Thursday, April 17, 2014

Lamentation for Manila 2014

Philippine Daily Inquirer
By Denis Murphy

Situated just after the prophecies of Jeremiah in the Old Testament, the Book of Lamentations tells of the terrible destruction and sorrow in Jerusalem after the city was conquered by the Babylonians, and the Jewish leaders taken into captivity in 586-520 BC.  God had punished the city for its sins of idolatry and injustice. The Book also tells us of the people’s indomitable belief that God would forgive and gather them from the corners of the earth to begin anew with Him in friendship and love.

The Lamentations were sung years ago in the Jesuit Novitiate of New York in the evenings of the Holy Week. The haunting and beautiful words and music can stay with a person all his life. The Lamentation that follows for Manila begins with the Lord walking along the R-10 road in Tondo in the early evening, as He once walked in the Garden of Eden. In Eden He found that Adam had sinned. In Manila the Lord finds that His plans for the Philippines have suffered serious setbacks.

The Lord walks slowly along R-10, past the piers where already, girl prostitutes wait for customers. They are hardly more than children. They may have sex in the back of a dump truck. He sees the slums of Parola and Slip Zero where His children live in unimaginable squalor, packed in at almost 1,000 families per hectare. He groans, as Jesus did at the graveside of Lazarus. If we who are evil know how to grieve for our children, how much more will the Lord know how to grieve for all His children? (paraphrase of Luke 11:13)
Pope John Paul II once wrote: “Anyone who has to live in a slum through no fault of their own is a victim of injustice.” These poor people of the slums have been wronged. Society must, in recognition of their right to justice, provide much better housing. The Lord, however, sees little love of justice, and even less love of the poor.

The Lord is clearly disappointed in what He sees. He chose the Philippines out of all the countries of the vast Asian continent to be Christian. He hoped, as He did with the Jewish people, that the country would be a “Light to the Gentiles,” that all of Asia would see peace, justice and solidarity flowering in these islands and be drawn closer to Him. The Philippines has rejected this vocation of a missionary nation.

It has also rejected God’s call to care for the poor. The Philippines is perhaps no worse than other countries in Asia in its treatment of the poor, but it is no better, despite the example of the “preferential love of the poor” that He exhibits in the Old and New Testaments. In Tondo the children go to school hungry, too hungry to learn very much, and end up prepared only for a life of poverty. The income gap between rich and poor widens every year. During the Holy Week, small groups of poor women chant the Pasyon. It is the dirge of the poor.

The Lord walks among the shacks of Parola and Ulingan, hears the children coughing from deep in their chests, unable to sleep. He hears men and women arguing and fighting. He sees the open drains full of human waste, and He wonders about His well-off sons and daughters who have allowed such a display of inhumanity to fester. He sees the rubber tubing that carries the people’s drinking water as it coils through the mud of the alleys and the filth in the drains. The Lord gave Filipinos a lovely land, and they have turned it into a place of punishment for the poor. I wanted you for My own people. I had such hopes for you, and look what has happened, the Lord reflects.

The Lord walks in the stillness of Forbes Park, where the only other people walking are the armed guards. On the half-hectare lots of the rich there is still land enough to accommodate 10-15 poor families. It seems clear, however, that the well-off people aren’t aware of how ugly such a disparity is in the eyes of the Lord. Doesn’t My Church talk about these matters? the Lord wonders.

Do the rich think that the Lord tolerates such injustice among His children? If the rich were a structure of stone and steel, He would tear it all down and begin over.

The Lord remembers the unbreakable faith of the people of ancient Jerusalem that their suffering would end and the Lord would restore them to His care. Their poignant faith and trust in God saved the Jewish people. He looks for signs of such faith in Manila. He says to us: “Fear not, I am with you. Be not dismayed, I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you, and uphold you with My right hand of justice.” (Is. 41:10)

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates (

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Friday, April 11, 2014

Palm Sunday invasion

Philippine Daily Inquirer
by Denis Murphy

On Palm Sunday, people are likely to think of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, or of their sins, perhaps in preparation for Holy Week. Instead, I remember the great invasion of the Department of Public Works and Highways compound in Parola, Tondo, by the Zone One Tondo Organization (Zoto) on Palm Sunday 1972. Jesus and his followers entered Jerusalem, and the poor people of Tondo entered the DPWH compound. Both were peaceful events, and a delight to the poor.

