Another War on Poverty

The violence of the urban poor in the march on Manila’s presidential palace last May 1 shook the Philippine government, as well as the wider Filipino society. It convinced them that something had to be done quickly for the poormuch as the African-American riots precipitated a response in the United States in the 1960’s. Even as this is being written, the Philippine government searches for an adequate response.

The question arises, however, whether any government can respond adequately and quickly to age-old problems that spring from the economic, political and cultural roots of a society. Can the elite of a system, including the top government and business leaders, change it enough to allow the poor a better life? Lyndon Johnson’s administration did not in its war on poverty, though through programs like Medicare and civil rights and voters’ rights legislation, Johnson made a greater contribution to social welfare than any president of the century save Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Voting rights were one thingAmerican society was not wary of African-American mayors who, by the time they came to power, would be no different from white mayors or Asian mayors. But America was and is suspicious of mass organizations of poor African-Americans, Hispanics and others who press the system to give in to their demands for a greater share in the good life of the country.


Wealth and power are even more unevenly divided in the Philippines than in the United States, and the elite perhaps even less eager to change. The top 10 percent of Filipinos have 37 percent of the country’s income, compared with 30 percent for the top 10 percent in Indonesia. The Gini index, which measures inequality of income, is still more revealing. For the Philippines it is 0.46 and for Indonesia 0.33. The comparable figures in the United States are 30.5 percent for income of the top 10 percent and 0.41 for the Gini index. A gap of 0.13 or 0.15 in the Gini index is considered very great. There is no indication that the wealthy in the Philippines are prepared to share their wealth and the power that goes with it.

John Carroll, S.J., a sociologist who heads the Institute on Church and Social Issues in Manila, sees little hope of change from above. He writes in the institute’s newsletter, Intersect, for August 2000:

In our estimation, the basic problem [in the Philippines] is the power of an entrenched elite, economic and political, which twists every situation to its own advantage. And the remedy is not to find a Messiah to lead us out of the wilderness. It is rather to promote broad-based political awareness and organization among the masses. Such organization can make government more responsible and put pressure on it to ensure that it uses its power and resources to attack poverty through broad-based development plus well-targeted investments in health and education among the poor.

In the long run, Father Carroll says, there may be need for a real workers’ party. The first step, howeveras in the war on poverty in the South Bronx parish where I worked in the 1960’swould be community organization, leading to groupings of poor people in cooperatives, basic Christian communities, labor unions and block and neighborhood organizations for the urban poor. These can have an immediate impact on local politics, and in the future they can unite and become a force in national politics.

But to tell poor people to organize and then put pressure on the powerful is asking them to lift themselves by the nape of their necks, something only the legendary Finn McCool is said to have managed. At present in the Philippines, no political group exists to work alongside the poor effectively. The new economic order has attracted many of the talented young people who used to work with the poor. Some of the poor can organize by themselves, but not enough to form a movement that can bring about change. From where, then, will the organizing resources come?

My own hope is that they will come from the church. Cardinal Jaime Sin of Manila and other church leaders have been as critical of themselves as they have been of the rich, but the church is still the only institution that can turn itself upside down even a little. Despite its weaknesses, it does carry the very radical biblical message that God is on the side of the poor and that the wealth of the world is for the good of all, not for private accumulation.

The church and church leaders, cleric and lay, can change if they have the chance to come into personal contact with organized poor people. A dynamic relationship results: the poor convert the church, and the church strengthens the organization’s work with its resources. These resources include money; but more important, the church can bring springs of motivation, a theology to understand the world, the personal presence of church people where and when they are needed, Mass when the poor ask for it and a hundred other services.

The life of the late archbishop of Lipa, Mariano Gaviola, shows how this can occur. The archbishopwho died in 1998was one of the great friends of the poor in the era of martial law (1972-86), though his good work is now almost forgotten. At the onset of martial law, he was vicar of the military and general secretary of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines. He was also a close friend of the Marcoses, generals and the very rich. Theologically he was very traditional, though he did not worry much about theology. He was a dapper-looking man who loved to sit and talk over drinks in the evening. Because of his contacts with the powerful, poor people’s groups asked his help; and as he was a decent, polite man, he listened and came to appreciate that more could and should be done for poor people. He became deeply involved. He told friends he wished he could walk away from the contests between the poor and the government, but his conscience would not let him. The writer remembers two incidents that illustrate his capture by poor people.

Archbishop Gaviola once sponsored a three-day seminar for the urban poor and church-related people working with them. They lived together for three days as close as a familypriests, sisters, community organizers, poor people’s leaders, poor women, many children and the bishop himself. He was so touched by the humanity of all these different groups living and working together that tears came to his eyes when he talked to them. He was not the only one so affected. A Communist party member broke down and cried. She said she would never have given up the church if this meeting was what the church was really like. The participants discussed and argued without any consideration of rank. People disagreed openly with the bishop at times; but at the end, at the final Mass, with small children running up and down the aisle, a final statement was read and applauded.

This type of relationship between the church and the poor is possible because in organizing work or the human rights struggle, the clergy and the organized people meet on neutral ground, as it were, outside their usual church-assigned roles. They meet as equals or representativesthe bishop representing the church, the leaders representing the poorso there is something businesslike in the relationship. It is a two-way relationship: the church comes closer to its ideal, and the poor receive the help they need. They, too, become better Christians. It can be a warm relationship, but it is always purposeful.

The second incident was a Mass one night in the Tondo slum. The people had marched that day (for reasons now forgotten) and were stopped by the police. Some of the leaders were arrested, and a few people were beaten. Archbishop Gaviola came in the evening to say Mass in the dirtiest, most menacing street in the whole slum before about 1,000 people. He began the homily by apologizing that he had not done more to help the marchers, that he had not been with them. His voice broke, and he had to pause for a while. There was absolute silence. The church and the poor were never closer than in that moment of admitted weakness.

The poor people forced the bishop to work with them, and in the process they became his true friends. Organized people can do the same with other church people who, like Archbishop Gaviola, are willing to listen to the poor. The poor can then find their rightful place in the church. One hopes there will be enough interested church leaders and enough organized poor to achieve this goal.

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