Our Presence, a Gathering Factor
Sharing their Sorrows. Too many people die young : infants and children dying from disease, youth murdered in brawls - sometimes even by the police, young parents dying, leaving behind very young children and families with a lot of children. The dead are left exposed in white coffins for at least a week, sometimes for almost a month in order to raise money - so the family can afford a funeral. These moments give us a great opportunity to express our sympathy as well as to show God’s love for them as we pray before the coffin. Always the most concerned call the others to join us in prayers. At the end, there are always the smiles of heartfelt gratitude. This is likewise done in areas less poor than the areas under the bridge.
“My most amazing discovery is the ritual of death in the Philippines. There have been a few deaths in the squatter area this week : a man, 74 years old, a young man of 22 years old, murdered, and a sick woman of 37 years old. Their coffins are glass-covered to allow people to see the dead and remains in the family’s house or in the street if the house is too small, for a period of two to three weeks. During this time, the family tries to raise enough money for the funeral. People play cards and bet money and pay the family and contribute an amount for the funeral expenses. As occidental people, we may be shocked at such a way of handling the death of a loved one. On the contrary while our occidental society wants to hide death, Filipinos have learned to accept it as part of life. The presence of the body for some time, at home, is also perhaps a good way to peacefully kiss a loved one goodbye.” (Sylvian, French volunteer in August 2006)
Last year, the community under the bridge was distressed by demolitions, and again this year by deaths. In August, Nenita 37 years old, a mother of an only son who is 13 years old, died on All Saints Day, a father of 6 children - ages 1 - 14 years old, drowned in a river. And then there was Mary Jane and Renanto’s two months old baby ...
Eighteen year old Mary Jane and nineteen year old Renanto live under the bridge with Mary Jane’s mother. Renanto’s mother also lived nearby. In September 2006, baby Renalyn was born.
“Sister, would you have a medallion for my baby...to bless her ?” That is how I came to know Mary Jane one morning in the street, coming from mass. It seemed important to her and she asked me again until I bring it at last one evening.
One Sunday in November, her mother-in-law informed me that the baby was sick in the hospital, and the following Tuesday, baby Renalyn’s coffin was already at the entrance of the bridge. Mary Jane asked if we could pray at the wake one late morning. Though she was not there, we were able to pray with her and Re-nanto two days later. As we prayed, they seemed lost. They did not know what to say. They also did not know the songs or the Our Father. But the “nanays” (mothers) who take part in our activities sup-ported them. It was clear that they were not practicing Catholics, but at the end, they were smiling and saying “Salamat” (thank you). As there was no money, they had to keep the body for another week.
However, before the extended week was over, a strong typhoon was predicted (the one of November 30th). Although the typhoon eventually spared Manila, as soon as 6 o’clock in the morning of that day, one of the neighbors took charge of the burial - passing by the church for the blessing and finally in the cemetery for the poor of Navotas.
Each of the parents expressed their grief in a poignant way, under the gaze of the street children, living in the cemetery ; in the midst of many rather blasé street children, some almost mocking, I noticed one of them in respectful silence, obviously moved by what was happening. “What is he thinking of ? His own mother ?”
After a brief separation, Mary Jane and Renanto came back together as Christmas came. And together represented Mary and Joseph for the living crib of their community ; very serious and in a respectful mood, Mary Jane carried a neighbor’s baby during the whole celebration.
The young couple were themselves instruments of gathering for the community, first in their own moment of bereavement and then on the occasion of prayer and of joy.
Some months before, Violie and I prayed with the Stations of the Cross, together with these families. At their request, each station was prayed in each of their homes. Is it not significant to bear witness to the passion of Christ right in their homes directly under the bridge : in a tiny space which vibrates each time a truck passes above and where one cannot stand up ? Nenita, who died some months later, told us how afraid she was to be in such a “house”. But how each of them felt honored and blessed by this prayer in their homes !
Each liturgical event is an occasion to gather and celebrate Someone who is more than we all can marvel at and imagine.
Another example is Dina, who has been angry for some months with one of the “nanays” in the group - for a valid reason and a cause of great suffering for her. She refused to continue being with them. However, on September 8, she came to join the group and both of them were able to celebrate with the others Mama Mary’s birthday.
I should not forget, of course, the many Christmas parties. I will share with you the enthusiastic remark of Bernard, our 15 year old neighbor, who helps us under the bridge : “Although you are tired, you must be happy to bring so much happiness to all these people.” He was himself so happy that he encouraged his friends to join us.
Our presence clearly reveals to them the Presence of Someone who gives them life, and who helps them to hold on day after day. This they would express at prayer.
It is not presence only because we also hold reflections as a means to gather parents and children. In August, using puppets to show the life of Moses, we tried to make express their life in relation to the people of God who were led by Moses. Week after week, the children discovered more and more what in the life of Moses, was similar to their own life. During the program, after each scene, 2 children read these stories in front of many parents who paid a lot of attention and also a lot of joyful pride. It’s just the beginning...
Source of questionings among the young volunteers.
The young volunteers who come to assure the animation of groups of children take part in the prayer life which they feel regulates the life in the community. Many have expressed how their Faith has been renewed, deepened, oftentimes strengthened. Above all, they appreciate the Wednesday evening prayer group with the youth. Thanks to the English language, a real dialogue takes place, an exchange which is enriching true and joyful !
|Constance, (20 years old - French - August 2006) at the end of her stay, wrote : “At youth prayer, we mentioned that “God answers at the right time” or that “we have to entrust ourselves in God’s hand during hard times.” We spoke about confidence in God. I think it is one of the most important learning’s during my stay in Sawata. I have the impression that my stay with you and with all those people brought me a bit of this confidence, giving me such joy, such hope...”
The different way of practicing Religion here challenges them a lot, like Valerie (19 years old - French - summer 2006) who wrote : “the crowded churches, children everywhere in church, prayers, and rosary at any time ; religious feasts celebrated by all... and the surprised look of teenagers when we recounted to them that in France, a lot of people don’t believe in God. Anyway, their practices make us reflect on our own religion...and, if in fact, the Philippines may be right ?”
Each volunteer leaves with a strong message to live by as shared by Valerie : “I discovered a people who know how to welcome, who are always smiling, happy, radiant and full of life...in short, people who taught me to hope, to see a little white pearl even when it is going bad, to continue to go forward with a smile. These are beautiful words which I already knew - but for the Filipinos, for those who live in the misery of the fourth world, these words are full of meaning. I think I never saw such smiles. When a fire broke out, probably intentionally for the purpose of throwing people out of the squatter areas, when all their houses were destroyed, when hundreds of families suddenly found themselves in the street - carrying children and some personal belongings - when a big black cloud of smoke brought with it many years of building a home and a life, and when, in the midst of all these, people look at you and smile, then you have to stop and think... To continue to hope, to continue to live and build again... through the grace of God who has given us to be still alive.”|