Friday, August 3, 2012

The Filipino Poor and the Holy Spirit

Juanita Lamar or Nanang Juaning is an umbrella woman.  She has been fixing umbrellas since her husband died 14 years ago.  A pair of long-nosed pliers, an old knife that also serves as a screw-driver, and pieces of small wires have made it possible for Nanang Juaning of Davao City to raise her 10 children. 

At 65 years of age, she does the rounds of urban poor communities, markets, and parks, and earns 25 pesos per umbrella fixed.  She makes an average of 75 pesos a day, which is enough, she says, to bring home some rice and fish to sustain her each day.

The day-to-day life of Nanang Juaning is a struggle, a constant struggle for her daily food.  This widow works hard, as she seeks out people with broken umbrellas who do not want to buy, or cannot afford to buy, brand-new ones.  She earns her livelihood through a practical ability that many of us do not have.

Nanang Juaning is just one of the many who work outside the domain of regular employment.  She belongs to what is called the informal economy, which comprises the varied activities of neighborhood artisans, handymen, street vendors (selling peanuts, fruits, bottled water, cigarettes), and scavengers at garbage dumps. 

For the very poor in the informal economy, their few possessions can be collected in a wicker basket or a kariton (push-cart), their day-to-day lives are almost pure struggles for survival, and their dreams are as small as mustard seeds.  They are the little people whose daily fatigue tells them that to dream great dreams for themselves is vain or wrong, and to dream of an egalitarian society is foolish or useless.  Wala nang hangarin sa buhay kundi ang makaraos na lamang sa araw-araw sa anumang paraan.

For Nanang Juaning and many others like her, how should Christians witness to the love of God in Christ Jesus?  For those who live in the midst of trash, who play with trash, who earn their living from trash, how do we tell them they are not trash themselves?  How do we tell the sons of the soil and the daughters of the dumpsite that they are sons and daughters of God?  We need to become the Church of the Poor, according to the Second Plenary Council of the Philippines (PCP II) in 1991.

But how can our current church become the Church of the Poor?  The Conciliar Document of PCP II declares: “Pastors and members of the Church will courageously defend and vindicate the rights of the poor and the oppressed, even when doing so will mean alienation or persecution from the rich and powerful” (131).  Have we truly lived up to this bold statement?  Or do we find such a teaching too hard to practice?

In all honesty, we have to admit that we are still far from being a Church of the Poor, yet we believe that such a radical transformation is possible, first of all, through divine grace, through the action of the Holy Spirit, who animates and renews the community of Christ’s disciples.

The Church of the Poor, a pro-poor Church, is born of the Holy Spirit, who can rightly be called the Mother of the Church (of the Poor).  The Holy Spirit is the origin and the nurturer of the “spirituality of social transformation” which PCP II considers vital for a renewed integral evangelization (262).

If we are attentive to the movement of the Holy Spirit in the events and situations of our age, the church will be able to foster the necessary social transformation and to assist the little people in bringing about justice and harmony in their lives.

To become the Church of the Poor, we have to be attentive to the movement of the Spirit, which is active within and beyond the ecclesiastical domain.  PCP II has acknowledged that, “in many ways, the Spirit shows its presence, power and activity, not only in the Church but in the signs of the times that mark the contemporary world” (212).

In our country today, among the signs of the times are the growth of the informal economy, the emergence of new forms of solidarity among the poor, and the formation of base communities, co-operatives, social enterprises, and self-help groups.  Self-help groups among the poor are born out of some common difficulty such as domestic violence, single motherhood, and physical disability. 

The formation of self-help groups, co-operatives, and base communities show that the Holy Spirit is active among the poor themselves.  In the words of Juan Ramon Moreno, who was one of the six Jesuits murdered by military forces at the Central American University at San Salvador in November 1989: “It is in the poor before all else that the Spirit becomes present, and from them the Spirit speaks today to the Church.”

In faith, we may say that, in our society, the poor person is the most visible sign of the mysterious presence of the Spirit of Christ, for according to the parable of the sheep and the goats in the gospel of Matthew ch 25, our Lord, the Son of Man or the Truly Human One, has identified himself with the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless, the ragged, the sick, and the imprisoned.  The Crucified and Risen Christ is firmly in solidarity with the poor.

