THIS is a remarkable testimony of a professional theologian doing his theology out of living 30 years with scavengers on a huge garbage dump in the heart of Manila in the Philippines. After his doctorate in Rome and some years teaching in a theology school Benigno Beltran led his classes to get acquainted with the people of Smokey Mountain. Then he decided to live there himself to share fully in the life of people generally despised by the rest of society.
Beltran approached Smokey Mountain, much like Moses approached the burning bush, with a sense of approaching the Mystery that was his God. In the people amidst the rising stench of the dump he felt he was in the presence of the Unknown. He did not go as a teacher but as a learner of the language and culture of a supposedly lost people. He went there to befriend them and found himself accepted and graced with their love, their humble resources scrounged from the dump. He got to know the “God of the Poor and Oppressed.” He picked up “the smell of his flock,” as Pope Francis insisted for priests.
He was forced to think his theology all over again, not as if new, but at greater depth: “God as Fearsome and Alluring Mystery.” He had recourse to studies of the most modern scientific investigation to understand the chemistry surrounding them and him. His reading exploded in every direction of the macro and micro as he analyzed the economic and political system that decreed this scavenger life for over 20,000 people in just one of the world’s cities.
From observing how the women are the backbone of the spirit and survival of these families, he concludes that “women from all over the world might well save the global economy.” His book is sprinkled with the poetry and wisdom of the ages: Bible, Kipling, Dorothy Sayers, Emily Dickenson, Yeats, Hopkins, Vaclav Havel, Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, M.L. King, May Sarton, Benedict XIV, his own Society of Divine Word Constitutions. He elaborates on Einstein’s lead into relativity and Quantum Physics and its significance for our world.
The people helped him see that theology and science have to be rooted and committed in history to be valid. He cites the experience of Archbishop Oscar Romero. In the later stage of his stay there Beltran helped them get organized in Alinsky-style to pressure the government for decent housing. They were successful because of their own understanding of relationships in tough, burning love.
His perspective gained from the scavengers helped him see not only the world as it is, but also where it was heading. We are trashing this planet and its people. Among all the superfluous junk they find bodies, and fetuses, then to give decent burial to same. The scavengers are really our saviors. They are our saviors for their world view as also for their humble labors. They are “Hope for a Planet in Peril.”
This is review first appeared in the Carnelite Review.