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Interview: Fr Benigno Beltran SVD, ‘asset-based developer’, author

19 August 2016

‘You have to smell like the poor, and muddle through’

Smokey Mountain was a 20-hectare garbage dump in Manila, where 25,000 people scavenged for a living. Garbage dumps are similar all over the world. Stinking, burning, filled with carrion and rotting garbage — it is an appalling sight to see human beings surviving on what others throw away.


It is not God’s will that human beings live in miserable conditions like garbage dumps. We would like to transform such places of misery into flourishing communities using digital technology to provide education and employment.


Our concept of asset-based development is starting community transformation with what is already there. Most poor people in the Philippines have mobile phones, and the government is widening access points. Technology has become their life — especially for the young, who are called “digital natives” because they live and breathe this technology.


We have an interactive online learning project. People on Smokey Mountain can access our platform through mobile phones wherever there is an internet connection.


They learn through the Sandiwaan Project, initiated in 2000 with the backing of President Joseph Estrada and the Department of Education. This recognised the fact that many children drop out of traditional, formal education because of their poverty, and because they are much more at ease with digital technology. They are very skilled at multi-tasking and networking, parallel processing, and playing computer games, and find classroom teaching difficult to engage with.


The Sandiwaan Project recognises the need to offer education which fits someone’s personal aptitude and physical and social environment. We hope to give these young people, and many women who were not able to benefit from education, the kinds of skills which will allow them to earn financial independence in a digital world, be respectful of others, attuned to their culture, good at problem-solving, and flexible thinkers.


And we are trying to bring God into virtual reality and social media; so that the young can have inklings of the transcendent world.


Every human being who cares about the future of humankind needs to read the book I’ve written. I hope it will help raise consciousness regarding what [the encyclical] Laudato Si’ said about hearing the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.


I studied electronics engineering for five years before I entered the seminary, and got a doctorate in Systematic Theology, in Rome. Nothing prepared me to work among scavengers in the garbage dump. You have to smell like them, and muddle through, and hope that the experience of being incarnate among the poorest of the poor will help you gain some insights into what works for social transformation.


Anyone who has seen first-hand how the earth is being destroyed by a heartless capitalism will take the environment and human use of human resources seriously.


We are trying to accomplish change by working to achieve our triple-bottom line in this order of priorities: people, planet, profit.


I have to hold together for myself the spiritual formation I received in Rome with the spiritual needs of people who live in poverty, by having two hearts that beat in the same breast, as Goethe wrote long ago.


The Society of the Divine Word — SVD — to which I belong is a religious missionary society. It was this missionary charism, coupled with its work on justice, peace, and the integrity of creation, which attracted me to it.


My own childhood was very different. I grew up in Mindanao, among the Muslims, surrounded by a loving family who were very religious. Mother and Father have passed on. I am now surrounded by grand-nephews and grand-nieces who are digital natives.


I first experienced God as a dark night of the soul. Over the years, this has developed.


My experience of God now is as loving power that draws humanity into the absolute future — the Omega.


Injustice makes me angry.

Poor people being empowered makes me happiest.


It is too early for me to judge the new President, and it might be right to be optimistic about the new and harsh measures against drug crime. But I’ve already waded into the fray in social media about the close to 800 suspected drug users and pushers killed through extrajudicial means. Half were killed by the police, and half by vigilantes.


I do not believe that unconstitutional measures should be used to solve the drug problem. These measures have not solved the drug problem in other countries that used them. I side with the Filipino bishops and with Pope Francis in my criticism of these policies.


The holy Catholic Church has influenced me most in my life.

What gives me most hope for the future? Faith in a God of love.


If I was to find myself locked in a church for a few hours, and could choose anyone as my companion, I’d choose Albert Einstein. I would like to talk to him about his theories in the light of recent findings of quantum physics.


Fr Benigno Beltran was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

Faith and Struggle on Smokey Mountain: Hope for a Planet in Peril is published by Orbis.

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