by Rev. Julie Schendel
(Rev. Julie Schendel is one of the faculty members of the LaGrange College, Georgia, USA who participated in an immersion program of Kapatiran-Kaunlaran Foundation Inc. (KKFI) in January 2016 and January 2017. She is also the Associate Pastor at Peachtree Road United Methodist Church. We are reposting her blog last Januaray 12, 2017 in https://julieschendel.wordpress.com/ so that more partners may be aware of our programs and services. Readers may visit her blogsite as she made a lot of posts in her 2-year stint at KKFI.)
Welcome to the world of Manila’s poorest citizens: Manila North Cemetery. Actually, even that’s being generous, since the government doesn’t recognize them as citizens. Since many can’t afford to be born in a hospital, they have no birth certificate, and therefore no identity. Their greatest hope to gain any kind of ID comes through baptism. They can use their baptismal certificate to prove who they are and start the process of becoming a citizen. How’s that for gaining a new identity? Get baptized, gain new life in Christ, gain new life in your community.
Manila North Cemetery (MNC) is 54 acres filled with beautiful mausoleums and 10,000 residents, above ground. There are countless other permanent residents encased in granite and concrete, serving as beds and tables for those who share their space to make their homes.
Most of the families that live in the cemetery are employed by the relatives of those buried. Wealthier families hire individuals to keep their mausoleums and crypts clean and free from vandalism. In exchange, they get to live there, rent free, and since there is no electricity or running water, there are no additional bills. Earning about $1 a day, families struggle to feed all their kids.
There are benefits to living in a cemetery besides the free rent. Everyone jokes that it’s peaceful, the neighbors are quiet, etc. It’s built on higher ground, so the space is less likely to flood during typhoon season. What might be most significant, for better or worse, is the sense of community. Most homeless living on the street may be scattered here and there, but never really feel like they have the support of neighbors. In the cemetery, everyone lives in close quarters. There are small stores along the corners to purchase snacks, toiletries, and other necessities. And there are people all around. Families pile in together, older siblings take care of the littles, and there is always someone nearby to help with laundry, motorcycle repair, or to teach the children. Since there aren’t always solid walls on the mausoleums, it’s hard to hide. Neighbors can call through your entrance gate, or simply look in to see if you’re home. While it may lead to a loss of privacy, there’s this sense that everyone’s in this together, and it brings a closeness to the community.
Erica, a KKFI scholar, showing us her home.
With everyone in such close quarters, it’s easy for things to get dangerous, especially for young girls. Fights break out, drunks can stumble into the wrong home or even intentionally abduct the women. Then there’s the stigma that comes from living in a cemetery. People on the outside shun most of the community. If children go to public school, they get teased and called ghosts or witches, accused of eating the dead. Most can’t handle the taunting and drop out of school, which kills their chances of ever breaking free from this environment. All the more reason for KKFI to step in and lead programs offering a glimmer of hope.
Our assignment was to lead 4-6 year olds in Supervised Neighborhood Play.
We were told these kids were ages 4-6, but their size made them look 2-4. It was a rainy day in the cemetery, so 32 kids were gathered together on an 8 foot square tarp, under a makeshift roof in the mausoleum.
At first, they weren’t too sure about their foreign visitors. They don’t get outside the walls of the cemetery much, and many have never seen people with skin as white as ours. A couple of kids laughed as we circled up and they saw my skin next to theirs. Pointing back and forth between our arms they giggled…”brown, white, brown, white.”
Once the games began, the giggles exploded, and the joy these children shared was contagious. If you ignored the crypts surrounding us, you’d never know these kids grew up in an environment worthy of nightmares. This was life for them, and they were resilient. I saw several kids fall flat on their face on the concrete, look stunned for a second, then jump up to brush themselves off and keep going, no tears or shrieks were uttered. Mothers or older sisters were always nearby, tending to the littlest and making sure they felt included in the group.
Despite the rough environment, these kids are bright and patient and loving. They’re quick to forgive, gracious to whatever is given them, and as curious and playful as any other children their age. After spending the day with them, I found myself inspired. After being shunned because others see them as different, they easily welcomed strangers into their homes and their lives. After scrounging for any advantage they can get, they’re quick to share with their siblings and care for their family. After growing up surrounded by death, they still strive for a future and keep finding life. And that is a beautiful thing.