"Pagkaon"

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Rev. Fr. Carmelo Diola 

Spaces of Hope

JUSTIN, a dark 12 year old boy with a lazy left eye, recently had a chance to go inside a police station. He was with a group of 30 children who were there for a “street kids encounter”. The name had become somewhat of an anomaly since most of the children there had actually gone back to school leaving behind their street identity. They were accompanied by Maggie, an Ate who is also a working college student.

Before sharing a meal, Maggie noticed that Justin was in a pensive mood. She approached him to ask what he was thinking about. “Are they prisoners?” He said in Cebuano, referring to a group of men inside a cell. “Yes, they are,” Maggie replied.

“Do they eat everyday?” he continued. “Yes,” answered Maggie. “It is better to go to jail since people here have a meal,” shot back Justin. His Ate was stumped. She did not know what to say.

The incident reminded me of a visit I made to a boy and his mother who live in a squatter area in Cebu City. Wanting to convince him to go back to school, I told him that if he does not finish school he may end up in a jail. “Inside the jail,” I pointed out to him, “you share a crowded room with many other inmates.”

Right then and there, I noticed how small their “barong-barong” was. I asked how many shared their small space. His response made me realize that he would actually be better off in jail if space were the only consideration. I could only manage an embarrassed smile.

***

 Last 21 June our group facilitated a gathering of stakeholders of an outreach for some street children of Cebu City. Each participant, including two policemen, other volunteers, and four street children, was asked what he or she was most grateful for in the outreach. One child recounted, with tears in his eyes, how happy he was when he experienced going to a local carnival and enjoying a ride for the first time.

The two youngest ones, Chinee and Sahsky, shyly but firmly said that it was their experience of receiving First Communion that they were most grateful for. It was a spiritual as well as a social event for them since their families were also invited. Their Ates could only nod with grateful approval.

The first Holy Communion had been postponed several times. Originally scheduled on 7 December 2013, it finally saw the light of day last 12 April 2014, Saturday before Palm Sunday at the chapel of the Archbishop’s Residence in Cebu City. Archbishop Jose S. Palma, D.D. was a most gracious host and main celebrant of the august affair. While not candidates to join the ranks of the Vienna Boys’ Choir, the children did even better by responding and singing with all the fervor they could muster.

After the Mass, the children and their families had dinner at the Archbishop’s Residence. They welcomed guests by rendering a song, “Welcome to the Family”. This brought tears to many, among them CSupt. Renato Constantino, outgoing regional director of the PNP who had been a humble and generous supporter of the outreach.

“They all looked angelic in their communion attire,” recalled Maggie as the kids lined up resplendent in white. Maggie and other volunteers had worked very hard for this day, spending a total of seven two-hour catechesis sessions with the kids based on the Baltimore Catechism translated into Cebuano.

***

“Did you have any catechesis before receiving your first communion?” I remember asking one street child last year. “About 30 minutes before my first communion,” came his answer.

I wonder how Pope Francis would react to this kind of preparation? After all, did he not write in Evangelii Gaudium (sec. 200) that “the worst discrimination which the poor suffer is the lack of spiritual care. The great majority of the poor have a special openness to the faith; they need God and we must not fail to offer them his friendship, his blessing, his word, the celebration of the sacraments and a journey of growth and maturity in the faith. Our preferential option for the poor must mainly translate into a privileged and preferential religious care”?

While it is true that there are individuals, families, groups, parishes, and even corporate efforts to alleviate the plight of the poorest of our children, my impression is that many of the efforts are sporadic and focusing only on either material or spiritual needs.

What if existing efforts come together towards a holistic approach towards a journey of restoration? What if our sporadic works of mercy become better organized so that street children go back to school? Did not Pope Benedict XVI say that “love thus needs to be organized if it is to be an ordered service to the community”? Why not prepare them adequately to receive communion as well as become good and productive citizens?

The upcoming 2016 International Eucharistic Congress offers opportunities to correct this sad reality of children in the streets who have inadequate sacramental formation. A Solidarity and Communion Committee has been organized to work with individuals and various groups to ensure that the poor have a voice and a face in IEC 2016.

After all, all they are asking for is “pagkaon” or food for their stomach and their spirits.

 

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