Welcome to the world of Manila’s poorest citizens: Manila North Cemetery. Actually, even that’s being generous, since the government doesn’t recognize them as citizens. Since many can’t afford to be born in a hospital, they have no birth certificate, and therefore no identity. Their greatest hope to gain any kind of ID comes through baptism. They can use their baptismal certificate to prove who they are and start the process of becoming a citizen. How’s that for gaining a new identity? Get baptized, gain new life in Christ, gain new life in your community.
Manila North Cemetery (MNC) is 54 acres filled with beautiful mausoleums and 10,000 residents, above ground. There are countless other permanent residents encased in granite and concrete, serving as beds and tables for those who share their space to make their homes.
Most of the families that live in the cemetery are employed by the relatives of those buried. Wealthier families hire individuals to keep their mausoleums and crypts clean and free from vandalism. In exchange, they get to live there, rent free, and since there is no electricity or running water, there are no additional bills. Earning about $1 a day, families struggle to feed all their kids.
There are benefits to living in a cemetery besides the free rent. Everyone jokes that it’s peaceful, the neighbors are quiet, etc. It’s built on higher ground, so the space is less likely to flood during typhoon season. What might be most significant, for better or worse, is the sense of community. Most homeless living on the street may be scattered here and there, but never really feel like they have the support of neighbors. In the cemetery, everyone lives in close quarters. There are small stores along the corners to purchase snacks, toiletries, and other necessities. And there are people all around. Families pile in together, older siblings take care of the littles, and there is always someone nearby to help with laundry, motorcycle repair, or to teach the children. Since there aren’t always solid walls on the mausoleums, it’s hard to hide. Neighbors can call through your entrance gate, or simply look in to see if you’re home. While it may lead to a loss of privacy, there’s this sense that everyone’s in this together, and it brings a closeness to the community.
With everyone in such close quarters, it’s easy for things to get dangerous, especially for young girls. Fights break out, drunks can stumble into the wrong home or even intentionally abduct the women. Then there’s the stigma that comes from living in a cemetery. People on the outside shun most of the community. If children go to public school, they get teased and called ghosts or witches, accused of eating the dead. Most can’t handle the taunting and drop out of school, which kills their chances of ever breaking free from this environment. All the more reason for KKFI to step in and lead programs offering a glimmer of hope.
Our assignment was to lead 4-6 year olds in Supervised Neighborhood Play.
We were told these kids were ages 4-6, but their size made them look 2-4. It was a rainy day in the cemetery, so 32 kids were gathered together on an 8 foot square tarp, under a makeshift roof in the mausoleum.
At first, they weren’t too sure about their foreign visitors. They don’t get outside the walls of the cemetery much, and many have never seen people with skin as white as ours. A couple of kids laughed as we circled up and they saw my skin next to theirs. Pointing back and forth between our arms they giggled…”brown, white, brown, white.”
Once the games began, the giggles exploded, and the joy these children shared was contagious. If you ignored the crypts surrounding us, you’d never know these kids grew up in an environment worthy of nightmares. This was life for them, and they were resilient. I saw several kids fall flat on their face on the concrete, look stunned for a second, then jump up to brush themselves off and keep going, no tears or shrieks were uttered. Mothers or older sisters were always nearby, tending to the littlest and making sure they felt included in the group.
Despite the rough environment, these kids are bright and patient and loving. They’re quick to forgive, gracious to whatever is given them, and as curious and playful as any other children their age. After spending the day with them, I found myself inspired. After being shunned because others see them as different, they easily welcomed strangers into their homes and their lives. After scrounging for any advantage they can get, they’re quick to share with their siblings and care for their family. After growing up surrounded by death, they still strive for a future and keep finding life. And that is a beautiful thing.
Last year Rex Dayao was the program director for KKFI and led us through the majority of our stay here in Manila. When we arrived this year, we learned he recently started a new job, shifting from non-profit to the business world. However, he’s staying on as a consultant for KKFI and promised that he would join us for dinners this week. It is so good to be in his presence again. He is the most positive, resilient, and joyful person I have ever met. He claims that all Filipinos are optimistic, but his enthusiasm is off the charts.
Rex led our students through an orientation with an introduction to Filipino culture, KKFI’s programs, and what our schedule would look like for the week. Then he shared with us the story of how Project Slipper was born, remembering back to when he was eight years old, second oldest of 12 children.
“It was 4:00 in the morning, I woke up to the sound of roosters and motor boats passing by the shallow river nearby. It’s another pre-sunrise scene in our small Manila Bay Island. My mother sat near the stove made of recycled tin, fixing slippers [flip flops]. She would cut those which were too big, sew which strands were broken, or burn them to fix holes. ‘These are for your brothers and sisters,’ she told me with a smile.”
