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Jumbo sneakers

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No mistaking “those oversized rubber shoes,” Heinz Kuluke recalled. This Society of the Divine Word priest has served indigents in Cebu City’s garbage dumps, streets and slums for almost 26 years now. He gave those large sneakers to “Fred” weeks earlier.

Fred was scrounging through garbage bins when Father Heinz, in fluent Cebuano, offered him some food. “(He) had not eaten for two days and was caught by surprise…. It was the smile on a face without a nose that kept me moving forward.” Fred had stumps for arms and feet.

Released from a leprosarium years back, Fred had been abandoned by relatives and friends, Father Heinz wrote. “I visited on a regular basis and Fred made me part of his life”—then he disappeared without a trace.

Weeks later, Father Heinz stumbled across Fred. He lay, eyes open, among other “sidewalk residents” in front of Carbon market. “Seeing the oversized rubber shoes, I recognized him immediately. He must have died a few minutes earlier. I closed Fred’s eyes and traced the sign of the cross on his forehead. I requested his ‘sidewalk neighbors’ to say a prayer. Then, I informed the police who took his body away.”

Father Heinz’s job description is SVD superior for southern Philippines. Mornings, he teaches post-graduate students at the University of San Carlos. Nights, he “journeys with (those) at the margins of society”: thousands who huddle in the most unlikely places—from cemetery shacks to red-light districts, to garbage dumps.

“No one can do this alone,” he stressed. Today, 70 coworkers are implementing 25 to 35 projects annually through the Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation (JPIC). Some Cebu families and foreign donors support programs that range from nutrition, medical care, alternative livelihood to education.

Father Heinz backpedals from the spotlight. He capped guests to 15 when Germany awarded him its Federal Cross of Merit last January. In contrast, City Hall never acknowledged JPIC and its work. “No prophet is honored in his own country.” Yet, the work is vital in a world where more and more people are dehumanized.

Fred and others are featured in “Where God Has Found His Home,” a 58-page booklet Father Heinz wrote. Published in the centennial year of SVD presence in the Philippines, this tract compresses 26 real-life tales of people who huddle unseen, like Lazarus, into a mosaic of pain. The pattern is replicated in Davao, Iloilo, Calbayog, Cagayan and other cities.

“I was provided with a crude kahig,” (rake), the priest recalls when he lived with families of 160 scavengers in Inayawan garbage dump. This is Cebu’s version of Metro Manila’s “Smokey Mountain.” Here, more than 75 trucks unload trash daily.

Materials that could be recycled are sorted: glass, metal, etc., amidst foul smell, flies, rats—and shattered lives. “Many were children, some as young as 6… Periodically, an aborted fetus turned up among dead cats and dogs…” Many youngsters are on drugs. “There is no future anyway,” a 15-year-old says.

An illiterate scavenger asked the priest to write a letter to a daughter he has not seen in a year. Being illiterates, bride and groom affixed thumb marks on the contract at a marriage presided by Father Heinz. “Not wanting to embarrass anybody, I added my thumb mark on the contract…. People smiled. Here was a priest who did not know how to write.”

Inayawan scavengers set aside partially rotten fruit and vegetables. “They eat them for snacks.” Manila’s Smokey Mountain scavengers dub the thin gruel they make from food scraps as “papag,” the late painter Joey Velasco discovered. Velasco then was tracking down 12 slum kids who modeled for his Last Supper oil painting, “Hapag ng Pagasa.”

“While waiting for the next truck, I’d listen to people’s life stories,” Father Heinz recalled. Three women lost two children each because they could not afford hospitalization. Weng, 23, and husband James have five kids. They resorted to “5-6” usurers to get medicine for a dying child. The 20-percent interest per month means all their income is in hock, till kingdom come.

Two women knelt in front of the 5-6 “banker usurer” to beg consideration. No mercy was forthcoming. “Amazingly, some are even grateful to the loan shark,” Father Heinz noted. “He saved lives of loved ones. This is an expression of utang na loob…”

In the dump, basic ecclesial communities guide people to see their condition in the context of the Gospel. They probe alternative lifestyles and craft projects. Conversion of heart and liberation from oppression go together.

“‘My name is Lyra,’ says the girl with the big smile and badly made-up face. She is trolling for customers in a red-light district. Others rush up to tell Lyra I’m there to help. We talk. And this leads us to a 68-year-old woman at a small stall displaying candies and cigarettes.

“‘This is my mother Luccrecia,’ Lyra says. The mother painfully displays a fractured right arm. The money she earned paid for X-rays, but wasn’t enough for surgery. She could not hide the pain from her daughter.

“Lyra could not bear to see her mother suffer. She quit school. Going to Cebu’s red-light district, the young desperate girl in her naivety thought, was the fast way to earn money for her mother’s surgery…. A young promising life… forced into prostitution for her mother’s medicine.”

Did all this “journeying” change the lives of the marginalized for the better or not, some ask. Father Heinz has not had time for navel-gazing. “There is no doubt,” he says, “it has changed (me) into a different person.”

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Email: juan_mercado77@yahoo.com

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