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Philippines/1 – A radical optimist

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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.

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