A homeless man sleeps on the streets of Malate in Manila - Photo: St Columbans Mission Society
I first met Mike (not real name) on my way to my office at Malate parish in Manila to do job interviews for the parish Soup Kitchen programme. Mike caught my eye as I waited at the traffic lights. He was sitting in a small alcove of an apartment block he had made his home. His appearance reflected his tough life; thin face, skinny body, rough hands and feet scarred from infected wounds. I walk that road every day and wondered why I had never noticed him before.
Mike was born on Samar Island in the central Philippines, but after his parents passed away, he had come to Manila at the age of 15 with his brother to find work. However, the door to employment did not open because he had not finished school. He wandered from place to place, eventually landing in Malate. He survived by begging from the many tourists that frequent the area, but with the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, the tourist supply dried up, so he turned to collecting and selling wastepaper and other’s castaways.
A baby pusher loaded with wastepaper stood beside him. It also contained some foodstuffs with imminent expiration dates he had received from nearby stores. Anyone could tell Mike needed help, so we put him on the list for the Soup Kitchen. It was a day to thank God the light had been red, forcing me to stop long enough for Mike to catch my attention.
The Soup Kitchen is one of the long-standing social service development ministry programmes of Malate parish. With the outbreak of coronavirus and the widened community quarantine orders implemented by the government, we had no choice but to suspend the service. However, when regulations eased a few months later, the Soup Kitchen was the first to be resumed.
With the advent of the pandemic, many changes have occurred, not just for the Soup Kitchen, but people’s lives as well. The biggest is the increase in the number needing its service. Many more people from the urban poor areas are suffering from hunger and poverty because of the pandemic. They have lost their means of livelihood and their jobs. As a result, it is not easy for them to eat every day. Our ambition is to help keep them alive, as well as expand the list of people on the recipient list. We serve 100 lunches a day, from Monday to Sunday. Our beneficiaries are the vulnerable from the poor urban areas; the elderly, children, the sick and street dwellers like Mike. The food we provide is not plentiful, but for some it is the first and the last meal of the day.
I have begun paying more attention to the supply chains and organising a different menu for each day to provide some variety in what the kitchen offers. I am buying fresh ingredients and taking more care about the way it is cooked. While preparing the food, I pray that those who eat it may receive some comfort from a warm meal and that their health will improve.
Mike comes to our centre for lunch every day. I expected he would gain weight and look more robust, but there has been no such dramatic change. Thinking this would happen after a few months may have been ambitious, but a year on, he is still underweight and often sick. Whenever I give him a lunch box, he looks me in the eye and expresses his gratitude, saying, “Thank you for allowing me to eat even one proper meal a day.” It hurts to see his bloodshot gaze and the slump in his fatigued body, but he conveys his sincerity through his eyes. Others express gratitude in the same way, saying “thank you” when they receive their food.
At first, I felt shy when thanked, because I only do what I have to do. However, I realised that their “thank you” includes gratitude to the volunteers, staff and benefactors that sponsor the food programme and keep it running. I answer them with a “thank you, too”, “take care”, or “enjoy your meal”. The people who come to the Soup Kitchen know how to appreciate even the smallest things and express gratitude from their hearts. They are good teachers for me and prevent me from becoming numb to my daily experience of life and my very self. I hope that receiving a meal each day will satisfy not only their physical hunger, but their spiritual hunger as well.
"For I was hungry and you gave me to eat” (Matthew. 25:42).
Columban lay missionary, Kim Sunhee Sunny, lives and works in the Philippines.
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- Read more from The Far East - May 2022