A Not-So-Silent Shepherd

Along a stretch of road between a marketplace and the dumpsite is a two-storey concrete building. An unassuming red gate with a sign is all that spells the difference between a run-down apartment block and a house church straight out of the New Testament.

Mang Erning pauses before entering. Its huge impact on the lives of hundreds of families like his belies its small stature. His daughter died when she was three, of high fever and a cough that would not go away. Maybe, just maybe, had he rushed her for a check-up at one of the regular medical missions offered by the people beyond that gate, she’d have been spared. Or at least, he would have had his faith in divine and human goodness restored much sooner after her death.

The people beyond that gate themselves never grasped, until much later on, the full measure of the consequences of their actions – or the scale of the challenge.   What began by giving bible studies  in squatter homes soon blossommed into full-scale feeding and teaching programmes.  They taught English, Science, Arts and Crafts  to children they picked off the streets ; they organized livelihood programmes for their parents as well. They hosted two temporary medical  clinics that distributed low cost medicine and treatment to patients with skin problems, heart problems, spiritual problems, pneumonia, tuberculosis and leprosy- a biblical disease for deeds of biblical proportions.

The man behind it all is Jack Wilson, but he’d be first to deny the credit. You see, he is no more than an instrument.  Payatas Baptist Church and Mission Outreach, as he says, is one of God’s mysterious ways of working out the salvation of his people. Other charities have been here and gone, packing up to leave with their temporary relief efforts when the next Sudan calls.   The church has been here since 2006. Why?

“There are plenty of fatherless children around.”

The Pastor has also seen father and son duos sniffing glue or shabu. And limbless children helping their parents sift through the dump for a bit of cash, and waste recyclers working around the clock for less than a dollar a day, with every centavo made spent on cheap beer or a handful of food to stave off the cries of empty bellies for another day.

Here a garbage man begets a garbage man. Or something else.

“Everybody has pain in their life, and to tell you the truth, life is stronger in the dump than it is in Makati,” says the Pastor. “These people work twelve to thirteen hours a day so their families can have something to eat. That’s not lazy.”

For roughly the same amount of time, Mang Erning cleans bottles at a junkshop for a living.  The church has since started him off on a few informal language courses in his spare time.  But he’s been doing some advanced reading of his own.  He has two Bibles – one in Filipino, the other in KJV-style old English – hoping to compare them side by side, and get his English up to speed. He’ll need it to help his son with his homework.


 “Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness…”

The Pastor is no silent shepherd. Here is a one man army against the powers that be, a fiery Jeremiah railing against everyone from local government officials (for obvious reasons) to Maynilad Water (which he claims is overcharging them, billing them as a religious building even if, technically, the ‘church’ is a residential house)  to  the Department of Education. The Pastor’s sentiments toward the latter are summed up thus: “Corrupt, corrupt, corrupt”.

And lousy. When a brand new school opened in 2011, it featured a makeshift toilet, a broken wooden chair over a clogged porcelain bowl.  Like countless others in the country, the school has barely a handful of teachers, few chairs, few school supplies, even fewer books, and no fans to keep the sweltering heat at bay. There are fees too, fees for everything – library fees, identity card fees, fees for lost school books – all of them unofficial, charged by the underpaid teachers of an understaffed institution.

But Payatas families whose lives are the very definition of a hand-to-mouth existence have neither the money nor time to waste on ‘fees’ and daily transport, and would rather have their children work in the dumps, so the students stay out of school. Despite the dropouts, the classrooms stay overcrowded.

The pastor stays annoyed. His own daughters, Laura and Linda, are homeschooled, perhaps partly out of religious conviction – but mostly, he’s just annoyed.

Adding to his growing list of grievances against the System is election season, when bribery is rife and campaigners come to saturate whole walls with tacky posters and slogans that scream, “We’re here for you!”

Garbage, he says.  If meritocracy were the rule of the ballot, service were a measure of their worth as leaders, and politicians were elected by virtue of what they did for the people, they’d vote him for mayor. Only he isn’t Filipino.

But worse than inaction, perhaps, is outright corruption.

When  the church planned a rice distribution program,  they found the coupons  needed for the project had already been ‘rationed’ out to favored members of the barangay hall.

