Back in college in the Philippines, I was a member of a religious organization that was aimed at opening the eyes and immersing its members in the truth of poverty in the city, while internalizing the Gospel values of love and compassion for all people but especially for the poor. We had weekly visitations with our adopted squatter communities near the college, and had a quota of several hours per week. Mostly it was just sitting with certain families, and talking, getting to know their issues, their lives, their hearts.

I didn’t last.

In my pride and blind vanity, I looked at myself, saw no positive outcome in my heart, and worse, got to thinking that our weekly visitations with these families were more an intrusion than a help. These people were washing their clothes, and gathering water at the water pumps when we came around. We were butting in on their lives for what? Small talk. Or so I thought. I quit after a while, not being able to see any real good that we — the members of the organization — could bring to these communities.

How limited my vision was.

The point I see now was not to help the poor communities as much as it was to help us members grow in compassion and memory. So that poverty could have a face in our hearts, instead of remaining an abstraction in our heads. So that maybe one day after graduation, when we reached whatever positions we were meant to reach, we would remember Aling Nene in the Rona’s Garden squatter community, who lost a child to polio and subsisted on less than 50 pesos a day ( < $1 USD) in her rickety shanty built right next to a sewage canal. The point also was that people like Aling Nene needed to know that us students were willing to volunteer in small ways to help their community, and in doing so maybe galvanize them to feel that yes, they were worth this attention and this assistance.

+ + +

I quit that group. I decided instead to stay on with my original organization, the College Ministry Group, and serve in the college Masses as server, as choir, as instrumentalist. It was much easier. Much softer. Much more comfortable. I didn’t have to face poverty in the eye every week. I didn’t have to go outside the gates. I didn’t have to come down from the hill. Like Peter in Matthew 17:4, I wanted to stay on the mountain of Transfiguration, and build altars, instead of going down the hill and serving the poor.

One of my college friends recently asked me whether I was still active with my music now that I’m based in the States, and I proudly answered that I was, except my “gigs” were no longer about me, but were in the service of the most important person of all: the Lord. In short, yes, I was still active, but now as organist for the morning Mass in my parish. To which he jokingly replied: “Amazing! You’re still doing the College Ministry Group thing up to today!”

First reaction: amusement. Second reaction: horror.

Because maybe, despite all this talk about poverty and justice and faith coming to fruition in works, I am still only taking the easier, softer, more comfortable route and not allowing the Holy Spirit to guide me forward to where He wants me to go.

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IMAGE CREDITS: “Squatters”. Photo by Mon Solo on Flickr. Released via Creative Commons.

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13 thoughts on “Poverty Has a Face: a Lesson I Wasn’t Ready To Learn

  1. I feel exactly the same.. I tell myself that I’m a Christian and I’ll do what God wants me to do. But I really don’t find the strength to do things that I think I can’t do and don’t have the will to do just like that thing you talked about.

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  2. We all end up falling into our old, comfortable patterns of behavior. But you’re at a stage in your life now where you’re capable of doing much, more. It’s great that you can think these thoughts, write them down and start considering going beyond your comfort zone. Am really proud of you kuya. :)

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  3. nung high school kami, meron kaming ganyang exposure pero yung mga nakausap naming mga squatters, panay biro lang ang ginawa sa amin, which made us all really laugh. super tawanan ang nangyari. and we left them with happy hearts, nabilib ako kasi imbes na kami dapat ang magbigay sa kanila ng suporta at konting, kami pa ang pinasaya nila. as for my kids, i am also starting to expose them to such things everytime na umuuwi kami sa pinas. and this year i’ve decided to bring them closer, you migh want to read this post in my mommy blog http://homeworked.blogspot.com/2008/04/charity-begins-at-home.html

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  4. @Beena:
    More and more this truth is driven home: I CAN’T do anything meaningful alone. But I can with God’s help. He gives us the strength to do what He asks us to do. Philippians 4:13 “I can do everything through him who gives me strength.”

    @Nes:
    My problem is: I’ve ALWAYS been in a position where I could’ve done more … but didn’t. And it boils down to this: to DECIDE to get out of the comfort zone and serve. These days, I’m simply asking God in the humblest manner to supply me with the strength to do what He asks.

    @Kengkay:
    Thank you for that inspiring post. The example you’re teaching your daughters is beautiful! May God continue to bless your family.

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  5. Very inspiring article, Lionel. :) Don’t you worry though, I know you’d someday find the strength you need to do what God wants you to do. For all we know, God is probably preparing you for something far greater than you can ever imagine, and He’s actually grooming you for eventual perfection. It might also mean that this was what you were meant to do in the first place, to serve Him by spreading His gospel in the way He knows you’d do best at, which is writing and playing music at His services. In our quest for satisfaction, we sometimes overlook the fact that we are where we should be at this point in time. I’ve read just a few of your articles as I’m pressed with time, but I’m convinced that you have a kind heart. Just keep doing what you do best and trust that wherever it takes you, God will be with you every step of the way, besides He made that plan for you, right? :) God bless, Lionel.. finally a blog that I find worth subscribing to.. :) I’ll keep in touch.. Cheers!

