Jason DeParle: The religious resilience of global migrants

Jason DeParle and Tita Comodas in 1987. Photo courtesy of Jason DeParle

The journalist’s 30 years of following a family from the Philippines shows generations of people pushing their way out of poverty, often sustained by their faith.

When Jason DeParle first moved into Tita Comodas’ shanty in the Manila slums, it was understandably awkward. He was a newspaper reporter who had received a grant to study poverty in the Philippines, and she happened to say yes to the nun who was asking people to allow him to board.

The first days of DeParle’s stay in the Comodas household, everyone was polite, overly polite, and it was clear that DeParle was a guest and an outsider. But the ice broke when DeParle tried and failed to help Comodas as she was gluing newspapers together to use as paper bags.

“I botched it so bad, she teased me and said she was going to mark them ‘Made in the USA,’” he said.

From that moment, he built a relationship with the Comodas family, staying with them off and on for the next eight months and following their story over three decades.

He focuses on this family’s story in his most recent book, “A Good Provider Is One Who Leaves,” telling how, over time, members of the family worked many foreign jobs to gradually improve the family’s livelihood back home.

DeParle is a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and a senior writer at The New York Times.

He sat down with Faith & Leadership’s Chris Karnadi while at Duke to deliver the 2019 Crown Lecture in Ethics. He spoke of the Comodas family’s resilience and reliance on their faith, as well as the impact of immigration on America’s religious landscape. The following is an edited transcript.

Faith & Leadership: You went to the Philippines to research poverty. So how did the theme of immigration come up?

Jason DeParle: I won a fellowship to go to the Philippines. I took a sabbatical from journalism; I didn’t go to Manila as a journalist. I went to try to get as close as I could to developing-world poverty.

I got to the Philippines, and it took a few months. I was trying to find a family to live with, so I called up a nun named Sister Christine who lived and worked in this slum area. I asked her if she would help me find a family to move in with, and she discouraged me and said it wouldn’t work and then relented and said, “Come back in a few days.”

I came back a few days later thinking she would have approached a family in the meantime, and instead, she led me through the alley and auctioned me off on the spot. I knew just enough Tagalog to understand the conversation. The [first] woman said, “Oh, it’s not possible. It cannot be,” and the second person said the same. The third person was Tita, the woman I moved in with, and Sister Christine walked off and said, “You two work it out. Goodbye.” She told Tita, “If you don’t want him, pass him on to somebody else,” and she left, and the two of us were left standing there.

So I moved in with Tita. I wanted to experience shantytown poverty. When I got there, her husband, it turns out, was a guest worker in Saudi Arabia, so he was 5,000 miles away on a two-year labor contract.

She was raising their five kids on the money he sent back, so migration was the way the family survived. It started as an act of desperation. He had a sick child and couldn’t afford medicine. The rain is coming through the roof in his shanty. He actually says to God -- a very religious man -- prays, says to God about his daughter, “God, take her or let me have her.” Cure her or put her out of her pain, her suffering.

God answers in a mysterious way with an offer of a job in Saudi Arabia two days later. He has to go and leave his family for two years but will make 10 times his Manila pay, and so he goes off. What starts as his act of desperation in going abroad becomes the family’s way of life, because all five of the kids grow up and become overseas workers like him.

When I was living there, I was thinking this is a tremendous sacrifice that will enable his family to rise enough that they won’t ever have to do this again, but it was quite the opposite. It was a tremendous sacrifice that set into motion a way of life that’s persisted through the generations.

F&L: It’s this way of life from which the book’s title derives, right?

JD: Right. Tita, the mom, was one of 11 siblings. In her generation, nine went abroad or had spouses who did. One of them was watching her brothers and sisters come back from abroad and being able to build cement block homes while she was living in a thatched hut. She turns to her husband and says, “You need to go abroad, too.” She wanted the benefits of what they had.

She tells him, “A good provider is one who leaves,” and that kind of becomes the family ethos, and really a national ethos, when you look at how much migration there is out of the Philippines.

F&L: And now part of the family lives in Houston, the Villanueva family.

JD: Yes. Tita had five kids. The one I knew the best was the middle child, Rosalie, and she used her father’s remittances to make the leap from the slums to nursing school, which was a big leap both financially, to be able to afford it, and academically.

