Monday, March 24, 2014

The bishops and poverty

by Denis Murphy

People who are engaged in work with the poor were happy that the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines devoted its Lenten message to the subject of poverty under the title “Poverty that Dehumanizes, Poverty that Sanctifies.” The bishops are inviting people to reflect on poverty following the lead of Pope Francis, whose own Lenten message takes its inspiration from St. Paul writing about Jesus Christ: “He became poor, so that by his poverty you may become rich.” (2 Cor 8-9)

There are many things to admire in the CBCP letter, but the reference to the Pope’s letter invites us to compare it with his writings. When we do, some differences are apparent. The Pope’s writings, especially “The Joy of the Gospel” (his encyclical “Evangelii Gaudium”), leave no doubt in the reader’s mind that a flesh-and-blood person with a passion for the poor and a good knowledge of the world of the poor is writing. On the other hand, our CBCP letter—let us be honest—is austere to a fault. This lack of attention to style, passion and joy is surprising in a Church that has had artists like Palestrina and Mozart enrich its Masses and writers like St. Augustine and Cardinal Newman explain its mysteries. Not by concepts alone does man (or woman) live, but by all the forces of their beings—emotion, compassion, energy, poetry, clear thinking and excitement.

The bishops single out in their message a specific problem for criticism, which is the current practice of privatizing and relocating public hospitals. “The poor, who can avail [themselves] of health care at only public hospitals and local government health centers, are at risk of being further excluded from access to basic health care with the proposed privatization of leading public health institutions such as the Dr. Jose Fabella Memorial Hospital and the National Orthopedic Hospital. Especially vulnerable are children and the elderly, unless government continues to aspire for the ideal of ‘universal health coverage.’”

We can add to the bishops’ list of affected hospitals the Philippine Children’s Medical Center (PCMC), which, in the plan of the current lords of the North Triangle—Ayala Land, the National Housing Authority, and the Quezon City government—is about to be privatized and moved to the Lung Center compound. The PCMC and the Manila Seedling Bank alongside it are the latest institutions to be removed by the lords in what looks like a march to control the entire North Triangle for themselves.

On Feb 20 Fr. Robert Reyes led a protest march against this plan, along with the PCMC doctors and nurses and the Seedling Bank workers. Father Robert and the doctors who spoke at the rally said the plan would seriously harm the treatment that poor children receive. They protested the proposed relocation of the PCMC to the Lung Center compound. Indeed, it is hard to imagine any place more unsuitable for sick children than a lung hospital. The government would be wise to listen to its professionals who are willing to march for what they believe is good for their patients, and to men of God, including the bishops and Father Robert.

The speakers raised related issues, such as how much land should one company be allowed to control. Ayala Land is already partnered with NHA and Quezon City in Trinoma and Vertis North, and now they seek the land of the Seedling Bank and the PCMC. What limit on land must society set to ensure that the common good is maintained?

Thus, the problem of privatizing public hospitals leads to questions about the ownership and use of land in our cities, which in turn lead to economic questions of inequality of income and joblessness and political questions on democracy’s viability in a nation of many poor and few very rich. When you reach down into the burrow and catch hold of the tail of any of these problems, you end up pulling the whole tangled mess into the daylight.

If there are no controls or limits on land use, we can end up in a city of malls, condos, movie houses and supermarkets owned by a handful of very rich men. We will sadly lack seed banks, playing fields, places for old people to sit and watch children play, trees, quiet shady places for children’s hospitals, open-air art galleries, and housing for poor people. The same men or class of men will own the hospitals, public utilities, and even some mayors.

An excellent article in this paper by Kenneth Cardenas (“Cash-crop condominiums,” Talk of the Town, 2/16/14) explains how our problems, such as the eviction of poor people and hospitals, joblessness, land monopolies, disregard of urban planning and the common good are interconnected. At the center of the problems are the large real estate groups, including the Ayalas, SM, Robinsons and Eton Properties.
The problems are all connected, so we can start anywhere to unravel and solve them.

