GUEST COMMENTARY: To Know and Be Known

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c. 2006 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) Joanne and Sammy Seares and their three children, Gellie, Iren, and Jam-Jam, live at the intersection of a putrid canal full of waste and a double set of railroad tracks in the Balic-Balic slum community in Metro Manila, Philippines.

A couple times each hour a train bursts past their home, just a few feet from their front door. Their two story, 200-square-foot home is an amalgamation of corrugated iron, found scrap metal, and wood lattice and planks. Thousands of these homes line Manila’s railway tracks. Occasionally, someone fails to avoid being hit by a train and dies.

Methamphetamines, known locally as shabu, are everywhere and Balic-Balic is under constant threat of eviction and demolition. Squatter residents don’t own the land they occupy and have little say in their future.

The Seares are the face of our world’s urban poverty, one of the millions of families living in slums prevalent in cities in developing countries. In fact, according to the United Nations, one billion people _ or one in every three urban residents _ live in these slums, in insecure, inadequate housing with unreliable and unsanitary services.

I once sat in the Seares home, on a plastic chair enjoying small pastries that Joanne had sent Gellie (short for Angelique) out to purchase upon my arrival, though I knew they couldn’t afford such hospitality. Joanne described their life of poverty, though she blunted the sharp edge of her words with a nervous laugh.

“If you don’t know how to survive, maybe you’ll die earlier,” she said.

Sammy told me he’d worked various short-term jobs, in construction, as a janitor, and most recently as a security guard for an armored truck, the only member on his team who had not been shot at some point.

As I listened to Joanne and Sammy share their stories, I felt moments of powerlessness, a sense that I was useless as a writer and advocate, incapable of helping the Seares and their community. And I thought about the one billion people in slums.

But I also felt deep gratitude. I witnessed just a sliver of life for the Seares, but this was enough time to teach me more about humility, courage and grace.

I was also glad to make new friends. In part, it’s these relationships, this personal knowledge of the Seares, that sustain me. Now that I know the Seares, it matters to me whether they are evicted, whether their children receive an education or a coup overthrows the current government and the Philippines slips into chaos.

Relationships motivate us, enrich our days, teach us more about ourselves and others. They remind us that other people, no matter how different their cultures, economic situations and experiences might be, have a great deal in common with us.

Joanne and Sammy fell in love after being introduced by a common friend and they wrote love letters while courting. Sometimes they argue. On occasion they visit family in the provinces. They attend a neighborhood church. Joanne sends and receives e-mail at a local cafe for a few pesos an hour. Gellie’s favorite movie is “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”

The Seares remind me that even the one billion people living in urban poverty are very much like myself.

It’s the reason news features frequently begin with a single person or family, because readers need to relate to individuals, whether they’re victims of Hurricane Katrina or the Indian Ocean tsunami.

Mother Teresa once said, “To us what matters is the individual. To get to love the person we must come in close contact with him … every person is Christ for me … ”

We do little lasting good in service or charity unless we build relationships that require us to have something personally and intimately at stake and enable us to know individuals that mirror some of our deepest hopes and fears.

To these ends, we can participate in child sponsorship programs, go on short-term mission trips, participate in a church ministry, or financially support or volunteer for development and relief agencies and establish relationships with program staff. While not everyone can travel overseas, each of us can reach out to disadvantaged people within our own communities.

To know and be known _ there’s really no greater gift.

DSB/JL END KRAMER

(Mark Kramer is the author of Dispossessed: Life in Our World’s Urban Slums, a collection of stories from urban slum communities around the world. He is a freelance writer based in Madison, Wis., where he lives with his wife and daughter. He can be reached at mark(at)bluebridgepress.com.)

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