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The author, whose name and address are with the editor, works in a place that has known war. The experiences shared in the article are not unlike those of many in the Philippines.
For more than a year now, I have been among a new people, learning to be one of them in order to become part of their life and their history. As I study the language, I have also learned to study the people I daily meet on the streets as a way of learning to live my religious life in dialogue with their life. I feel there is much I can learn specially from the poor and suffering, those easily pushed aside into the margins of society.
A man named Joseph
He struck me the first time I went to the parish church where I daily attend the morning Eucharist. There was something fine and elegant in his features . . . the long, white beard that I only used to see in Chinese figurines . . . as he sat daily by the church gate to beg. I wondered what had led him to the life he leads now. Whenever I had small change in my purse, that was for him. For him too were part of my meals, which were often too much for me. Then one night, as I was walking home in a drizzle, I saw my beggar-friend rolled in a plastic bag sleeping on a sidewalk. So . . . he had no place to live, either. When I had to walk home at night in that direction and he was still awake, he would recognize me and wave his hand in greeting. One day I read that rather than just giving, the more meaningful gesture was to talk. So, with the little language I had I found out his name was ‘Joseph’ and introduced myself to him, too. I have moved away from that area since. I don’t know how long Joseph has been begging and how much longer he will continue, but I can guess he will do so until he dies.
Standing by the wayside
In a city crowded with thousands of motorcycles, the poorest of these drivers are the pedicab drivers. While the faster, stronger motorcycle overtakes them and pushes them to the outer lane, they continue to pedal their old dilapidated passenger-carriage in front of their bicycle. One day, there was the usual sign of an accident, a crowd gathered in the street. A motorcycle had collided with a pedicab, obstructing the traffic. As I watched the drama unfold before me, I thought of how this was so typical of what was happening in the rest of society. The young man driving the motorcycle was spitefully shouting at the pedicab driver, blaming him for the accident. The latter said nothing as, limping, he pulled his pedicab, which had fallen apart, to the sidewalk. All the people, including myself, simply watched until the street cleared, then moved on. How can a poor, uneducated man defend himself before the heavy-handed ways of the powerful and the knowledgeable? And we who continue to live simply as bystanders to the social drama?
No job too difficult
One day on my way to language school, I was aghast to see in the middle of the traffic a tall bamboo ladder with a man on top working on the electric wires running across the street. A man holding the ladder below was all the support there was in the swirl of motorcycles around it. I felt how vulnerable that man was . . . just the wrong swerve of a motorcycle . . .
How fragile life is and yet the poor have no choice. When you have no job, then even putting your life at stake by climbing a bamboo ladder in the middle of motorcycle traffic is acceptable . . . never mind the risks involved just so there may be food for the family today.
Every night at around 9 or 10 I hear it, a clear rhythmic ringing sound all along the street passing under my window and fading into the distance. I liked the sound and wondered what it was. It rose above the usual neighborhood noises of people talking, children playing, motorcycles running and was clearly meant to call people’s attention. Then one day I heard it, this time in the early afternoon. I looked around, following the sound and saw a boy perhaps 12 years old, rhythmically tapping a strip of metal against another wider band of metal in his hand while he walked briskly along the street. He didn’t seem to be just playing a game, attracting attention by the beautiful clear metallic ring he was making. Later, I asked around what this boy was about. He was one of those hired by mobile noodle vendors who announce by their metal ringing that they are ready to receive orders and to deliver them. How many hours a day do these young boys walk the streets? How much do they bring home to contribute to the family income? Do they miss playing as other boys their age are doing?
The lottery of life
The war had left four million people dead and three million wounded. You can imagine the number of physically handicapped people the long-drawn out war had produced. The government tries to help those who are not confined in institutions earn a livelihood by making them sell lottery tickets. You meet them all over the city, but I wasn’t ready for what I would encounter one day. I usually explore different ways to go around and one day I entered a side street. As I walked along, suddenly I saw a movement alongside the wall. It took me a moment to sort out that it was a man, but only ‘half a man’ Both his legs had been amputated at the thigh and he was rolling because he was lying on his brace and was trying to reach it to wrap it around his trunk. Beside him was his clipboard of lottery tickets to sell. I knew he needed help but I couldn’t bring myself to bend down and hold his brace for him . . . I turned around and hurriedly walked away from him. I was ashamed of myself when I became aware of what I was doing. I realized I was afraid at the way he looked.
Today, as I was finishing this article, we received a visit from a neighbor bringing a family in need of help: a handicapped beggar married to a woman with a family of five children to feed who had become insane. The 16-year-old daughter had also become insane. The lottery ticket distributor refused to give them any more tickets to sell, as they hadn’t been remitting payments.
And so the stories go on. There are many to tell so long as there are lives around us that speak from the depths of their deprivation and suffering.
My solidarity walk
What has the daily reading of the book of the life of the poor and those who suffer taught me for my religious life? First, is the humbling realization that I will never be able to live evangelical poverty as well as they do . . . what the harshness of life through long years has taught them . . . of the patience, the capacity to endure suffering in its many forms: humiliation, hunger, cold nights, hard work, danger . . . the vulnerability and defenselessness, the unabashed need for help of brothers and sisters, the radical, almost extreme trust in Providence, the capacity to marvel at grace, the spontaneous overflow of thanksgiving at the experience of goodness. They fill me with awe, these brothers and sisters, the ‘anawim’ , ‘the poor of God’, who powerfully bear God’s word for me. I admire what I see of the human spirit in them. I feel I must constantly sit at their feet to learn from them. And so I do, so I do.