The Pastor has bumped up against similar barriers time and again, but the most serious, if still unverified, charge he makes is against a 2008 charity drive ‘Christmas for Payatas,’ funded by companies Fusion Excel (maker of Quantum Pendant), Tote Daddy, and ABS-CBN, among others. Then-Quezon city mayor  Sonny Belmonte, Judge Veneracion, notable celebrities and sports figures gave their full support to a promised long-term feeding and literacy program by (the now defunct) Lighthouse Center For Children Foundation.

It raked in at least US $ 80,000, and all the kids got were shirts.   The Pastor has his own theories, but that’s another story. Meanwhile, the controversies continue.

So like the walls of Jericho, he breaks them down with the Word of God and thousands of words of his own, through letters or calls or emails he sends with religious fervor.  For those, he receives at best no reply – or denial.

“They do nothing for these people – they’re crooks”.

Now he sounds almost populist. Almost. This Baptist preacher, nearing sixty, is unmistakably right and right wing, with all the conservative force of the US Tea Party.

One look at the pastor’s blog or Facebook profile is evidence enough: a tribute to Christianity if ever there was one, verging on the fundamentalist and oozing with the evangelical zeal of those who swear allegiance to the King James Version of the Bible. When it isn’t hurling insults at Obama, it’s also a detailed diary of the church’s six years in the Philippines – of feeding programs, medical missions, baptisms and retreats.

His other website (he has at least two, plus a Multiply page for photos) contains  full accounting of their expenses for donors’ reference, updated constantly- the sort of transparency governments either dream of or fear.

“I wear my underwear because someone bought me underwear!”

He says that with conviction,  in radical recognition of the fact that everything he has since he came here, has come from someone else.  “I don’t make money here.”

The church stays afloat on generous donations, mostly from abroad. Indeed, a hefty sum from “a non-Christian from Dubai” got the Pastor and his family to this country in the first place.

He’s also nothing without Malou.

The Pastor’s wife leads a SWAT team of  women recyclers, weaving plastic bags into  bangles, boxes and bracelets for sale. She also leads the church services with Wilson and acts as lead translator between him and the congregation. Malou had herself lived in Payatas for years in her teens, until her parents got lucky, found work other than scavenging, and she met the Pastor.


“… for they shall be satisfied.”

Considering Wilson’s achievements and his church’s history, one can only look past the prophetic machismo and see the compassion within. While he pulls no punches in defense of faith, he uses those same arms to wrap his kids in warm embrace, or to give them a bath.

Outside, the baptismal font doubles as a laundry basin for washing clothes and a bath tub Wilson and Malou use to give the kids a good wash before they come into church. The first few months of their stay here saw intense scrub downs, before the kids  finally found some way to get extra clean in advance. Which is good for them: the Pastor still keeps a photo of himself knee deep in mud from the dump. It wasn’t a good memory.

The Pastor is undeterred.

“We have no money, we have no land, we have no building.” The owners of the home they now rent have plans of turning it back into a private residence. They’ll have to move out, quick.

In his office, there’s a knock on the door. One of his daughters,  Laura, comes in, asking him to choose between two songs the choir want to use for practice. They end up doing both.

A chorus of organs, flutes, guitars, ukuleles, harmonicas, recorders – even violins – drift up from below.  The seeds of the Pastor’s dreams of a world class orchestra. Someday, out of the moral chaos, beyond the struggles of Erning and the rest, above the muck and morass of   tonnes of toxic sludge dumped daily over the multitudes squirming in abject poverty, there will be beauty. Maybe another Mozart or two.

For now they have at least a dozen students making music, a rigorous form of mental and spiritual training the pastor has distilled into a formula for hope. Discipline. An Education. A Future.

With them are two faithful servants of God, Preacher Benedict and Ate Roselyn– from Ilocos Norte, of all places – who gave up cushy office jobs years ago so they could head down south and join a bunch of unlikely kids strumming ukuleles on a city on a hill.

The vision, however, is a ministry complex with a full scale medical clinic, a school, a retreat centre, missionary rooms, and wide open space for outreach services. With their current landlords banging on the doors, they’ve found the perfect spot to move to – about the size of a football field, not far from where the church is today. It will cost over four million dollars.

The pastor is undeterred.

Christopher Chanco

By Christopher Chanco

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