One can read as much as one likes about a situation, but the only way to gain personal appreciation is by way of a personal experience. As a priest, my interest in a Philippines immersion was from a pastoral and social justice perspective. There were so many experiences of the poor, yet two encounters particularly resonated. These were the North Cemetery and the slums where the “successors” to the scavengers of Smokey Mountain live.
The slums are a sensory bombardment of sights, sounds, and especially smells. Life here is tough. There is poor sanitation, with few toilets, which many people do not use. Water is purchased from a water station. People here live a scavenger life style. The North Cemetery is an “exclusive gated community” but the guards wave us through thinking we are mourners. Amazingly, life here seems so “normal”. I see children playing with puppies, a woman sitting on the porch of a mausoleum sucking a cigarette, another cooking dinner. I see a pregnant woman, a child skipping a rope on a tomb. Children up a tree yell out “Helloooo, welcome to the Philippines.” All of this is going on in the midst of a stream of funeral processions, with blinged - out hearses with massive boom boxes in the back.
What I saw was people who were doing their best to make the best of life in their given circumstances. I did not see people wallowing in despair – I saw people getting on with life. In short, their lives are about hope – the hope to grow as persons. In the West, we live as isolated individuals, surrounded by our private empire, but the scavengers only understand themselves as relational beings. This too was my experience in the slums. As our guide Remy showed us her “house”, with its meagre positions, she told us that everyone else would respect her home and not enter while she is away. How can it be that this woman with so little leaves her door unlocked in the midst of so much poverty, yet we who are surrounded by wealth fortify our overflowing homes whenever we go out.
As a Catholic Priest, I tried to see my experience through pastoral eyes. In the poor I saw people not just trying to survive, but trying to live a life of dignity. It is so easy to see injustice in the world in terms of statistics. However, a personal encounter reminds us that injustice needs to be seen in terms of persons and human dignity.
Father Stephen Hill, Master of Theological Studies Parish Priest, Parish of St Ninian & St Chad