The Work of Christmas
Calapan, Mindoro
12.25.2005

“When the song of angels is stilled. When the star in the sky is gone. When the kings and princes are home. When the shepherds are back with their flock. The work of Christmas begins.”

It was this simple.

A text message was sent out to gather relief goods less than two weeks ago. One evening was spent in my garage sorting out the donations into separate ‘family packs.’ Then it took a 3-hour Christmas night drive and a few more hours on the pre-dawn slow ferry to the island of Mindoro. It was a simple orchestration of efforts to make a day’s worth of difference for thirty families in the evacuation centers of Calapan.

Cramped into public school classrooms, these families sought shelter from the flood that devoured their homes two weeks back. Christmas was spent in these overcrowded square areas with barely a square meal. Certainly a far cry from Christmas as most of us know it.

When I asked one man what they needed the most at this point, he perplexedly replied, “sa totoo lang, lahat…kasi nawala lahat.” (“the truth is, we need everything because we lost everything.” ) Then I went blank because I had no adequate response to that. It was a precarious scene for most of us in the cramped schoolroom. Though I must commend the highly inexperienced Rock Ed group for struggling to be graceful about the whole exercise. A kind lady from Red Cross named Guada helped us through. She guided us with her efficient system of lists and lines and choosing family representatives. Bewildered, I found myself constantly apologetic for having to make them line up, like cattle, for the relief packages. It was disconcerting. Eventually I realized that it was part and parcel of the situation.

Lines had to be imposed so we can accomodate everyone. I was unsettled by the indignity of the whole set-up. How fathers had to come forward when their last names were called. This way, they can tell us how many children they have in order for us to find the appropriate relief package for them. These were throwaways from our closets, extra boxes of instant noodles, worn-out shoes and canned food we didn’t think much of and yet they clutched the plastic bags with possessive urgency as if it were of great value.

With a lump in my throat, I tried to be efficient and respectful and light-hearted throughout. I tried to coax the children to sing Christmas carols for us, and some of them did, only to make my throat-lump larger than I really could handle. A different kind of psych-steel makes up the character of one who does this kind of work on a regular basis. I know now that I was ill-equipped to witness struggle up-close. So this is how it is. I knew it in theory and in books but witnessing scarcity in real people who smile back at me was a whole different universe altogether. It was humbling to recognize that I didn’t know much about poverty after all. And how did I expect to win a battle when I knew not the enemy?

I naively thought I was going to leave Mindoro with a warm feeling of having done something good, but the truth is, I left the flood-stricken island with more pressing questions and far more urgent matters that I thought Rock Ed should take on together for the coming year.

What we need is a plan. A good plan. A working plan and the persistence to see it through. We need to get our so-called expert minds to try to address the problems of hunger and shelter and lack of access to health and education with or without a flood. All year round a majority of Filipinos need relief. They need a reprieve from a life of scarcity. The paucity of choice is appalling. How these families had no choice but to line up and just smile real smiles of gratitude when, they probably bear questions and cries of indignation at the disparity of lifestyles between us and them. And even if they have every justification to be angry and bitter, their dire straits just give them one choice—and that is to smile back at us and say thank you. They are grateful because their daughters and sons have something warm to eat or wear tonight. If they are expressing gratitude then why do I feel so undeserving? The more they smile at me, the more inadequate I feel. This doesn't add up neatly. It didn't make sense. And why are they grateful when we are simply giving them what is rightfully theirs in the first place?

I offer no answers today. I only have questions. Bear with me.

Inspiring rhetoric and well-written prose has never fed a hungry child. Music nor poetry has not sheltered a family from a typhoon but I am grateful for the provocation of thought that it stirs. And because photos and paintings can provide us with that ‘second-look’ we seldom take in the face of hunger and poverty, so I remain grateful for that effort as well. This is where it starts, so don’t let anyone discourage us by saying promotion of civic-mindedness through the arts doesn’t work. Press on. Press on. Though I think many of those who’ve emailed us in the past are correct – we need to take our advocacy to a higher, more concrete level. It remains—we still have no excuses not to take this challenge on. We need a plan.

Because today, we realize, it’s not that simple.

Text: Gang Badoy
Prologue verse from “The Work of Christmas” by J. Arboleda, Bukas Palad Music Ministry, Jesuit Communications copyright 1987

Photos: Rem Zamora, Philippine Daily Inquirer copyright 2005 and Gang Badoy, copyright 2005

Gratis et amore to: PJ Lapira, Fernan Escora, Tammy and Happy David, Carlo J. David, and Rem Zamora for spending their Christmas evening on the road to Mindoro with me. To Kaisa Foundation, Manila Tonight Group of Joey Climaco, the people from the Philippine Ultimate Association, Erica Paredes, and all the others who donated clothes whose names we forgot sorry ha, and thank you very very much.

Note: A Rock Ed group will be driving to Calapan again on Friday evening, the 30 th of December. We can still take on donations till then. If possible, deliver goods to 60 Victoria Street, Magallanes Village, Makati City or text 0906.271.7287 or 0917.904.8454 for pick up coordination at drop off point: Sonolux Building, Jescom Office/Ateneo de Manila, Loyola Campus on Thursday, the 29 th. Leave package with guard for Ms. Gang Badoy.