by Denis Murphy
Fr. James Donelan, former president of Ateneo de Manila, once said at a meeting of Jesuits that when he arrived in the Philippines as a young man, he fell in love with the country’s sunsets and children. The children are as handsome and pretty as any in the world, but no other children can match their friendliness and sense of humor. They somehow see the funny things about all of us. It is painful, therefore, to see a picture of these children on the front page of this paper begging, with their hands out, for food behind a sign that reads “Help us here.”
It’s not just the children of Compostela Valley that are at risk. There are at least one million children in Metro Manila’s slums, in congested and unhealthy housing, often malnourished, and studying in overcrowded classrooms without sufficient textbooks that guarantee a life of poverty. The same can be said of poor children in the rural areas, on mountains and in our fishing villages. The abuse of our children is on a catastrophic scale. It is a form of genocide.
This situation need not continue. Children are resilient; they respond vividly to good care and teaching.
We saw this happen with 30 young boys and girls from Metro Manila’s urban poor areas who starred in a recent play of Peta titled “Maryosep.” Peta had tryouts in September in the poor areas. The children that came were like all poor children: Some were shy; the girls seemed more athletic than girls elsewhere, but were just as pretty. Three months later they appeared on stage, singing and dancing before big crowds. They told their story in song and dance, and they were spellbinding. They had become poised, confident young people. After the final show they mixed with the audience made up of college students, professionals, and the rich and influential friends of the poor. Here, too, they shone. It warmed our hearts to see them so happy and confident.
There are other examples: Sr. Felicitas de Lima runs a home in Iriga for 145 orphans (true orphans, children from families too poor to feed them, the children of Negritos living on Mount Iriga, disturbed children, and sexually abused children). Almost single-handedly, she and a small group of young sisters provide love, food, education and a true home for these children of the poor. The children care for one another; they all learn a marketable skill. They finish high school and go to college. They learn how to raise pigs, and plant fruit trees and vegetables in the most modern ways. They pray together and play together and help one another, and smile and sing. Being there among the children for a few days is a taste of the peace and camaraderie that life should have for all.
Sister Itat’s center has a motto: “We make useless things useful.” It is inelegant, but the sisters really do just that: They begin with the poorest and least promising of rural children and fashion them into fine young adults.
A tutorial center in Baseco run by the Urban Poor Associates for fifth- and sixth-graders takes only students with grades averaging below 80, but recently saw one of its graduates win first honors in high school.
We will be able to save this generation of our young people if we put our minds to it. It is Christmas time. Surprising things have happened at Christmas. It is a time for out-of-the-box thinking. Wasn’t the thinking behind the first Christmas the greatest out-of-the-box thinking ever?
December in the Holy Land is very cold. The stable or stable-cave where Joseph and Mary ended up was cold and had the rancid smell of animals. We stand to the side in the dim light and watch the young mother nurse her baby. God became a poor child. In the light of that vision, let us walk with God along Roxas Boulevard.
When God sees the vast stretches of land reclaimed in Manila Bay, does He say, “What a great place this can be for a gambling casino paradise”? Does He plan for luxury housing surrounding the casinos? Or does He think, “Here is a place where I can settle my poor people”? And not just the impoverished families, but also the outcasts, the physically incapacitated, the blind and deaf, the despondent—the same people Jesus sought out in His lifetime. On the reclaimed land He sees top-flight schools, swimming pools where the children’s bodies glisten in the sun and water, athletic fields, and schools for special and gifted children.
When He sees an empty lot, does He think, “There’s a great place for a mall or a parking lot”? Or does He imagine a playground and a small park where the old people can sit in the shade of trees with one another, or, as Bishop Julio Labayen, now in retirement, told us recently, “I sit in the mornings looking at the trees; I see God in them”?
When God sees a family asleep at night, huddled near their kariton in the tall grass along the wall of the V. Luna Hospital, does He just think something must be done about the poor families and walk on, or does He go over, put a blanket over the children, and make sure they are not too near the street where they may be hit by a car?
We can learn from Bethlehem the value of our children.
Unfortunately, our children are at risk. Christmas tells us we must do a better job of caring for them. Can we at least end malnutrition among them?
Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates (firstname.lastname@example.org).