Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Monday, January 30, 2012

Death—one or one thousand

Commentary
By: Denis Murphy
12:56 am | Tuesday, January 31st, 2012

Last week I went to the wake of a young man and later to Cagayan de Oro where 1,000 people are dead. There are bitter lessons in both tragedies. However, whether it is one or a thousand, death is more sorrowful among the poor.

Can the loss of an only son, for example, be felt more deeply in a poor home than in the home of wealthy family? It seems it can. A poor woman who lost her only son, a boy of 15 after a severe asthmatic attack, asked God, “Was I not a good mother and so you took away my only son?” This near pagan cry of pain will be heard in urban poor areas, among sugar worker families and among tribal people, but probably not in Forbes Park. There, people will have been fortunate enough to go to Catholic schools and understand that God doesn’t punish children for the sins of the parents. This is clear in Scripture from the time of the Prophet Ezekiel.

The poor lack money and decent houses and many lack knowledge of the Lord’s ineffable love and mercy. The poor can be poor in ways we rarely consider. I don’t mean to say there are better Christians in Forbes Park, only better informed Christians.

We went to Kasiglahan Village I, a relocation site for families removed from the Pasig River in 2000, to condole with Vangie Pangilinan who lost her only son. The families there live in long rows of sturdy one-story houses that seem ready made for the wakes of the poor. Simply push all the furniture toward the rear of the house, put up the white divider the funeral parlor provides and arrange the coffin and candles.

There is a picture of the boy over the coffin. He is a good-looking young man with the smokey eyes often seen in actors and singers.

“What will you do now, Vangie?” a friend asks. She laughs sadly. “I will go to more meetings.”

She has been a dynamic leader of the people for 12 years or more. In fact, she is one of the 10 most effective and brave leaders of the urban poor in all of Metro Manila. Whatever the people of Kasiglahan have by way of schools and water and other services are due to the hard work of Vangie and the other members of the people’s organization. It is rueful humor that makes believe meetings will take the place of her son.

There is little anyone can do for Vangie, so the women of the relocation area and the women with me don’t try. They simply sit with her and let her talk. We are all too dependent on those we love.

 A few days later my wife, Alice, and I were in Cagayan de Oro in meetings at the archbishop’s house among government, Church and civilian agencies. More than 1,000 people are dead, Archbishop Antonio Ledesma told us. At least 8,000 families are homeless. Everything seems to be in competent hands, everything from easing the trauma in children caused by the horrible experience they had in the dark, rushing waters of the river to finding 80 hectares of land for relocation and the funds for housing.

It is the poor in their shanties who have suffered the most. They are the families in the many emergency relocation centers and they are the ones who will be relocated far from their work. The rich have resources they can fall back on. They have relatives who will take them into their homes.

There has been a remarkable surge of generosity from the people of the city and people from all islands of the country and nearly every country in the world. It is heartwarming, but the somber thought soon occurs that this money and land that are offered could have been made available a year ago, long before the December floods. The problems of people living in other flood-prone areas could also be well on the way to solution by now. The resources exist. A good beginning to such a program might be a call from our bishops and other religious leaders to the persons who own the land or control its use to make it available now, so we can avert the death of thousands and the homelessness of thousands of others. If we begin now, we can look into alternative suggestions. Maybe it’s possible to rebuild homes in the flood-prone areas in flood-proof ways, for example.

From a bridge just outside the city we could see upstream on the Cagayan de Oro River to where there had once been a village at a bend in the river. The storm waters that night had rushed around the bend and, mounting the bank of the river, had swept the village away in a matter of seconds, like a man brushes dishes and food off a table with one angry sweep of his arm.

We went with Archbishop Ledesma to look at possible sites for a relocation project to be organized and funded by the Church. High up in Lumbia, we looked at land on a hillside overlooking endless hills and valleys. The breeze blew soft and warm across our faces. We had to listen deeply for any sound. Finally we heard the hum of the far-off city. We had the smell of planted fields, wild flowers and weeds. I hope the children who live on that spot someday will breathe the same air and silences.

