FORGET the scientific studies for a while. Just open your eyes. Reality stings more than its objective presentations. I am speaking particularly of poverty in this country of super stars, super forecasts of super economic growths, super tycoons and super typhoons.
I remember asking the congregation at the first Aguinaldo Mass last December 16, 2014, well within the Year of the Poor, to ponder the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Thus says the Lord, ‘Observe what is right, do what is just for my salvation is about to come, my justice, about to be revealed’” (Is 56:1). Lest Israel think this salvation is its exclusive property I asked the faithful at Mass to further reflect on how Isaiah forcefully brings the Israelites a reality check indirectly: “Let not the foreigner say, when he would join himself to the Lord, ‘The Lord will surely exclude me from his people’…The foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,…all who keep the Sabbath free from profanation and hold to my covenant them I will bring to my holy mountain and make joyful in my house of prayer…For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Is 56:3-4, 6-7).
The beauty of God’s salvation, in the vision of Isaiah, is that, unlike Philippine economic growth, it is inclusive. It is not meant only for Israel, unlike the material prosperity of recent Philippine economic achievements which have benefited mostly the upper echelons of Filipino society. What we are saying here is that the universality of God’s saving love is denied scandalously by the massive material poverty of our people. Again Isaiah has something to say even now as to why we have come to such a pass: Our present conditions obtain because by and large we have not “observed” “what is right”, not all Filipinos get their “just” share of the country’s wealth. That is why Isaiah’s words are an indictment of our society. But are we ever listening?
Consider the following faces of our poor.
Fishermen, farmers, our working-class rural and urban poor. As a student priest in Rome I once visited Holland and marveled at the opulent houses we were passing by on the way to Amsterdam. “These are fishermen’s houses and properties,” I was told by our guide, a Filipino residing in the city. On another occasion, I was on a train from NYC to Cleveland, Ohio, to visit a priest there, and again I was awed by the seemingly endless fields of wheat in one place and of grapes in another. “Farmers own those,” I was told by a friend. I had to ask myself: Why are our fishermen and farmers in the Philippines so poor and live only in small houses of light and fragile materials, playthings to super typhoons, when they are the hands that feed all of us? Gary Granada sings our common aspiration: “Sana’y meron nang tahanan ang gumagawa ng bahay at masaganang hapunan ang naghahasik ng palay…”
Poverty in public schools, malnutrition of public school students. I was once in U.P. Los Baṅos at the invitation of a friend who once lived near the area. He was simply showing me the place and we had an afternoon to spend when I saw a sign of a zoological museum and decided to get in. My curiosity turned to big disappointment when I realized I was watching mostly photos or representations, not real or preserved specimens. It is not only once that heard U.P. students themselves criticizing the inefficiency of their own libraries and facilities in terms of services that are readily available in those of exclusive schools for the scions of the wealthy. If this is true to U.P., the premier public university, you could just imagine the situation in other public schools. Whenever I visit the farthest barangays of my parish I witness the heroism of our public school teachers who brave the rapids, torturous mountains and trails to reach children whom they teach with very meager resources and very often delayed salaries. Everywhere I see faces of malnourished children, some with bloated bellies, others thin and pale for lack of proper nutrition but who smilingly bring themselves to school. For most school is the only way out of poverty but the schools are themselves poor in facilities, poor in the number of teachers available, poor in almost anything except dreams.
Poverty in our public transport system and infrastructures. The MRT-LRT mode of mass transport, now an object of controversy, is millions of miles ahead of the ubiquitous jeepneys, buses, vans, pedicabs and tricycles in the provinces or poorer sections of the cities (which are more than other sections) in terms of time-saving efficiency. And yet the present MRT-LRT systems, despite the government subsidy and fare hike supporting them, are like sick tubercular patients compared to similar systems in ASEAN countries alone. Neighbors such as Singapore and Malaysia readily shame us with their modern, well-maintained, slick, fast, dependable, efficient and numerous mass transport trains and buses. And don’t forget the roads. While other countries have already eight-or-more-lane highways we still traverse constricted four-lane ones (at the most). In my province of Eastern Samar where funds from the United States (obtained during the first U.S. visit of the present administration) have passed through layers and layers of contractors and sub-contractors, we are seeing only two-lane highways whose quality is so highly suspect, even sans an engineering degree to support the observation, that they are a far cry from the “world-class highways” promised by the benefactors.
Poverty in our sense of public order and discipline. The chaos in the daily traffic conditions of our cities and even of our big towns are a statement of the poverty of the Filipino sense of discipline and order. Despite heroic efforts by public authorities and well-meaning citizens the problem is nowhere near a solution except perhaps temporarily through huge doses of patience and humor. Even the concept of sharing a ride or car-pooling among friends and fellow workers has not caught up with the rest of the population. The Filipino penchant for quick fixes through various “palusot” modes often result in more prolonged sacrifices for the many. The recent scandals related to the prisoners’ continuing criminal lifestyles inside the walls that should have checked them in the first place is yet another illustration of our dire moral poverty.
Poverty in our appreciation of the precariousness of the environment and the perils of climate change. I believe this one is the twin brother of the poverty of our sense of order and discipline. Despite two horrific, catastrophic super typhoons many Filipinos, especially in the cities and poverty-stricken provinces, continue to pollute the land, sea and air with garbage and careless use of fossil fuels. Many rural poor as well as big companies continue to denude the already denuded forests by legal and illegal logging even if, as in the case of my hometown, Borongan, Eastern Samar, the ill effects of legal logging long-ago forgotten are still being felt, thanks to Super Typhoon Ruby’s flash floodings, with scores of logs accompanying the raging waters.
I could go on. Or perhaps you could. All we have been saying here is that this Year of the Poor is not only about one face of poverty in our islands. We would be utterly in the wrong if we looked only at our massive material poverty and missed our moral-spiritual poverty that is at its root.
Earlier I asked if we have ever, and truly, listened to Isaiah the prophet as a nation. Perhaps it is too much to ask a nation wont to celebrating even while grieving, wont to forgetting its own history of rising and falling, as to why, how or where we are going.
Or perhaps we have been listening too much to prophets and their words that comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
Perhaps we need to simply act and obey what we hear. It is time to “observe what is right” and “to do what is just” so that the “salvation” long-ago announced may finally overtake our Filipino steps.