Tony Meloto, 61, is perhaps the most inspiring living Filipino. He made a life-changing faith experience in a Metro Manila slum. He founded Gawad Kalinga as an expression of his faith and love for the poor. He says: ìI am a radical optimist because I believe in Jesus Christ.î
How has Gawad Kalinga (Give Care) started?
It started out as a faith journey, in search of my soul, as a Filipino and as a Catholic. I wanted to really honor Godís desire for my life, aware that, in the Philippines, religion and citizenship are not practiced in ways that honors God; otherwise, we wouldnít have so much poverty and corruption. After graduating with an economic degree, I went into marketing with an international company. At the age of 35, I started my faith journey when I joined Couples for Christ with my family. I left my job to dedicate myself to the family ministries of Couples for Christ ñ Youth for Christ, Singles for Christ, Kids for Christ and Handmaids of the Lord. I was searching for a deeper and more meaningful expression of my faith. I realized that I had come from the poor but I had forgotten them. I was repeating the old pattern existing in our country: many of those who are given the privilege of a better education and of a better life oftentimes do not go back to those who do not have the same opportunities in life.
Your personal experience was leading youÖ
I felt I had to reconnect with the poor. To do so, I went to work in the biggest slum in the country called Bagong Silang, in 1995. Thatís when I finally found a big part of me that was missing. The informal settlers, the criminals, the gang membersÖ were my people, who I had tried to avoid by living in my artificial bubble of affluence and sending my children to exclusive schools and perpetuating an exclusionary culture. But Christianity was about inclusion, not exclusion. I realized that I had to see now the poor as family, as friends, as compatriots, as partners in rebuilding the nation.
Bagong Silang was a very dangerous place. It was probably the countryís biggest university for criminals. Half of the inmates of Caloocan City jail came from there. I started there a youth program ñ with 127 youth, mostly gang members. We did a weekend camp. I brought my 16-year-old daughter as a way of showing to those people that I considered them important enough and that I felt safe to bring my daughter. She was relating to the girls of her age: one was about 16/17 years old and had been raped by her stepfather when she was 13. At 16, she had already made two abortions. My daughter was crying to me during the break saying: ìPapa, life is so difficult for them.î I became aware that my daughter could be like them if she had been born in a slum. I felt God telling me: ìYou have to consider these girls as your daughters as well. Unless you consider the poor as your children, as your heirs, your own children wonít have a future in this country.î I brought some former drug addicts, gang members to share how they had been transformed. We offered them hope. They gave me trust. When I asked them to offer me what was precious to them, one by one came forward and surrendered their guns, their knives and their brass knuckles. They made themselves vulnerable because they started to have hope.
You were enlightened.
I realized that, in the slums, many homes had lost the fathers and that most poverty interventions focused on women. But, criminals, drunkards, rapists, killers, rebels, NPAsÖare men. Corrupt politicians are men... If men were the problem, why were we looking at women as the solution? So, I knew that my priority was not really micro-finance or micro-enterprise, because that was mostly for women.
I started thinking how we could transform the men. We had to do social engineering ñ transform their homes and their physical environment. We got the men to start building houses, schools, roads, providing livelihood and focus on what they could do. I wanted a balanced development. There's a form of gender bias towards men in our society: since they are more difficult to deal with, most charities just deal with women and children. It was clear to me that I had to go beyond charity. I had to go beyond the usual patterns that cannot transform families and communities. I went into transforming the physical environment because we had to rescue people from internalized poverty since most of them are squatters and slum-dwellers living in shanties. I discovered that poverty is not an economic problem; it is a behavioral problem with economic consequences.
What is the philosophy behind the villages you build?
We build decent houses; brightly painted with landscape gardens, clean water and toilet. The communities are a showcase of two very Filipino qualities: Kalinga (to care) and bayanihan (spirit of cooperation). They have to be practiced, not just preached. As Catholics, we must say that the Church has never been remiss in its preaching role, but we have not been listening and following. We have many religious organizations that want to take on the preaching role, not on the doing role. GK listens to the preaching of the Catholic Church, goes out and practices by loving and caring and sharing ñ land for the landless, homes for the homeless, food for the hungry, water for the thirsty, light for those in darkness. Providing water is like providing health; light is not only for energy but it is for enlightenment and education; then thereís environment protectionÖ It is all about building viable, sustainable and empowered communities.
What do you require from the poor?
We require cooperation (bayanihan). They have to put in 1,000 hours of service building other peopleís houses to get their own. We are able to leverage limited resources. Somebody donates the land, another donates the building materials, the poor provide the labor, we provide the management and the volunteers, local governments provide the road and the water system. A dollar someone donates can become 4 or 5 dollars in development. It is like the multiplication of the loaves of bread and the fish. What can be more Christian than that? Many of the things we are doing are just an expression of what has been preached to us and of what we have read in the Bible.
What main difficulties have you encountered on the way?
