Salt of the Earth: Over 800 youths immersed, exposed to social realities

In recent years, there has been much talk about the importance of inclusiveness, compassion and mercy in the Church and in the world.

Jul 07, 2017

By Anil Netto
In recent years, there has been much talk about the importance of inclusiveness, compassion and mercy in the Church and in the world.

This might seem like hopeless idealism or may even be deemed unrealistic. After all, we live in a world where large corporations wield enormous power and many tycoons and celebrities are seen as role models (let’s not talk about tax avoidance schemes and offshore bank accounts).

Many among the ordinary people (the 99 percent) have been reduced to mere passive consumers under the pervasive influence of the all-powerful market.

The conventional wisdom is that money talks, and it pays to be ruthless, even exploitative, and driven to acquire even more wealth. Those who don’t make it, invariably fall by the wayside, often neglected or downtrodden, cast away or hidden from the mainstream view. It is the survival of the fittest and everyone for himself or herself, it would seem. Meanwhile, the social and environmental costs keep rising and climate change looms large.

It is against this global and local backdrop that over 800 Catholic university students from all over the country recently participated in the Malaysian Catholic Campus Students Day 2 programme organised by the campus ministry of the Penang diocese. As part of the programme, the students were divided into smaller groups and immersed into various organisations and civil society groups in Penang to be exposed to their work among the poor and the marginalised.

It was a huge logistics challenge for the voluntary coordinators to ensure that the students were all sent out to relevant civil society groups and taken care of — a task they carried out with exemplary dedication.

Among these civil society groups were those involved in hospice care, the care of senior citizens and children in shelter homes and those working to curb violence against women. Some of the students were educated about voter registration, care for the environment and consumerism. Others learned about the plight of the refugees who face alienation and despair in our society.

The programme helped students to learn about the realities of society and the challenge of building a more egalitarian society, in keeping with Jesus’ call to be the salt of the earth.

Even before the programme, students already had an inkling of the critical issues affecting our society, such as ethnic and religious divisions, corruption, weaknesses in the education system, child abuse and discrimination against migrants and refugees.

I had the opportunity to be with about 30 of these enthusiastic students, and one thing that struck me was the number of students from Sabah and Sarawak. The students were asked to estimate how much monthly household income a typical family would need to live in dignity in Malaysia. Many of them said about RM4,500 or RM5,000 per household. And yet, the students also recognised that even a fresh graduate’s pay was only about RM2,000-RM3,000, depending on the company and location. That’s part of the problem.

The problem is aggravated when many graduates enter the workforce already in debt due to their study loans. Before long, they get further indebted with car loans, housing loans and credit card loans. If graduates face a tough time financially, what more school leavers and diploma holders. What about dropouts or the stateless youth who have never been to a formal school because they lack proper identification documents or refugees, who find great difficulty earning an income.

Students were also exposed to the link between income inequality and social problems, as laid out in the book The Spirit Level. Also raised was the issue of the lack of affordable housing and the challenges that sundry shops and minimarkets face with the proliferation of hypermarkets and the GST.

The students were encouraged to think about what they could do to give back to society and perhaps help with some of the problems in society that they had identified.

By the end of the day-long exposure programme, for many of the students, it was as if a veil that had hindered their vision of what was going on around them in society had been lifted.

They had already known about many of these problematic issues and this immersion experience raised their awareness of what is happening in real life. The facilitators helped the students to connect the dots and challenged them to see what they could do to rise above the rat race and look out for their fellow human beings.

Now they have gone back to their respective campuses or homes, hopefully thinking about some of these issues. Over time, they will grow more and more aware that with the spirit of the Lord upon us, we are anointed “to bring the good news to the afflicted” and compelled “to proclaim liberty to captives, sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free” (Luke 4:18).

This will motivate these youths to tap into the abundant gifts of the Spirit and commit themselves to making a real difference in the world around them, thus helping to build the kingdom of heaven.

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