Around four million1, the current number of poor Filipinos today. The poor,
though serving as a constant challenge to the government is still the powerless and voiceless group in the society. By the term ‘poor’ we may extend the meaning also to the physically and mentally disable. Big steps are always considered to alleviate their condition, but their real needs as human beings are not always truly met. The longings of their hearts are still unheard but they have much to say, if we are only willing enough to listen. Listening to them is not easy. It would often require the unmasking of the strong self, and stooping down to embrace weakness.
Very fascinating to me is the example of Jesus as stated in Philippians 2:5-8 “You should have the same attitude toward one another that Christ Jesus had, who though he existed in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself by taking on the form of a slave, by looking like other men, and by sharing in human nature. He humbled himself”. Jesus lived it out for us – the perfect example of true service, which means identifying yourself with the people whom you serve. And the very same principle is true if we would like to reach out to the poor and listen to their hearts.
The life of the late Henri J. M. Nouwen is an outstanding example of this humble service. He was a strong man – a catholic priest, and a theology professor. He taught at Harvard, Yale, and Notre Dame, and many looked at him as great, but deep within he felt depressed and discouraged – there was a big hole in his heart that is left unsatisfied. All of that would change as he spent the last ten years of his life ministering as a pastor of the L’Arche Daybreak community in Toronto, a place for those with intellectual disabilities. Living with these ‘weak’ people made him realize that his vast knowledge of theology is futile and in fact making him incapable of relating and ministering to them. It was then that God spoke to his heart that he had to let go of his greatness and embrace the world of these people. He was then healed from his depression by listening to these people, and found his deepest fulfillment as a priest, friend, author, lecturer and mentor. What God taught him thru these weak people is far greater than all that he learned as a student and a university professor. God spoke thru the mentally incapable, teaching him more the realities of God’s love and brotherly love, and Henri became a better person.
My own experience of serving a poor community of fishermen at Pinamalayan recounts the same thing. Forgetting and setting aside my comfortable life at Calapan, I ventured to live the life of the poor. I was continuously interacting and listening with (not just to) them, trying to get in touch. Literally living with them opened my heart to what these people have to say to the world.
I admire many things about these people. They taught me how to rest and be still. Rest is such a beautiful practice! It is giving yourself some time to set free from busyness, to relax and let the thinking mind and the longing heart blend on a wondrous contemplation. True reflection has become a stranger to many, thus they are deprived of a wonderful way for self-searching and communion with their Creator.
Living with them imparted unto me simplicity of life and contentment. I have found out that much of man’s worries are unrealistic, because they emerge primarily from being not contented. Living simple and being content goes hand-on-hand; if you live simple enough it shows a heart that is content, and if you are content then you are willing to embrace a simple life.
They also showed me perseverance and faith. I have interviewed some of them and was surprised that one family earns for as low as Php. 15 weekly, yet still life goes on. Sometimes, these fishermen catch nothing or very little at all during a night of stress at the sea – yet, they still manage to support their families. They just say that it’s normal, and they don’t take it too seriously to avoid added stress. They simply believe and they know that there will be better days ahead.
These people know very well to give thanks and be appreciative to every little gift they receive. Their hearts are always full of gratitude, amidst all hardships. In some sense, they are greater worshipers than I am, for I tend to give praise to God only when receiving grand privileges or gifts. But these people are constant praise-givers and they do honor God in everything, big or little. Though poor, they are rich in heart.
I also learned that real education of the heart takes place as we invest quality time with the people. Giving gifts is good but what a person really wants is your time, approval, and acceptance. Small gifts become so much bigger only if you show that your gifts are wrapped up with genuine love. A hypocritical show of love is of little value, but genuine expressions of love even in small ways could produce miracles. These people have showed me again and again, to my shame, that what can truly help these poor people are not gifts but love and acceptance. So quality time with them becomes too important.
Another important lesson is that though the mind matters, the heart is still much more important. The first months of my service to them arose some oppositions from differing religious beliefs. Some key church leaders wanted a debate, but I just kept silent. I just continued to show them genuine love and to continue harness a good relationship with all of them. In a relatively short time, we gained their trust and approval.
The most important lesson of all is that I have understood more the reality of God’s love in a much deeper way. How could God love a people whom He allows to live poor for so long? Now I think I have the answer: in God’s mystery He uses their hardships to bring them closer to Him. And secondly important lesson is that God has taught me to become a greater lover of men: exercising love for them has little by little taken away my prejudices, biases, and selfishness in life.
These lessons I have not learned during my four-year seminary studies inside a four-walled classroom at a Bible School. But these poor people are great instructors of the heart. I now see life on a bigger perspective. Thanks for a communal life with them, I have been set free from my wrong thinking and ideals in life. Yes, though they are the voiceless in the society, yet they have taught me big things, and indeed they are people of powerful positive influence – only if we would listen.
1 Annual Per Capita Poverty Threshold, Poverty Incidence and Magnitude of Poor Families, by Region and Province: 1991, 2003, 2006 and 2009, National Statistical Coordination Board