I think this is where the role of faith kind of comes into the story. Tita, the mom, was a very religious woman, and Rosalie was as well. She was part of a youth group that used to go door to door in the shantytown singing praise songs about the Virgin Mary. If you asked me what sustained the family, and particularly Rosalie and her journey out of poverty, it’s the intensity of her faith and the sense of a personal relationship she had with Jesus, but even more so probably with Mary. They felt Mary was at her side and on her side.

Tita was very much affected by the liberation theology of these nuns that came into the slum and told her that Jesus had a special place in his heart for the poor. It was a really radical notion to her, because if you looked around, everything you would see would suggest quite the opposite -- that God had somehow forgotten about the poor.

That was a message that Tita took really to heart, and among the questions raised for her was what was her duty to serve God and others. She became very service-oriented. She helped run a co-op where she was in charge of buying 2,000 eggs a week and distributing them to other people in the slum area. And to protect them from the rats, she stacked them under a fluorescent light in her kitchen.

This was a big logistical, and physical, task for her -- just to get the eggs in. Then she had to keep track of them and who was paying her how many centavos and just the bookkeeping involved.

I don’t know what I expected to find in the slums, but it wasn’t a woman with a sixth grade education in a worn housecoat trying to live out the gospel beneath a tower of eggs. There was something so pure about her attempts to be true to her faith, so it definitely affected the way I thought about poverty and poor people.

I think I had gone into the slums with all kinds of economic questions. I wanted to know how many square feet they had in the average hovel, what was the caloric intake, what was the annual income. All these things are definitely important, but I think I came out of it with an additional set of questions: How did she get her faith? How does she sustain it? What are her feelings about her religious obligations? What are her feelings about her family devotion? I had a different, additional set of questions that were much more about her internal motivation.

She told me at one point she’d been asking God, “Why, if you loved your Son, are so many people poor?” It’s an essential question of faith, right? How does a good God allow suffering?

She had a vivid inner life and a searching spirit. She had an intellectual curiosity. It made me think about her in ways that went beyond her material poverty. I think it pushed me harder in writing about other poor people to try to capture that element of them. What are their hopes and dreams for their family? What struggles do they have with their faith? Those are questions I wanted to ask in addition to how much do they earn.

F&L: What are some of your observations about how immigration affects the faith landscape in the U.S.?

JD: Well, I think it energizes it. Rosalie has such a deep faith, and it’s so integrated into her life. She’s a nurse, and one of the things I’ve learned was just how she views her work life as a religious calling, and that was moving to see.

Sister Christine, the nun who introduced me to the family, wanted her to become a nun and tried to get her to go to the convent, and Rosalie didn’t want to take a vow of poverty. She’d had enough poverty, but the sense of calling pervades her work as a nurse. She does the night shift, 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., and she bears witness for people there.

It reminds me of the phrase “thin places” that Scottish pilgrims used to talk about, where the distance between heaven and earth narrows and the presence of God can be more readily felt. For Rosalie, the ward is her thin place, where you would see people in their pain and suffering and were kind to them. She, I think, understands her work with them not as simply a way to get a paycheck but as a way to serve God. I think her faith shows in a religious setting but also in her daily work.

F&L: What do you think are some of the faith dimensions of making a home in America?

JD: I think America’s religiosity makes it easier to integrate immigrants than, say, Europe. It’s an opportunity for native-born Americans and foreign-born Americans to interact. It’s a point of contact and commonality.

Church is a place where Rosalie can be with Filipinos and non-Filipinos, and where native-born Texans relate to them as parishioners, not as immigrants. It gives the foreign- and native-born something in common that I think nonreligious societies don’t have, just the fact that they’re in the church. Then, in addition, I think people of faith for the most part tend to be more welcoming of the stranger, and their faith mandates a reaching out to others. But that’s kind of an additional factor on top of it. I think it’s a place where people can meet and get to know each other, integrate.

One thing I notice, there’s a narrative of a conflict at the national level constantly. If all you knew about politics was the Trump Twitter feed, you would think, “My God, the universe is an incredibly divided place.” But then you get into a place like Houston that is deep in the heart of red-state America but the most ethnically diverse metropolitan area in the country, and it’s very pro-immigrant.

In daily life, the narrative isn’t one of conflict, by and large. Obviously, there are occasions, but the dominant narrative is, I think, one of welcome to immigrants.

I think we have to resist judging all of American life by the impassioned minority that is opposing immigration at the national political level, because I think the story in communities tends to be much more encouraging and much more of a welcoming story. I think Houston has embraced immigrants, and I think a lot of places have. And the religious cooperation, I think, has been an element of that.