Catholic Social Activists at Work

Currently I am housed in Manila at the Catholic Trade Center and speaking with fathers and brothers from all over the world who are members of the Society of the Divine Word, which dedicates itself to the poorest. Here is something I have begun to understand. In the Philippines and other places, community organizers must be careful and work in the shelter of the church.

It is easy to misunderstand Catholic activism. Catholic means inclusive and Catholic activism spans the range from delicate questions of philosophy to living on the world’s largest garbage pile. Some “Christians” only concern themselves with the salvation of the soul and ignore the suffering of the body. Others are only concerned with the second coming and the lifting to rapture. (As my friend Angelo “Charlie” Liteky, former Catholic Priest and US Army chaplain and Medal of Honor recipient and rejecter commented, “They can’t leave too soon for me!”)

What I see here at the Catholic Trade Center, a hub for the Society of the Divine Word, is social activists working in the shelter of Christian teachings. There is nothing false or tenuous about their interpretation of the gospel; theirs seems the most literal interpretation. They labor in love for the poorest of the poor but strive to listen, recognize, and reflect back the unrealized potential of the poor, their gifts, talents, and power in community.

Catholicism has a mixed legacy, as you would expect from a church that hopes to be all inclusive. The religion allows for the inclusion of indigenous traditions in a unique way. The Philippines had largely matriarchal societies and beliefs, and Mary appears as central as Jesus in many churches. In the church of Santa Cruz in Carriedo, a fawn or deer is behind the altar. It’s a pre-Christian symbol, I think. Father Ben and his order attempt to include indigenous respect for Mother Earth.

After the Philippine government relocated the scavengers of Smokey Mountain to an unprepared rural location, the scavengers returned and the fathers assisted them in organizing cooperative efforts for a better life at Smokey Mountain. The alliance is called the Sambayang Kristiyano Alyanza and it is run by the scavengers for the scavengers with only support from the fathers. The cooperative teaches at all levels for employment and parenting, and places scavengers into jobs that they want in repairing, reusing, and recycling things, as well as other trades that allow them to live in the city. This shows how the fathers listen and learn from the experience of the poor. They witness the spirit in every individual and bring it out and then facilitate a natural alliance of spirit and solidarity among scavengers. The abstract “Christ” of the philosophers remains abstract, but the “Christ” within the poor is very real to this work of love.

The fathers also engage the wealthier members of the Philippine society. Through the Brotherhood of Christian Businessmen and Professionals, many Smokey Mountain children are sponsored to education and advancement. The cooperatives of Smokey Mountain lobbied Presidents Cory Aquino and Ramos and in 1992 got the Smokey Mountain Development and Reclamation Project.

This is all I know to this point but I am trying to learn. My information is dated and this came from a 1994 book Smokey Mountain, ravaged earth and wasted lives, available online. I recommend it!

Lastly, and to my more radical friends, I do understand that allowing the church to empower the poor in this way may be considered “counter revolutionary” as the fathers do not seek political power, but I am OK with that. I am tired of idealism and perfectionism that lead only to endless dialog, and am glad to see real progress!


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