“Baya’y isang Kristong gapos ang katawan, labi’y nakasusi/ martir na sa kurus pinarurusahan at inaaglahi/ at ang nasusunod/ bagong eskribas bagong pariseos” (Amado Hernandez, “Pakikipagtipan sa Diyos”).

The mysterious presence of the Spirit of Christ among the poor enables them to offer something vital to the church.  In the Spirit, the poor can teach the church on matters of life and death.  Thus, to become the Church of the Poor, to be truly in solidarity with them, not only requires the duty to speak boldly to defend their rights.   It also requires the willingness to listen to them and learn from them.  The Body of Christ is not one big mouth and a lot of little ears.

PCP II rightly states the following: “The ‘Church of the Poor’ will also mean that the Church will not only evangelize the poor, but that the poor in the Church will themselves become evangelizers.  Pastors and leaders will learn to be with, work with, and learn from the poor.  A ‘Church of the Poor’ will not only render preferential service to the poor but will practice preferential reliance on the poor in the work of evangelization” (132).

What can we learn from the poor?  What is the Holy Spirit teaching us through them?  Let us listen to some of their voices. 

A street vendor says: “Hindi ko natatanggihan ang mga kaibigan na sa aki’y lumalapit sa kanilang kagipitan.  Pag marunong kang tumulong, marami kang kaibigan.” 

A construction worker says: “Paano aasenso ang buhay ko?  Ni hindi halos ako makapag-ipon.  Siyam ang kapatid ko.  Ang tatay ko, magwawalis ng kalye.  Isipin niyo, paano sila nabubuhay?  Sagad talaga sa hirap.  Gapang.  Kaya halos lahat ng kinikita ko ay binibigay ko na sa kanila.  Gusto ko man mag-ipon para sa sarili ko, hindi ko sila matiis.” 

Another says: “Hindi ko sinasarili ang pera, ipinapadala at iniisip ko ang kapatid ko na may diperensiya.  Kaya late ako nag-asawa.”

For many poor persons especially in the informal economy, their concern for harmonious relationships with relatives and friends is considered more important than the concern for getting rich by oneself.  Thus, when a surplus is produced or when a relatively large profit is earned by somebody in the informal economy, the profit is not usually invested in order to produce more and make greater profit.  Instead, surpluses and profits tend to end up being used to support family relationships and to enhance friendships.

Most of the poor are not highly educated, yet they know that the kind of life that is worth living is the life that is lived in relationships that are harmonious and emotionally satisfying.  What the poor treasure most are loyal friendships and solid family ties.  What they desire most is to be rich in faithful love.  Thus, for the sake of family and friends, many poor persons can be so generous.  They can still give away the little that they have. 

In the gospels, this is the kind of giving that Jesus considers most magnanimous.  If we recall the incident in which rich people were giving large amounts to the temple treasury, while a poor widow came and gave only less than a penny, Jesus declared: “I tell you the truth, the poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others.  They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything--all she had to live on” (Mark 12:43).

Out of their poverty, many poor persons can still be generous, and this is one of the reasons why many are able to survive from one economic crisis to another.  They survive because they help one another, and they value cooperation more than competition.  The individual who wants to climb the ladder of success in an intensely competitive society sacrifices often enough his relations with his neighbors, friends, and family.

“Tulung-tulong sa lahat/ ng gawaing mabigat,/ at hati sa biyaya at buting tinatanggap;/ bawa’t dampa’y may bigas/ at may tabak sa likod ng pintong nakabukas!” (Hernandez, “Sandigan”)  Hindi pa nangingibabaw ang batas para sa mga hayop: matira ang matibay, patay kung patay, bahala ka sa iyong sarili.

These are rays of hope in the world of the poor which is a world of lights and shadows.  The shadows are many and frightening: they include desperate criminality, addictions, domestic violence, and greed.  Yet in the midst of all these shadows, many of the poor are still able to appreciate life and to hope against hope.  Their hopes are kept alive by the Holy Spirit, which is mysteriously present among them.  Hindi ito isang daigdig na inulila ng pag-asa.

The Holy Spirit sustains the poor’s capacity to share, to co-operate, and to help one another, for the work of the Spirit is communion.  And this communion necessarily involves the sharing of goods with anybody in need.  This is the true spiritual communion, and the first Christians lived it, as we read in the Acts of the Apostles: “All the believers were together and had everything in common.  Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to all, as any had need” (2:44-45).

What can we learn from the poor?  What is the Holy Spirit teaching us through them?  The poor are reminding us that the greatest treasures are friendships, faithful love, and relationships that satisfy emotionally. 

