Thursday, May 23, 2013

The poor didn’t benefit

By Denis Murphy

Philippine Daily Inquirer

How did the midterm elections affect the urban poor? More than any other group, the poor need free elections to improve their lives, but the simple truth seems to be that in the last poll exercise they hardly benefited. It was partly their own doing.

The urban poor in the Philippines now number about 20 million, according to the UN Habitat. They are the fastest growing of poor sectors. They live in the larger cities, the great engines of the economy, but to paraphrase the Gospel, they are in but not of the great wealth found there. They are like the small fish along Australia’s Great Barrier Reef that clean parasites off the sharks, manta rays and other highly dangerous marine creatures. The big fish drop by these special “cleaning” areas when they feel the need, the little fish who love to eat parasites do a first-class cleaning job, even going into the gills and jaws of the sharks, then the big fish sail off, leaving the small fish with nothing in the great ocean but their parasites.

There was a sticker used in the election of 2010 that read: “In a democracy, reform comes from the ballots of the poor.” It expresses the classic belief of people organizing the poor, that if they can gather the poor into political parties that are informed and eager for change, they can win political power through elections, and then use the power to help the poor.

I don’t see that this happened in the last elections, except in very small areas of Manila, in very small ways. Still, elections remain the main political hope of the poor. Realistically, there is no other path to a decent life. But for now, the politicians who believe they can win the poor people’s votes at election time by giving them money and food, coopting their leaders and making endless airy promises, have been proven right once again.

Thousands of poor people have sold their votes. They have taken money in exchange for their free democratic votes that are the key to the locks and chains that hold them in poverty. People who sell their votes lose their self-respect and agree with the powerful that change is not needed, or possible. Taking money encourages the power-brokers to manipulate the poor all the more.

Why should anyone help such poor people? But before we start blaming the poor, we should remember that while among the poor there may be pimps, men of violence, drunkards, as well as lazy, greedy and vulgar people, there are even more decent, hardworking and caring ones.

There are many good people among the poor. I once saw a heavily pregnant woman walking barefoot through her slum community. Her dress was stretched so tight around her swollen belly that we feared her child could be hurt. She had no money to buy a more suitable dress. She had nothing to offer her baby except herself. All her life she will sacrifice for her children though she is hungry, unhappy and often a victim of violence. She will never give up on them.

There are innocent victims. Think of the 12-year-old prostitutes who work along the piers of Tondo at night. They charge P30 ($.75 cents) for touching (pakalog, groping) and P300 ($7) for sex, often in the back of a truck, with the men who hang out at the piers. When you see two or three of the girls together, you are aware they still have the thin legs and the awkward, shy stance of children. They should be playing childhood games, not waiting for customers.

The great reason for helping the urban poor is, of course, that God is with the poor. God is not with them because they are good and deserving of help any more than He was with the Israelites because they were good. He helps the poor, as the Prophet Ezekiel tells us, just as He helped the Israelites, not because they are good, but for the sake of His Own Holy Name.

At the risk of trivializing a serious matter, here is how things may work. A smart fish who has traveled outside his or her own sea—someone like Nemo, perhaps—one day advises the small fish-cleaners: “You don’t have to do what the sharks and manta rays want. You are not slaves. Organize yourselves, elect leaders and tell the sharks you are tired of your parasite diet, and you want the sharks and others to bring a variety of food when they come, or no cleaning.”

“Suppose they just eat us instead?” one of the small fish asks.

“If they eat you, there will be no one to remove the parasites, and that will pain them more and more. Don’t worry, stick together, and they’ll do what you want,” the smart fish says.

So the small fish stand firm and confront the sharks and the other great fish. The small fish win, and they now live with dignity and have expanded their services to include beauty treatments, massage, and organizing advice. The fish who started it all is now a Senator of the Sea.

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates [].

Sunday, May 12, 2013

An old novitiate

By Denis Murphy

Philippine Daily Inquirer

You know you are getting old when you drive into a religious novitiate and care more about the men and women in the cemetery than the present novices. I realized this as we drove into the Jesuits’ Sacred Heart Novitiate in Novaliches one day.

