Sunday, March 25, 2007

Bread and Water, House and Dignity

Last February 25, 2007, I was invited to say Mass for a community of families living around and under a bridge in Santa Ana, Manila.

It was an urgent invitation. The elements of the Metro Manila Development Authority and the Police have earlier warned the residents that whether they like it or not their homes will be demolished on February 27, 2007. The threat was real and the people were really frightened.

The representatives of the said community joined our community called Kubol Pag-Asa when we launched “Fast Wednesdays” at the People Power Monument last February 21, 2007. After Mass, their leader asked to talk to me for a few moments. Her face reflected much fear and urgency. “Can you celebrate Mass for us Father. Anytime you are available. We need strength. We need God’s blessings as we continue to protect our homes and families. We don’t know what to do. We don’t know where to go.”

The invitation was both urgent and timely. In a few weeks, I will be celebrating my twenty fifth ordination anniversary. I had wanted a meaningful but quiet celebration of my anniversary. I thought of spending some time with a poor community, say Mass for them and then share a simple meal.

Thus, the mass that Sunday had a dual purpose. It was first of all to pray for a community’s strength and hope amidst violent harassment and the threat of once more losing their homes. Second, it was to thank God for the twenty five years of struggling for and with the rights of the poor and marginalized classes.

We chose a theme for the celebration. “Tinapay at Tubig,” or bread and water became our theme.

Bread symbolized many things. Although bread stood for food, it also meant a home where food is normally eaten, jobs which somehow paid for the bills, school where children went to form themselves, peace to live and enjoy God’s blessings in safety and quiet. Bread is broken and shared by families, friends and genuine communities. Bread then can stand for solidarity.

Water symbolized clarity and purity which should guide people in power to exercise their authority with justice and compassion. Water which is so scarce in poor communities also stand for the worsening scarcity of the means of survival as well as good governance.

Bread and water became symbols of an important call to the Church, in particular, to priests like me, to enter deeply into solidarity with those experiencing dire scarcity.

The Mass was at 10:00 am. It was a sunny day. Members of the Urban Poor Associates, the Non Government Organization that has been supporting the community were present. The members of the community, parents, children and the elderly gathered around a makeshift Mass table. Many of them had gaunt and hungry faces, yet there were smiles and laughter that brightened up what was otherwise a sad encounter.

At the offertory, twenty five little children brought a piece of bread to the altar. The bread was the community’s offering and prayer for safety and strength in the coming days. During Mass, my message dwelled on the challenge to find meaning and dignity beyond the burden of mere daily survival. God’s will for persons is not mere survival but genuine human development. We prayed for a new government which will espouse a pro-people, pro-poor outlook and program.

After the mass, I took the basket filled with the bread offered by the children and distributed its content to the children. The bread blessed at mass became instant food for the hungry little ones. It was gone in no time. The adults just looked and smiled. They were happy that their children had received both spiritual and material food.

Two days later, the ugly demolition takes place. The people fought and tried to save their homes. But aside from men with crow bars and hammers, law enforcers with arms made sure that the “law” was carried out.

The shanties, which for some had been home for the last twenty five years were demolished in no time. Flimsy and old, rusty galvanized sheets and rotting wood just broke and caved in under the angry crowbars and hammers of the demolition crews. The people struggled and after a while just watched. One may ask whether their spirits caved in as well. The answer is in the quiet, unmoving gaze of many. The answer is deep within the hearts and minds of the poor who all these years are made to stand, and quietly accept the full force and logic of the “law.” The answer is in their quiet and deep gaze…not in the law…

Fr. Roberto P. Reyes
March 25 2007


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