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Grace and courage

Commentary
By: Denis Murphy
Philippine Daily Inquirer

Ernest Hemingway took his life 50 years ago in 1961. “The Old Man and the Sea” (1952) was the last of his great works. He lived another nine years, but his creative gifts seem to have left him, and that in some way probably led to his suicide. 

“The Old Man and the Sea” is a rare story for Hemingway in that the hero is a poor man, a subsistence fisherman. He usually wrote about more glamorous figures—warriors, bull fighters, white hunters and sophisticated men and women of the Paris night. Hemingway didn’t focus on the poverty of his fisherman, however, but on the same virtues he found in all his heroes, namely, courage, competence, resolve, and as he put it, the ability to show “grace under pressure.” When we talk about poor people, we often get trapped in statistics and the overt misery of their lives, and fail to notice the great virtues that they have.

At Christmas we are helped to appreciate the virtues of the poor when we see in the Belen how God chose the way of poverty to save the world. The world is saved through the virtues of the poor. 

Hemingway’s fisherman, Santiago, hadn’t caught a fish in several months. He wondered if he would survive much longer and if he would ever regain the respect of the younger fishermen who had began to treat him as a joke. He vowed to catch a great fish and one night went out in his small skiff the size of the bancas Filipino fishermen use. Out on the high sea, farther out than he had ever been, with only a small lamp for company, he caught a truly mighty fish, an 18-foot marlin. After a long battle, Santiago killed the marlin and tied it to the side of his boat since it was too big to bring aboard. 

Soon the sharks came. Santiago managed to kill five, but still they came. To kill five sharks from a banca type boat, Santiago had to be leaning out just over the thrusting jaws of the sharks; he was practically in the water with them. The sharks ripped away chunks of the marlin’s flesh. The small boat rocked with the force of the attacks. 

Santiago headed for home, but the sharks followed. Day and night they ravaged the marlin until there was nothing left but the skeleton. Still, Santiago didn’t cut it loose. At least he could show the other fishermen he remained a great fisherman. When he arrived at his beach, he left his boat and the marlin’s skeleton on the shore for everyone to see and staggered off to his hut. 

Such courage and determination have many other faces. Take, for example, the poor men and women of Tondo, where even everyday tasks require courage. 

It must take great courage, for example, for the mothers in the urban poor areas just to get up in the mornings, and face the daily round of children crying for lack of food, irritable husbands, the deafening noise of the slum, and the bad smell, violence within and without the homes, and the absence of any sign that matters will get better. They do this day after day and still manage to show a great love for their children and a care for their neighbors. This combination of courage and love can stand as a definition of grace under pressure.

Sometimes poor women, in order to have the city remove garbage piles, or supply water, have to march to City Hall to see the mayor, though they fear they will be embarrassed and that people there will laugh at them. It takes courage for them to start out on that march. In these simple actions of the poor are found the basic building blocks of our democracy. 

Another form of bravery is exhibited by poor men making charcoal in the Ulingan dump area of Tondo. All day the men stand over their smoking pugons stoking fires and adding driftwood to feed the flames. The noxious smoke blows up into their faces. People nearby can hear the coughing; it comes with a harsh roar from deep in their chests. Sometimes the men stumble away from their position by the pugon to take a breath of fresh air. The coughing doubles then over in pain, yet they go back and take their places once again at the uling smoke, as soldiers take their place in the firing line, or bull fighters take their stand before the charging bull. They earn P200 a day, just enough to keep their families alive and together. 

There are plans to replace the old-style pugon with a smokeless pugon with help from the Archdiocese of Manila and general manager of the National Housing Authority, Chito Cruz. Until this happens the ulingan men are sacrificing their health for their families. I think Hemingway would appreciate this courage, and the fact that they don’t think they are doing anything special.

Heroic actions surely took place among the poor the night of the recent floods in Cagayan de Oro and Iligan. We will never know all the details. The poor give their lives easily for their loved ones. Happy New Year to all, young and old, rich and poor, saints and sinners.

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates.

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