When poor people become our strength

I SPENT three weeks after Christmas traveling to the Philippines and China.  In the Philippines, I joined my high school seminary classmates in the celebration of our 40th year anniversary of graduation. In China, I honored an overdue invitation of a long-time friend to visit the American school that he has been running successfully, Qingdao No.1 International School.

I enjoyed both travels. I fulfilled my dream of reuniting with my high school classmates and bonding with them again. We had fun recalling our adolescent years in the minor seminary and being amazed at God’s works and actions in our lives after 40 years. I also fulfilled one of my travel wishes on my bucket list: climbing to the top of the Great Wall of China. It was an amazing and unforgettable experience!

But there was one surprise in my travel to the Philippines that touched my heart most deeply. It was my second visit to an impoverished village on the hills of Taytay, Rizal overlooking Metro Manila. People call this village Overlooking Valley. Accordingly, the folks who live here don’t have titles to the lands on which they built their houses — they just have rights to them.

Two years ago, I came to see this village for the first time. It’s the place where my aunt chose to retire to escape the pollution of Manila and to find some peace in her life. At that first visit, my aunt introduced me to the leaders of the community, particularly the Catholic ones, with the intention of having me hear their need to build a chapel in their village. After listening to their wishes, I gave them some money to help in the construction of a chapel. They said they wanted to buy steels and hallow blocks to start the project. I promised them that I would solicit some help from my friends in the U.S.

Unfortunately, I was not able to fulfill my promise to them because of illness and preoccupation with my new assignment as a seminary formator.  And so upon learning that I would be visiting their place again, they waited to talk about the construction of their chapel.

They said that they didn’t have the funds to continue building the chapel. They wanted my help.

The situation struck me. Here were people who had a deep longing to have a chapel in their village and, still, they have not fulfilled their wish since my first visit to them. “God must be telling me something here,” I told myself. I know that I’ve always wanted to help people build a church, and here was an opportunity to fulfill this desire. I pulled out my cell phone to call my classmate in the seminary who is a pastor in the nearby parish. I asked him how we could proceed in building the chapel once we have the funds. He gave me some good advice and from then on the circumstances convinced me that God wanted me to help build this chapel.

What impressed me about this experience was the faith and perseverance of the people in this poor village. They keep dreaming and hoping to have a place of worship. They’re waiting for generous people to help them. Their dependence on God inspired me; their poverty and weaknesses touched my heart and had become my strength; their perseverance ignited a fire within me to bring hope and life in others.

The Readings of this Sunday’s Gospel relate well to my experience with the poor folks of Overlooking Valley. The Letter of Paul to the Corinthians, 1:26-31, says that “God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong.” How true.

The poor people of Overlooking Valley shamed me with their humble but strong faith and pricked my conscience to share my blessings with them. They have become instruments of God to allow people like me to be radically generous and to be faithful to my calling as a disciple of Christ in helping the poor and in bringing the salvation of Jesus Christ to all!

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From a Filipino immigrant family, Reverend Rodel G. Balagtas was ordained to the priesthood from St. John’s Seminary in 1991. He served as Associate Pastor at St. Augustine, Culver City (1991-1993); St. Martha, Valinda (1993-1999); and St. Joseph the Worker, Canoga Park (1999-2001). In 2001, he served as Administrator Pro Tem of St. John Neumann in Santa Maria, CA, until his appointment as pastor of ImmAaculate Heart of Mary, Los Angeles, in 2002, which lasted 12 years. His term as Associate Director of Pastoral Field Education at St. John’s Seminary began in July 2014.

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