Parola is one of the largest shanty-towns in the Philippines. It is in the capital, Manila, on a long stretch of low-lying land between the Pasig River and the busy North Harbor shipping terminal. It is the home to some 4,000 families. On March 2, 2015, a fire which started from an unattended flame, swept swiftly through the whole area, devouring everything in its path.
Because the fire spread so rapidly, the residents were lucky to escape with the clothes on their backs. Amazingly, not one life was lost. Fire trucks could do little but hose water from outside since the shacks were haphazardly built with no street proper streets, only narrow foot-walks which zig-zagged between the houses. By the time the flames died and the smoke began to clear all the houses had been destroyed.
As I made my way there soon after the fire I did not know what to expect or what to say. To my great surprise I was met by an enthusiastic community gathered in their burned out chapel anxious to have Mass celebrated even though all that remained of the chapel, the altar, seats and statues was a heap of cinders. I have rarely taken part in such an impressive liturgy. The singing and joyful participation was truly uplifting. They were praising and thanking God that no lives were lost.
One of the people said: “As long as there is life there is hope and with God's help all obstacles can be overcome in time. Even though we have lost everything, we are alive and that is what matters.” To say something like that at a time like that certainly was a great act of faith.
Government agencies offered to relocate many of the families from the water's edge to nearby provinces, but because wages for laborers and tradesmen are low and the cost of travel expensive, many have preferred to stay in Parola even though living conditions are terrible.
The shacks have been re-built and the narrow laneways are again full of activities. The voluntary labor of the Christian community members has partially restored their chapel, and it remains a work in progress. The chapel has been re-roofed and religious activities meetings and catechesis take place there.
Shanty-town fires are not uncommon in the Philippines. Because of its size and destructiveness the one in Parola was a terrifying experience for those who had been forced to make their homes there. Economically they may be close to the bottom of the social ladder; when it comes to resilience and faith in God and in each other they surely must be counted among those near the top.
Columban Fr. John Keenan lives and works in the Philippines.