Why don’t we join the bishops in an effort to end the privatization of hospitals? If the bishops decide to act on their position on privatization, they will find many groups willing to work with them, especially, I believe, the urban poor, who need the public hospitals for health services.

If the bishops have a plan, they can invite various groups to join them, including the poor. If they plan a large mass, a rally, or a march, the poor will be happy to join. Actually, the bishops themselves don’t have to formulate a plan; they can leave that to others. They will have done a great deal by identifying a problem and gathering people to solve it. It’s probably better if the bishops don’t make the plan.

Such teamwork may carry over into future efforts. The lived experience of working with the poor may add to the bishops’ writings on poverty the passion and joy that are sometimes missing in their pastoral statements.
Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates (

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Aid for Taclobanon Families in Tents

Urban Poor Associates
25-A Mabuhay Street, Brgy. Central, Q.C.          Telefax: 4264118          Tel.: 4264119 / 4267615
Ref:  Princess Asuncion-Esponilla      Mobile phone: 0908 1967450

 (Distribution of Plywood Floorings at San Jose District, Tacloban City)

20 March 2014. Urban Poor Associates (UPA) together with Christian Aid provided 1000 families in 738 tents from Barangay 88, 89 and 90, San Jose District, Tacloban City of plywood floorings.

(Yolanda survivors in queue 
for their plywood floorings)

Each family will be given four pieces of marine plywood of ¾ inch thick and with a length of 4x8 feet to use for their floorings while their relocation is still unidentified. The fishermen who received the boats played a big part in distributing the plywood in a spirit of Bayanihan.

(Fishermen who were given boats by the Holy Spirit Sisters
Assisted in the distribution of plywood.)

UPA, an NGO that advocates housing rights, had been helping organize communities in Barangay 88, 89 and 90 San Jose to help and respond with their needs. Since January, several big meetings were held in the area together with the residents to find out what is the life of people after Yolanda. Many of them suffered in tents because of continuous rains, children were catching asthma and old people were complaining of colds.

Alicia Murphy, UPA Field Director said, “We first introduced the plywood flooring for about three families. We saw that the children can eat, play and sleep on the plywood and kept them dry. We believe that this is the solution now that we could give to the people while they wait for final relocation.”

                  (Yolanda survivor showing off her new flooring.)

Murphy added, “The family can also bring their plywood in their permanent shelter once it is done. This is a solution for now, the people don’t want permanently
to stay near the ocean nor they do want to stay in a temporary house forever.”

Belinda Guinoohan, resident of Barangay 90 and beneficiary of plywood flooring said, “I am very excited with our new floorings. My husband will fix it for us. We will now be able to sleep soundly at night.”

Guinoohan added, “Our tent is a hope for most of us because it helps us dream again of safe and permanent housing. Once you are inside our tent you will see on how all the improvements have come from overseas it looks all the world come together to help us. We are thankful for UPA because aside from material assistance they helped us bring care to one another and asked us to be united to claim what the government should do for all the victims of Yolanda.”

UPA and its partners Christian Aid and Holy Spirit Sisters will help in the recovery and reconstruction. Aside from temporary aid of plywood floorings, the group have distributed 40 boats to fishermen last February and provided nutritious snacks as a feeding program for about thousand children. In all this endeavors, survivors were always consulted and asked their participation from boat making to cooking of meals, in this way the community camaraderie is harnessed.  

In parting, Murphy said, “Our work here is basically to ensure that all Yolanda survivors arrived at a more prosperous and safe life.”

(UPA Staff (L-R: Ivy Pagute, Jessa Margallo, Alicia Murphy and Denis Murphy) with Tacloban fishermen)


Friday, March 14, 2014

Danger on the Trail Ahead

By Denis Murphy

I see a great danger looming for the victims of Supertyphoon “Yolanda” as they trudge toward recovery. I fear that the plan of the government and the United Nations to end all food relief in April is premature, and can cause many families to fall back into hunger rather than spur them forward to economic self-reliance.

