The Word Among Us

April/May 2010 Issue

Turning a Mountain of Garbage into a Monument of Hope

What does a busy New York priest have to do with a slum in the Philippines?

By: Patricia Mitchell

Turning a Mountain of Garbage into a Monument of Hope: What does a busy New York priest have to do with a slum in the Philippines? by Patricia Mitchell

Ten years ago, Fr. Jim Hewes read a newspaper article that changed his life. It was about poor people in the Philippines, outside Manila, who existed by scavenging through garbage on a seven-story-high municipal dump.

The story of their extreme poverty could have made the news by itself, but there was more: The mountain of trash had been loosened by rain and had collapsed, flattening about one hundred of the shanties next to the dump. Then, whether ignited by the stoves in the huts or by a fallen power line, the wall of garbage burst into flames. Hundreds were killed—men, women, and children.

Fr. Hewes, then pastor of two churches in rural upstate New York—St. John’s in Clyde and St. Patrick’s in Savannah—was no stranger to poverty, having worked with the poor in the inner city. But the article left him stunned. As a kid, he could still recall the stench of the local town dump. Nothing, he thought, could be worse than living next to a mountain of garbage, but to be buried by it was simply incomprehensible. "I had never in my life heard of such inhumane living conditions," he said. "Rats live better than that."

Most of us read articles about poverty and tragedies around the world, say a prayer, and then put it out of our minds. But Hewes said, "In my thirty-five years as a priest, nothing had affected me so deeply. I just couldn’t let it go."

It wasn’t for lack of other concerns. Fr. Hewes had been recently assigned to the Savannah and Clyde parishes, and it hadn’t been an easy move because it put him farther away from where his elderly mother lived. "God, why am I here?" he remembers asking as he pulled into the driveway of St. John’s for the first time. His apprehension only increased when his mother was diagnosed with cancer a second time and his only sibling, a brother who was his mom’s main caregiver, came down with terminal cancer. But the Lord had a deeper plan.

The "Promised Land." While attending to his duties as pastor, as well as to his family, Fr. Hewes began researching the situation in the Philippines. He learned that there are 140,000 people living in the Payatas community (which means, ironically, the "promised land"). Whole families eke out a living by scavenging through the garbage and selling the few treasures they find. The people are squatters who erect huts on government land around the garbage dump. There is no running water—residents pay to have water trucked in, and some dealers are unscrupulous, selling contaminated water at exorbitant prices. Disease is rampant, and there is little health care.

It took Hewes nine months, but he finally found an organization that was helping the community—the Congregation of the Religious of the Virgin Mary (RVM). Their work, in turn, was being supported by Catholic Charities of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

Hewes had some experience with fundraising, so he launched a campaign in his own parish and in neighboring ones. He also secured a matching grant from a foundation in Edmonton. This was no high-tech effort; he did it mostly on his own, by writing letters and e-mails and enlisting the support of as many people as he could. To his amazement, he collected $40,000 for Payatas.

The money went to buy two water trucks that are run by a cooperative overseen by RVM and Catholic Charities. The co-op supplies clean water at reasonable prices and has served at least fifteen hundred Payatas families."No one should have to live without such a basic necessity," Hewes said. "I certainly gained a deeper understanding of those words of Jesus that, as a priest, I had proclaimed at Mass and preached about: ‘I was thirsty and you gave me drink’" (Matthew 25:35).

Glimpsing God’s Plan. The story could have ended there—but fortunately, it didn’t. Despite the work he had accomplished, Hewes could not stop thinking about the dire conditions in Payatas. He was soon to learn one reason why God had assigned him to upstate New York—and why the Holy Spirit continued to put the people of Payatas on his heart.

An elderly parishioner of St. John’s became ill, and her daughter, Nancy Bryan, returned from her home in California to care for her. Nancy and her husband, John, were talented songwriters and producers. Nancy’s songs had even been featured on a Grammy-nominated album. When her mother passed away, the couple decided to stay on in Clyde. They turned one of the bedrooms in her mother’s house into a recording studio.

Hewes had tried his hand at songwriting in the seminary, so he gave Nancy a cassette tape of some of his songs. He was floored when, at Christmas, they presented him with a recording of one of them. "I was in awe of how incredibly captivating they had been able to make this song!" And that gave him an idea: "We could produce a music CD, with all the proceeds going to help the Payatas community in the Philippines."

Nancy and John, together with another local recording artist, Glenn McClure, went to work. "It was a labor of love," said the priest. "They put at least one hundred hours of production time into just one of the songs." The CD, entitled Songs for the Promised Land, features five songs written by Hewes, four by Nancy and John, and two by Glenn. "It was a bittersweet moment for me," said Hewes, "because the CD was completed just before my brother’s death and a short time before my mother was moved into a nursing home."

The CD isn’t sold commercially; it’s given to people who donate money for the people of Payatas. And so far, those donations have totaled $150,000. The CD has been sent to thirty-three states and nineteen countries, as well as to the Philippine president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo; the actor Martin Sheen (who has also helped out in Payatas); and Pope Benedict XVI. Not only has the CD succeeded in raising funds, it has also raised awareness of the plight of people living in such heartbreaking conditions.

Hewes continues to raise funds for Payatas (the current project is to support the RVM’s efforts to provide preschool education there), and he continues to see God’s hand in the project. He was interviewed one day by the communications director of the Buffalo diocese but was disappointed when he learned that the program was airing at 6:30 on a Sunday morning. A few days later, a man who had heard the interview sent him a check—for $13,000!

Mountain-Moving Faith. The entire experience has been a powerful one for Hewes: "It’s been a reminder to me of God’s grace, working in ways that I could never have imagined." It drove home to him the lesson that we should never feel so overwhelmed by a difficult situation that we become paralyzed and do nothing. Instead, we should trust God to do his part while we do our own. "We need to cooperate with God’s grace. God feeds the birds, but he doesn’t put the worms in their nests."

The production of the CD has made the priest more appreciative of Jesus’ parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30). "My songs were just ordinary, but John and Nancy made them outstanding," he said. "It made me think of how God must feel when he sees us take one of the talents he has given us and turn it into something magnificent."

Hewes is filled with admiration for the people of Payatas and for those working with them. "They have such a strong faith." And he declares himself "in awe" of the Religious of the Blessed Virgin Mary. These sisters "live day after day with the people in these incredible conditions, yet you can see in their faces a deep joy and amazing hope."

Of course, situations as extreme as Payatas can tempt us to give in to despair at all the work that still remains to be done. But Fr. Hewes is putting his faith in Christ: "As Jesus said, with faith we can move mountains. I believe that together we can transform this mountain of garbage into a monument of hope." In the meantime, he is comforted by the words of Jesus to the woman whose simple gesture of anointing him is remembered in Scripture (Mark 14:6,8): "She has done a good thing for me. . . . She has done what she could."

Patricia Mitchell is editor of The Word Among Us Press. Fr. Jim Hewes now serves as parochial administrator of St. Joseph’s Church in Rush, New York. To learn how to make a donation to the people of Payatas and receive the CD Songs for the Promised Land, e-mail him at [email protected]