Before my recent trip to the Philippines, the acts29 members had been deliberating on a name for our new feeding project. For as long as we have run these projects annually, there has never been a proper name for it. The term “Feeding Project” is loosely used by most locals while the Singaporeans tend to favour, “Lunch Project”.
The pragmatic Singaporean in me was more than happy to call it Feed the Hungry Children. After all, there is much truth in it and many people would understand immediately what the project is about. However, such a phrase is demeaning to the dignity of the human person and assumes that the children will always be hungry. We needed a better name than Feeding Project, one that would project hope.
As we drove through Metro Manila on a humid Sunday afternoon, there were telling signs of change that had begun to take place. From my first visit to the Philippines back in 1998 to the present day, there are many changes, some big and some small. The little nondescript changes were not obvious to the man on the street but it spoke a lot to me. For one, there was a lot less trash lining the sidewalks.
As we cruised along Payatas Road (formerly known as Manila Gravel Pit Road), I was caught by surprise that even Payatas was seeing a transformation. Right through Metro Manila to this infamous road, streets had been repaired, sidewalks had been swept and curbs had been fixed. This was indeed an unprecedented change never seen before in all my years along this road where garbage trucks pass through daily.
As we stepped into our tiny rented Activity Centre along Pampanga Road in Payatas B, we were greeted by 15 tiny people with loud booming voices and big wide smiles. This was the day we were restarting our feeding project, which ended at the end of 2015.
Jerald now spotted a ponytail. Jon Jon could feed himself. Shane and Angela are still as lively. Little Jericho could now speak! Most of the children are related to each other. Before I could greet them, someone was already tugging at my T-shirt. It was 11-year-old Justin, the eldest and the leader of the pack who looked no bigger than a 5-year-old. He had started working in a junk shop when our previous feeding project ended.
He spoke with great seriousness. “I want to go to school. Please talk to my dad.”
“But what about your work at the junk shop?” I asked.
“I quit my job this morning!” Justin replied.
Just 10 months ago, Justin refused to entertain the idea of going to school. But the previous year’s feeding project, which included learning to read and write and interaction with our youths and scholars, had left behind an indelible impression. The recent months spent in the junk shop had made him realise how much he enjoyed learning new things.
When the children had finished their spaghetti, Justin, wanted me to speak to his dad again. I was hesitant as we had been to their place before and I did not want to walk into an ongoing drug session. Sensing my apprehension, Shane (Justin’s cousin) said in a chirpy voice, “My Papa is in rehab now because he surrendered last month.” With a sense of relief, I said, “Let’s go.”
Justin interrupted, “My papa didn’t surrender. So he got shot in the arm last night. But he has no money for treatment.”
This was not very helpful information. And it was a confirmation that there was an all-out war on drugs with the new administration, albeit a very harsh one. Nonetheless, we walked over with Justin, his five siblings and four cousins. When we did get to their home, the door was closed and all was quiet. The kids peeped in and quietly said, “Mama and Papa are sleeping.”
We hiked back up the muddy slope, strewn with stones and broken glass to our centre. We took turns to carry the little ones. And along the way, we noticed that little Jericho’s toe was infected from a wound. Justin walked in thoughtful silence, then tugged at my T-shirt again. “Could we have slippers?” This surprised me. This barefooted boy who had previously refused any form of footwear now saw the wisdom in protecting his feet.
When we returned to the centre, our first-aider, Nico, began treating Jericho’s wound. Soon the silence of our centre was once more filled with the children’s laughter and to be precise, Justin’s cackling. Despite the dim lighting, our place radiated with their hope and joy. I felt blessed by their presence and in that instant, I knew we had to have a proper name for our project, Bless the Little Children.
Reaching out: Bless the Little Children
Bless the Little Children is more than just a feeding project. It is an initiative of former street kids reaching out to the present street kids in the hope that they find purpose and joy in learning.
Often, I’ve returned to Singapore with a heavy heart for these children who refused to go to school and whose parents, often influenced by drugs, also refused to send them to school despite offers to sponsor the children’s education. It troubled me deeply that babies as soon as they could crawl were left almost immediately to fend for themselves in a very harsh world. I did wonder if a death squad could wipe out all their drug addict fathers and the children’s problems would then be solved. However, there is much naivety in such thinking.
What is the value of life amongst the trash pickers? For many, their lives are not worth saving if they contracted tuberculosis or an infection from a wound. I know that because we have served hundreds of tuberculosis patients. The youths charge the streets with their ice picks and their homemade guns and enter into gang wars at the command of their 18-year-old gang leader. Basketball matches have ended with stabbings. Children fall into wells or get crushed by excavators. A boy was once found in the river sewn up and his organs taken. What is one more death to the masses of people at the bottom, even if it was ordered by the country’s leader? What does that teach Justin and his troop? I worry not that they are hungry but that they will grow up in a culture of death already prevalent in Payatas.
From the local cab drivers to the university undergrads I have spoken to, many are supportive of this war on drugs. Yet many have not met the Payatas families on the hit list – the fathers, the mothers and the children. Many would shrug in fear when invited to visit us and to inspire a child from the dumpsite. It seems much easier to shoot the father than to help the son find his purpose in life.
This time though, I returned to Singapore with much more hope for the fifteen tiny people who wanted to invite their friends to our project. My farewell words were to our volunteer mothers. “Please find the children a larger place to gather.”
In 2002, a group of youths from Singapore began an exposure-immersion programme to seek Christ in the lives of the poor in the Payatas Dumpsite of Quezon City, Philippines. acts29 grew from that life-transforming encounter (acts: a call to serve, 29: the continuation of the Acts of the Apostles). The community is committed to living in simplicity, solidarity and engaged in a mission of love. Sherlyn is a founding member of acts29.
Top photo: Justin (far right) with his red slippers
Photos by Sherlyn & from here.