Zone One was the southernmost third of the untitled stretch of land along the piers known as the Tondo Foreshore Area. Zoto, the people’s organization born there with the help of a group called the Philippine Ecumenical Committee for Community Organization, or Pecco, was the first of the many mass-based, democratic and nonviolent poor people’s organizations to rise in urban poor areas. Zoto’s main task was to oppose then President Ferdinand Marcos’ plan to evict all 180,000 people living in the Tondo Foreshore Area and replace them and their dwellings with a business center, upscale housing, hotels and casinos. Zoto sought the people’s power, which in this instance meant the ability to negotiate with the government as an equal on the matter of the Tondo Foreshore Area, because it involved their homes, jobs and children’s future.

The Zoto area was the very crowded home of some 10,000 families. Zoto was a very frisky organization, and for some time had cast envious eyes on the large and empty DPWH compound in what is now Parola. On Palm Sunday Zoto mounted an invasion. We had read of land invasions in Latin America by people like John Turner; Zoto thought that whatever Latin Americans could do, Filipinos could do better.
When the day broke, thousands of poor people lined up at the gates of the compound carrying palm branches, hammers, saws, pieces of roofing, and lumber. It was a religious procession as well as social action. The guards left when they saw the huge crowd.

The people opened the gates and in we walked in a procession, singing hymns and waving our palm branches. I was one of the two “officiating” priests. We blessed everything with holy water—the people, the wood and GI roofing that the people carried, the land, even the cats and dogs. I believe we felt some of the excitement that the Jewish people felt while crossing the Jordan River and entering the Promised Land flowing with milk and honey.

The people shook their palm branches as they do in church, making the sound of a great rush of wind. Hundreds of children ran alongside the marchers. We began with a Mass, and then construction started.
Those in charge of the invasion had a subdivision plan, a people’s plan, which they implemented. Each family got 32 square meters. They had two weeks to build, or the land would be given to some other needy family. The roads were five meters wide. There were a basketball court, a chapel area, and a place for a community center.

The families began building. The area was named Bonifacio Village, after the national hero who was born in Tondo, not very far from the invaded land. About 500 families moved in, I think, but I am not sure.
It turned out to be a very peaceful, well-run and tidy community in the years that followed. There were all types of ideologies in the Zoto area in those years. For some, Bonifacio Village was the first commune; for others, it was the first free zone of peace; for yet others, it was the beginning of a large Basic Christian Community.

In 1980 the people of Bonifacio Village transferred to the Dagat-Dagatan relocation area just north of Tondo. Each family received 96 square meters and a core house at a cost of P96 per month. The Parola land stood empty until President Cory Aquino came to power, and the rumor went around that all empty lands in Manila were up for the taking. Soon, the area called Bonifacio Village was packed with new groups of urban poor people, more people than ever before. It is now a crowded place of decent people trapped in near-subhuman housing conditions.

The people of Zoto built Bonifacio Village with no substantial help from the government or nongovernment organizations. They believe that if the government allows them to develop their communities as they think best, and only intervenes when they ask for help, they can solve our housing problems in a few years. The government must provide the land. If the government doesn’t provide land, I wouldn’t be surprised if the people start invading idle land.

This is the only large-scale urban invasion I know of. It seems the poor were more adventurous in the early 1970s than in the succeeding years. As the succeeding administrations, beginning with Cory Aquino’s, became friendlier, the people were more given to dialogue and negotiation.

Some say poor people’s organizations have been largely domesticated. It may be a necessary step in a maturing relationship between the poor and the state, but we miss the spirit and liveliness of the old days.

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates (

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