Friday, May 30, 2014

UPA presentation to LOCOA Meeting

This video is the presentation of Urban Poor Associates (UPA) to the Leaders and Organizers of Community Organization in Asia (LOCOA) meeting on May 24, 2014 at Surabaya, Indonesia. It summarizes UPA work since it began in 1992. 

Monday, May 26, 2014

A thorn in the flesh

Philippine Daily Inquirer
By Denis Murphy

Two fine priests were buried last May 17.

Fr. John Schumacher was laid to rest in the Jesuit Novitiate, Novaliches. He lies near his mentor in Philippine history studies, Fr. Horacio dela Costa, and the gathered bones of the Spanish Jesuits who had actually known Jose Rizal and his contemporaries.

Vincentian Fr. Norberto “Bebot” Carcellar was buried in the lovely cemetery of the Daughters of Charity along the South Super Highway. The choir of the Payatas children sang at the funeral Mass. Father Bebot began his work in Payatas.

Father John helped us understand Church-State matters in Manila in the decades immediately before and after the death of Jose Rizal and the Revolution against Spain. Father Bebot taught us the value of people’s savings in development work, not only as a way of gathering funds, but also as a means of organizing people and instilling pride and self-confidence in them.

We can imagine the two priests outside the gates of heaven later that day. They are a funny pair. Father John is 6’4,” Father Bebot 5’7” or 5’8.” They wear the clothes they had worn regularly in the last years of their lives and not the vestments they were buried in. Father John wears his pajamas since he had been in the Jesuit infirmary at Ateneo for years; Father Bebot is in the plaid shirt, black windbreaker and denim pants he wore to construction sites, meetings and celebrations.

Father Bebot peeks through the gates and sees the poor have housing as good as anyone else, so he’s happy. Father John looks for Rizal, Bonifacio, Mabini and the other people he has written about. An angel knows what Father John is after. “Most of the people you are looking for are with the Filipino group here, but some are still appealing their sentences. We don’t have many Filipino lawyers, so the process is slow,” the angel says. Then he sees Father John’s jaw drop and adds, “It’s only a joke, Father John. They got this far, so they’ll be all right. Just some small matters of belief.”

We talk of our priests, but we know very little about their fears and sorrows. They suffer of course as any person does, but in addition the priesthood has its own sufferings. There is in every priest, I believe, what St. Paul called a “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor 12: 7-9). He describes it: “It was given to me, an angel of Satan, to beat me, to keep me from being too elated.” Scholars disagree on what the thorn was. They think it might be anything from a physical pain to a very obnoxious individual. St. Paul asked God three times to remove the thorn, but God said, “My grace is sufficient for you.”

Loneliness and depression are such thorns.

Jesuit friends tell me they have heard older Jesuits weeping because of loneliness. It’s disturbing to think of the old priests who should, we would judge, enjoy a peaceful old age, wracked with loneliness and depression instead. And there is no consolation. Such pain has driven younger priests to drink, or to seek love elsewhere. Loneliness can take the heart of flesh out of a priest.

In some places in the United States priests are ashamed to wear the Roman collar which identifies them as Catholic priests. So badly has the image of the priest fallen due to the pedophilia crisis in the Church that people now look on the priest with suspicion and even hostility.

In the Philippines, bishops have taken money from politicians, and even specified the exact type of gifts they want. This troubles a good priest. He can wonder about the soundness of his Church. Is it all hype and propaganda like so many other institutions, or is it truly the One, Holy Apostolic and Catholic Church of Jesus? A group of bishops acting so cravenly can erode a priest’s respect for the Church’s fidelity and bravery.

Many priests today are saddened by the reluctance of the Church hierarchy to be more intensely involved in work for the poor, and the narrowing of income between rich and poor, and in the very straightforward struggle to save poor children from life in the slums.

If we appreciate the effort these priests must make just to hold together the tensions in their lives, we will all the more be amazed at their accomplishments. This country has had great priests from the first days of Spain down through the centuries, men of all nationalities who faithfully tried to serve the people that were given into their care. There have been rascals, but no group has done nearly as much as they have done for the good of the country.