Six months after a disaster, the United Nations and other relief bodies regularly end the distribution of food, believing that by that time the beneficiaries will have enough cash income to buy the food they need. After six months a dole economy gives way to a cash economy. Donors believe longer food relief will encourage dependency.

But the result of our own sampling of the families in Barangays 89 and 90 of Tacloban City shows that many would not yet have found sufficient income to purchase their food when the cutoff comes in April. We should note that cash-for-work programs will also stop in April, along with the restoration and repair of agriculture and aquatic resources.

We selected 30 families at random in Barangays 89 and 90 and asked them if right now they can pay cash for the food they eat, or if they depend to some degree on the food relief. All but five said they cannot yet pay for all the food they eat or need to eat. I don’t see a realistic hope that they can do so by April, especially if the UN program and other cash-for-work programs are suspended. The families all seek economic opportunities.

To be honest, I have talked about this matter with high UN officials, international donors, members of local nongovernment organizations, personal friends, and my wife, Alicia. Only my wife agrees with me because she has met the same people I have met.  She doesn’t always agree with me so readily, as our friends know. To  most of the other people I spoke with, I must have sounded like the hen in the children’s story “Henny Penny,” who went around frantically warning everyone that the sky was falling because an acorn had fallen on her head.

We shouldn’t be surprised that the typhoon survivors do not have enough income to take over the cost of food. Most of them lost the very means of work. Fishers lost their boats, motors and nets. Rice farmers lost their fields to salt-water inflows. Coconut farmers lost their trees. Only a small fraction of fishers have new equipment. The fields, I am told, need at least an entire rainy season to recover, and new coconut trees need six years before they can bear fruit. Countless other wage earners had worked hand in hand with the fishers and farmers, such as fish marketers and coconut oil workers. Now they are also out of work.

In Tacloban the people of Barangays 88, 89 and 90, where well over 1,000 people died, have taken advantage of every economic opportunity offered even while receiving food aid. For example, they worked with the Holy Spirit sisters to make the fishing boats they will use. They scavenge, vend food products in the city, and search for casual employment. They put up sari-sari stores with the financing they got from the Tzu Chi Foundation.
The need is not for a closure, but for an expansion, of cash-for-work programs. There is a need for large public works programs that, for example, can build sea walls to mitigate future storm surges, build artificial reefs to allow for the replenishment of the fish stock, remove debris,  and make public improvements in communities.

We should also remember that Samar and Leyte have always been among the country’s poorest provinces. There was never much economic fat on most people in these provinces, and Yolanda took that little away. They have a long road in front of them before they reach some level of economic sufficiency.

Some donors are afraid that too long a period of food relief will encourage people to be dependent. I am reminded of the words of sociologist Gelia Castillo of the University of the Philippines Los BaƱos: “If poor people really depended on the Philippine government for the necessities of life, they would be dead by now.”
Ordinary men and women don’t like to beg or line up for food. Whether they have food relief or not, poor people will strive to find work. With work comes self-respect, which all people seek. Food relief may make some families overly dependent, but they are not many. Isn’t it an awful indictment of a nation’s people to say food relief can dull their sense of dignity as human beings?

We ask the government and the United Nations to monitor the actual situation of the poor closely to judge if they have sufficient income and will not be hurt if the food relief is shut down a month from now. It would be a great cruelty to allow our poor people to fall back into food poverty just because we have followed a general norm without an intense inspection of the actual situation on the ground. Please take another close look.

Since the days of ancient Greece and the Hippocratic Oath, doctors have been told that their first duty is “not to do harm.” I suggest we make that our first rule in this matter of the food relief cutoff.
Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates (

Friday, March 7, 2014

Hard times, good times

By Denis Murphy

Life in the fishing communities of Tacloban City devastated by Supertyphoon “Yolanda” can be austere and sacred one day, and funny and quite beautiful the next. Here are some of those times.

On the altar at a capilla in Costa Brava, Barangay 88, is the strangest group of holy statues I have ever seen. A life-sized statue of the Blessed Mother has no hands, a statue of Jesus is headless, smaller statues lack arms and legs and angels have lost wings. At the center of the altar is a statue of the Sacred Heart with the heart missing. The embossed wooden heart was torn away in the storm.