These were slippers she had fished out of the ocean the day before. With twelve children, she could not afford to buy flip flops for all her kids. After mending the slippers, Rex, his brother, and his mother headed out to collect oysters and algae to sell at the oyster farm. Mom paddled the boat while Rex’s job was go scoop out water flooding in through the boat’s many holes to keep it from sinking. Once the boat was full of oysters, Rex headed off to school.
“Teacher Evelyn was checking attendance when I arrived, then she narrated a story of Dr. Jose Rizal (national Filipino hero) when he was young.
‘Pepe, the young Rizal, decided to roam around Laguna Lake with his older brother Paciano. He was so fascinated with the water that he soaked his feet in it, and his slipper was taken by the strong current. Without hesitation, Pepe grabbed his other slipper and threw it in the water. Paciano asked him why he threw away the other slipper, and Pepe replied, “to make sure the one who finds it will have a complete pair.”‘
I smiled. Somehow, Rizal and my mother are almost the same. Rizal cares for those who may get the slipper while my mom is making scavenged slippers into something new.”
In 2014, Rex’s mother died. In order to create a legacy out of her life, Project Slipper: Soles for Souls was born. Donations are collected and slippers are purchased for kids in the community who may be in a similar situation as Rex during childhood. For just $0.88 a pair, each child receives a brand new pair of flip flops in the color of their choice. Our LaGrange/North GA team spent time in two different communities personally fitting 500 pairs of slippers to waiting children. The beautiful story of love, sacrifice, and selflessness that were first taught by Jose Rizal and especially his mother, lives on in Rex as he leads by example and makes it possible for others to receive not only what he never had…a brand new pair of properly fitting slippers, but also to receive what he experienced in abundance…unconditional love.
Manila. The city that never sleeps. As we drove in from the airport after midnight there was still much activity for a Friday night. Traffic looked like Buckhead rush hour, young children walked the streets alone, and plenty of establishments were still open well into the night. Upon arriving at KKFI everyone was a little too awake to find sleep immediately. The constant car honking, dog barking, and the 4:00 am rock band playing nearby didn’t help.
So after what felt like a quick nap, it was morning. Our crew consists of 17 students, one professor, one pastor, and two laity from North Georgia. After breakfast David lead us on a walking tour of the city to point out the basics we’ll need during our time here as well as some points of interest…laundry, ATM, Jollibee fast food, and the University of Santo Tomas, which has a huge wall wrapped around the entire campus and guards at each entrance gate. As we passed by street vendors, we saw three and four-year olds watching their newborn siblings while the parents sold drinks and snacks. Children here, especially the females, quickly become caretakers. The oldest sibling is called Ate (Ah-tay) meaning “Aunt,” and has many responsibilities in the family. We walked past a hog dealer, with a truck full of live pigs in the back, on its way to make a sale. Then an ambulance with siren wailing caught our attention when the back was filled with abundant passengers leaning out the window and waving. It turns out they were leading the parade of the Festival of the Black Nazarene. Truck after truck, decked out with flowers and decorations, 30+ people and a giant statue of a black Jesus carrying a cross on his back, sped by with an air of celebration.
The LaGrange students got a taste of the culture as we adjusted to our new environment, time zone (13 hours ahead), and January heat. With a high of 88 today, it’s a different world from the snow day that Atlanta is preparing for back home. Later today we’ll get an introduction to KKFI, start prepping for our work projects, and experience more of the culture. It’s a good start.
Hard to believe it’s been a year since my last update. A lot has happened this year, which is why I spent more time living it than writing about it, but as I’m arriving back in the Philippines at this moment, it’s clear the story must continue.
After returning home last January, Dr. David Ahearn from LaGrange College, Bill Duncan from (the church formerly known as) Druid Hills UMC, and I vowed to continue working with KKFI to further develop our bridge partnership with the United Methodist Church in the Philippines. It was clear after last year that the most efficient and transformative way we could help was to spread the word about sponsorships to get more kids into school. When Filipino children get scholarships, they’re more likely to stay in school, gain an education, receive the nourishing meals that help them focus and grow physically, and avoid the dangerous work of trying to make money for their family by sorting through garbage for something of value to sell, or worse, selling their own bodies.
We have worked to continue our relationship with KKFI in Manilla by staying in contact and working together on their sponsorship brochures and creating a General Board of Global Ministries Advance number that directly supports KKFI. The more directly we can send funds, the quicker it goes to help transform the lives of Filipino students. It has been long and slow work, but progress is being made.
I was thrilled when my new church (yup, I moved churches this year…getting reappointed as associate pastor at Peachtree Rd UMC in June) agreed to sell “gift cards” at their annual missions fair. The purchase of these cards supported scholarships for elementary, high school, and college aged kids in the Philippines. With the church’s generosity, we raised $750 to support 20 elementary/high school students and 7 college students for a month. That includes transportation, high protein meals, and school supplies or uniforms needed to help the students succeed. What’s even more amazing is that every dollar raised is being matched by a generous donor from David’s church, which doubles the number of students being helped.