Priests are not all easy to deal with. I offer these tips from my own experience:

• Compliment them on their sermons and talks, even if you can’t remember what they actually said.
• Be patient with your priests. It’s not a normal life they have chosen to live.
• Give them a thoughtful gift—a good novel or historical book, a bottle of good wine.
• Get together with other parishioners and buy him a good TV. The Cubao Diocese used to have norms on the sort of TV a parish council should provide its priest.
• Pray for him.

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates (

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Saturday, May 17, 2014

Hard truths on housing

Philippine Daily Inquirer
By Denis Murphy

Hard and unwelcome facts have put an end to many of the theories advanced to solve the land and housing problems of Metro Manila. History, like a good teacher, has examined our theories one by one over the last 50 years, and each time has sent us back to our desks to do better. We are all included in this learning process—the government, the United Nations, experts, nongovernment organizations, and the poor themselves.

We keep trying. A new theory proposed by a small alliance of NGOs and people’s groups, for example, claims that there are three rock-hard truths on which we can build a successful housing program: 1) Rich and poor are meant to live together in the city; 2) all of us, rich and poor, must combine the elements of both urban and rural living in our lives; and 3) land is so crucial to a good housing solution that its distribution cannot be left in the hands of the market.

To appreciate this theory, we should go back 50 years and take a look at its precedents. In the mid-1960s the government and many housing groups believed that the best way to end the congestion and the increasing unattractiveness of Metro Manila—families living under bridges, for example, who, according to the government, discourage foreign investments—was to relocate poor families far from Manila. Some relocation sites were up to 100 kilometers away.

Land at that distance was cheap but there were no jobs, and some 30-40 percent of all relocated families returned to live in even poorer, more congested slums.

Near-city, in-city

In 2010 President Aquino forbade distant relocation. If families must be moved, he ordered, they should go to near-city or in-city relocation sites. “Near-city” meant less than 30-40 km from Manila. The thinking here was that wage-earners would be able to commute to their old jobs in Manila from these sites and the problem of jobs would be solved. The bus fare to and from the near-city centers could be managed by wage-earners, it was thought. Most NGOs believed this was a good solution.

Four years later we are seeing that near-city relocation may not be the excellent solution we thought it might be. At a meeting on April 4 on hunger organized by the Department of the Interior and Local Government and the Department of Social Welfare and Development, mothers from near-city relocation sites wept as they told those present that they had no food for their children. They liked the sites and the houses, but as one woman said, “We can’t eat doors and windows.” The women’s stories were so heartbreaking that most of those present cried—government workers, NGO staff, and the poor themselves.

The key finding is that a single salary of the type that relocated wage-earners can earn is not enough to support a family, especially if 20 percent goes to transport to and from Manila. The salaries they earn are very often below the minimum wage.

If the same family were living in the city, the wife could find part-time work—doing the laundry, for example—and the children could help out after school and on weekends. They could snatch at every opportunity for work that became available. This is not possible in a relocation camp where everyone is poor. Who can afford a laundry woman or a manicurist in such a place?

In summary, it looks as if the poor have to be relocated in the city, because that is where the work is. However, in-city relocation has proved to be very expensive, especially if we talk of multistory housing and the commercial cost of the land. It is very expensive and probably impossible to implement for a great number of families, as long as the market controls land prices, and we insist on total house construction.

There is a need to find a way to control the distribution of land, so that large areas can be set aside for free or at very low prices for the poor. And we have to concentrate on one-story incremental construction.

One way to control land prices may be to choose a person of unchallenged integrity and competence to make these decisions. He/she would be independent of the government and private companies. In the aftermath of huge oil spills in the United States, a man was chosen with the consent of the oil company, the government and private claimants to make all decisions on damage awards. His decisions were final. The scope of such a person’s work here in Metro Manila can be limited to lands suitable for housing poor people.