The statues are the blind, the lame and the damaged of the spirit world. All the statues were recovered from the ruins of the people’s houses.

As I stared at the statues, I felt I knew them. These very statues seemed familiar, not just the persons they represented. I wondered for a while and then it struck me: The statues reminded me of the group of poor people we had met on entering the barangay. Those people had seemed especially troubled, crestfallen. The women were thinner, more harried looking, than in the other areas in which we work. A little girl looked at me with large haunted eyes.

The shoreline Barangay 88 was among the hardest hit in all of Tacloban. Some 719 people died; in the Costa Brava district alone, 122 were dead. These were all families living peacefully by the sea, as they had for 30 years or more. All the houses were blasted, so the area is now a field of shattered rocks and concrete as far as the eye can see. The people’s efforts to get help have largely failed, they told us. The women told stories of disappointment. No NGOs worked here, except for Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. In this chapel, the statues are the people and the people are the statues.

The story is that a woman in another town dreamed of the Sacred Heart statue buried under debris. She had no connection with Costa Brava, but she came directly to the spot where the statue lay, according to the local people, and found the statue. She wanted to take it away with her, but the people stopped her. They put the statue in the capilla that is now just a back wall and a meter of roofing extending out over the altar. They surrounded it with the other statues found in the ruins. People say the statue works miracles.

Miracles or not, it seems God has identified Himself with the typhoon victims. Is there any better place for Him to make His appearance than in this sad place where so many died, is there any better way to show that He and the poor people are one? How could this closeness be expressed more convincingly than to have Jesus, Mary and His saints and angels share the sufferings of the poor, the storm surge, destruction and helplessness, including the need to have others pull them out of the debris?

We have to know more about popular piety and folk religion to know how the poor feel about the statues, but I’m sure they are a most welcome presence in the area.

It was a different story a few days earlier in another barangay at the launch of 40 fishing boats organized by the Holy Spirit nuns. The nuns received the money for the boats and nets from donors; the fishers helped build the boats. The nuns and the fishers have signed a memorandum of agreement that includes a savings plan, and Archbishop John Du of Palo blessed the boats.

The boats and the memorandum of agreement are the first signs of a people’s independent organization arising in the coastal communities of Barangays 88, 89 and 90.

After the formal ceremony was over—which also included the presentation of 14 pedicabs—the boats were put in the water and the fishers, children, guests and nuns (including the superior general of the Holy Spirit congregation, Sr. Maria Theresia Hornemann, SSpS) piled in. Soon the boats were tracing beautiful designs on the sea that had done so much damage to the people only last November. The people have fought back from near annihilation with dignity. At the very end of the day, as we left, there were children swimming in the sea—tiny black silhouettes against the gray water.

On our first night in Tacloban we were told by the Redemptorist missionaries under Brother Karl Gaspar that there is shame and regret in many hearts. People did not act with the bravery that their children deserved. People saved themselves rather than their dear ones.

This guilt needs careful pastoral and clinical care, which the Redemptorists are extending. People are ashamed that they survived when their children died, though they may have done nothing wrong. Such guilt may be felt more by the poor than by well-off people who may have greater ability to excuse themselves.
Finally, last Feb. 15, a Saturday, we attended a feeding of 175 children in the Payapay district of Barangay 89. The children sang, played games, did exercises, and ate  arroz  caldo  prepared in cauldrons by the local mothers. The children were traumatized by Yolanda, we were told, but you’d never know it watching them singing and laughing. A child not yet a year old had a smile that made people laugh. Her mother and the children around chanted a certain song and the baby flashed two smiles as quick as the blink of an eye. Everyone laughed. The mothers repeated this little show, laughing harder and harder, as they realized, it seemed, that they could laugh freely once again.

If the people can laugh and form their democratic people’s organization to deal with a harsh and unjust world, and if they can hold on to their deep understanding of God, “all will be well … and all matter of things will be well.” (St. Julian of Norwich +1416).

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates (

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