In every true friendship, we can experience the Spirit of God who is love.  The desire for faithful love and true friendship is a holy desire.  “No friends are true friends unless you, my God, bind them fast to one another through that love which is sown in our hearts by the Holy Spirit, who is given to us” (St Augustine, Confessions).
“Ang tao kapag mayaman, marami ang kaibigan, kung mahirap na ang buhay, kahit matagpuan sa daan, di man batii’t ngitian.”  Kaya’t “ang tunay mong kaibigan ay nasusubok sa kagipitan.” 

The struggles and aspirations of the poor show that the Holy Spirit is present in their daily life of feelings and desires, for the Spirit is present in our bodies.  As Paul puts it, "Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you" (1 Corinthians 6:16).  The Spirit is God's indwelling nearness or is God-within-us, God who is nearer to us than we are to ourselves. 

The Holy Spirit is God-within-us, within our bodies, and within the universe of animate and inanimate bodies.  “We know so little about the Holy Spirit because he is too close, not because he is too far away from us” (Jurgen Moltmann).

These days, we notice that more and more poor people are attracted to charismatic or Pentecostal gatherings with their styles of worship that are bodily expressive.  Participants dance, clap their hands, raise their arms, sing out loud.  It seems that many poor persons want to glorify God in their bodies, in their sensuousness, and in their emotive expressions in worship and festivity. 

Perhaps during such moments, the Spirit freely moves and partially heals bodies that have been marred by the market, haggard bodies that have been commodified, spiritual temples that have been desecrated.  The festivals of the poor and their preferred styles of worship are occasions for the Spirit to enter blemished bodies to stimulate them in faith, hope, and love. 

The Holy Spirit liberates the poor from self-hate or hatred of their bodies.  “To say ‘yes’ to life means saying ‘no’ to poverty and its humiliations” (Moltmann).  The ordinary and lower-class people who flock to charismatic and Pentecostal gatherings are unintentionally teaching pastors and theologians that there is a vital link between faith and feelings, or between faith and the body with its physical and emotional needs.

Let us discover and preach the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit in the daily life of feelings and desires.  This can help not only in renewing our church but also in forming a structurally healthy society. 

For example, in pointing out to the upper and the middle classes that the Spirit is present in the daily life of feelings, we should challenge them to practise life-styles that primarily satisfy emotionally.  In other words, they should be challenged to seek and sustain expressive relationships rather than to prioritize the accumulation of money or the workaholism in order to accumulate more, to consume more, and to waste more.
Unfortunately, the prevailing global economic system promotes the profit-making mentality that trivializes emotive and ethical matters such as intimate friendship, sexual relations, and the respect for wildlife.  The body, friendship, sex, and wildlife are being commodified, trivialized, and desecrated.

If the upper and middle classes were to open themselves to the spiritual impulse to primarily seek and sustain expressive relationships, it also becomes easier to persuade them to settle for moderate or even less consumption and to live content in frugal circumstances.  Such an outcome is desirable especially in the light of today's ecological problems especially Climate Change which to a great extent are caused by the consumerism and wastefulness of the upper and middle classes.

To recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit in the body with its physical and emotional needs, to emphasize this matter in pastoral and theological work, and to point out its implications not only can intensify church renewal but also can contribute to the formation of a structurally healthy society, where both empty stomachs and empty hearts are filled. 

To help bring about a healthy and humane society, resistance to the commodification of the body has to be promoted.  This is a matter where the belief in the presence of the Holy Spirit within the body can be meaningful. 

We have to often raise the question: why is it that many of our poor people have to break their bodies just to survive or to provide their loved ones the bare necessities in life?  Why are there so many bodies of needy women and children in the sex trade?  Why do many of the rich and the middle class have to subject their bodies and their relationships to unhealthy stress just to accumulate more money and consume more things?

Since the poor aspire also after emotionally satisfying relationships, the struggle especially of poor women against gender oppression, patriarchy, and child abuse in their homes and neighborhoods is no less important than their struggle to uplift their economic condition. 

It is a common plight of working women among the urban poor that, even when their husbands are unemployed, these men still do not help much at home.  The woman comes home from work, and she is still expected to cook, clean, wash, and take primary responsibility for the care of the children.

Come Holy Spirit, give birth, and help us nurture a pro-poor Church for the integral liberation of everybody!

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