Ministering to the poor in Cubao, Philippines
It’s Thursday night again and time for the Drop-in Centre. It’s strange remembering back to when we started more than five years ago.
Tonight I’m on the gate checking who comes in and whether they are allowed to attend. Plenty of people from the slums, especially children, would be glad of a free meal, but the aim of this meeting is clear – it’s for those who are sleeping rough.
Numbers have dropped recently, with the average weekly attendance down to around 90. Standing at the gate means I get to talk to everyone. As normal, it’s a mixed bunch.
Jimmy and Ryan swagger in with big smiles on their faces. They’ve just been released from prison, after serving ten months for sniffing glue. It probably won’t be long before they are back on drugs, then back in prison and the cycle will go round again.
A boy arrives who has not been before. I ask his name and how old he is. He’s eleven but looks much younger. ‘Where do you live?’
‘Under a bridge with my grandfather’, he replies. I welcome him and he heads inside. A couple of regulars pass by. One guy sleeps on the pavement with his girlfriend and their new baby. I challenge him: ‘What’s your plan for the future? Are you looking for a job?’ ‘I’ve just got one’, he replies, ‘working at a bar as a janitor’.
‘How much do you get paid per day?’ I ask.
‘100 pesos’ [less than £1.50]. How will he ever get off the streets earning £1.50 a day? It’s a familiar story. Even if homeless people are willing to work hard, the majority can’t earn enough to escape the poverty trap.
Felipe comes over for a chat. When I ask him how things are, he tells me they are still struggling. He lives in a small shack with his wife and two children. The rent is £8 a month, but pushing their cart round collecting rubbish only earns £3 a day. That’s barely enough for food and it’s always a battle to find the money for rent.
I wander round and watch people eating. The new kid from under the bridge is gulping down the good food. After dinner the adults sit and listen quietly while Ismael preaches passionately about the life of Elisha.
The children are taught faithfully each week in a separate room and we’ve just started a new class to try to meet the needs of older children and younger teens.
I’m still at the gate when the happy faces pour out of the meetings. I ask one boy what they have learned. With a bit of encouragement he explains how Moses parted the sea. I’m sure he told me that last week as well, but at least he knows the story. ‘That’s amazing! Who has the power to do that?’ I say. ‘God does!’ he shouts.
As the volunteers eat together after cleaning up, we discuss some of the problem cases. Manuel is top of our list of concerns. His father is irresponsible, with a history of drug abuse. His mother is the thinnest woman I’ve ever met and never seems far from death. They lost their two-year-old girl.
And then there’s Manuel. We keep trying to help him, but the family decided to move on. We sponsored him to go to school but he was dropped after the family disappeared. Now Manuel is in hospital on oxygen, suffering from TB and pneumonia.
It’s always a hard evening’s work but the fantastic group of volunteers makes it so much easier. As I head home along the main road of Cubao, the bright lights of the shopping centre can be seen ahead. The towering shapes of luxury new apartments hang above me. And yet, there are still the figures sleeping on pieces of cardboard in front of a bank. I look down and smile at many who have visited the drop-in centre.
I keep my eyes focused ahead when walking past girls waiting for customers by the side of the road. One of them has been straightening her hair as she sees a white man approaching. As Cubao grows more upmarket, it seems the prostitutes get younger and more attractive.
Cubao is the melting pot of our area. A million people pass through every day; major construction work is always underway, and its shopping malls are packed. Like every big city, it’s full of lost people. Lost people in BMWs and lost people in wooden carts. Lost people in designer boutiques and lost people hanging around in the shadows late at night.
How do you piece it all together? Young girls desperately trying to sell their bodies, by the side of the road? Young men wasting years in prison, only to take drugs again on their release? And young boys sleeping on pieces of cardboard, who end up lying on a hospital bed with an oxygen mask?
Hard questions. Maybe we are too quick to give ‘easy’ answers and too slow to weep for the brokenness of our world. And yet, for every answer we don’t have, we do know that we have amazing good news to share.
The Son of God entered the mess of our world and hung on a cross – for all these people. What better message have we to give? And what better place to share it than in the big cities?
We pray that as a church our lives and deeds will be consistent with this amazing message of love. And that God will shine his light into the darkness and change lives for his glory.