Side by side

Rich and poor seem fated to live side by side. In truth they need each other. We are one nation, and one people in God’s eyes. Pope Francis’ recent pastoral letter, “The Joy of the Gospel,” says we must learn from the poor about the mysteries of life (#198). How can this happen if we live 50 km apart? The poor can find jobs with the well-off as laundry women, manicurists, and gardeners. And is there a man so locked into his wealth that he cannot enjoy watching poor children play?

Also, we must combine in our lives elements of rural and urban living. Vegetable gardening is becoming very popular in urban poor areas. People love to see plants grow. People first put up mangroves to protect themselves, and then have fallen in love with them. They raise ducks in the mangroves. There is a growing suspicion of a city which is all condos, concrete, overpasses, tunnels, bus stations and malls. There is a growing longing by citizens for trees, shade, parks, gardens, fountains.

Some 300 poor women in Tacloban farm a hectare together. The women work happily side by side. The day is coming when the rich will build playgrounds where their children and poor children can play together and become “best friends forever” (as in the play “Maryosep” produced by Peta last year, which had rich and poor children playing together and becoming lasting friends).

Rich people get away to the countryside on weekends and whenever else they can. They are aware of the need for some time with nature. They would most likely cooperate with efforts to reintroduce the rural into our cities. Trees, flowers and parks are democratic in their very beings: They look good and smell good and are restful to all, rich and poor.

We found in the near-city relocation experiment that low salaries and unemployment limit the housing solutions available. For the near future we must plan for poor people. Our plans must work for the poor. Planning is for the poor; they are not required to fit into plans made for better-off people. “The Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27)

All these need the criticism of others and practical efforts at implementing the theory. Who will bell the cat?

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates (

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Monday, May 12, 2014

An Irish mother

Philippine Daily Inquirer
Denis Murphy

All mothers are the same in most ways. Up close, however, they are also all different: God doesn’t create any two things exactly alike. Irish mothers may not be for everyone. They spoil their boys and make a pact of solidarity with their girls, that is, like a stance of “we women against the unthinking world.” They give their children lifelong, unbreakable loyalties—in my mother’s case, to a United Ireland, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) that she knew in the 1920s, and the Catholic Church. Injustice must never be forgotten, even in hell. At the same time, like the Irish men, they are storytellers; you never know if what they tell you is completely true, or has just a grain of truth, or is totally imagined.

My mother and the other boys and girls of her time in the villages of Ireland at the dawn of the 20th century could only go to the fourth year of elementary school. They loved school and the young women who came over from England to teach them. Those teachers were the only English people I ever heard my mother speak well of. (Classes beyond the fourth grade were in the towns and were too expensive.) Later in life, in a much different context, she praised the British army’s sergeants. She told me the IRA would have been more effective if it had some English sergeants.

My mother rarely talked of their farm work. They moved hay, I know, and managed donkeys which they named after English politicians. Life seems to have begun for them when the IRA battled the British army in the early 1920s in the first colonial uprising against the mighty British Empire. Her brothers were jailed; their house was ransacked by the soldiers looking for guns.

When she was already an old woman, my mother told me she once followed, for three days, an Irishman working for the English government, and then gave all the information she had gathered about the man’s daily schedule to the local IRA commander. She was still in her teens then, the IRA man in his early twenties. The Irish man she followed was shot as he came out of his home the next morning as his wife looked on. We were walking slowly around Riverdale in New York City as she told me that story, admiring the houses and gardens. “It was a house like that,” she said pointing to a trim little house almost hidden behind bushes. “We were too young. We had no right to kill that man,” she said.

She never really ended her war with the English. Years later she would buy a more expensive sweater made in Ireland rather than a cheaper and better quality sweater made in England.

When “the troubles” ended, she went to New York with my father who promised he would go with her any place in the world she wanted to go. That’s the kind of talk any woman likes. They lived on East 21st Street in Manhattan, which is now a well-off area but was far from that in the 1920s, when the Third Avenue EL ran past the tenements and there was an Irish bar on every corner. I was born and another boy, and then we moved from the drama of old New York to the Bronx that had only Yankee Stadium and the Bronx Zoo to recommend it. They were more than enough of course for young boys.

