Who’s in charge?
WHAT WOULD people say if the archbishop of Manila, Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle, or perhaps another cardinal in the future, would end his sermon with these words: “The future of humanity does not lie solely in the hands of great leaders, the great powers and the elites. It is fundamentally in the hands of peoples, and in their ability to organize.”
People might say the cardinal has lost his common sense, or has become a Marxist with some victory-of-the-proletariat theory. How could anyone, they might ask, say that it’s not the political leaders, the great powers (e.g., China and the United States), the richest families but its people (which means the poor and ordinary citizens) who are the most critical and dominant force in determining a country’s future, provided they know how to organize?
Actually those words were spoken by Pope Francis on July 9, 2015, in Bolivia to a group of rural and urban poor leaders. In the Philippines their ilk head our farmers, fishermen, urban poor and tribal organizations. They are the men and women we see on TV complaining about evictions, land reform delays, land-grabbing of ancestral lands, and the invasion by well-off trawlers of waters reserved for small fishermen. Organized, the poor and ordinary people are the most important force in our history, the Pope is telling such men and women.
You must know how to organize, the Pope also tells them, because the ordinary sociological laws must be observed: The poor must really win elections; they must have smart and dedicated leaders; they must work harder and have better strategies and tactics than the other forces in the country; and they must be more compassionate and avid for justice. The Pope also wants the poor to act with humility and conviction.
The Pope is saying that the thousands of mostly poor people who gathered, in the workdays of Oct. 12-16, outside the Commission on Elections’ central office in Manila, are the masters of their destiny, not the political bigwigs and entertainment stars who went there to register their candidacies in the 2016 elections. He knows it may take decades, maybe generations, to achieve this exchange of roles.
Many of the people outside the Comelec on Oct. 15, Thursday, were from Baseco where our NGO, Urban Poor Associates, has worked for 15 years. The Baseco people lead hard lives. They have struggled with eviction threats, major fires, frustrations with government planning, and with the sufferings inherent in poverty, such as violent street/drug gangs. The people seemed happy outside the Comelec.
But these people are not naïve; they believe the coming elections can be different from the past ones. They want the 2016 elections to be different.
That same Thursday afternoon my wife and I met with Jesuit Fr. Bill McGarry. He is now near 90 years old and lives in a room in the Jesuit infirmary at Loyola House of Studies, Ateneo de Manila. He had been a superior of Jesuit communities and the director of the office that coordinates Jesuit work in East Asia. Like many old priests, he has spent time examining his life to see how it all has hung together, and found that the key happenings have been orchestrated by God’s providence and not by himself. I have heard many old priests say as much. It is history that complements the view that the poor are the makers of history. God is the master planner: He and the poor work hand in hand.
Father McGarry held high positions in the past, but during most of his life he lived on the island of Yap, a small island in the Caroline-Marshall group of islands that has at most 3,000-5,000 residents at any one time. It is a dot in an endless sea. Now that small island and others like it are threatened with extinction due to global warming and rising seas. Often there is an air of sadness that hovers around the very old. In that infirmary room was sadness for the looming disappearance of islands that, for thousands of years, had been the home to a people.
He showed me a book he had written on catechetical and cultural matters. It is written in the native language of the islands. For the front cover, he used a rather haunting picture of the sun setting into a huge, hazy, golden bay. A tiny banca sails in the middle of the bay. It suggests a world of islands coming to an end.
We should take seriously Pope Francis’ teaching that our future as a people in this world is in the hands of the poor who struggle to free themselves from the stench and indignity of poverty. As they free themselves from the power of money they free the rich from their greed. The upliftment of the poor enriches everyone.
But along with this slow rising of the poor is God’s personal care for each of us. How is it possible, we may ask, that we have such complexity? We can answer with words from the Gospel read at Mass a few Sundays ago: “All things are possible with God.” (Mark 10:27)
Who is in charge? God and the poor. Does that frighten any of us? It shouldn’t.
Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates ([email protected]).
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