Today, I’m excited to return to Manila and KKFI to reconnect with friends made and meet new faces along the way. My hope is that by sharing stories and bringing my readers along on the journey, even more people will gain a heart for supporting the ministry of KKFI and the amazing people in the Philippines, so more families will be able to break the cycle of poverty and dream of a future they never thought was possible.
As I said before, our group had been informed of the community living in Manila North Cemetery (MNC), and KKFI’s involvement. Since the government won’t provide any support or programs, that’s where KKFI steps in. Half of our group set out for Sta. Mesa Heights UMC, which hosts the weekday preschool for the littlest residents of the cemetery. After a short Jeepney ride (local transportation around here…looks kinda like a cross between a hearse and a school bus?) we walked into the classroom.
Scratch that. We walked into the back alley behind the church, which had been covered by some tin roofing to create a classroom in the spare space between buildings. If there’s one thing we’ve noticed about Manila, it’s that they don’t waste space. Buildings seem to be stacked one on top of another, with absolutely zero space in between. A couple of fans helped to circulate the 80 degree heat around the classroom, and 26 adorable three-year-olds were sitting in little plastic chairs, practicing their counting in English. They all looked like stifled deer when we approached, but continued counting nonetheless. My guess is they don’t receive many classroom visitors, especially Americans.
And they are tiny. Compared to most preschoolers, these kids are clearly malnourished and in need of much more than they’re receiving to survive.
We eased our way into the classroom, allowing the teacher to lead, but jumping in where we could. We taught some songs, helped distribute their snack, and enjoyed free play with the (partially incomplete) puzzles and blocks. These kids were pretty shy, not really sure what to do with a bunch of extra helpers in the classroom, but curious nonetheless. It took them awhile to open up and play with us, but soon enough those walls came a tumbling down.
Next came Duck, Duck, Goose. Since we didn’t know how to translate to Tagalog, we played Pusa, Pusa, Aso (Cat, Cat, Dog). It seemed like a simple enough game, but with how shy these kids are, many of them didn’t want to get up and run once they were “aso”-ed. The few brave ones who liked to run around the circle often continued running just for the thrill, whether or not they got tagged and their turn was over.
It was a joy to hear the laughter and see those sheepish grins slowly break through. Yet after just a few hours, they all piled up in the Jeepney and were transported back to their homes. In the cemetery.
These kids know no different. But they should. They should know a life other than sharing a home with their deceased ancestors. They should have a yard to play in where they don’t have to worry about trampling over a buried body. They should be able to eat more than once a day and not have to fear leaving their crypts at night.
I can’t help but think of the three-year-old I fostered this past year. While he certainly has not had an easy life, and has faced more horrors than most will in a lifetime, he is nearly twice the size of these little ones in Manila. So many children in so many parts of the world suffering through no fault of their own. And I can’t help but hear the wisdom of the Lorax once Dr. Seuss so artfully gave him a voice…”unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
The question is…what are we going to do?
Before I left home I went to the travel clinic for a typhoid booster. The nurse who administered my shot was asking what we were doing in the Philippines. When I told her one of the worksites was for a group of children who live in Manila North Cemetery, she stopped. “Wow. I really try not to complain and find gratitude every day. But that’s quite a reminder that at least I don’t live in a cemetery.”
Manila North Cemetery (MNC) is a huge community of roughly 10,000 people. Many of the residents get paid a minuscule daily sum to keep the family plots clean, and in turn end up living there instead of commuting back and forth. The benefits include a huge wall around the entire 54 acres, with carefully guarded gates at the entrance. Since cemeteries are built on higher ground, that means no flooding during typhoon season.
The mausoleums are often made of stone on three sides with an iron gate entrance. When storms arise, families are protected from wind, rain and debris. Several residents set up stores in their mausoleums with snacks and supplies for sale so it’s possible to make it awhile without leaving the cemetery walls. In Filipino culture families will visit their loved one’s grave forty days after death and one year after death, for eternity. Living in the cemetery actually makes it easier to pay respect as they visit each member. That may be where the benefits end.
The government does not recognize the residents of MNC. If they don’t acknowledge those 10,000 residents, they don’t have to provide any government funding for feeding programs or education. They are not counted in any census or infant mortality rates. And if they’re not born in a hospital, they have no birth record. According to the government, they don’t exist. They’re merely ghosts wandering the cemetery, clinging to life any way that they can.
As if that weren’t enough, water is hard to come by and electricity even more so. The really “rich” can afford a car battery to charge electronics or provide a bit of light. Every two weeks or so they take the car battery to be charged. But whether families have light or not, it’s best to stay close to “home” once the sun sets. With such a huge population so close to each other, rape and violence are too common to count.
This is the environment from which the children come. KKFI runs a preschool program out of a local UM church and offers transportation to/from school, a high protein meal, and an education. Transportation is a key player in this equation, since it’s too hot and the children are often too weak to walk. If they can’t make it to school, they don’t get a meal, becoming even weaker; thus the vicious cycle spirals downward.