Monday, January 30, 2012

Death—one or one thousand

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.

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