Springtime Came Into Their Lives

Springtime came for the inmates of the Correctional Institute for Women (CIW). It was the second time that the CFC Handmaids of the Lord (HOLD) Echo Conference was held there and it was truly an experience I will never forget. It was my first time to direct an event and I knew this would be different from all the other Echo Conferences I've been involved with. This was a conference for ordinary women with extraordinary lives.

Some 1,500 inmates gathered as early as 7 o'clock in the morning eagerly anticipating the day's activity. Hosting the program was Jeanne Young who was a hit among the middle-aged inmates who knew her as a star in the 70's. The program opened with the Butterfly Parade participated in by representatives from the different Metro Manila HOLD sectors who were applauded well by the inmates. Such kind of entertainment was rare for them. After the parade, Atty. Rachel Ruello, CIW Superintendent, gave the welcoming remarks while Susan Ramos, CIW HOLD Coordinator, gave the opening remarks.

During the opening worship led by Pat Enaje, it was interesting to observe how the women, especially the non-HOLD members, responded. Some were clapping and singing. Some were looking at the other women around them who were raising their hands in worship. Still there were some who remained seated and preferred not to join the worship. Some were content just to close their eyes and remain silent.

The first talk entitled “A New Day” was given by Bernie Cuevas. The talk was about finding new hope as the first step to fully experiencing new life with God. CIW inmates opened the session with a very impressive dance number “I Will Survive.” The participants gave their full support to their fellow inmates as they clapped, cheered and swayed to the music. The sharer for the session was Esther Hoyumpa, an inmate charged for estafa. She shared how she led a good straight life as a family woman until a business deal gone wrong left her with a huge debt. She found hope and strength inside the CIW when she was renewed and joined HOLD. Most of the participants were touched and wept when Esther shared how her family, especially her children, was coping with her situation of not being free to attend a child's graduation or being there during special occasions.

Baby Ligeralde gave the second talk entitled “Slave of the Past” which is about dealing with the pains and hurts that a woman goes through in life. Weng Gutierrez opened the session with a beautiful rendition of “Fallin'.” Emotions filled the air as the first sharer stepped on stage - Dianne Perpenan, a 20-year old woman on death row. She was only 17 years old when she was charged as an accomplice in a kidnap-for-ransom operation. She had no idea what she was getting herself into when her boyfriend invited her to go with him to a party, which turned out to be at the gang's hideout. Even if she was charged with a crime she wasn't directly involved in, she felt that it's only proper for her to be in her situation because she hadn't led a righteous life anyway. She took drugs, she was a school dropout, and she hang out with friends who were a bad influence. But what was so inspiring about her was that she says she is now ready to face death because she is already at peace with herself and with God.

The second sharer was Beth Corral, also charged with estafa. She shared how she became a slave to worldly life by involving herself in various illegal activities just to gain power and wealth.

After two very powerful end emotional talks in the morning, the inmates had their lunch break and were treated with song numbers by CFC members Perla Adea and Romy Mallari - a famous love team also in the 70's.

Session three was opened by a song number “We've Only Just Begun” by Jeanne Young. The crowd sang with her. Tootsie Lopez then proceeded to give the healing talk “Renewal.” A powerful sharing was given by another inmate, Felisa Boracho. She shared about her old life as a battered and abused wife. She stabbed her husband 13 times for fear that he would beat her up again. But as she was sharing, the peace and glow in her face was so evident. It was a sign of new life, of finding peace and of developing a forgiving and forgiven heart. She shared about the irony of feeling freer inside the CIW because it was where she met God, where she learned to pick up the pieces of her life and to pray for the soul of her husband. What's even more inspiring is that being inside didn't stop her from evangelizing and sharing her newfound joy even to people outside the CIW. The spirit of healing was so powerful as the inmates were led in a prayer for healing.

Just before the fourth session, HOLD members from the East Sector performed their winning dance number “Uptown Girl.” It was definitely the perfect opening for the next talk “You're Beautifiul, You're Good” given by Dr. Connie Abesamis. Sharing for this session was Gertrudez Rodriguez, a former inmate charged with estafa. She shared about her life of hard work and dedicated service in prison which gained for her worthy commendations. What was so meaningful to her was her work in the infirmary where she found joy serving her fellow inmates. Her faithfulness to her service was rewarded when she was granted Presidential Pardon. As a free woman, Gertrudez continues to struggle against social discrimination but nonetheless she has found her place serving the inmates of CIW as a free Handmaid.

Finally, the fifth and last session was “Light of the World” given by Kit Ladrido. Another dance number by CIW inmates served as an opening to the session. They performed an interpretative dance “Love is All That Matters”. The highlight of the session was the candle ceremony and administering. The inmates were by now so much empowered after hearing inspiring talks from the HOLD leaders and powerful sharings by the CIW inmates.

It was a new springtime in the Correctional as inmates joined the Praisefest led by CFC leader Lito Pena. The women were dancing for joy, acknowledging and hugging one another, raising their hands in worship and singing songs of praise. After the Praisefest, HOLD members from the Central Sector performed a Latin dance number to start the party.

As the conference drew to an end, my eyes were filled with tears. It was a great privilege for me to serve in the Correctional. I thought I would be going there to lead an event that will bring new hope, new life and new springtime to the women of Correctional. Instead, it was they who inspired me to value the kind of life that I have, with the way they manage to find simple joy in spite of their limited resources. They are not free. They eat only what is served. They wear the same color of clothes each day. They are there for forgery, murder, kidnapping, illegal recruitment. But just like us, they are women who seek to find God amidst the different situations they are in, just waiting for the springtime to come into their lives.

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