Is it possible to find hope in a sea of stinking trash?
The journey might not have been easy, but Fr. Benigno Beltran says he indeed found hope in Smokey Mountain and this helped him cope throughout his three-decade stay as parish priest in the once sprawling dump in Tondo, Manila.
In the process, Beltran, affectionately called Father Ben, helped transform the lives of many residents there—from scavengers to educators, traders, farmers, singers and dancers. Some are on their way to becoming better persons than they were before.
The inspiration Beltran brought to the community also changed him.
“I did not go there to help, but I went there to help myself. It was not about me going there and saying that I came from Rome and imposing my thinking on them. I was humbled by them. I went there not to save the scavengers, but to allow scavengers to save me,” he says.
To further share with Filipinos the “treasures” and lessons learned in Smokey Mountain, Beltran wrote a book, titled “Faith and Struggle on Smokey Mountain,” which he launched on Ash Wednesday.
The book chronicles Beltran’s search for hope, and how, despite the perks as a priest under the Divine Word Missionaries, he found what he was looking for in the dump in the heart of the nation’s capital.
After being ordained in 1973, Beltran volunteered to be a missionary in Africa, but his superiors told him to teach in the seminary, and sent him to Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome to get a doctorate in Systematic Theology, which he describes as “the effort to put religious beliefs into a coherent intellectual system.”
He says he became an expert in the field, but lost interest in its relevance to day-to-day faith. He says he became sick and tired of the world and of himself, and so he went on a tour of holy places in India.
It was as he watched the cremation of an “untouchable” when he vowed to stay with the poor, those forgotten by the world, thus making himself dependent on God. He then returned to the Philippines to fulfill this goal, he says in the book.
In an interview with the Inquirer, Beltran recalls the first time he set foot on Smokey Mountain, describing it as a “spine-tingling experience.”
“I saw, smelt and felt the 20 hectares of garbage dump spread before my eyes. And then there were the children and other people scavenging for stuff they could sell among the trash,” he says.
Beltran gradually immersed himself in the place, befriended the residents, listened to their concerns, and started feeding and education programs in an effort to help the residents help themselves, lift themselves out of poverty.
It wasn’t easy.
“I resigned two or three times, but there was no one to take my place. Those who wanted to got sick or were incapacitated in some way,” he says.
Before he realized it, he had become the longest-serving priest in the area, leaving in 2008 after 30 years. All the other priests before him gave up after falling ill.
“In the Catholic Church, there is belief in grace and Divine Providence. These are the reasons I survived,” he says.
His most notable programs included a computer literacy training scheme for out-of-school youth and an e-trading platform where residents could use the Internet to link up with other communities and trade mostly organic-grown crops.
‘He brought spirituality’
Beltran also founded groups aimed at developing the talents of youth in the area: Mga Batang Tambakan (Dumpsite Kids) choral group, and Mga Anak ni Inang Daigdig (Children of Mother Earth, or MAID), which have gained worldwide recognition and have received training from the best of the best, such as Ramon Obusan, a national artist for dance.
“I sometimes think, if Father Ben had not come, if I did not pursue dancing through MAID, maybe now we have husbands and many children. Maybe now we would still be in the dump, scavenging,” says Angela Villacorta, 28. “He really taught us values, but more important than that, he brought spirituality to us. Everything went on smoothly from then on.”
The eye-opener for Villacorta was when she joined the Dumpsite Kids.
“When I joined the choir, we went to different places, high places. We even went out of the country to perform. That’s when I realized that there was a world beyond Smokey Mountain which could be ours. It made me dream and aspire,” she says.
Villacorta is now a licensed teacher. She is focused on paying back to the community she calls home, teaching children from “Smokey Mountain 2,” an emerging dump on the outskirts of the original wasteland, which is also becoming a concern for residents.
Fellow MAIDs are going through college, all the while delighting audiences here and abroad with their performances.
Beltran has seen many changes in Smokey Mountain since he first set foot in the area. Most importantly, he says it is no longer a dump.
“The people organized themselves and mounted rallies and demonstrations to press for their demands, such as proper housing. The dump was eventually closed, and medium-rise buildings were built as housing for the residents,” he says.
However, a growing concern is the emergence of Smokey Mountain 2.
“The plan to fully close the dump has not been fully implemented. There remains still a mountain of trash in the area,” he says.
Beltran continues to visit his former parish, to attend special occasions, like the graduation of a MAID member from college last month.
“The fact that the kids are still dancing and are being invited abroad, that the education and livelihood projects continue, still surprises me,” he says.
And despite his recollections of the stench, the flies, the garbage and the ugly sight he endured for so many years, Beltran said the place has become special. “I miss laughing with the people and being with them,” he says.