Monday, October 26, 2009

Beggars at Baclaran Church

This is my column today.

I am sure that the people who produced that Sharon Cuneta television ad which shows the megastar wearing a forlorn expression on her face, falling down on her knees to beg for help for those affected by storms Ondoy and Pepeng meant well.

I am sure that given the import of what they were trying to achieve, the last thing they had in their minds was to fuel a discussion on the moral implications of legitimizing begging or encouraging beggars in this country. It is highly possible, though, that they wanted to provoke some discussion on what it would take to get people to do or give more to the victims of these disasters.

As we all know, political incorrectness is something that enrages a lot of people in this country so it is not surprising that there were quite a number who reacted negatively to that television ad. Fortunately, people seemed to have realized that getting all riled up about the issue would only deflect focus on the more important task of helping others rebuild their lives from the destruction wrought by the twin calamities.

But regardless of how one feels about that Sharon Cuneta ad, there is no escaping the fact that the numbers of beggars in our streets have multiplied recently; and it seems algebraically. It is very tempting and convenient to conclude that the increase in the number of beggars is a direct consequence of the twin calamities that befell us recently. A friend who works with a non-government organization helping streetchildren told me that the numbers of beggars multiply with the onset of the Christmas season as people supposedly begin spending hard-earned savings and presumably also become more generous. It is also possible that the increase is caused by many other reasons such as the growing sophistication of organized syndicates that prey on beggars.

My friends and I were on Makati Avenue Thursday evening last week where we encountered a band of beggars—all middle-aged women wearing a malong, each one with a child in her arms. It was obvious that the group was organized. We made the mistake of giving one of the women loose change and within seconds around seven women surrounded us; each demanding their “share” of our generosity. We were a little bit taken aback, first, by the speed in which the band swooped down on us as if they were equipped with radars that identified those who were susceptible to their wiles, and second, by their assertiveness.

Are there really syndicates that control groups of beggars in this country? If we are to believe the authorities of the Shrine of the Mother of Perpetual Help, more popularly referred to as the Baclaran church, the answer is yes.

For quite some time now, the church has been bereft of the usual group of people that used to dominate its back pews. For the longest time, that section of the church resembled the emergency room of a public hospital. One man who occupied a specific spot in that part of the church every Wednesday sat on a wheelchair laboriously breathing from an oxygen tank beside him. Women sat on the pews rocking in their arms infants with all kinds of congenital conditions—from hydrocephalus to cleft palates to quadriplegics. Blame it on plain naivete on my part but I initially thought that they were in church for reasons of piety; I actually thought that their parents offered novenas every Wednesday to the Virgin Mother so the children’s or their conditions would improve. Imagine my reaction when I learned that they were actually soliciting money from churchgoers.

One child that I particularly took interest in was a one year old little girl with cerebral palsy. That girl caught my attention because one late Wednesday evening a couple of months ago the girl was going through some kind of seizure inside the church. The child was wheezing and gasping for breath. I talked to the woman holding the child and who was frantically massaging the child’s chest to inquire if the little girl needed to be brought to a hospital but the woman said the seizure was “normal” and the little girl would be revived soon.

And then the woman gave me the sob story—how she and her child were abandoned by the father, how she was always unable to make both ends meet, etc. She showed me documents: Medical files, unfilled prescriptions, all kinds of certifications. I offered to get the prescription form to buy medicines for the child myself but the woman gave me this story about how she had access to half-priced drugs supposedly at the Philippine General Hospital. She said cash donations were better.

The scheme sounded suspicious but I felt then that the child really needed help so I gave the woman some cash. The other women with children in similar dire conditions tried to talk to me too and I had this nagging suspicion that there was something amiss in the whole setup so I left. But I always made it a point to check up on that little girl every Wednesday thereafter. She was always there; at the last row of pews at the back portion of the church.

And then one day, she was gone. So was the man with an oxygen tank. So were the other women with sick children in their arms. They just disappeared.

I learned three weeks ago that the officials of the church had forbidden them from setting foot inside the church. There is now a huge tarpaulin banner hanging right at the fa├žade of the church where an open letter is printed. The letter explains that the church authorities had commissioned social workers from the Social Welfare Department to look into the cases of each of the sick people. They discovered that they were “professionals,” in short, part of a syndicate. It’s a long letter that narrates the action the church has taken to help the sick people. Unfortunately, I don’t think that many people have noticed the tarpaulin banner or for that matter has bothered to read it. I guess most people are engrossed in their own travails to bother with those of others.

I still have difficulty accepting that the little girl with cerebral palsy was what the church officials claimed her to be—just a pawn of some syndicate out to fleece money from kindhearted souls. She had cerebral palsy, for crying out loud, and was much too young to even fake suffering.

I am aware that there are people who think helping beggars is counterproductive because it encourages laziness and perpetuates low self-esteem among those engaged in begging. However, I think this generalization is dangerous and also perpetuates unkindness and even disregard for the suffering of others. There is always something we can do for others who are in need and if one is not so inclined to give money to beggars, one can always give food. One can talk to them, treat them with a little more compassion, even offer some other forms of help rather than ignore them or treat them with contempt.

There is one supreme irony that seems lost in the whole setup at Baclaran church. When we come to think about it, everyone who goes there on Wednesday is in essence a beggar—begging for help, for forgiveness, for some blessing or grace from the Lady in the altar. Those who sell flowers, special novenas, massage, etc, are also engaged in some kind of moneymaking schemes that victimize devotees in many ways. I am not saying that the syndicates that prey on beggars deserve better treatment. All I am saying is that it always helps to put things in better context.

1 comment:

Sofia said...

he Baclaran Phenomenon is, first and foremost, the incredible number of people who come to the Redemptorist Church in Baclaran every Wednesday to make the Perpetual Novena to Our Mother of Perpetual Help. It is estimated that at least 100,000 devotees come on regular Wednesdays, reaching about 120,000 on the First Wednesday of each month. The biggest turnout of the year is on Ash Wednesday. The crowd for that day simply defies estimate.

Baclaran Church Official Website