A partnership with and for the poor | Inquirer Opinion

A partnership with and for the poor

In 1976, Bagong Barrio had the honor or dishonor of being the biggest slum area in Metro Manila, depending on where your sympathies lie. For the poor who had difficulty stretching their low wages to keep body and soul together, it was a paradise: cheap food and shelter, never mind that they had to negotiate muddy pathway and sewage canal to get there, and some had to bathe outdoors, without any privacy.

Ferdinand Marcos, ruling with martial law powers, tried to impose his “New Society” dream by developing Bagong Barrio into a business district for his cronies. The squatters were demonized as illegal land-grabbers because the land was legally titled by the Spaniards who illegally squatted on Filipinas in the name of the king of Spain.


The people were petrified, but the Parokya ng Birhen ng Lourdes under the leadership of Fr. Romy Villanueva, OMI, took up the challenge. In the 1970s the Church was motivated by Pope Paul VI’s famous words, “For too long, too many had too little.” The 1971 Synod of Bishops responded to his call by clarifying the confusion of many who locked the Church inside the sanctuary: “Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel.” In 1975, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines launched the Alay Kapwa program urging everyone to go into deep self-examination: “Who is my neighbor?”

Father Romy organized the Basic Christian Communities. The poor began to realize that they were children of God endowed with human dignity, called to be responsible to the kapwa, and that together they could change their situation. Paolo Freire from Latin America called such a process “conscientization.”


The outsiders who facilitated the conscientization of the parish were University of the Philippines students, sisters, and ourselves, seminarians then. (Most of us are still active in the ministry today except for Fr. Rey Roda, OMI, who was martyred in Mindanao in 2008.) Motivated from within the Church and by the political movements in the 1970s, the conscienticized people stirred like an awakened giant to protect themselves from more suffering.

Bulldozers were sent to demolish the houses from the Edsa side, but the people massed and stood their ground despite the water cannon. Another attempt was made to enter Bagong Barrio from the Araneta University side but it, too, was blocked.  Confronted with the strength of that emerging people power and afraid that he would lose 100,000 votes in Bagong Barrio, Marcos was forced to recognize the human dignity of the poor. He ordered the National Housing Authority to do a reblocking of Bagong Barrio, and the lots were awarded to the people who paid by installment at an affordable rate. (Ten years later, Marcos would be dethroned by the massive people power that would be replicated in many other countries in the world).

Last July 17, I visited Bagong Barrio. No one can say that this was once the biggest slum area in Metro Manila. The streets are now wide; the houses are concrete structures of two or three stories on the average. It is now like a small city where almost everything that you need is available. You can take a jeepney anytime, showing how numerous are the people who benefited from the kind of PPP (public-private partnership), not between the government and superwealthy businessmen, but between the resources and initiative of numerous poor people and the resources of the government.

Paradigm shifts have to happen if there will be real transformation among the poor. Pope Francis insists on “the primacy of the human person” (Evangelii Gaudium #55). He begs God “to grant us more politicians who are genuinely disturbed by … the lives of the poor! It is vital that government leaders and financial leaders take heed and broaden their horizons, working to ensure that all citizens have dignified work, education and healthcare. Why not turn to God and ask him to inspire their plans? I am firmly convinced that openness to the transcendent can bring about a new political and economic mindset which would help to break down the wall of separation between the economy and the common good of society” (#205).

At the end of the term of the Aquino administration, the effect of its PPPs will be judged, not in terms of credit or economic ratings. The privatized hospitals, in particular, will be judged, not in terms of their bed capacity, but on the number of rejected patients who died for lack of money. Business establishments will be judged, not in terms of expansion and net profits, but on how much they contributed to the wellbeing of their employees and the people to whom they cater.

And similarly, the parishes and ecclesiastical jurisdictions of religious institutions will be judged, not in terms of the beauty of their church buildings and liturgical celebrations, but on how they embraced the excluded and vulnerable in their territories.

Jesus put it very simply in the Last Judgement parable: “Whatsoever you did to the least of my brethren, you did it to me” (Mt. 25,40).


For us who can enjoy eating three times a day, it is not easy to be converted to see reality from the perspective of the poor. However, the lives of the poor themselves can set us free. Recently I met Marylin at the garbage dump, scavenging for anything that she could sell: hard plastic, tin cans, cardboard, etc. According to her, she and her husband, who was in another garbage dump with their kariton, earn P200 daily on the average. They spend half for their food and the other half they save for their two-year-old child being tended to by her mother in Sapang Palay. How the couple sacrifice for their child and tighten their belts daily on P100 worth of food shocked me, as the widow’s mite did in the Gospel. Pope Francis says: “We need to let ourselves be evangelized by [the poor]” (Evangelii Gaudium #198).

The award-winning short film “Chicken a la Carte” by Ferdinand Dimadura, which shows the true face of poverty in the Philippines, can shake us to action. His final message is: In the world 25,000 people die of hunger every day.  And that was in 2008.

Yes, together we can replicate Bagong Barrio. The poor can contribute their initiatives and savings; the Basic Ecclesial Communities and other religious institutions, the motivation and organization; the government, the resources and legal structures; civil society and other private sectors, the technology, etc.


Fr. Pete Montallana ([email protected]) lived with the urban poor for 13 years “following the footsteps” of St. Francis. He worked with the Agta-Dumagat in Infanta, Quezon, when he was chair of the Save Sierra Madre Network Alliance, of which he is now a member.

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TAGS: Alay Kapwa program, Bagong Barrio, Basic Christian Communities, Basic Ecclesial Communities, Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos, Fr. Romy Villanueva, Latin America, Metro Manila, Paolo Freire, Parokya ng Birhen ng Lourdes
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