There were four children when my father died and my mother began another long guerrilla war, this time with the NYC Welfare Department. We were lucky. The Welfare workers were the same type of polite Protestant ladies who had taught her in Ireland; but there were many things they didn’t have to know, including the presence of her brother who lived with us and helped financially. Luckily we had a long hallway in our apartment. Whoever answered the doorbell and found the Welfare lady standing there was to call back into the apartment, “It’s the Welfare lady.” The long hallway gave my uncle time to hide in the closet, while my mother walked slowly to the door to greet her guest and bring her into the apartment.

My mother had a deep personal belief in the Blessed Mother. I think she believed that only Mary really understood her problems. It was part of the solidarity she saw among women.

Two of her sons became Jesuit priests, the only girl became a Sister of Charity, and the third boy became a US Marine who fought in Korea and raised a lovely family.

My mother and the other Irish immigrants were all democrats. Franklin D. Roosevelt was their hero, until on the eve of World War II, he drew close to Britain. He never lost their vote, however.

I was sent to the Philippines as a Jesuit missionary. After I had been here 10 years or so, I asked her where she thought the country was. “Down here Cuba,” she told me. There were things that mattered in life and things that didn’t.

She recited an old poem when her turn to sing or perform came during family parties. The poem is about a person returning to Ireland after a long absence. As the ship draws close to the Irish coast, she sees the dawn break on the hills of Ireland. You could literally hear a pin drop as she recited.

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates [].

Friday, May 9, 2014

New and old wineskins

Philippine Daily Inquirer
By Denis Murphy

April 30 was World Disaster Day. It was a day to which most Filipinos paid little attention, believing they already knew more than enough about disasters. Yes, we may know much, especially about the human suffering involved in disasters, but there are other aspects of the phenomenon we know little about, unless we are directly involved in the reconstruction.

From the beginning, for instance, there has been serious criticism of the manner in which the government has responded to disaster victims’ needs. For example, according to a recent Oxfam Briefing Paper on permanent relocation, 81 percent of the people interviewed “stated they are not aware of their rights regarding permanent relocation,” and only 7 percent of those interviewed said “they had been consulted by a government official at the barangay, municipal or national level about the relocation process.”

Sharing of information and consultation are the first steps in relocation demanded by law.

The government’s reluctance to talk to poor people can easily translate to actual mini-disasters in which people are brought to areas where there is no food, no jobs, no land tenure security.

Some people who work with the survivors of “Yolanda” believe that serious reconstruction problems can be explained by Jesus’ words, “Do not pour new wine into old wineskins” (Mark 2:22). The new wine will burst the old wineskins, and the wine will be lost. The Philippines has attempted to pour the vast, unprecedented chaos created by Yolanda, the strongest storm in recorded history, into the old wineskins of our present laws and government apparatuses, expecting a good resolution. Despite the heroism of many people, the government in the most seriously affected provinces was overwhelmed. The wineskins were saved from bursting by aid from the rest of the country and from overseas. At best, it is bare survival.

We need new wineskins that focus the attention of our elected officials on the needs of the people, and not on the next election or other personal goals. There should be a provision for the appointment of new people who will have the power to cut through the red tape and rivalries that delay relocation and job creation. There should also be room for special provisions in law that will guarantee that poor people are treated fairly and are involved in decision-making in matters that affect their lives.

For the elected officials, the new wineskins can take the form of a change in their terms of office. Once a disaster is declared, the elected officials of the area involved will have five years added to their terms, during which they will not have to worry about elections. At the end of the five years, they must step down and stay out of politics for some time, for two years perhaps. They will be awarded a generous lifetime annual bonus, provided the people they represent vote in favor of their receiving the bonus for their good work during the reconstruction period. If they do not get the people’s vote, they cannot run for office again. Such steps, or similar steps, can help direct an official’s activities to the great work at hand and away from personal gain.

We need, as previously said, persons appointed to make the final decisions in all land disputes. And we need a person in each affected province to look after the needs of the poor. These persons will have the authority to remove people from office who do not treat the poor justly and effectively.

