A Prophet for the Philippines
by Denis Murphy
[This story hasn't happened yet, although we tell it in the past tense. It may happen any day now, so look out. Forewarned is forearmed. You will hear thunder rumbling.]
The old archbishop walked up and down beside his cathedral as he did every night after dinner. He said his rosary as he walked and was so deep in thought a person would have to bump into him before the archbishop would notice.
An even older man suddenly appeared beside him, seemingly out of nowhere. The man was dressed in the white suit, brown and white shoes and panama hat that gentlemen wore in the 1940s.
"You look terrible, excellency," the man said.
The archbishop knew him. "It could be worse, my friend."
"Is it the poor again?"
"My people just don't care about them."
"We know and we are going to give them one final chance. Remember that favor you kept asking us for?"
"We had a hard time finding him, but now we have him. We've chosen you."
"Me? I'm no prophet."
"That's what they always said, isn't it? Don't argue. You are God's prophet for this stiff-necked Filipino people. You are their Amos, Jeremiah, John the Baptist. It's decided."
"Wait a minute. What do I say to them?"
"It's up to you. We don't have any idea. Nothing seems to work with your people, especially those well-off people of yours. Good luck, excellency. You'll need it." The man disappeared in a single whoosh of air.
The archbishop-prophet wondered how he would approach his people. They like statistics and theory. They like serious discussions, but after such talk nothing happens. He was fond of quoting United Nations figures that claimed over 300 Filipino children died each day of malnutrition-related diseases. The children simply didn't have enough food. His audience shook their heads in horror when they heard his sad tale, but when they left the church all was forgotten. Calm, informed discussion wouldn't do it.
He thought for some more time and then decided: if I am a prophet, I'll act like one. A few days later, dressed in ragged pants, rubber slippers and a faded T-shirt advertising soap powder, with his face and arms smeared with dirt, he pushed a kariton to the middle of a bridge over an estero. People living under the bridge had been evicted. When word got around that the scavenger was the archbishop, the crowds gathered.
"The Lord God Almighty says: ‘Once upon a time 57 families lived in darkness under this bridge. Now it's empty. Where have you put my children? Where are my children? Where are the old people? Where is the old blind woman who lived here?' The Lord God says to you: ‘Because you drove them out and threw them in the streets like garbage, and left them homeless in the rain, I will punish this city. Shame on those who ordered the demolition. Shame on all of you who stood by and did nothing. Shame on you police who could have stopped it. Shame, too, on my priests who failed to struggle to stop it.'"
The Archbishop finished and as he pushed his kariton away from the bridge the crowd fell back to let him pass. "Thank you, excellency," an older woman said, but most everyone else was silent. Few looked the archbishop in the eye as he passed. Instead, they worried about him.
The headline in the leading newspaper the next morning was guarded: "Archbishop's Bridge Talk Puzzles Listeners." People calling in to the radio stations worried about the "appropriateness" of the action, or felt his dress and the kariton were "troubling". They noted the archbishop had completely departed from his usual low key manner of speaking. "He sounds so hostile now," a listener to Radio Veritas's Caritas at Maralita said. "I don't think I like him this way."
The archbishop understood the reaction was bad. It didn't do any good to threaten his people.
He was a prophet till he died, so he couldn't stop. He would try another approach, and so on TV the following Sunday night he wore a simple gray clerical shirt with a small wooden cross hanging around his neck. He asked the camera to zoom in close. He wanted to speak in the soft tones he used when talking to his priests who had problems or to old people close to death. It was indeed a soft tone, but thunder rumbled in the background of his words. The close-up would also, though the archbishop didn't realize it, show the kindness and sadness in his eyes.
He talked about two little squatter boys he had passed near a hospital. They were 4 or 5 years old and were sitting on a rubber mat eating cheese curls. Not far away were the kariton where their families lived. When it rained the families pulled blue plastic sheets over themselves and their kariton and settled down low like carabaos in the rain. "The boys talked and shared the bag of cheese curls, passing it back and forth. I waved to them and they waved back. I felt so sad. What will happen to the boys? Will their lives be full of pain and frustration? Then I realized, those two boys were there by the road because God intended us to see them. God is saying to us, ‘you are responsible for them'. Yes, we are also responsible for the mothers nearby building their small wood fires to cook rice, and for all the weak and poor of our city. As God gives these children to us, He also gives Himself. If we refuse them, we refuse Him.
He stopped there and stared into the camera. He prayed his people would take this last chance that God was giving them to amend their ways. He was afraid to think of what would happen otherwise. He heard thunder rumbling.
Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates. His email address is email@example.com.