Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Poverty of life and spirit

It was early morning and I had just gotten out of the metro station and took a jeepney to get to my next destination when I passed through the streets of Pasay in the Philippines. I saw a little boy naked on the sidewalk curb defecating into a plastic bag held by someone old enough to be his grandmother.

Coming from a third world country, it wasn't unusual to see poverty, suffering or the lack of facilities. But seeing that boy made me realize how difficult it really is for people to live in extreme poverty.

What is poverty? In economic terms, it's living on less than a dollar a day. But poverty doesn't only refer to income. It refers to the lack of basic needs such as food, safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, health, shelter, education and information. The Copenhagen Declaration, a product of the UN World Summit on Social Development, said that if these basic needs are not met, one is experiencing poverty regardless of income. Poverty cannot be reduced to numbers because it has a human face.

The world is experiencing a multitude of poverty right now. If we're just talking about economic poverty, half of the world's population is living under $2.50 a day (World Bank Development Indicators 2008). The poor continue to become poorer and the gap between the wealthy and the poor continues to grow.

There's a problem of malnutrition in Africa, the financial crisis has rendered many homeless in the United States, banks are closing. But what does this mean for the common man? It means that more and more people are living without the basic needs necessary to lead a dignified life.

The most affected are the children. According to UNICEF, 26,500-30,000 children die each year due to poverty. Due to poverty, economic migrants leave their homelands in the hope of giving their children a better tomorrow. The social costs of migration has been high as families have become broken. Some children without proper adult supervision have resorted to drugs, alcohol and petty criminality to fill the void in their lives wrought by the lack of a mother or a father.

When one is lacking, it dehumanizes. It makes one resort to begging, to thievery, to all sorts of activities that may not be in accordance with the moral values of the person because it boils down to need. One cannot eat principles.

Everybody needs to eat, drink, have a home and be healthy. Education becomes secondary. The reasoning behind it is that when one doesn't have anything to eat or drink, then they may not be healthy enough to go to school, to work, to look after their needs.

I know people who live in squatters. I experienced having to go to the toilet without flushing water. I walked amongst the canals, the stench and the garbage strewn on the streets. I saw the tin roofs held down by old car tires, the octopus-like electrical wiring, the stored water in drums. But there are also parts that are clean, organized and safe. IT doesn't have to be this way.

We can all do our part to help humanity get out of its poverty.

I recently attended a recollection on Gawad Kalinga. It spoke about loving until it hurts. As Christians, we believe that we should love God as well as our neighbours. We are called to exercise love until it hurts.

GK's aim is to bring glad tidings to the poor. It's a multisectoral approach to not only addressing poverty by building homes, but also creating the environment that teaches people to provide for themselves and to take responsibility for their lives. GK believes that it's not enough just to give a person a home, it's also about being there for others.

The GK culture is built on:

1. Giving not taking
2. Encouraging not blaming
3. Inclusion not exclusion
4. Humility not arrogance
5. Cooperation not competition

It embraces the "less for self, more for others, enough for all" mentality so that truly we can contribute to the eradication of poverty by not focusing on our own needs. We all have something to give.

I was moved by a video shown during a recollection when a poor man gave his little piece of land, all that he owned, to build houses for 80 other families.

We need to grow a heart for the poor, to go out of our comfort zones and to stop looking inward only towards ourselves. We have a responsibility to our neighbours. We can't just keep praying because faith without action is dead. The adage says "true richness is in the following of the hidden Christ who is always among the poor".

Because we have the means to help, we should help the poor rise from death. Not just physical death but the death that overcomes someone who has lost all hope in life and in humanity. We should be a living hope!

If we are children of God, we should respond to the call of lifting our brothers and sisters out of poverty. But poverty also has a spiritual dimension. The richest of the richest also experiences lack ... lack of love, lack of appreciation, insecurities, depression, losing the will to live, etc. Things that paralyzes man because of a broken self-image. We are not only called to give from our pockets but also give that which as been given to us freely and abundantly - the gift of love. Be there for others.

I was talking to a friend today who when immersed in far-flung communities teaches her exasperated students that even if it seems that they're not making a difference, tells them that it's not the teaching of students per se that makes a difference but it's the thought of someone caring.

I read a forwarded message quoted from Bo Sanchez that said it's not the grand show of giving material gifts to a loved that matters, it's being there that matters.

When you have all the riches in the world yet you live and die unloved and unwanted - Mother Teresa said this is the greatest poverty. Even in her own spiritual poverty as she felt the 40 years of silence between her and God, she never ceased to show all the love that she could muster. She didn't look at her own suffering, but those of the others.

Let us do the same to help not only the materially poor but those who are also in need of that life-giving love.

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