On the first Sunday here, we attended mass in Tagalog, so we didn’t understand much of the homily, or of the mass for that matter, but the priest said one phrase in English and that gave us enough food for thought: “We are heaven bound”. That’s has been our frame for these 15 days here in the Philippines.
Metro Manila has 11.5 million people; I will dare to say that at least 45 percent leave in poverty. We have visited several places, from prisons (children’s, maximum and minimum security prisons) to mental hospitals, schools, villages, slums…no matter where we go we encounter the same: poverty, dumpsters everywhere with makeshift housing surrounding the areas, even entire families of squatters under bridges or alongside the streets. The strange thing, at least for me, is that the people seem to be happy, joyful, content, at peace.
That really bothered me, and prompted existential questions, such as: Why? How can they smile? Why are they happy? After prayer and reflection, along with great discussions in our three-hour traffic jams, I came to realize that it is all a matter of definition of terms and perspective of words. Let’s take two concepts/words: poverty and happiness. According to regular folks, like you and me, poverty is lacking material possessions that will bring us comfort and security; happiness means having everything we need that will bring us contentment and intense joy.
The people here seem to understand much better than me these concepts. The retarded women in the mental hospital will feed and help the others with greater challenge. The inmates in the prisons will be the ones leading prayers and serving as our guides and bodyguards, while we pass out bread to other inmates. The people at the slums where we work bring us “merienda” (afternoon snack) everyday; the squatters’ kids will joyfully play with trash or anything they can find.
To me it is like they really understand that they are heaven bound, that they are here just passing by and the gates of heaven will open for them at some point. They live with so much freedom and joy, the consequence of leaving true poverty and happiness, which is not accumulations of things, but surrounding and living with the most important things: family, friends, community.
Their lives are marked/sealed by faith. They may not know theology or philosophy, some of them may not even know how to read or write, but they LIVE what we only know. Pope Francis told the young people last summer in Rio, “Bota fe,” –” Put on faith”. That’s what I have encountered here in Manila, a lot of faith. A faith that brightens their day; a faith that strengthen their daily living, a faith that illuminates their path, and a faith that keeps their spirits up with the certainty that they are “heaven bound.”
I only pray that I bring this knowledge from my mind to my heart so I can “Bota fe,” “Put on faith,” and start living and acting with the knowledge in mind: I’m heaven bound.