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Church leaders see hope amid suffering in Manila's slums

March 28, 2012

MANILA, Philippines

They braved the foul stench of garbage and had to wear borrowed rubber boots to avoid stepping on muddy pathways in one of Manila’s dumps where poor slum dwellers live off recovered plastics and metals.

“No children deserve to live in this difficult situation, but somehow I see hope amid their suffering as they showed us they can cope and still smile despite all,” said the Rev. Charles Buck of the United Church of Christ in Hawaii.

Buck was among 226 participants in a March 22-27 meeting of the World Council of Churches Commission on World Mission and Evangelism (WCC-CWME), which examined mission and evangelism in a changing global landscape.

Buck was referring to children of a community in Manila’s Tondo district, who, before they can read the alphabet, have to help earn extra pesos by scavenging recyclable trash, which they sell to junk shops. Tondo is home to around 30,000 people.

On March 25 meeting participants took a break from their mostly theological discussions to attend masses and worship services in various local churches before they proceeded to various urban poor communities.

Arranged by the National Council of Churches in the Philippines (NCCP), which hosted the WCC-CWME meeting, the visit to 23 of Manila’s poor communities aimed to help “provide context” to a document on mission and evangelism, which the participants were seeking to update.

Some of the visitors said they were impressed by the resilience of some of the residents. “I’m deeply moved by their ability to adapt to their difficult situation and this has kept me thinking about how we define happiness,” said the Rev. Fidon Mwombeki of the United Evangelical Mission, a missionary communion of churches in three continents.

At one stop, six children, ages 7 to 10, performed a “chicken dance,” which, according to Fr. Tito de Loyola, a Catholic priest ministering to the slum dwellers, was their way of “dreaming about a meal with chicken.”

At a Catholic cathedral in the Paranaque area, other WCC delegates helped display in front of the altar two banners saying “no to reclamation” and “no to displacement” at the end of a morning Mass.

“I really appreciate your act of solidarity,” Fr. Rolando Agustin told the delegates whom his office welcomed with rice cake snacks. “Some of my parishioners were moved to tears by your act.”

People in Agustin’s parish are protesting a plan by government and private industry to reclaim 635 hectares of Paranaque’s coastal village for a commercial complex and golf course, which is expected to displace 17,000 people, many of them fishermen and fish vendors.

Members of a fishermen’s cooperative in Paranaque provided lunch for the guests of roasted milk fish, mussels, chicken and rice.

Meanwhile, President Benigno S. Aquino III’s office cancelled a scheduled March 22 meeting with WCC General Secretary the Rev. Olav Fykse Tveit. The local press called it an “official snub,” but the presidential office denied that.

On March 21, Tveit met with victims of human rights violations, who included some church workers. “I could have raised these concerns as these are serious issues of dignity, safety and security,” he told reporters on March 23. “I understand the president is about my age so we could have shared visions about how to help each other make this world a better place to live in.”

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