong Kong,” he said.
Since the start of the mission, Fr. Dela Torre and his team have helped more than 34,000 cases of migrant workers, ranging from petty issues such as accusation of theft, to more serious ones like sexual harassment and rape. In an average, the center handles around 1,000 cases per year. Their services include person-to-person, social media, and telephone counseling, giving shelters for displaced workers, giving advices for labor and immigration-related problems, and pastoral care and religious services.
He has only four fulltime staff and more than 30 volunteers in the center, mostly other migrants that the mission has helped, and students from some prominent Hong Kong universities.
The Grumpy Priest
“He gets irritated easily,” Virginia Castro, a parishioner for 17 years, said while laughing. “When you are given a task, and you did not accomplish it on time, expect that you will be verbally reprimanded.”
She shares the same opinion with MFMW’s Tellez and Esperanza San Diego, a university professor in the Philippines.
“He becomes grouchy if the client is not transparent,” said Tellez, referring to the abused migrant workers they are helping who do not reveal all the facts of their cases.
In his sermons during masses, Fr. Dela Torre would usually seize the opportunity to lecture parishioners on proper decorum while inside the church, reminding people not to leave when the mass is not yet over.
“I have known Dwight since our college days. He’s a perfectionist and gets irritated when he can’t accomplish his goals, but it is also easy to pacify him,” said San Diego in a phone interview from the Philippines. She also said that despite his grumpy attitude, Fr. Dela Torre is very caring, intelligent, and a supportive friend.
Castro also confirmed Fr. Dela Torre’s kind nature. She said the priest is very easy to approach when one needs something, be it financial or spiritual advice.
And while many would be intimidated with the authoritative nature of Fr. Dela Torre, Tellez said he is friendly and a lot of people are surprised to find out that they can exchange jokes with him.
“Do I look old?” he jokingly asked while brushing his short white hair with his hand. “Maybe I should also trim this and have my hair dyed,” referring to his white stubbles prominent with his brown complexion.
When he has spare time, he would spend it watching Youtube videos of Simon and Garfunkle, Peter, Paul, and Mary, James Taylor, and Jim Croce. He is also fond of reading books of John Grisham, Tom Clancy, Lee Child, and David Baldachi.
Fr. Dela Torre is married to Estella, who is currently in the Philippines. They have no children.
He plans to retire by the age of 65, and if his health would permit, he would serve parishes in the Philippines and probably teach in the seminary.
“In few years, I will retire. But as long as I am here, I will fight for the cause of migrant workers,” he said.
“As long as there are more windows in POEA (Philippine Overseas Employment Agency) than the number of lawyers fighting for our oppressed migrant workers, as long as there are illegal recruiters who benefit from the injustices done to others, and as long as there are no just-paid work in the Philippines, there will be forced migration, prone to abuses and exploitation.”
“Migrants should stand up for their rights,” he concluded.