On two separate occasions I have slept in a garbage dump. This is, unfortunately, not that exceptional. People do it all the time. The garbage dump I know best is just outside Manila in a neighborhood called Payatas. As a church worker I have been there twice. The first time I stayed there was in 1999 and I stayed for four days. During my stay I got a painful rash on both my legs and large sores on the inside of my mouth and down my throat. Again, not exceptional, rashes and sores are common ailments for the men, women and children who live on the dump and scavenge for scraps of metal or plastic to sell and food to eat. Those four days broke my heart, broke me, really, busted me wide open. I carry the memory of those days in my body, it sits in me and compels me and propels to remember what happened there.
I returned to Payatas recently, spent the night again, and found that little had changed. That is what happens in a country in which the 20 wealthiest individuals are worth as much as the poorest 52 million. Such inequality means that while a few incredibly rich families live on large plantations, millions struggle simply too eat. And many resort to picking through garbage. I believe in sharing their stories.
I believe in sharing stories as in telling stories, and sharing stories as in sharing life. We don’t have to travel around the world to do this; we just have to open our lives to the lives of others, even when it hurts us. This is risky, we might end up caring about people so much that we also share their struggles, and take their side.
This is not just about the Philippines, but those are stories I know and I share. I cannot shake those stories anymore than I can shake the stories of Rixford, Pennsylvania, where I grew up, or Chicago, Illinois, where I live now. I cannot shake my story of the Hacienda Luisita sugar cane plantation. In 2004 workers there went on strike so that they could have just wages, better working conditions, and basic human dignity. On November 16 of that year police and soldiers opened fire on the picket line.
A small memorial stands at the gates of the sugar refinery. I have I stood there and watched the father of one of the victims fall to his knees and run his fingers along the names on the plaque. He passed over his son’s name again and again. He cried for his son who was shot and killed because he tried to write a better story for himself and his family. I stood behind the father as he wept and I looked into the eyes of the guards who stood at the factory gate. I cried with the father, at his side, and shared his life for those moments. Our tears told our story.