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Parish on a rubbish tip

29 April 2016

Barbara Butler on a priest whose story is shortlisted for the Ramsey prize


Faith and Struggle on Smokey Mountain: Hope for a planet in peril

Beningo P. Beltran

Orbis Books £18.99

(978 1 57075 975 8)

Church Times Bookshop £17.10



THIS book is written by a Society of the Divine Word priest from the Philippines. It is a reflection on more than 30 years spent living on Smokey Mountain, a giant rubbish tip in Manila where roughly 25,000 people scavenged until it was closed down in 1995.

Father Ben, as he is known to the people, understands Smokey Mountain as symbolic of our world of selfish greed, poisoned and choking with plastic and other garbage. But he also sees it as a symbol of hope, because it was an appalling place, where people lived ghastly lives, but where many, including many women who suffered violence, actually survived.

Life lived on a heap of waste trash was never easy for Father Ben; he was often in danger, and suffered from nightmares and visions of monsters. He was often angry, fearful, and uncomfortable. His meditations were disturbing, and inexorably confronted him with real evils, including child deaths from toxic waste.

His vocation to be with the people of Smokey Mountain came to him when, after graduation, ordination, and seminary teaching, he saw the funeral pyre of a poor Indian, and realised that his own inadequate life must be among “the wretched of the earth” in the Philippines, in relationships that were not dependent on status or possessions, and with people who longed for respect and dignity.

He wrote: “I did not go to Smokey Mountain to save the scavengers; I went there so that the scavengers could save me.” He began to develop his theology from the reality of the poor people he lived among as he engaged in “prophetic dialogue”, which requires participants to listen to each other with trust and understanding, and thus to begin to see reality with the eyes of the other.

He shared stories, despairs, and hopes. He came to realise that the scavengers were “folk Catholics” influenced by shamanism and animism. He learnt from their assumption of the unity of all things, in heaven and on the earth. He learnt from their self- understanding, different from his own and always in relationship in the community.

He grew to teach and live a theology that was hopeful and shared with the people in pursuit of justice and life, towards a future in a world where God is not disgraced.


Barbara Butler is Executive Secretary of Christians Aware.


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