When Pope Francis visited the Philippines last year, the Catholic Church called upon Filipinos to give mercy and compassion to the poor. One year on, it seems that this message has been lost on us.
The lives of those in poverty have barely improved; indeed, their conditions have actually gotten worse. The prices of basic commodities and services (power, water, shelter, transport, education, medicine, etc.) just keep going up, while wages (and the quality of said services) are kept as low as possible. Jobs are impossibly hard to find, even with a degree. Most importantly, the way the poor are treated has not changed. It seems that when people heard “mercy and compassion”, they decided to follow it by the letter, not the spirit.
A lot of us are brought up with mindsets that are anti-poor instead of anti-poverty. Instead of thinking of how to help the poor overcome their problems, we constantly blame them for ours. These include traffic, crime, floods and the like, which, if you think rationally about it, are really just caused by those well-off.
As a matter of fact, the general perception of the poor is that they are destined to be up to “illegal” matters: crime, prostitution, informal jobs, begging. This alone has made us treat them like second-class citizens, if not less than human.
Thus, whenever they face oppression from those in power, we do not feel much sympathy. Take demolitions, for example. There are those that argue that the land as never theirs in the first place, that poor residents have homes in the provinces and as such should just get out of the city, either go home or move to the provided relocation sites. This fails to address exactly why people flock to the city, and why they constantly come back – because there are more opportunities here than in the provinces, that the poor residents have gotten a feeling of security in the city that they do not get in the relocation areas, that their jobs are here in the city and not there in the relocation sites which are oftentimes too far away.
This brings us to a major issue in dealing with the plight of the poor: we may say that we want to help, but do nothing. It doesn’t directly concern us. When the media presents them as criminals, we, in our conservative embracing of the status quo, readily accept it as gospel. When they are shown as pitiful, we share their stories on social media, and feel satisfied in thinking that we have changed the world today.
However, direct action is always more effective than this kind of empty sympathy. Mercy and compassion mean nothing if all it means is standing by with a sad look on your face as you watch someone else suffer.
The popular interpretation, it seems, of the whole “mercy and compassion” thing is “pray for them.” There’s nothing wrong with that, if this is coupled with direct action: bothering to learn about their actual situation, beyond what the mainstream is showing, makes for a good first step. After all, giving mercy and compassion to someone without trying to understand his/her situation is simply shallow and self-righteous.
Of course, it is important that we spread the understanding of the realities of the poor to the mainstream consciousness. There is strength in unity, after all.
As such, we must unite to end poverty itself and not the lives of the poor. They are human too; they have their own circumstances. It is our ignorance of them that causes us to drive them away, and it is this ignorance that we need to overcome in order to begin progress as a nation.
Abril Layad Ayroso is a fourth year college student from Araullo University in Cabanatuan City. He is an editor of Viewpoint, the university’s official student publication.