Thursday, January 6, 2005

Poor helping poor

When the poor give to their fellow poor they give of their very substance and in so doing, become materially diminished in a way. There is the Filipino saying ``Isusubo na lang, ibinigay pa.’’ Roughly translated, what one is about to put into one’s mouth, one gives up for someone more needy. Giving even if it hurts--literally. That is often said of mothers of impoverished families.

I am reminded of birds and other wildlife who hunt prey, masticate their catch and then regurgitate the partly digested stuff into the open mouths of their young. You see a lot of these magnificent images on wildlife TV. How literal, how from-the-gut this giving is. But we are not wildlife and as humans we go through a complicated non-gut process in feeding others who are not our own.

Many who have much also give much but they do not hurt as much or may not even hurt at all. Millions of pesos, hundreds of thousands, a few thousands. All that changes are the numbers, not the digits, in the givers’ bank accounts and they may not even notice the change, much less feel it. They will not count the cost. They will still eat their favorite food, ride in one car at a time, fly first class. They are not diminished, nothing of their substance has been given up or taken way. Still, they are to be appreciated. Actress Sandra bullock just donated $1 million to the tsunami victims.

But the poor also give. They may not count the cost but they will certainly feel the cost.

Last week, at Christmastide, a group consisting of members of the Alay Kapwa Christian Communities went to the disaster-stricken towns of Real and Infanta in Quezon. I tagged along. They were women mostly, all coming from poor urban and rural communities served by the Good Shepherd Sisters. They brought with them a big jeepload of relief goods. Each bundle had the staples--rice, sugar, coffee, milk, canned goods, pieces of clothing.

Included too were packs of spaghetti and meat sauce which, I was told, were part of the Christmas ``bundles of joy’’ that Alay Kapwa poor families had received from benefactors. Now they were giving them up to the more needy.

They even raised some P11,000 from their own pockets. They have been so lucky, they admitted. The late Sr. Christine Tan, whom we all missed during this trip, had poured out her life for them. They knew how loved they were, now it was their turn to reach out.

We went in two vehicles that breezed through the zigzag until we reached that part in Real where the mountains had dumped mud, huge rocks, uprooted trees, logs and remains of homes in the last days of November. Already a month since the killer-landslides struck and road clearing was still going on.

How terrible indeed, the women said, to be poor, homeless, hungry and bereaved. Most of the time, while we were viewing the ruins, there was only awe and silence. If there was something here they wanted, the women said, it was the fresh mountain air along the way which city folks did not have. We should bring home mountain air in a bottle, someone quipped, and we all laughed.

Infanta town center was a wreck and groaning in the mud. Bishop Rolando Tria Tirona’s residence (made mostly of bamboo) was a mess. Our shock was eased by our brief rest and lunch at the Carmelite monastery garden. This was not your regular monastery with grills and cloisters. This was a lovely contemplative community of nuns minus the formidable walls, attuned and open to the poor and to nature. That was how it was begun during the time of now retired Bishop Julio Labayen (himself a Carmelite), this is how it continues to be.

During lunch the nuns told us about the mountains roaring and how their place became a refuge for those who had to flee. Everything the nuns could lay their hands on they had to give away to the wet, cold, hungry and homeless. Frightened was an understatement.

The Alay Kapwa group had to decide whether to leave the bundles at the social action center for centralized distribution or hand them over themselves to residents of a barangay. The group opted for the latter which was a more complicated process. They wanted to be skin to skin, they said, with their fellow poor even if briefly. So to Sitio Maypulot we went.

This was not their first time to reach out. When Mount Pinatubo erupted and buried portions of Central Luzon in lahar, the Alay Kapwa poor helped their fellow poor rebuild their homes. Their efforts were small and unnoticed. They only had their hearts and hands.

I am not romanticizing the poor here. They are not the easiest to work and live with, as the nuns might tell you, but the poor have their great moments and they too have shining spaces in their souls.

Our conversation often dwelled on the tsunami that struck the day after Christmas and claimed the lives of more than 150,000 people and brought sorrow to millions in Asia and parts of Africa.

Are we too busy with our own? Do we feel too small to help? I remember the series I wrote in 1998 on the overstaying Vietnamese refugees no rich nation of their choice wanted to take. The Philippines offered them citizenship and, with the help of the Catholic bishops, built them a permanent community in Palawan. Thank you, Philippines, the Vietnoys said. I wept.

We are a poor nation but we are not a stingy people.

Help! Eager to help the tsunami victims but can’t find a local fund campaign? Log on to, or or contact You could use your credit card. It’s fast and easy. But shouldn’t we do a piso-piso collection? If one billion of the six billion people on this planet would each give a dollar…