What A Slum Village Taught Me
About Real Community
After living in New York for so many years, my partner of 24 years felt called by God to do mission work. He is an Episcopal Priest and being Filipino had witnessed the rampant poverty in the Philippines where he grew up.
Being a Christian myself, I agreed that we needed to follow the Lord in action and decided mission work was something we both could and needed to do.
So our lives changed.
My partner moved on a few months earlier before me to the Philippines and met with the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of the Central Philippines and offered his services, requesting to work with poor churches in the slums. They accepted his offer and he was assigned to serve as a priest for a slum church that originally met under a mango tree.
The village is made up of families mostly living in makeshift shacks of aluminum siding, cinder blocks and plywood with tarp roofs and dirt floors. Garbage is everywhere, families sleep together in one room and for many little hope of ever getting out of there.
He held Sunday church services in their community center that doubled as a school classroom.
When I was able to join my partner later in the year, I saw the village for the first time and was struck by the level of poverty that these people had to live in.
The homes of some of the families are no bigger than some kitchens or bathrooms in America. They get their water from a well in the village. Some people have electricity while others do not. There is garbage everywhere and much of it embedded in the ground under their feet. Some of the homes have only 2 walls and are open to the elements. It was an eye opener for me at how these people had to live.
Being American, I took for granted the everyday creature comforts I grew up with: electricity, air conditioning, television, glass windows, running water, a working kitchen, a washing machine, a flushable toilet, a shower, privacy, etc.
I also heard that many of the families only have one meal a day. My partner told me one boy said his family could only afford rice flavored with soy sauce.
The first thing that struck me when I first visited the slums was seeing a barefoot 2-year-old boy walking around by himself. “Where is the mother?” I watched as he maneuvered the uneven dirt ground and wandered off. Will he become lost? Will the mother suddenly run out looking for him in a panic? But about 10 minutes later the child came back and went back to where he came from. Later I again saw the boy go out and there were some persons sitting around and I realized that the whole neighborhood knew the child and was keeping an eye on him.
At one church service, I saw a woman carrying a baby and I thought to myself that she must be the mother of the child, but then later another woman was holding that same baby and then on another Sunday, a teenage girl was holding the baby. It was then that I realized that the community all embraced the baby and they all took turns watching and caring for the child while the mother rested or tended to her other children and chores. I was amazed and impressed.
When visiting the village I always see the people outside. The girls are playing games together, the teenage boys play basketball, little children are running around playing with each other, the men are fixing things or playing cards, the women are washing clothes or bathing their children, the older people are hanging out together people watching. Everyone is outside. They are all doing things together, talking, running errands, helping each other out and just in each other’s lives.
Having no electricity, no air conditioning, no Internet, no video games, no room in the house, leaves these people no alternative but to be outside spending time with each other. They know their neighbors. There are parents, grandparents, teens, kids, uncles, aunts and cousins all out there together. If you are looking for a person in the village, someone will point out their house and show you where they live. Everyone knows his or her neighbors from the very smallest baby to the elderly.
Because people do not have much, I see men pitching in and working together to help renovate someone’s home. I see women working to put together a festival for a holiday celebration. Everyone pitches in and helps out. It is a REAL COMMUNITY.
If there is an important event, a baptism, a wedding, a celebration or a funeral, everyone knows about it. Their neighbors are just a few doors from each other and news gets passed around.
And like any community, people know each other’s business, whisper and gossip and yes, there are people who just don’t like each other, but they have to see each other regularly within the community whether they like it or not and have to work out their differences between themselves.
The most amazing thing I have witnessed in this slum village is that even though these people live in unimaginable poverty, they are content and do not complain. Their neighbors all live the same way and they do the best they can and make due.
Being an American, the lack of modern conveniences and comfort would just make me miserable if I had to live like they do year after year. The lack of air conditioning in this hot humid climate, the darkness in the village when evening comes, the smoke from the small fires from burning trash, the bugs, the lack of water, no privacy…all things that would make me very uncomfortable and unhappy, but these people are resilient and are used to this way of living. It doesn't faze them.
What a difference from my experience of living in the U.S. where many of us will whine about the tiniest inconveniences that put us in a bad mood.
In the past, American homes had front porches where the families could sit, watch and engage with their neighbors who were walking by. With the invention of the car, people stopped walking on the streets and families moved further away from each other. With electricity came the radio, television and air conditioning that have made it possible for people to stay inside their homes and away from their neighbors. American streets are now more deserted than they once were.
We in the modern world have eliminated the COMMUNITY of real people and replaced them with social media “Friends”, many of whom we have never met in person and might not ever. People online can say whatever they want whether hurtful or not and appear and disappear at will and never ever see a living person. If someone says something to you that you don’t like, you can just block or delete them. And all that you might get from some of your "Friends" is a "Like", a "Thumbs Up" or a sentence or two of affirmation. So much for conversation and dialogue.
Even in the real world, people avoid real contact and resort to hiding behind phone screens, retreating into our own fantasy worlds. Today an auditorium could be full of people, but almost all of them are on their phones.
Recent news surveys report that young people are feeling lonelier and unhappier than ever. That's because they prefer to contact their friends via a screen rather than meeting them in person, seeing their faces, sharing a meal or engaging in one on one conversation in real time.
We in the industrial world have made it possible so each of us can create our own personalized world where we can work alone, be alone, have things delivered to us and only see who we want to see, avoiding all unpleasant contact with anyone who is not exactly like us. We have short attention spans and so we jump from one thing to the next with low tolerance for discomfort for even a minute.
We have walled ourselves off from each other.
I once spoke of the great sense of community in the slum village to a teenager and she couldn't understand why in America, people living on the same block wouldn't know each other. I told her that economic stability and technology led people to find comfort within their own homes and families, isolating themselves from their neighbors.
Adding to that is the current mindset to separate ourselves into our own tribes. People in America come from all over the world, but because of our differences there is distrust among each other. We have divided ourselves by our race, nationality, culture, status, identity, religion, age, money, politics, sexual orientation and even by whether we are good looking or not. All things superficial.
Because of this division, everyone is afraid of each other. It is very sad. We have made things worse for ourselves.
Modern life automatically pulls us away from each other. We must break free and find ways to reignite and awaken ourselves to the importance of real community and changing the way we have been living.
Yes we may not get along with everyone in our community, but as Christians we are to maneuver and work out our differences, forgive when we hurt each other and accept each other's faults and differences because none of us is perfect.
I have come to understand that God meant for all of us to live together in community to learn from, help each other and love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves so we can be ONE, because when we are in community with others, we are living in and surrounded by the hope of LOVE.
Blessed are the poor, for they shall see God.
Photo: A funeral service held in front of a home in the slum village in the Philippines.
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