Wednesday, February 8, 2012

An Inconvenient Ministry

Tony Bueza, Ministry with the Poor Program manager, discusses a strategy with Dumagat farmers to get their produce to market economically and without relying on unscrupulous middlemen.
Linda Unger/UMCOR

While traveling to the UMCOR/Global Ministries’ Ministry with the Poor program in rural Philippines, I learned the meaning of the word “remote”—not that electronic gadget that allows you to switch TV channels without ever leaving the couch but the adjective meaning “out-of-the-way, secluded.”

Truth is, the communities of Dumagat indigenous people the program serves are not very likely to show up on your television screen. They are so hidden in the lush mountains of Luzon, the Philippines’ northernmost island, that a local government official asked program director Angie Broncano, “Why can’t you work in a place that’s easier to get to?”

Broncano is director of Harris Memorial College’s Community Extension Services and Development program, UMCOR and Global Ministries’ partner in the Ministry with the Poor in the Philippines. Her response to the official, of course, was that these barely accessible communities are simply the most vulnerable. Though their one-room homes of wood plank are only about 24 kilometers from a paved highway, it would be more than generous to call the boulder-strewn and river-crossed path that leads to their doors, and which turns to unnavigable mud six months of the year, a “road.”

Over time, the Dumagats, whose name translates to “people of the sea,” have been pushed further and further up that pathway on a mountain that has been officially deemed part of their ancestral lands. But the lack of government attention to infrastructure and the low literacy rates among the Dumagats make them easy prey for unscrupulous land grabbers and mining companies. They literally bring home pennies for their heavy labor in mines of gold and iron ore or for shouldering heavy loads up and down the wet and rocky mountain paths.

For more than a year, Broncano and the Ministry with the Poor program have been working with the Dumagat people to confront their isolation by creating sustainable communal and backyard farms, providing alternative learning classes, and establishing pure water sources, sanitation, and healthy living. It is a process that advances one cautious step at a time up a steep and slippery slope.

This visit showed me that to be in ministry with the poor is to serve people who live in inconvenient places; who are ignored by most government and NGO services; who are shunned as different or inscrutable; whose traditional way of life is so challenged by contemporary values (especially the predominance of individual security over the common good) that they literally find themselves between a rock and a hard place with regard to livelihood, education, and health care, the basic elements of a successful life.

The Dumagats, like other communities living in poverty, are not without resources. The Ministry with the Poor program aims to help them tap those resources and, ultimately, to build a just and even road to fullness of life and opportunity.

Linda Unger is staff editor and senior writer for UMCOR.

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