These suggestions may not be completely feasible, but at least they point to the need and possible nature of the new wineskins.

James C. Scott writes in his “Two Cheers for Anarchism”: “Perhaps the greatest failure of liberal democracies is their historical failure to successfully protect the vital economic and security interests of their less advantaged citizens through their institutions.”

The people of Eastern Visayas, where we work, prove those words: They had always been poor—50 percent lived below the official poverty line before Yolanda—and they are poorer now, having lost homes, jobs and loved ones. They will become still poorer unless the government does a better job of helping them.
We suggest that early on in the reconstruction work, the President meet with representatives of all sectors of people, province by province, and spell out in some detail what the reconstruction hopes to accomplish. Will the end result, for example, include land reform? What are the nourishment goals for the children? What jobs will be restored or created so each family will have an adequate income? Will the schools be improved, and how?

I believe the people would welcome such a meeting with the President.

In a way, disasters are a chance to begin over and, as the slogan says, “build back better.” Most importantly, we need people who will work with the poor. We need people who will talk with the poor, visit them, find out what they want, and help them as best we can to come together and organize. This would seem to be work that comes very naturally to the churches, especially the Church of Pope Francis.

It is good to have legal steps in place in the hope that we can, in that way, improve reconstruction work. But it is more important to create in our people a “fire in the belly” passion for justice and a better life for all.

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates (

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Monday, May 5, 2014

Umbrella Walk for UDHA Amendment

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


TFUA umbrella walk calling for UDHA Amendments at Congress.

05 May 2014. Task Force UDHA Amendments composed of Urban Poor Associates (UPA), Community Organizers Multiversity (COM), Partnership of Philippine Support Service Agencies Inc (Philssa), Peoples Alternative Study Center for Research and Education in Social Development (Pascres) and various people’s organizations from different cities gathered today in front of congres, senate and other places to push further their call to amend UDHA.

Urban poor groups brought with them umbrella labeled “Amend UDHA Now! Promote Housing Rights!” The mobilization is a peaceful rally reminding the legislatures that the poor are closely monitoring all developments under housing and urban development.

Celia Santos, UPA UDHA Advocacy Officer said, “Umbrella is a symbol of shelter for most of us. It keeps us dry from rain and keeps us from too much heat. Our urban poor advocates wanted a constant reminder that they are bent in pushing UDHA amendments and they thought that there is no other best way but to use their umbrellas labeled with phrases of support UDHA amendments. This umbrella is their walking advertisement to the public to join them with their endeavor.”

The proposed amendments filed by COOP NATCCO party list Rep. Cresente Paez and Camarines Sur Rep. Leonor Robredo House Bill 2791  and Senator Paolo Benigno “Bam” Aquino, Senate Bill 1874 will ensure that the rights of the poor for decent housing will be given a priority.

This bills aims to further secure the urban poor from eviction and demolition of their homes and from relocating them in distant places lacking basic services and livelihood opportunities, thus clarifying the definition of “resettlement areas” that it must be within and/or near city areas.  

It also calls for proper technical study and public consultation before declaring areas as danger zone/high risk area.

This measure will mandate government to set-up a Socialized Housing Commission with quasi-judicial power and authority with all issues arising from the implementation of UDHA law.

Marlon Quirante, President Exodus Homeowners Association , “For the past nine years that we have been pushing for the amendments, this is by far the most number of supports we had from the law makers. The implementation of on-site and near-city resettlement was also given priority. We are also hopeful that our people’s plan for on-site housing in Taytay, Binondo and Caloocan will be granted. We believe that through our proposed UDHA amendments we will secure that poverty alleviation and risk mitigation can be achieved by implementing socialized housings that agreeable among the government and poor people affected. 

Santos concluded, “We urge committees to continue to hold hearings as it move forward having the law amended.”

