As I sat in the pew of my church last Sunday, I heard proclamation of the gospel according to Saint Matthew (25: 14-30) – the parable of the talents. Jesus told of a master who left for a journey and entrusted his servants with his possessions. When he returned he rewarded the servants who had done his will and had the lazy ones casted out ‘where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.’ As for the faithful, they shared in their ‘master’s joy.’
All this led to me to think about Thanksgiving and how we – Christians, Americans, the ones so blessed with abundance – would be judged as the servants of the master (God) in the end. I began reflecting on the meaning of this national holiday. Who exactly are we? Are we those who share our talents, seeing the face of Jesus in others, or are we the lazy servants who will meet a desperate end?
It wasn’t more than two months ago that the second city of Quezon City, known as Payatas, was non-existent to me. The incredibly poor community which consists of approximately 300,000 people living in shanty towns was something I had never heard of. To say I was ignorant to the plight of its people is a gross understatement. As I eventually learned, most of the populous live in unbelievable poverty. They are victims of economic injustice, internal conflict, or are those simply unwanted by a society that just wishes they would go away.
Most tragic of all is the Payatas dumpsite, home of the largest mountain of garbage in Manila. Shockingly, approximately 60,000 people (similar to the very same people Jesus walked and associated with) live, work, and raise families around the perimeter of the dump. They search for any item of value, especially those which can be recycled. The people of Payatas suffer incredibly as infection, hepatitis-b, and respiratory ailments are all too common.
What’s the average life span of a resident of Payatas? Who knows?
Then there is the vast starvation and malnourishment. Fresh water is becoming more and more of a luxury. Payatas fight for dietary needs is a desperate one.
Hell on earth? Maybe – it is easily one of the most brutal places the world has ever created.
That’s the absolute absurdity of Payatas and its monstrous dumpsite – it is man made. It’s a picture of consumerism gone awry combined with a lack of moral compass that the people of Manila and the rest of the planet just won’t respond to. Sadly, even in the wake of devastation, the world has simply shrugged its shoulders.
On July 10, 2000, a tragedy of mind-boggling proportions leveled Payatas. A massive cave-in of garbage accounted for the death of 218 people, and the loss of over 300 surrounding homes. International news crews came with cameras and audio to report the travesty, but left as quickly as they arrived.
Can you imagine a death by being swallowed by garbage? As outrageous as it sounds, as much as the world would like to pretend it doesn’t exist, Payatas is all too real to those who sadly inhabit the district.
Unfortunately, little has changed in the 11-years that have passed since this atrocity. The dump is as deadly as ever. Children continue to be exposed to toxic conditions, many of whom still go to bed hungry.
I have no idea what the answers are for the people of Payatas. I must admit, my intellect has a tough enough task grasping how and why this is happening to any human being never mind what solution should ensue.
My only feeble answer comes from prayer and Matthew. It’s the message of hope that our God is abundantly generous as told in the above parable. He calls us to be abundantly generous – with our prayer, our kinship, and our talents.
We must be the light of the world. We are called to be the salt of the earth. We must bear witness for those without a voice – for those who live on a mountain of garbage with little hope and even less to eat.
Our solution can only begin when we see Jesus in the people of Payatas. Until we accomplish this, we are destined for wailing and grinding of teeth. Who wants that?
This Thanksgiving, as we in America celebrate this national holiday with bountiful harvests, offer kinship and prayer for Payatas. After all, they are Jesus, too.
Editor’s note: Thank you to Joel Austria (deacon) and Rev. Jack Wilson of the Payatas Quezon City Baptist Church and Ministries, Inc. for their prayers and invaluable insight. They continue to do God’s work and provide kinship to those the rest of us ignore.
References: fcsisters.org; conexor.se/Philippines