“Sister, matagal kayong hindi nadalaw!” An elderly woman welcomed us, with a tone of reproach, as we entered the gates of Pasay City cemetery. My sisters have been doing regular outreach programs with the families who are literally living among the dead. I finally had the chance to join the group. The postulants took care of the catechism for children. The professed sisters gathered the adults (mostly women) for Bible study and lectio divina. My specific task was to document the activities. Armed with a point-and-shoot camera and an iPad, I observed, recorded images, kept a list of impressions, and paid attention to words.
The first thing I noticed was the great number of children as they assembled in front of a mausoleum. They were excited. They came running barefoot, others bare-chested, one was completely nude, and all of them seemed oblivious to it. There is a lot to cover here, I told myself, and I didn’t want to miss anything. I started clicking away. At each click of the shutter, a thousand questions rushed through my brain: Why are they here? Where do they come from? Where are their parents? What is the city government doing for them? How can they survive? What about their future???
I am no stranger to poverty. I grew up in Tondo where I learned hard work and dogged determination from my parents. They neither refused to give up on life nor allowed themselves to be victims of their circumstance. Life was not easy, but there was faith, and hope, and joy and music, and family. Could I find that here, I wondered?
A man was chiselling a name on a marble urn. It was for a woman whose remains will be cremated that day. “How did you learn to do that?” I asked. “I had to earn a living, and found out I could chip on marble and was good at it,” he smiled.
A group of teenagers was enjoying a bottle of soft drinks in a sari-sari store (nestled between two mausoleums). They just graduated from high school and dream of going to college: to be an accountant, an engineer, and a teacher. One of them said her parents take care of two tombs and they get “free board and lodging.” They’ve extended the hospitality to four other families – practically all her relatives live with them, among the tombs.
There were some newcomers in the Lectio Divina group and I captured the scene of an elderly woman teaching a young mother, with a baby in her arms, how to find a bible passage.
The children were a marvel to behold and kept me busy. Oh, they were dirty and they smelled and created a racket. They sang. Click. And danced. Click. Lined up for snacks. Click. Laughed and ran around. Click. Shared their bread. Click. Prayed and played. Click. Exclaimed with delight at the books. Click. Asked questions. Click. Some gamely posed for a solo. Click. Or with a friend, minus his two front teeth. Click.
A girl of seven or eight caught my attention. She’s not only pretty – she’s really beautiful. In spite of her unkempt curly hair and unwashed face, she’s a standout. The youngest of three sisters, she clung to her Ate and never left her side. I included her in most group photos and “stole” some close-up shots. When I reviewed the shots later I noticed that her face remained impassive all throughout the day. Although she was singing and dancing and eating with the others, her beautiful face was blank. Her eyes seemed like an old woman’s. More questions!
And then it was time to go back to the convent. I gave them a last look and brought them all to the Lord in prayer. I asked him many questions at evening prayer and adoration, but he remained silent. Fine. I thought that was the end of it.
Just before dinner, I showed the sisters and postulants the pictures of the day. I pointed to the poker-faced girl and introduced my new “boyfriend.” He’s a boy with joy painted all over his face and demeanor. One of the postulants recognized him. She said that after she gave them snacks, this boy came near. While the other kids busily opened their bags of goodies, he asked: “Sister, sister! Pwede pong payakap? Kahit saglit lang?” He is almost nine-years-old, doesn’t go to school, and his parents scavenge for a living. “Nakayakap na siya diyan sa picture, Sister, kaya masayang-masaya.”
His request kept ringing in my ears, over and over. “Sister, sister! Pwede pong payakap? Kahit saglit lang?” I could not sleep because the earlier questions came back; this time, with the answers.
Yes, people are hungry for food,
but they are more hungry for love.
A few minutes of your presence today,
your smile, your embrace
reminded them that I care;
that I have not forgotten them;
that I am Father.
You cannot do all. You cannot change much.
But you were there – and for that little boy
there was joy, and life, and love today,
no matter how fleeting.
The tears came, but also restful sleep, secure in the Father’s loving embrace.