Gina Lopez on her Ashram Years and Turning Her Back on a Privileged Life

The newly appointed DENR secretary remembers the time she spent as a missionary in Africa

by Gina Lopez

At 18, Gina Lopez was a sheltered daughter of privilege who surprised Manila society by leaving home and becoming a missionary in Portugal, India, and Africa. In an essay she wrote for Rogue last March, the newly appointed DENR secretary recalled her ashram years where she learned that a hard life can be a good thing

have been superbly blessed with being born into a very loving family. My parents are exemplary human beings, spiritual and compassionate. I get along with all my siblings. My childhood memories are of warmth and love, and my adolescent years were a lot of fun. So when I left home at the age of 18, it was a big shock to everyone—even the neutral onlookers. “Huh? How can that happen?”

I have memories of myself as a young child—aged around nine or 10—biking daily from Pili Avenue in South Forbes, where I spent my childhood years, to San Antonio church in Forbes Park, to attend the morning mass. I was clearly looking for something, and I didn’t find it in the externals of organized religion. I was looking for something deeper.

regina lopez (picture)

The author at 18 with her parents, Geny and Chita Lopez, and siblings: (seated from left) Marisa, Ernie, Berta, Chita, Gabby, and Raffy.

But before I could put a name to whatever it was I was looking for, I was overtaken by adolescence, where the direction in life was just to have fun. Social life was of premier importance. And I did have a lot of fun.

Then I went to Newton College of the Sacred Heart in Boston, an all-girls school run by nuns. Even then I had an interest in meditation. My inner self had a thirst that was not being quenched.

My freshman year at Newton College was great. There were six other Filipinos there, all of whom I knew well, so I never felt far from home. My brother Gabby was going to Bowdoin College as well, which was not far, and he would visit me sometimes looking for girls to date. There were also Filipinos I knew who were going to schools nearby, so I had a great time.

Then I met someone in Harvard who recommended I go to an ashram that taught meditation. When I entered the ashram, apart from the meditation, they had some singing. I had an experience. I felt something deep. Tears rolled down my cheeks, I felt something I had not felt in church or in school. I had a feeling of Divine Love. That changed my life forever.

I have always been impulsive. And living a sheltered life definitely does not teach one to be circumspect. One just feels and does. That’s what happened to me. I went full swing into this group. When I got to the Philippines after my freshman year, it was typhoon season. I went headlong into relief work, maneuvering resources from ABS-CBN through this group. There is an intensity that exists with the young.

Eventually I left home. Not because things were not good, but because I had this urge to do something. Looking back at it now, I still marvel at how I did all that I did. Leaving home, renouncing everything, having two to three sets of clothes, and taking a vow of celibacy—at 18! It’s almost like a segment of my life was cut dead. Not that sex is of premium importance, but cutting off natural attractions that come with life is cutting off a part of oneself, and during that time of one’s life, in hindsight, I don’t think it’s healthy. Life should be experienced and allowed to blossom.

Finally I became a full-fledged yoga missionary. I went to Portugal, India, then Africa. It was in Africa that I spent 11 years and met my now ex-husband with whom I have two sons. The basic responsibilities of an Ananda Marga yoga missionary are to teach yoga-run, pre-primary schools, and children in homes for the underprivileged. The slogan is “Service to humanity is service to God.” I was constantly looking for money to survive and take care of the children I was responsible for.

Like all institutions, one has a goal, but often what happens is something else. As I implied earlier, I grew up in a bubble where people were good and loving and true. This results in a naïveté about people and life.

regina lopez (picture) 2

Lopez during her years as a missionary.

What was my life like in Africa? I lived for six years in Kenya. Two of those years were in a slum area where we had to stand in line for water, and the toilet system was pathetic. It was there that I learned to value water. I had one pail, and that was it: for bathing myself and using the last bit for washing my underwear.  When one doesn’t have much, one treasures every little bit. I lived as the poor lived, so I learned how not to be wasteful—a trait I carry to this day where I use every bit of everything. I learned how to value empty containers, because they can be of use eventually.

It is in Africa that I learned the quality of persistence. Hardship has its value. What was not good was that the organization insisted on obedience. Blind obedience is not healthy because one gives up the faculty of discernment. It is much better to live according to principle than according to rules, because situations in life change. What is good in one situation may not be so in another. The ability to adapt develops intuition and intelligence. I did not learn this there, but I am learning it while managing the institutions I currently head.

In the organization, I was sent to places without money or contacts. Thrown in the sea to swim. I survived and learned the value of guts and will, qualities I have honed further in the Philippines.

I learned the value of being Filipino. The camaraderie inherent in the race is amazing. Wherever I would go, as long as there was a Filipino, they would help me. Almost all ships had Filipino crewmembers. Since I was taking care of children in Africa, I would go to the port and visit the ships to ask for help, and the crew was always very generous. So I found myself eating cheese, crackers, and other delicacies whilst living in Africa.

In the 20 years I was a missionary, I never experienced lack of money or food. It was not a luxurious life, but I always had enough for basic needs. The only time I can remember going hungry was during training, because it partly involved restricting food. I do not think this is advisable for spiritual growth because one can’t concentrate if one is hungry. Instead of feeling the Divine, one is thinking of dinner.

Africans have a very simple temperament, sometimes almost like children. This resonated with my own temperament, so I was quite happy there. It was a different life, a different world. I eventually had to go home since I fell in love with my husband, who at the time was my boss. One can’t have relationships with the opposite sex as a missionary.

Upon arrival in Manila, I still remember being taken aback with all the flyovers. The city looked so different. I felt an uneasiness at not having anything to do. In Africa I had to do the laundry, cook, do the marketing, clean the house, drive. Now I was in a situation where there was none of that. On top of it all, the day I arrived in the Philippines was also the day I found out I was pregnant. So no matter how uncomfortable I felt, the door of going back to Africa and the missionary life had closed.

It’s now been 26 years since I started working with the ABS-CBN Foundation. I am also chair of the Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission. I am well and happy. I discovered a meditation school more than 10 years ago, which has and continues to help greatly in life. My passion is to take care of the environment and address the poverty in the country. I remain convinced that we can have a country without poverty if we take care of the environment and institute mechanisms wherein the community around benefits. I have been able to do it in a few sites where the communities are able to send their kids to college in the second year, so I know it can be done.

Now, at the age of a very young-feeling 62, what are my reflections?

Life is what you make of it. The experience of life is how you see it. You can see it negatively or you can see even the seeming failures as a positive opportunity to grow. If we take on this positive bent, everyone around benefits. My consistent experience in life is that as long as one commits to integrity and service, there are Divine Forces that help. I feel it everyday, when I meditate in the morning, as I do my work. Life is a challenge. There are also negative forces that exist, and they are within one’s self. One needs to be keenly aware of them.