Recycled Sandals

By Fr. Shay Cullen
November 23, 2011

Walking to a Life of Dignity

Columban Fr. Shay Cullen (in light blue shirt below) lives and works in the Philippines

Jun is now a happy man because “God has answered my prayers.” Jun said, “He sent me honest work.”  like millions of jobless people around the world, Jun was unemployed and homeless and wandered the streets of Olongapo City, the Philippines, looking for any job he could find to get scraps of food for his family. They cowered from the lashing rain and typhoon winds in a hovel on the city dump. When the storm passed, they continued picking up bits of plastic and junk that they could sell. There are no free social services, like medical aid and unemployment payments for the poor where Jun lives. Jun and his family were on the edge.

That’s where all of us Catholics are called to respond, to help people worse off than ourselves before they get to the edge or fall off into despair and hopelessness. We can be true to the mission of Jesus of Nazareth and His Church. His Sermon on the Mount is reflected in the social teaching of the Church. His words and example are the foundation of all the loving service we are bound to give to the poor and the oppressed.

St. James called us to express our faith in action for justice. Preda (People’s Recovery Empowerment Development Assistance Foundation Inc.) is a human development organization that sets up micro Fair Trade projects for impoverished families. I began this foundation in 1974 as a way to implement the social teaching of the Church and bring about a more just and loving community free from exploitation and abuse whenever possible.

Reducing poverty and suffering is best achieved by giving the economically poor opportunities to help themselves support their families through dignified work. For millions of people, dignified work is hard to come by in the Philippines. Here, a few rich people control the wages and the levers of industry. The Philippines is a wealthy nation but almost all is held by the elite families, about 200 strong, owning or controlling up to 70% of the natural wealth and production capacity. As a result, millions of struggling Filipinos live in poverty and millions more have emigrated in search of jobs and fair wages.

Jun is a devout Christian, and he never became bitter or blamed God for his poverty and joblessness. He knew it was because of the unjust system and the politicians that exploited the poor for their own selfish ends. Jun never lost faith that one day he would be lifted up like one of the poor and oppressed that Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount would inherit The Kingdom.

Then Preda social workers found Jun and his family, hungry and shivering in their shack on the rubbish dump, and the social workers invited them to the Preda shelter to recover and join a job training seminar. Jun learned bag making, became an expert sewer and was soon earning good wages making the popular recycled bags from discarded juice pouches. Jun is a fast worker and was able to pay off the interest free loan given to him by Preda for him to purchase his own sewing machine.

In short order, Jun’s children were no longer suffering from malnutrition, and they went to school daily with all their needs supplied. Jun and his wife Maria built a small house on a hillside outside the town. Their lives were transformed.

While at Preda, they were trained to save their earnings for the day when circumstances changed. After a few years, the market became saturated with bags as other bag producers had copied the Preda bags and orders declined. Again Jun was facing unemployment as there were only a few orders.

Preda then suggested that he try making sandals from used rubber tires. Jun took the new training course, and soon he was an expert turning out an excellent quality, well finished flip-flop sandals.

These sold well locally and abroad for a few years, and all was well until recently when the fashion changed again and customers no longer requested the sandals. But then, most recently, came the request from England. The  Southampton Street Pastors work with street people, and they give out free sandals to the street people during the summer months. They asked Jun to supply sandals. It was a blessing for him and his family.

It is also a blessing for these people in difficult circumstances in Southampton. Some go barefooted from time to time. The people of Southampton also are fulfilling the mission of Jesus and walking with the poor, leading them to a life of dignity. The distribution of the extremely durable flip-flop sandals is a gift and a contact point for the pastors who reach out with compassion and understanding to the poor and rejected people, some of whom are homeless.

Jun and Maria, are now doing a hard day’s work every day to produce up to 200 pairs of sandals. The work supports Jun, his wife Maria and their two children. Maria helps with the sewing of the straps that make the sandals strong, wearable and durable. It is an idea sandal for indoor and summer wear.

Jun’s livelihood is based on Fair Trade criteria and Catholic Social Teaching. It is at the heart of Preda’s livelihood project to give work with dignity. Jun receives high prices for his sandals, a just wage and social benefits. The manufacture of these sandals has enabled him to build an extension onto his house, buy household appliances and a television and send his children to school with all their needs supplied. The Southampton justice project has helped his family overcome poverty and has brought them a life of dignity and respect. There is a bright future ahead in the making of Fair Trade recycled sandals and hope of spiritual renewal for those who will wear them.