Life in the fringes

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Life in the fringes (CBCPNews)

Life in the fringes (CBCPNews)

Living among the dead

By Sr. Pinky Barrientos, FSP

….The worst discrimination which the poor suffer is the lack of spiritual care. The great majority of the poor have a special openness to the faith; they need God and we must not fail to offer them his friendship, his blessing, his word, the celebration of the sacraments and a journey of growth and maturity in the faith. Our preferential option for the poor must mainly translate into a privileged and preferential religious care. (Pope Francis, EG 200)

These words of Pope Francis keep on ringing in my ears after a recent trek in a cemetery in Pasay City together with two sisters and collaborators to visit the families living there.

A group of sisters first visited the place about two years ago as part of the “Biblia sa Bawat Pamilya” (A Bible for every Family) project – one of the many activities that were launched in connection with the 75th foundation anniversary celebration of the Daughters of St. Paul in the Philippines – which aims to distribute bibles to poor families. The project is still continued, this time as part of the 100 years foundation anniversary of our congregation which we celebrate this year.

That first visit was followed up several times. Sr. Evangelina, our intrepid sister who is in her 70’s gathered a group of women (mostly mothers) whom she catechized, even as she encouraged them to read the Bible and taught them the lectio divina.

Every visit and meeting with the women and children would always cap with food distribution. That particular day we visited we brought food, bread and drinks to everyone through the generosity of our lay collaborators.
With us was Sister Dominique, our sister who was a missionary to Hongkong and Macau long before I entered the convent. It was quite a shock for her, to put it mildly. She could not reconcile the fact that there are families living in cemeteries.

A group of kids ran toward us as we entered Gate 4 of Cementina – that’s how the cemetery is called.
Sr. Dominique and one lay collaborator took charge of a group of kids, who listened as the sister told stories about the Blessed Virgin Mary. She prayed and sang with the children. Meanwhile, I made acquaintance with Daniel, caretaker of some graves located inside Gate 4.
As the two sisters and lay collaborators became immersed with their groups I decided to see for myself how the families live inside. Daniel graciously offered to tour me around

I learned from Daniel that many of those living inside the cemetery are also caretakers of tombs. He told me he has 18 tombs under his care. Families hire them to keep the tombs of their loved ones clean and free from any form of vandalism. In turn, they are paid from P100 to P250 every month, payable annually during All Saints’ Day.

Daniel, who is 65 years old, told me his family does not live inside the cemetery but outside its walls. He said he grew up in the vicinity and used to play in the cemetery as a child.

“The cemetery then was very small,” gesticulating with his hands to show just how far it extends, “but a rich parishioner donated the adjoining parcel of land to the parish, and that expanded the cemetery,” he explained.

No rent

Joey, his wife and four children are among those who take care of graves and use them also as dwelling place.

A former construction worker, Joey stays “home” to look after his children while his wife goes to work in a massage clinic. “Home” is an elevated grave with makeshift walls and roof made of tarpaulin. I peeked inside and saw a piece of wood on top of the grave, which serves as their bed, and some personal things. Joey’s eldest is eight while the youngest is about six months. While looking after his children, Joey also tends a couple of roosters which he hopes to sell soon.

I learned that most of the men are tending roosters for sale because the Pasay cockpit is located just beside the cemetery. In fact, I could see its towering dome dominating the Pasay skyline from where I stood as I spoke to Joey.

Joey said they have permission from the owner to stay on the gravesite, as long as they keep the tomb clean and vacate the premises when the family comes for a visit.

On All Saints Day, when people flock to cemeteries to visit and honor their dead, the cemetery dwellers take their meager belongings with them to give way to the families who usually stay for a day.
“Where do you go on All Saints Day?” I asked Joey.
“We just stay nearby. We come back as soon as the family leaves,” he said.

How could people choose to make their dwelling in the cemetery, literally living among the dead?

As if reading my thoughts, Joey told me he does not want his children to grow up in the cemetery but right now he has no other options but to stay there. Renting a house would be impossible because they do not have money for that. At least in the cemetery, they do not have to worry about rent and they have a roof on their head.

Perhaps better than sleeping in the streets, I reassured myself.

While going around the graveyard, I noticed not only families but also animals. A man was looking after his fighting cocks tethered on the roof of a mausoleum. I was amused to see a cat sleeping peacefully on top of a marble tomb. But got jolted when a not-so- friendly dog fiercely barked at me when I passed by his master’s humble dwelling. Clothes hang to dry provide a colorful backdrop to the gravestones. Kitchen utensils are packed neatly in an organizer on top of a grave, while a cooking pot sizzles on a stove beside it.

Better deal

Some gravesites are enclosed with metal grating while some are open with flat space on top like a mini terrace with roofing. Others are elevated tombs without fence or roof, like the grave where Joey and his family stay. Hence, he enclosed the area with tarpaulin to provide some kind of privacy and to protect them from the elements. Those who take care of mausoleum or graves enclosed with metal grating have bigger space for sleeping and storing their personal belongings.

Daniel said there are at least 10 families living in the area from where he cleans at Gate 4. Some are working at various jobs outside the cemetery, others have none. The overseer, hired by the parish, allows the people to stay as long as they keep the area clean, he said.

Trouble among families is almost non-existent according to him, although he sheepishly admitted that gossiping is very common among the women.

It is perhaps too incomprehensible for some to think that there are people who will prefer to live in cemeteries, but for families who do not have enough money to pay for rent and utilities, living in cemeteries and to slumber “among the dead” is a better deal than to sleep in the streets.

Challenge

There is always that temptation in us to give priority to selfish pursuits and personal gratification over the good of another. But the words of Pope Francis challenge us to live our lives meaningfully, to seek the image of Jesus on the face of every poor person we meet who stares at us begging for understanding and compassion.

“…I want a Church which is poor and for the poor. They have much to teach us. Not only do they share in the sensus fidei, but in their difficulties they know the suffering Christ. We need to let ourselves be evangelized by them.” (Pope Francis, EG 198)

We are challenged, especially this time that we celebrate the Year of the Poor in the Philippines, to see Jesus in every poor person who lives in the fringes of society. The challenge is also upon us Daughters of St. Paul as we celebrate the centenary of our foundation in this Year of Consecrated Life. The question to ask ourselves perhaps is not how much we have evangelized the poor, but rather how we ourselves have been transformed in the process of our evangelization.

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