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  6. It’s not just wanting to take the easy way out, sometimes we serve God according to our abilities. Here in the Philippines there’s pretty much no escaping the face of poverty since it’s everywhere. What you’re doing is worthy and I think you should be proud that at the very least, you’re doing something to spread the Word. Maybe then you’ll get the opportunity to expand your service, in God’s time :D

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  7. I have a similar story like ate kengks. Before in college, we had to do a video documentation of a poverty-stricken barangay of our choice, interview the residents and see how we can contribute a solution to their “problems”. We found one in Laguna. Instead of leaving them feeling like a hero, we were the ones inspired by their ingenuity. Are you familiar with cooking oil that comes in cans (Minola, etc)? around 5 or 10 liter I think. Pinitpit nila un to form a flat metal sheet. Tapos un ang pinagdikit dikit to form the 4 walls of their house (minsan pati bubong na din). It’s a work of art I’ll say and its owners were equally proud of their accomplishments.

    Our professor told us that we should be cereful in defining poverty because we tend to put “good n better living” under the context of owning a particular type of house, maybe a car, type of clothes we wear, having a career, going to school or being up to date with technology. di ba nga sa hierarchy of needs ang nasa tuktok ay self actualization. this varies from person to person.

    I think in our own ways we can make a difference in someone else’s lives. Its teamwork. Some has to do the manual labor, some has to conceptualize the plan, some has to go to the music division, preaching division, fund raising division etc.

    rjmarmol is right … we are where we are right now as part of HIS greater plan :)

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  8. @RJ:
    “It might also mean that this was what you were meant to do in the first place, to serve Him by spreading His gospel in the way He knows you’d do best at, which is writing and playing music at His services.”
    …. Thank you for the kind words and the encouragement. I do believe that yes, where I am right now is where He wants me to be. And that no regrets or shortcomings should keep me from serving. God bless!

    @Miss Write:
    Yes, ma’am, I do try to be a blessing and praise God with every comment and blogpost. May we all do the same with what we have! Thanks for writing and for the kind words.

    @Eyna:
    “Self actualization” <– that actually makes sense. What we define as poverty could be different for the person in that situation. And yes teamwork is essential in building the Kingdom of God. Thanks for reminding me about this.
    ___I keep hearing this quote from people in church: "God doesn't look for ability, He looks for availability." Which reminds me of the Blessed Virgin Mary's words at the annunciation: "I am the handmaid of the Lord, may it be done to me according to your word." Lk 1:38

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  9. Hi, Lionel.

    If you were wondering, I stumbled upon this blog of yours after following a link when you posted a comment at Fr. Jboy’s wordpress site [Link].

    I just wanted to say hi. It’s nice and actually amazing to hear that some people still got that ACMG thing. You know, despite the distance and passing of time, the passion to serve Him (through music) never fades.

    Oh by the way (off topic), that was a very good areglo of ‘Tubig ng Buhay’ you made. We still have your handwritten piece at the ACMG filing cabinet for archiving purposes. hehe

    Anyway, God bless you and may He continue to create beautiful music in and through you. See ya.

    -Rychus Cortina
    ACMG, 2004-2008.
    Choir Head, 2007-2008.

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    1. Rychus:
      Thanks for stopping by! I’m ecstatic to realize that some of those hand-written and photocopied music pieces still exist in the ACMG files!

      The truth is: we all should want to serve God, shouldn’t we? Except I know first hand that other priorities take a toll on our time and if we’re not careful, we can lose that need to serve.

      I hope in some way you and I can encourage the other members past and present to continue to do something for the Lord. No matter how small.

      Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam!

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  10. I used to be a volunteer for outreach programs as well as other volunteer programs that reach out to families that are suffering from poverty. Though their houses were small and they had little food when the time comes for eating arrives, I feel at home with them. I have experienced before eating with some of my classmates homes who were wealthy and the house felt empty and when dinner or lunch comes, its not as enjoyable as eating with the people in the poor communities. I felt kasi na those who were underprivileged although they have less in terms of material things, parang they know how to value everything especially the people around them. You’d see their parents with their kids when its time to eat kasi they all have to share the food. And by eating together, they talk animatedly and laugh and hindi mo na gaanong mapapansin yun kakulangan nun nakahain. Kasi kahit siguro gano pa ka engrande yun nakahain dun, kung hindi naman sila buo, parang kulang pa din.

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    1. I know exactly what you mean.

      Not having much by way of material things, they actually have their priorities right, and derive joy from relationships rather than STUFF.

      I hope the spirit of volunteerism never dies within you! God bless.

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