Monday, December 16, 2013

Wounded people

By Denis Murphy
12:59 am | Monday, December 16th, 2013

The people of Tacloban and the other areas savaged by Supertyphoon “Yolanda” are a wounded people.
The smell of death is still in their nostrils; nearly every family has suffered a death. Families have lost all they own: the fishing boat and nets they saved up for over the years; the small businesses, tool kits, tricycles, and other assets they depended on for their livelihood; and the small homes carefully pieced together as a little more money came in.

They have seen death up close in the worst destruction witnessed in the country since the Liberation of Manila in 1944. Some of them must find it truly difficult to begin all over again. Some may despair. Many still hear the wind shrieking.

The people do not need bosses or taskmasters. It may be only their faith that still tethers them to their ordinary lives. The dire situation calls for people who can talk kindly to them, find out what they want to do, and help them do that, if it is at all possible and feasible.

For the reconstruction in the Visayas we need free, creative and imaginative people at all levels of work, but especially at the very top, among mayors and national leaders, and among the poor who will be 90 percent of the people involved in the effort. We need informed agreement, not grudging assent, among the poor; we need their enthusiasm. We need a healthy, but not slavish, respect for law and custom.
Jesus told us the law was made for man, not man for the law, and that the need to help one’s neighbor in times of trouble overrides all other laws. Mahatma Gandhi led the Indian people to violate British law several times on their way to independence.

Compare the view of Jesus and Gandhi with another understanding of the law that appeared recently in Tacloban.

Thousands of coconut trees have been felled by the typhoon. Some people wanted to cut the trees into lumber that they would use to rebuild their homes. They were told by officials that it was a violation of the law to do so, especially if done with a power saw. Thus, the children, the aged and the sick continued to sleep in the open.

Sometimes we must set aside laws and customs that are clearly not relevant, but those who do so must be ready to suffer the punishment established for such violations. Setting aside a law is no trivial matter, though it may sometimes be necessary.

In the reconstruction we have to give a special place to the poor people and to their organizations. We need the suggestions of the poor and their wholehearted support. The poor will be the final judges of the success or failure of the whole project in the way they will vote later and lead their lives. The poor people’s organizations are the best means of ensuring that we have the consent of the people and their free and “generous solidarity” (Pope Francis’ phrase).

All of us have to think outside the box and work with people who are outside our usual “box” of friends. We have to allow all levels of society a seat at the decision-making table. If we give the poor a chance to explain their points of view, we will be surprised by their wisdom. We must not demand freedom with regard to law and custom only, but also in regard to the orders that come from our officials. We must build on our democratic instincts. Leaders must come and argue their cases. The poor are not their indentured slaves. The poor are their “bosses.” This is a good time to part with the autocratic, bullying ways of the past.

We hope that in the process of reconstruction, a kind of people are formed who will continue after the reconstruction to build a democratic and prosperous society and rid themselves of inept politicians, homelessness, hunger and illiteracy. We need leaders who can bring joy into the reconstruction work and into the future.

The poor people of the Visayas need compassion and understanding. I realized part of this emotional reality when we took a taxi home from Makati last week.

We started talking to the taxi driver, who told us that he was from Tacloban and that his parents barely escaped death during the onslaught of Yolanda. As the wind grew stronger, the couple went outdoors and climbed up the sampaloc tree behind their house. The father, 79, and the mother, 65, held on to the tree for hours as the typhoon raged. They watched their house fly apart in the wind. They saw their other son hit on the head by a piece of debris and fall dead. The next day they buried him in front of their house.
The taxi driver began to shake. He took deep gasps for breath and the tears fell. “My brother, my brother,” he sighed repeatedly, “my poor brother.” We were silent for the next 45 minutes.

We say “wounded people,” but maybe it is better to say “challenged people” on their way to becoming the “joyful people” that Pope Francis talks about in his pastoral letter, “The Joy of the Gospel.”

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates (

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