“Breath of Life!” Church
That was the first sign I saw as I exited our shuttle bus and inhaled the methane tinged air of the Payatas garbage dump. Irony was everywhere.
Garbage is big business among the poor of the Philippines. Desperate people will leave everything to move close to a dumpsite where they can illegally scavenge for scrap to sell. Children begin early, spending their childhood picking through trash with bare hands and feet .
Our guide for the day was an amazing woman by the name of Elmira Bernandino Panoy. Twenty-five years ago Elmira moved to this area on the far Northeast side of Manilla. Poor, uneducated, she and her then-husband squatted on a small piece of land and began building a subsistence life – cobbling together work and vegetable growing. Throughout the next 12 years the dump continued to get higher and higher forming a large mountain that in July of 2000 simply collapsed on top of several homes, killing more than 300 people and leaving hundreds more simply homeless.
For more than a decade now, Elmira has been an activist for some sort of government responsibility and accountability not only for the tragedy but for the bigger issue that the poor have almost no way out of their poverty. They have little access to any of the opportunities we take as common: some form of education, some form of health services, some avenues to opportunities.
Elmira began speaking up and continues to teach and advocate. What she is asking for is so meager: basic services like schools, roads, and some sort of reform for the poor in this horrific scene – meager and transformational. It’s extraordinary that this woman of little education and little training continues to believe she and others like her have something to say and they will not stop saying it.
Elmira’s sense of determination, and empowerment and perseverance is inspiring. But what an uphill climb she has! What incredible obstacles she faces at ever achieving what she is attempting!
“How do you ever find the motivation to keep going?” I asked. We were walking past mounds of dog feces, dog vomit, streams of filthy water and breathing, at every step, this toxic air. “How do you keep hoping, and working day after day? “
“I know that what I am fighting for is just. The cause is just. And I know God is a God of justice. When I fight for justice then I know God fights with me.”
Elmira continues to speak and to work and to live believing with everything she has that eventually justice is going to be done and God is going to prevail. It may not be today or next week or next year. But eventually God is going to win. And that reality keeps her going – day after day after day.
Breathe on me breath of Life.