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MANILA, Philippines – At his worst, Richard Elson felt worthless.
Elson, who lives in Pasay City, said it began when he met Mary Jane.
"Si Mary Jane po ay hindi isang babae. Si Mary Jane po ay isang halamang nakaka-high," he said. (Mary Jane is not a woman. Mary Jane is a plant that makes you feel high.)
Mary Jane is slang for marijuana.
Elson, in other words, became a drug addict.
Elson recounted his story on Sunday, January 8, during the "Day of Hope" Mass at the Manila Cathedral, presided over by Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle. (READ: Cardinal Tagle inks deal with int'l drug rehab farm)
During his personal sharing at the Manila Cathedral, Elson said he also tried other vices, such as gambling and alcohol, exploiting the freedom he had because his parents lived abroad.
"'Yung mga kaibigan ko, unti-unti na akong nilayuan. Gayon din, nawalan din ako ng hanapbuhay. Nawalan din ako ng tiwala sa aking sarili," he said. (My friends slowly left me. In the same way, I also lost my job. I lost trust in myself.)
Meeting another Mary
Elson's parents and closest friends, however, refused to give up on him.
Every afternoon, his mother and father said the rosary so that he would change his life. A group of nuns, whom they consider friends, also prayed hard for Elson.
Elson, too, was introduced to Fazenda da Esperança, an international drug rehabilitation farm found in Masbate and also in Naga City.
"During my stay in Fazenda, unti-unti po ay parang nagkaroon po ako ng liwanag," he said. (During my stay in Fazenda, I slowly saw the light.)
There, the former drug addict realized his mistakes. Through the daily Gospel reflection that they do at Fazenda da Esperança, he said he also found the grace to confess his sins and repent.
"Doon din po may nakilala pa akong isang Mary, pero hindi po siya si Mary Jane. Siya na po si Mama Mary. Sa kanya ang aming palaging balingan," Elson said.
(There, I also met another Mary, but she is not Mary Jane. She is Mama Mary. She is always our refuge.)
Elson said he graduated from Fazenda da Esperança around 4 years ago.
Today, the former drug addict is a seminarian.
Elson is now entering his 3rd year of seminary formation in a religious congregation.
'I was able to find Christ'
Speaking after Elson, Las Piñas resident Kathleen Meneses said she was addicted to illegal drugs for 17 years – almost half of her life.
Meneses said she has two children, both of whom she had neglected at the height of her addiction. Sometimes, her children would embrace her and she wouldn't even mind them, she said.
At one point, she even ran away from home.
Eventually, however, she was enrolled at Fazenda da Esperança when she was 34.
On her experience at Fazenda da Esperança, she said: "Masasabi kong nahanap ko uli doon si Christ. O puwede ring sabihing siya ang nakahanap sa akin. Siya ang pumulot sa akin sa dilim ng 17 years."
(I can say that there, I was able to find Christ. Or we can also say that he was the one who found me. He was the one who picked me up from the darkness of 17 years.)
Meneses said she now considers herself an "ambassador of hope."
She then gestured to other Fazenda da Esperança graduates, who stood behind her as she spoke at the Manila Cathedral on Sunday.
"Isa akong patunay, lahat kami dito sa harap 'nyo, mga patunay na may pag-asa po lahat. Basta may buhay, may pag-asa," she said. (I am proof, everyone of us in front of you, we are proof that everyone has hope. When there is life, there is hope.)
'Jesus is stronger than drugs'
Echoing this message, Tagle said in his homily on Sunday, "No person will be discarded by Jesus. Every person is welcome to follow the light and hope."
Father Hans Stapel, one of the founders of Fazenda da Esperança, added through a translator: "Gusto kong sabihin sa bawat kabataan na 'wag kayong matakot na umalis sa kadiliman. Posibleng lumabas tayo sa kadiliman kasi si Hesus ay mas malakas pa sa droga."
(I want to tell all young people not to be afraid to escape from darkness. It is possible to escape from the darkness because Jesus is stronger than drugs.)
This is why Elson is not ashamed to tell other people he is a former drug addict.
Recounting one of his experiences in the seminary, he said, "Merong isang seminarian na nagtanong sa akin, 'Kuya Rich, brother, hindi ka ba mahihiya kapag sinabi ko na dati kang adik?' Napatigil ako."
(I am the elder brother in the seminary. There was once a seminarian who asked me, "Kuya Rich, brother, won't you be ashamed if I say that you're a former addict?" I was speechless.)
"Pero sinabi ko sa sarili ko, sinabi ko sa kanya, 'Mas nakakahiya siguro kung hindi ko ihahayag 'yung awa, pagmamahal, at pag-asa na natanggap ko kay Hesus.'"
(But I told myself, and I told him, "It would be more shameful if I don't declare the mercy, the love, and the hope that I received from Jesus.") – Rappler.com
Paterno R. Esmaquel II, news editor of Rappler, specializes in covering religion and foreign affairs. He obtained his MA Journalism degree from Ateneo and later finished MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.