Smokey Mountain Outreach
Again it’s been a while since I’ve written. Perhaps it was due to this entire schoolyear being an extended period of transition wherein I needed to reorient myself with regard to my life’s general direction.
I’ve learned (and have been taught) many different lessons this year, which is good for my students, I suppose–it’s proof that your teacher is still learning, and as such, has not yet fossilized.
This post doesn’t have enough space to encompass everything that has been learned, but one thing that is sure: From now on, I am going to devote every post I write to give glory to my God and to further the cause of Christ. I’m still going to write inane and silly entries of questionable importance, but I owe it to the LORD to continue shouting his praise.
Last Saturday, my mother celebrated her 49th birthday. Instead of throwing another party for relatives, she instead decided to spend the day with Metro Ministries during one of their regular outreach trips to the Smokey Mountain area. Metro Ministries sends out teams to depressed areas regularly to hold Sunday school classes. Sessions consist of games, singing, skits, object lessons, and feeding.
For those not familiar with the area, Smokey Mountain is an enormous open garbage dump that was so prone to spontaneous combustion due to its sheer mass. The smoldering burning garbage (and the size of the pile) gave the area its name. The dumpsite was used for 40 years before it was finally closed down and covered with dirt. Its residents were relocated to tenement housing adjacent to the dump. Since then, a new dumpsite has begun to grow in a nearby area, and a new squatter community has begun to grow around it as well.
My mom, my girlfriend (Yes, I have a GF now, but that’s a story for another time) and I arrived at the Metro Ministries HQ in Paranaque just as they were about to depart for Smokey. We took the airport road and then took Roxas Boulevard northwards.
Now, the furthest north I’d gone in the Old Manila area prior to this was the Intramuros area, but when we started driving past all the famous landmarks and into the port area, the surroundings began to look more sinister. Eventually, the ports gave way to the slums.
It came to a point where there was a large pile of squatter shanties on the side of the road, but the volunteer who was driving the car told us that those houses were actually taking up space on the road, and that the legitimate houses were beyond them.
Finally, we took a turn off the main road and went onto a dusty side road lined with recycling shops. We had entered the New Smokey Mountain, the first of our three venues.
Now, I’ve been to a garbage dump before. Back in college, in an effort to escape from what I’d perceived as the tyranny of ROTC, I signed up for Literary Training Service instead and went to the dump at Payatas every Saturday and tutored little children there.
New Smokey was similar in many ways: The ambient smell of rotting garbage was there, but it wasn’t really oppressive due to it being a hot and sunny day. According to the other volunteers, had it been raining, the garbage would have the consistency of mud and one would sink up to the knees walking in it, not to mention stink much more.
Our vehicles, along with the Metro stage truck, parked at a basketball court beside the outreach church. Almost immediately we could see that the children recognized the vehicle and were running alongside, asking for the tickets that we were going to hand out. (These tickets were used to track attendance and entitled the children to the food handout at the end of the program.)
At this point, the children were already beginning to line up. While some of the volunteers helped marshal the kids, our group headed out to hand the tickets to the children.
I was surprised by just how many children came up to us. Furthermore, they were not only asking for individual tickets–the usual number they asked for was four, as many of them had numerous siblings.
We continued walking closer to the shoreline, going past the junk shops and closer to the garbage pile itself. That day it was flat and compressed; Pastor Wendy explained that it would change in shape as trucks came in to dump their load until it reached an unmanageable state. At such a point bulldozers would come in to flatten the pile.
The community stands at the fringe of the pile; tightly-packed shacks stand shoulder to shoulder. There’s also a row of charcoal factories (little more than tents housing burning piles of scrap wood). If there was any smell that was oppressive, it was actually that of the burning wood—it produced thick clouds of toxic black smoke. I couldn’t imagine how difficult it was for the workers in the plants to even breathe, considering that their protection consisted entirely of a t-shirt tied around their faces.
As we climbed onto the pile, we encountered an elderly woman who could barely speak English. One of the other volunteers helped translate so that Pastor Wendy could communicate with her–as it turns out, she simply wanted to buy herself some coffee, so Pastor Wendy went ahead and bought as sachet for her.
We climbed down into the houses squeezed together near the shoreline and continued calling the children to go up to the
basketball court. We came upon the final row of houses, which was little more than a series of boxes squashed together on top of stilts. They were suspended about six feet above the surface of the black water.
We climbed up the pile again and went past the choking black smoke, and made our way back to the court. At this point it was swarming with children, many of whom were coming up to us and reaching up, asking us to carry them. It dawned on me then—did these kids just have so little affection at home, that they were desperately seeking the love that their families could simply not give them?
I continued to reflect on this beneath the harsh beat of the sun’s rays. At this point the Sunday School session was in full swing. The children, though somewhat rowdy, still got the point when the hosts called for behavior.
As prizes for participating in the games, some of the children were given 1-litre cartons of chocolate milk that my mom had brought. I had never seen children devour milk so eagerly despite the lack of a clean glass–most of them simply popped the seals and drank them straight from the cartons. Many of them shared the milk with their siblings.
At the end of the program, the children were asked to line up as the volunteers began to distribute the bread. Each child got two slices per ticket (some lined up for their siblings).
Two things were going through my mind as the Metro team packed up: first was exactly how shocking the children’s poverty was, and second was that only the gospel of Christ could give hope to these children.
These children were content with playing with grimy, gruesome-looking Barbie dolls that had been partially dismembered. Others were dragging around bright green paste tubes with pieces of plastic string. One little boy had a deformed arm, which looked like it had two sets of forearm bones in it, and the wrist was twisted awkwardly. Another child, a girl, had her right hand in a dingy bandage, and it looked like her middle, ring and pinky fingers were swollen to three times the length and five times the diameter of her other fingers. I couldn’t exactly see the fingers, but whatever her condition was, it rendered her right hand mostly unusable. Many of the children were lacking pants, underwear, or went around completely naked. Whenever they were asked what they wanted, they simply wanted food.
This entire picture would be so much more depressing if it weren’t for dedicated, godly men and women like the Metro volunteers, who reached out with the Gospel of Christ. What could any other world view offer these children? Shall we tell them that there is no God, and no God who cares about them? That they’re just accidents with no intrinsic value, and as such it’s just too bad that they live in these deplorable conditions? Shall we tell them that they have to work for their salvation, and that they have to attempt to bribe God despite their poverty that they might have some nebulous hope of being in a better place when they die?
Shall we tell them that all of their surroundings are an illusion, and that they have to find a way to somehow reach enlightenment? I don’t know how any of these ideas can help their immediate conditions while giving them the hope and desire to reach beyond themselves AND give them a purpose and joy at the same time. Only the Gospel of Christ—that God loves them, that Jesus died for the forgiveness of their sins, and that He offered his grace freely—can give these people hope. The world certainly offers them nothing of true value.
And who will reach out to them, if not us, who know Jesus? If not now, when? May the Lord move us to really reach out and show people that the Christian faith is not all talk.