We go in past the old mango and balete trees that line the road; they are at least a hundred years old, but strong and shaggy, and somehow suggest you are on your way to an otherworldly type of place. There is a mystic air about the old grounds. Still we realize that the lawn that stretches from the house down toward Quirino Highway, between balete trees that are 50 feet in diameter, would make a wonderful par three golf hole.

The original novitiate building stands at the top of the hill, blazing white in the morning sun. Ironically, despite all the martial law rancor

between the Jesuits and President Marcos, the novitiate reminds a person very much of MalacaƱang: both are Spanish-style, two-storied, brilliant white and set in lush green lawns.

We spend the morning at a seminar discussing amendments to the Urban Development and Housing Act (1992). I am lucky to meet John Paul Dy, a Jesuit novice who accompanied me to the cemetery. I’m surprised by the renovations made. I remember the ivy covered stone walls, with Jesuits buried under the grass and leaves falling from the trees that overhung the cemetery walls. Now the cemetery is neat and modern, but the aura of age is gone. Gone, too, is the sense the old cemetery gave of the continuity of the Jesuit Order, which is its great strength: the men lying there know their work will go on.

No men opposed martial law with more courage than those buried there: Fathers Pacifico Ortiz, Joe Blanco, Jim Reuter, Benigno Mayo, Francisco Araneta, Antonio “Toti” Olaguer and, of course, Bishop Francisco Claver. I lived with them all, except Father Reuter. It wasn’t all serious work. One weekend Joe Blanco and I decided to grow mustaches. His turned out much better than mine. We walked to the Luneta from our house in Padre Faura to show them off.

Francisco Araneta was in charge of the small group, of which I was a member, that traveled by boat to the Philippines in 1953. He taught me how to play chess, then beat me three or four times a night.

Jim Reuter complimented everyone, including myself, a little more than we deserved. But looking back, it helped all of us to keep writing and performing.

Bishop Claver opened coke bottles with his teeth on one of our seaside holidays when we studied philosophy in Berchmans College, Cebu.

The two most outstanding men, I believe, were Bishop Claver and Horacio dela Costa, who was in Rome for most of martial law until he came home and died in 1976. The bishop was a courageous Bontoc warrior and a doctor of anthropology. He lowered God’s gaba on the army and police who abused people in Bukidnon and headed a local church that many saw as a model for others. Dela Costa was the smartest and wisest of all. He knew Philippine history as well as a person knows his own family’s history. He was probably the only man who could have led the Jesuits in the very peaceful transition from American to Filipino control.

Where are their likes today? Will we ever again see the Jesuits and other religious groups take such a strong position against injustice and authoritarianism as they did?

There were other great men among the even older Jesuits who are buried there—Fathers John Pollock, Joseph Mulry, Jim Hoggerty and some unique (eccentric?) men, such as, Hector Mauri who started labor union work among the sugar workers and sacadas, built fishing boats with nets 10 stories high, and designed SST aircraft that Boeing said were too advanced for their engineers to deal with. They recommended that Father Mauri send the plan to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. There was Guido Arguelles who was born one day before me, so we celebrated birthdays together. He brought fresh vegetables to the poor of Tondo, sang opera at the drop of a hat and was the only man I knew who thought carne norte was the world’s best food. The cemetery also contains the bones of 80 Jesuits “known only to God,” whose bones were transferred in 1945 from the ruins of San Ignacio Church in Intramuros.

Soon after we finished in the cemetery, the rain comes. In the Novitiate there is an air of recollection before the rain actually arrives, as if it gathers itself for prayer. The rain falls steadily on the old trees and the grass. It is the only sound we can hear. There is no one walking about, not even a stray dog. When the rain stops, the air is suddenly so fresh you feel you can wash your face in it.

For a short stretch of time the setting sun spreads its golden light. And then it is time for sleep.

As we drive out along the winding driveway, I feel certain that the men in the cemetery behind me are happy. But the question still remains: When will we see their likes again?

Jesuits and others were able to focus their energies during the martial law years on getting rid of a dictator. What can serve as a focus today? The new Pope (Francis) has suggested that it be the poor. Perhaps the poor and justice for all can serve as the focus. Perhaps the focus could be jobs, land and a better life for all the poor. In the “Covenant with the Urban Poor,” President Aquino promised public works projects to be done with the help of people paid in the form of cash and food. Why don’t we try such projects in our great need for jobs?

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates [].

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