Meeting Jesus in a Manila slum

We need a mission to make life meaningful, give it purpose and to live more fully.

Sep 19, 2014

Thousands of Filipino children live in difficult situations in the country’s slums (Photo by Joe Torres)

By Fr Shay Cullen

How does a society change structures that keep the poor impoverished?
We need a mission to make life meaningful, give it purpose and to live more fully. The mission can be to accomplish any good work, motivated by a spiritual value of compassion, love of justice, care for others, empathy and solidarity with the sick, the oppressed and lonely. These inner convictions and commitments can be the driving force of a mission. It can be caring for family, helping the local community, dedicating ourselves to prayer, helping the poor or others without seeking to enrich ourselves or to gain from it.

The more selfless and pure our motivation the better.

Others may find a mission in sharing their surplus wealth in close partnership with a chosen mission or a charitable work.

A mission in life is its own reward because it takes us out of ourselves toward others, and it is a life of sharing and a life lived for others where we can find happiness, friendship, and fulfillment.

There is no better way to live as Jesus of Nazareth showed us. No greater love can anyone have than to lay down his life for a friend.

I have been on mission with the Columban Missionary Society for almost 45 years. The Columbans made my mission possible from the beginning by sending me to the Philippines. Then the Holy Spirit took over and guided me the way I should go.

The latest chapter in my mission story happened a short while ago. I went with Preda social workers to get another youth named Miguel out of prison and to find his mother. His father had left them years before.

With the help of a court order, we got him released from the dirty infested prison cell, a den of iniquity where innocent kids are treated like criminals. Minors are held pending an investigation of some allegation, usually with little evidence to support it.

It takes weeks or months in the Philippine system to have a child brought before a court. Meanwhile, in the overcrowded cells the child is abused, molested, starved, and even beaten by inmates or cruel guards.

While Preda social workers can save up to a hundred minors every year (some as young as age 13), thousands more could be jailed and no one will know about it or help them.

We have to change the system to make sure that the juvenile justice law that forbids the jailing of minors younger than age 15 will be respected and implemented by authorities. Those older than 15 cannot be jailed unless the act was with discernment. But many are framed. Changing that system is one of my missions, but this particular one could take a lifetime.

It's in the jail where we are called upon to look for Jesus of Nazareth to see him present among the poor, the hungry, the naked, and the unjustly imprisoned.

On the Day of Judgment, Mathew tells us Jesus will call us to himself. "Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me."

Then we will ask when did we do all that to you Lord? And he will answer, "So long as you did it to the poorest of my brothers and sisters you did it to me."

It is a powerful passage where Jesus identifies himself with the poorest of the poor, the hungry, sick, lonely, abandoned, and unjustly imprisoned.

So from the jail I went to the suburbs of Paranaque in Metro Manila where there are thousands of men, women, and malnourished sickly children living in the most unhygienic slums imaginable.

I walked into a quagmire of filth, misery among the dwellers of the slums. Perverse poverty reigned supreme.

It was not the first time that I visited a slum. This was just a bit worse than the rest. The slums are the result of the great social equality in most modern societies where the wealth never trickles down to the poor, where an estimated two percent owns or controls 70 percent of the national wealth.

The revelations of many politicians stealing billions of pesos support the point. A great divide exists between rich and poor, like that between Lazarus at the gate of the rich man Dives. Not even the crumbs that fell from his table could Lazarus get. The only creatures who had compassion were the kind dogs that licked his sores to try and heal him. What a condemnation of the irresponsible greedy rich. The children of the poor have to beg or steal to eat and then go to jail.

To get to the shacks and shanties where Miguel's mother lived, we crossed a river black as tar with pollution. Plastic bags and human waste floated as the slums have no sewers or toilets. The footbridge was rickety, dangerous, and made by the people themselves with scraps, just like their shacks and hovels.

Miguel's mother embraced her lost son in tears, and something good and beautiful entered their impoverished world.

I looked up into the distance at the towering condominiums and skyscrapers of the super rich and wondered if there was a Zacchaeus among them who would have a change of heart and give back to the poor.


Irish Columban Fr Shay Cullen established the Preda Foundation in Olongapo City in 1974 to promote human rights and promote the rights of children, especially victims of sex abuse.

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