When we started to become a big movement - we are also present in Cambodia, Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea - the challenges appeared. How do we relate to non Christians? Shall we exclude them or try to evangelize them before helping them? Many corporations are not allowed to partner with religious organizations because of the statutes of their cooperation. Do we deprive the poor of help just because we want to brand ourselves as a Catholic ministry? Shall we accept money only from Catholics and build houses only for Catholics? There were many serious issues at stake and I didn't want to enter in conflict. I just felt that I had to follow what I believed Christ was telling me in the Scripture and what my own Catholic faith was telling me about social justice. We started expanding and going to areas where there were no Couples for Christ, and working with other groups and local governments, schools and going to Muslim areas. We could not impose Catholic religion on them. Being Catholic is not to convert them, but to love them and allow them to see Christ in us in the way we love them.
José Antûnio M. Rebelo
See the second part of this interview here.
See the first part of this interview here.
Did Couples for Christ accept such an approach?
Many members of the Couples for Christ (CFC) didnít understand or they didnít believe in what I was doing. But since I was a member of the council and I was in charge of the familiesí ministries, particularly Youth and Singles, I was able to bring quite a number of young people with me. For many of them, it was just another outreach, it was just a ministry. I came to realize that caring for Godís people is not only caring for people who come from the same religion or from the same community. I realized that societal renewal should be inclusive, not exclusive ñ it should include the Muslims, the non-Catholics, even the unbelievers. I was also growing in my faith understanding that my Christianity should be anchored on love and caring following the example of Jesus. He even cared for the Samaritan woman and didnít discriminate against the tax collectors. He was not exclusionary.
How is GK financed?
At the beginning, it was financed by Couples for Christ and other people. There was a foundation called Living for Christ Foundation ñ made mostly by Filipino-Chinese people ñ that also helped us. Most of our volunteers belonged to CFC who saw it as a tool for evangelization and a fishing pool to recruit members for the movement. But when we started going to communities, where there was religious and cultural diversity ñ for instance, when we started working with Muslims ñ we could not impose that on them. Tension arose among the Couples for Christ.
Thereís a lot of corruption, but you do not take political stands, do you?
No. I donít judge. The same way Jesus did not judge tax collectors, I do not judge politicians. Even the most corrupt politicians may have at least 10% of good in them. I will connect with that 10%. Even if I am surrounded by dishonest people, Iíll keep being honest and try to inspire them to be honest. Then, we can slowly transform this country. Why should we judge people? The problem is when we become self-righteous: the whole concept of evangelization is lost. Our role is not to judge, but to engage people and remain honest to give them the example that we can do a lot by remaining honest. I work with 400 mayors because I didnít judge them, and not even one has ever tried to corrupt me. Why should we always see the glass as half empty while it is half full? I am a radical optimist because I believe in Jesus as the Good News. And I believe in the greatness of the Filipino spirit.
Are you hopeful for the future?
I am definitely very hopeful that poverty will end in my country by 2024. Nobody imagined that GK would be this big by now. We have about 250 employees and about 20,000 regular volunteers. They come from all over the world. Even Manny Pacquiao declared before his last boxing fight in Las Vegas that the greatest fight of his life is to end poverty in the Philippines and that he was joining GK ñ to build homes and to provide livelihood for the poor. When he endorses a product, he gets 100 million pesos for that. Why would he even endorse us and not global foundations and humanitarian organizations? It is a matter of trust and credibility. We have more than 500 major corporations collaborating with us. They are after investing in development. There are many charities, but they see that we go beyond charity toward authentic Christian stewardship; they see that we are here not to make the poor more dependent, but to give them justice and healing, self-respect and confidence to help themselves and one another. We are moving towards empowerment of the poor in all the communities who are around 2,000. We now help groups to build houses because not everything has to be done through us. We have shown people that it can be done in the GK way. Thatís why legislation is being crafted to build five million homes. Now, Congress is legislating on nation-building, following GK model. If it becomes a bill, any organization will build following the GK way through public-private partnership, through convergence/synergy. If the aim is nation-building, you make everyone a nation-builder and you make every Catholic practice his/her Christianity.
Is Gkís organization still on your shoulders?
I donít even hold office. I am no longer involved in the operations of GK. I donít sign checks and I am not in the management team. I am only the chairman of the board. We meet once a month for the board meeting that includes the Ateneo president, Fr. Bienvenido Nebres, and the heads of Globe, Smart and Shell Philippines. I spend my time in the farm where I am building the Center for Social Innovation for countryside development. I am building village universities and countryside outlets for the products of GK communities. We are moving now from the justice phase to the empowerment phase. I am training young people: graduates from top universities to become social entrepreneurs and care for those at the bottom of the pyramid. They are the missing element.
We have a lot of generous and successful people who and corporations that want to help the poor, but if we deprive them of education, they cannot do business plans, development research or market developmentÖ How can we expect them to fare well? We need young people to stop leaving the country seeking jobs abroad and make them wealth creators and job generators here. We keep losing the brightest and the best of our people to make rich countries richer. We have to educate youth to become patriots, because nation-building is about sacrifice. My dream is to see our predominantly Christian Philippines rise from poverty. I will be 74 in 2024, when this country will be out of poverty. I live with that certainty.
JosÈ AntÛnio M. Rebelo