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Columban student Matang Moeniba from Kiribati helping a family peel garlic for sale.
Manila's "Beacon of Hope"

By Fr. John Boles

Columban seminarians are helping to bring true hope to one of Manila’s most notorious slums.

“This’ll be a real eye-opener,” Lydio told me, and he wasn’t joking. Lydio Mangao Jr. is one of our Filipino seminarians. I was on a visit to our missions in the Philippine capital of Manila, and Lydio had invited me to accompany him on one of his regular visits to the slum area of Parola.

Lydio Jr.
Lydio Jr.

I’ve seen a lot of slums in my time, and I’d seen a lot of slums in the Philippines, but nothing, absolutely nothing, had prepared me for what met me in Parola.

In the local language, “parola” translates as “lighthouse” or “beacon.” Metaphorically, it means “beacon of hope,” a cruel irony when you see the place. It occupies a patch of swampland, squeezed between the docks which line Manila Bay. For years it has been a magnet for homeless squatters, and now some 75,000 people are crammed into an area measuring no more than ten acres. They live piled on top of one another — literally on top of one another, for, with space at a premium, the only way to accommodate more residents is to build upwards. Many of the multistory shacks perch precariously on flimsy stilts, affording some protection from the twice-daily tidal flooding.

Parola is sited close to the mouth of the River Pasig, which winds its way through metro Manila before dumping the detritus of 15 million people into Manila Bay. Much of this rubbish gets washed up into Parola itself. Believe it or not, for many of the local inhabitants, this is a blessing in disguise. They can scratch a living by foraging amongst the garbage for articles which can be collected and sold at a pittance for recycling.

People also try to make ends meet by hustling around the port for casual jobs, and by working in town as street-sellers, road sweepers, tricycle drivers or market vendors. A favorite “cottage industry” is the peeling of garlic on behalf of city restaurants. “A family can peel a sack of garlic a day,” Lydio told me. A sack of peeled garlic sells at about $2.

Inevitably, Parola has become a hotbed of petty crime, especially drug related. Many of the menfolk sport gang membership marks in the form of tattoos, often applied in Manila City Jail, located conveniently close to Parola just on the landward side of the settlement.

Alley scene in Parola
Alley scene in Parola

During the tenure of hard-line President Rodrigo Duterte, plainclothes police were given free rein to patrol areas such as Parola and “take out” suspected drug dealers. Operating with complete immunity, these death squads were not to be too discriminating in their choice of victims, and each morning bodies of young men were found scattered around the edges of the neighborhood.

The present government has discontinued this policy. Nevertheless, Lydio told me how the squatters are still understandably nervous about the presence of strangers. “When you’re roaming around they could mistake you for ‘intelligence officers.’ Once, I had a rolled-up umbrella, and the people from the parish said I had to open it to show it wasn’t a gun in disguise”. He described another consequence of the ever-present atmosphere of violence. “Parents are very protective of their children, they don’t always like them even going from one part of the settlement to another. I remember how a father sent his son to a neighboring sector just to buy vegetable oil, and the boy got badly beaten up.”

Another view of Parola
Another view of Parola

The Catholic Church is a rare point of refuge in the midst of this mayhem. Lydio and his fellow Columban seminarians come here on their free days to help with the parish youth ministry. “We try to promote interpersonal activities”, explained Lydio. “We get the kids talking, we pray with them, we visit their families and try and team up with their parents. The aim is to accompany the youngsters, build up their self-esteem, boost their knowledge of God, give them a sense of community. It’s incredible to see what they can do when they get a bit of confidence. Some are really talented. They can sing, they can dance…”

The students help the parish in other ways as well. One role which caught my attention was that of blessing the dead. Death is a frequent occurrence here, but regular funerals are rare, so a simple blessing on the part of a parish worker usually suffices.

For Lydio, Columban mission is in his blood. He is from the island of Negros and is the son of Lydio Mangao Senior, who was a catechist in the 1970’s with legendary Columban human rights activist Fr. Brian Gore. Lydio Sr. and Fr. Brian were famously imprisoned by dictator Ferdinand Marcos as part of the “Negros Nine,” a case which reverberated around the world and helped speed the collapse of the dictatorship. In a strange twist of fate, Marcos’s son Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos is the CURRENT president of the Philippines, albeit — at least — democratically elected.

“This Columban heritage inspired me, especially all the emphasis on nonviolence. Fr. Brian helped me with my college degree course in psychology. My dad carried on working as a parish justice and peace ‘animator’ until he retired.”

Now aged 29, Lydio Jr. feels it is beholden on him to carry the baton, to continue the family tradition. The satisfaction he gets from pastoral service in Parola reaffirms his decision. “At the end of last semester, we’d been praying the Scriptures and a girl came up and said, ‘older brother, thanks for coming, now I know that prayer is friendship with God’. This made me think that maybe we are doing something right, bringing a little hope here.”

Normally, to speak of “hope” in Parola, the so-called “Beacon of Hope,” would sound like a sick joke. But not the way Lydio tells it, it doesn’t.

Lydio Mangao Jr. is a Columban theology student from the Philippines. He lives in our House of Studies in Manila and attends the Loyola School of Theology.

Columban Fr. John Boles formerly served as a missionary in Peru and is now Columban Regional Director in Britain.