We call them orphans, but nearly all of the kids at the orphanage have living family members. Many of them even have parents. Nevertheless, extreme poverty makes it difficult for these parents to provide their children with even the minimum physical requirements necessary to survive. In addition to living in extreme poverty, some of the kids were physically abused or subjected to prostitution. To one degree or another, all of the kids have lived like orphans, without love from their parents or simply spending much time looking out for themselves. Before coming to live at the orphanage, some children lived on the streets, others lived in government housing, and still others lived in dilapidated shelters rented or owned by their families.
Although these may sound like different living situations, in reality, all of these life styles are not too far removed from one another. Living on the street is obviously very unhealthy and dangerous. A couple of girls who lived on an open cart that their father pushed around came to the orphanage extremely skinny and covered in filth. On the other hand, government housing is essentially the same as living in a small box. The houses have two short levels but are only a few feet wide and long. They do not have a toilet or running water, and it costs a family $30 a month to live in one. Families who do not live directly on the street or in government housing often live in makeshift shelters of scrap metal and wood.
The children who have not been badly abused are usually able to visit their parents every couple of weeks or during summer breaks from school. Some of the kids are even able to visit their parents almost every weekend. The kids often want to visit their families, but this also means that they won’t eat much while they are there, and they will come back very dirty or even exhausted.
One family lives on a street between two cement walls without any cross-breeze, and a jackhammer pounds all through the night because a building is being put up next to them. A boy and a girl from this family sold candles outside of a Catholic church last summer. The kids’ father and mother sell cigarettes on the street, one cigarette at a time. It is really hard to describe how oppressive the heat is and how miserable this job and life-style must be.
Their mother came to the orphanage with another woman one day while I was there. We all sat down on the couch in the living room, and she helped her little children read. I don’t know how well she can read, but I was surprised she could read at all. I don’t really think of people who live on the streets as people who are able to read, but in the Philippines, it seems that the number one concern is a lack of jobs, not a lack of education.
Some of the mother’s mannerisms and aspects of her appearance did hint at the fact that she lives on the street, but when I imagined her attending school or learning to read (in other words, living a life not as far removed from mine) I became particularly curious about her life. What had happened? I knew that there must have been many tragic parts of her life that I couldn’t relate to, but she was still very cheerful, and she was very kind to me. We communicated mostly by smiling. She told me that I should learn Tagalog (another Filipino language), not Cebuano. I think Tagalog must have been her first language.
I watched her hold her youngest daughter while they read. And I watched her children laugh with her. You could see that they love each other, and my heart hurt for them. When I was little, I used to get homesick very easily, and though many of the kids at the orphanage seem tough and independent, I know they miss their mothers. Once in a while, some of the little girls cry for them.
Another day I was sitting outside the house on the concrete while one of the girls washed her clothes with the water pump and told me about her family in the best way she could:
“My mother, black,” she would say while pointing to different areas of her body. “My father,” then she would make a motion that told me her father hit her mother. With fragments of English, motions, and repetition for emphasis, she clearly explained that her father is an alcoholic, and he threatens and beats her mother.
The girl also told me that she gave her mother a Bible and often invites her church, but her mother won’t read the Bible or come to church because she only worships the Santo Niño (ironically a version of the baby Jesus). The girl’s mother was upset that her daughter hadn’t visited her lately, and the girl’s teacher was upset that her mother wasn’t coming to meetings at the school. (Some of the kids’ parents do go to the school sometimes.) The girl also has siblings who still live with her family, and I think she is worried about them, as well as everything else that was going on.
Her family situation is all a big mess (like so many of the kids’ families), and there was nothing I could do or say. I imagined going back to the U.S. and mustering armies of social workers to come help sort out her family problems, but even if I were able to accomplish that great feat, there’s no guarantee that her parents would change. I thought about complex theological doctrines on why God allows suffering and the benevolent sovereignty of God. But there was no way I could communicate something so difficult the way that we were communicating. And really, I’m not sure how appropriate those explanations would have been anyway. Life still hurts.
I’m hopeful that the only thing I was able to do may have actually been the best thing to do. I agreed that those things are hard. I told her I was sorry and that I would pray for her. I kept telling her I would pray for her. And I sat there, and I listened.
This was a situation in which I felt completely useless and powerless, and I felt a little numb. But I know that God is powerful and can change people’s hearts. I don’t know how He will act in this situation, but He knows. And some people are doing their best to help her. By God’s grace, I had spent time in prayer not too long before this, so that kept me from becoming completely discouraged. And I think He may have been helping her a little by having me there to listen. I hope so.
I have thought of her many times since then and have fervently prayed for her. Sometimes when I’m uncomfortable or hungry or sad, I think of them all in heat of midday or conflict, and I ask God to help them. I wish I prayed for all of them more, but I am so grateful I am not alone in my concern for them, and I hope that God raises up many other people to share their burden and help them.
“Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field,’” Matthew 9:35-38.