A band of Hasidic pilgrims were once lost in a deep, dark forest. They chanced upon their Zaddik, their spiritual leader, who had been lost even longer. Unaware of his helplessness, they asked him to show them the way out of the woods. He told them, “I cannot do that. I have been lost even longer than you. But I can point out the ways that lead farther into the forest, and after that, let us try to find the way out together.”
In the face of massive poverty in the world today, Pope Francis says: “Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.”
How are we going to solve the problem of global poverty? I do not know how, but I know many ways how not to do it.
Not by bread alone
This is what I saw when I first came to Smokey Mountain: millions of flies and cockroaches and mutant rats (huge!) competed with 25,000 scavengers for survival, 25,000 men, women and children who had been trampled upon, squashed, obliterated, condemned without trial to be a stinking class of human beings carrying their rattan baskets like beasts of burden, people who had been lied to, deceived, duped and spat upon all their lives.
And so, to combat their poverty, I wrote hundreds of project proposals, discussed strategic planning and key performance indicators with the scavengers. But I soon learned they were not overly impressed by these. They told me that life is a mystery—mahiwaga ang buhay ng tao. A human being has to live with this mystery. The vastness of the ocean, the starry skies, the endless stretch of the heavens all touch something eternal inside us and remind us of the mystery of life, they told me, as we live life with our loved ones.
The scavengers are highly dependent on the extended family for a sense of identity, reassurance and emotional well-being. Whenever I bring the scavenger children to a fast-food chain, they only eat half of their hamburger. They tenderly wrap the other half in tissue paper and bring them home to their family.
The poor rest their security not in material possessions but in other human beings and in God. The interpersonal and spiritual worlds are the primary source of emotional gratification for the people in Smokey Mountain. Communally-shared meaning and intersubjective values maintained social cohesion. The scavengers seemed happier to me than many of those living in gated communities.
The scavengers cannot see themselves independent of their relationships. For them it is more important than bread.
The people of Smokey Mountain believe in fate and exert great effort to align themselves to its flow. They bear the consequences stoically when they fail. Their own destiny is to be scavengers — it is written in the palm of their hands and dictated by the wheel of fortune, they said. They built their hovels on dangerous ground and trusted that God would watch over them. The scavengers risked death when their houses were carried away by the waves or buried in garbage avalanches. They constantly risked eviction and the demolition of their shanties. For all their fatalism and resignation, they were most afraid of fire engulfing their dwellings which were highly flammable, but they always said, “God will take care of us.”
When I stole out of the garbage dump to join the demonstrators during the EDSA People Power Revolution in 1986 against the Marcos regime, I saw the scavengers in the dead of the night with their flashlights scrounging the trash heaps. When I came back two nights later after Marcos was spirited away by American helicopters to the US military base and on to Hawaii, it was the same sight I saw. Their lives are not bothered by any change of regimes as long as they have each other. Their family structures are divinely decreed and part of the workings of a coherent universe, and their lives are part of a pattern which have been designed from eternity. Why not just leave them alone?
There was always the temptation to not do anything, and leave everything in God’s hands, or work in affluent parishes abroad and enjoy a nice life. Or act like some sects in the garbage dump who told the scavengers not to work to improve their lot because Christ is coming in a cloud very soon anyway and the end of the world is near.
But not doing anything is tempting God who commanded us to feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty. Not to decide is to decide – when we do not do anything we are aiding the forces of darkness.
To worship God alone
When I looked at the misery of the scavengers, the temptation was always there to make a whip of cords, and like the Galilean consumed by zeal for his Father’s house (Jn. 2:17), drive the people responsible for the dying of the children in the garbage dump and the thieves pillaging the resources of the country out of this planet, to the farthest black hole billions of light years away in space.
During the time of the Conjugal Dictatorship, I endured the tear gas of the police as we manned the barricades during demonstrations and rallies against martial law. I went for summer camps and conducted teach-ins among the peasants and fisherfolk. It was always a temptation to go up to the hills and join the rebels and bring about the end of imperialism, feudalism and clerico-fascism through force of arms.
The Man from Galilee taught us however that the point of injustice and evil is not to drive us to hate or to frighten us and beat us into submission, but to inspire us to transform the world, to allow us to heal it and give it hope. In order to give hope, we must propose appropriate responses to today’s pressing problems and tomorrow’s emerging opportunities. We must discuss our role in the creative evolutionary process, without thinking that we can live by bread alone, or simply remain guilty bystanders, or seek power through violence or riches.
Hope is a dynamic force that enables us to give ourselves to the future. It provides us with unflagging energy and enduring strength, as we attack the structural causes of poverty while turning our Armalites into plowshares and our Kalashnikovs into pruning hooks.
Hope is security in ambiguity and uncertainty. Confronted by the global mess we are presently in, hope is confidence and trust as we all try to find the way out together.