Friday, May 2, 2014

Forgotten Pope

By Denis Murphy

While Popes John XXIII and John Paul II were being canonized in St. Peter’s Square last April 27, before what some estimate as the largest crowd gathered in Europe for a religious purpose in living memory, Pope Paul VI rested in his quiet dark tomb under the high altar of St. Peter’s Basilica. A million people cheered the new saints. Few people remembered Paul VI. I don’t think he would have been surprised. He was never very good at handling public relations and the media.

He was a thin, sensitive, very thoughtful man. One person described him as a man of “infinite courtesy.” If John XXIII can be said to have brought the Church into the modern world, Paul VI can be said to have brought the poor of the world into the Church.

There is little talk of poverty or the poor in the Vatican II documents. It is with Paul VI’s approval after the Second Vatican Council that churches around the world began to give special attention to the poor. Latin America led in this matter, and in the late 1960s and 1970s developed an understanding of the Church as the “Church of the Poor” and of “God’s preferential option for the poor,” and the theology of liberation that supported this thinking. His encyclicals were nearly all on social matters. He championed land reform, the right of poor people to revolt, the obligation of the rich countries to help the poor countries. In these letters he followed the methodology of the Council—that is, he began with the problems as they appeared on the ground and found in them “the signs of the times” that gave believers the sense of direction in which they should move.

Paul VI became pope on the death of John XXIII in 1963 and died in 1978. He was succeeded briefly by John Paul I and then by John Paul II.

He issued one letter, “Humanae Vitae” on birth control, that may be the most unpopular letter written by a pope in modern times.

He was called indecisive and a papal Hamlet. Maybe he was such, but for the poor and for priests and bishops in trouble he was a person of warm compassion—and that is a side of him few people know.

In the 1970s-1980s Bishop Julio Labayen of the Prelature of Infanta was sometimes in trouble with the government and even with the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines for his criticism of martial law. He was troubled deeply by this, especially by the charge made by some other bishops that he had no loyalty to the Church. For anyone who knows Bishop Labayen, this was clearly absolute nonsense, but still it pained him. He was able to meet Pope Paul VI and they had a long talk about these matters, and at the end Bishop Labayen told friends: “At the heart of the Church I found a warm and welcoming father.”

Bishop Daniel Tji of South Korea, who also had troubles with his government and had spent time in jail, told me he had the same experience as Bishop Labayen had. He stopped talking after he said this, nodding slowly with a smile on his face as if he remembered once again his time with Paul VI.

My own experience with Paul VI was in Tondo, Manila, on a Sunday afternoon in early November 1970. The pope was here for the start of the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences. He arrived at the Don Bosco Center in Barrio Magsaysay and soon was sitting on what looked like a very shaky speaker stand with Cardinal Rufino Santos and Trinidad “Trining” Herrera, president of the Zone One Tondo Organization or Zoto, the first of many mass-based, democratic and nonviolent people’s organizations that would spring up in the Philippine slums during martial law. Trining greeted the pope in the name of the people of Tondo. This was, we were told, the first time a local leader had greeted a pope on such an occasion.

After greetings in Latin, which few people understood even after they were translated into Tagalog, Paul VI walked through Barrio Magsaysay’s muddy streets (it was just after Typhoon “Yoling”) to visit the home of a typical poor family; it was as poor as the families around it. The pope spent more time with the family than he was supposed to spend, and I could hear calls on the police radios around me asking what was wrong. They were beginning to get nervous.

Finally the pope came back. He was deeply shaken by what he had seen and heard. He didn’t say anything, but held on to the hand of a Franciscan Missionary of Mary sister to steady himself. I was next to the sister. He looked stricken in a way: He had seen how his poor people lived in squalor and how the lovely children were fated to be as poor as their parents.

Paul VI was the first pope to travel outside Italy. He traveled to places as different as India, the Holy Land, and New York City. He packed the Yankee Stadium. The Yankee players showed him the uniform of their all-star catcher who had died shortly before the pope’s visit. He told the United Nations: “No more war. War never again.”

I hope that in the future Pope Paul VI is canonized. There must be room in heaven for indecisive people. We can’t all have magical charisma or good luck in one’s life.

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates (

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