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Aaron Smith

“For Yours Is the Kingdom of God” The poor serving the poor in the slums of Manila

of Spanish rule and the enduring influence of the Roman Catholic Church, religion in the Philippines today is, for many Christians, an amalgamation of orthodox beliefs, animism, superstition, mysticism, and miracles. But as the Philippines becomes multi-denominational—Protestant and independent church affiliation is growing by almost 15 percent each year —innovative church models such as BBCC are seeking to meet the unique needs of the poor in a nation burdened by foreign debt and poverty. More than one-third of Filipinos live below the national poverty line, and the economy depends heavily upon citizens who work abroad as maids, entertainers, and construction workers and send money back to family and friends in the Philippines. Residents of the Balic-Balic railway community, an estimated 200 families living along a one-eighth-mile stretch of tracks, live in insecurity. Most jobs are on a contract basis, lasting no more than a few months, and ownership of homes and land is in dispute.Tuberculosis, typhoid fever, diarrhea, and lung infections are pervasive, as are alcoholism and drug abuse. People lack marketable skills, and most lack a living faith.Yet the members of BBCC are employing a model of ministry that empowers people to develop and to empower others, a model of ministry from which other Christian leaders can learn.



ithin the blue walls of the tiny Balic-Balic Christian Church (BBCC), located in the Sampaloc district of Manila, Philippines, Pastor Danilo P. Francisco enthusiastically relates the church’s vision:“We train urban poor church members to reach out to other urban poor, so they can start their own small groups.” Francisco, who holds a master’s degree in community development, left a pastorate at a large, middleclass church five years ago to serve in this railway squatter community. An intense 30-year-old with short black hair, he is called “Pastor Danny” by his congregants and dresses simply in a T-shirt and jeans.“We are not starting a church,as in a building, but as in a body of believers,” he states. “We are just looking for families, small groups to start it.” The model contrasts starkly with most Filipinos’ understanding of church life and faith. After more than 300 years

A M I N I S T RY O F P E E R S A simple poster on the back wall of BBCC plainly notes the church’s goals: “Twenty house churches in three neighbor-

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Left: The modest facade of Balic-Balic Christian Church sits just a few feet from the train tracks. The sign invites neighbors to sign up their children for the church’s preschool program. (Photo by Cynthia Kramer)

expected to become part of community development, helping in the preschools, livelihood programs, and other community projects. This works to increase their self-esteem as well as improve their community.” “Here there is no band,” says Ronald Reyes, 17, a member of BBCC, referring to Sunday worship services.“But it is okay, because we have the powerful voices of our members.” His words become faint as a train passes at full throttle just three meters from the church. Reyes mixes and bottles dishwashing liquid to be sold to support the ministry. (With a friend, he bottles 100 kilograms of dish soap in about six hours, which nets them 100 pesos each, or US$1.80). An effusive, constant kidder who became a believer just one year ago, he also serves other youth.

hoods in four years.”The aim, Francisco notes, is to train poor people to lead and minister to their peers.“We see advantage in starting a house church and building it on relationship.” Francisco recently enjoyed watching BBCC members lead an outreach to Pandacan, a similar railway slum, through a vacation Bible school that drew more than 50 children for five days of lessons, songs, and small-group discussion. “They’re the ones taking the lead,” he says.“They’re the ones teaching, reaching out, inviting others.” Lito, a college student majoring in mathematics, enthusiastically led children in singing. Cora, another church member, taught a parable about a mouse and his cheese. Sitting in diminutive chairs under a plastic awning at the intersection of the train tracks and a river, the children responded eagerly to the extra attention and fun.After the group activities, children split into teacher-led small groups to discuss the lessons. Church members are now following up with children and interested adults to establish small groups. The two dozen members of BBCC participate in and lead preschool outreach, Bible studies, weekly prayer meetings, and a rice-purchasing cooperative. Many women have learned to give manicures, do cross-stitch, and create greeting cards through BBCC and a larger church, Sampaloc Bible Church. Savings and micro-finance groups are on the horizon, says Francisco. Several years ago Patrick Hobbs, Canadian contact and sponsorship coordinator for Overseas Missionary Fellowship (OMF), launched Bukang Liwayway (“Dawn for the Poor”) in Welfareville, one of Manila’s largest slum communities. BBCC and Bukang Liwayway are working in partnership to empower local residents to serve their neighbors. “We work with the at-risk youth of these communities in a child sponsorship program,” explains Hobbs.“The students attend these weekly studies and many become transformed through the working of God in their lives.The students are

CHALLENGES SPECIFIC TO MINISTERING TO THE POOR According to Aaron Smith, an American on staff with Servant Partners, a holistic church-planting ministry working among the urban poor, BBCC is successfully implementing a curriculum that teaches scripture chronologically, from Genesis to Jesus. Still, the ministry struggles to involve all members of families, particularly men. “Men are generally more resistant to the gospel and tend to leave religion to the women,” says Smith, adding that they equate becoming a Christian with giving up the “fun” in their life: drinking, gambling, and womanizing. “Most social change among the poor comes about through the women of the communities,” explains Hobbs. “Men of poverty are tempted to relinquish their responsibilities, both social and economic.They do not generally participate in organized activities and are reluctant to join in Bible studies where there are women involved, as they are conscious of the need to remain ‘masculine’ in such a fragile social fabric.” And it is this tattered social fabric that leaves many men and women in slum communities disempowered and hopeless. One-quarter of Metro Manila’s 10 million inhabitants live in slums similar to Balic-Balic, in garbage dumps, along roads and waterways, wherever a sliver of land allows. Meanwhile, four decades of American colonial rule and successive corrupt administrations have left the Philippines struggling for

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orange juice, all kinds of cheese, bread, and fruit in the kitchen ... But sometimes you forget God and then you forget to ask, because whatever you ask for, it’s already all there. But here it’s always an effort to do something. Especially when I was young, we would always pray that we would have breakfast, that we would have lunch. I think that’s why the poor are really blessed.There’s always a sense of need and God being there.” Aaron Smith, who grew up in a middle-class American home, says that one important discovery he has made by living among the poor is that efficiency is not always synonymous with good. “The poor often spend hours just sitting around talking,” he says.“I had to learn to see that as ministry time and not just wasted time.” Pastor Francisco, who grew up the son of a rural farmer but who now lives above the church, emphasizes that this happens through relationships and by sharing a common life:“I like living with the people. It’s easier for me to relate to how it feels now when the train passes. I remember my first night here, when the first train of the morning passed I thought I was going to be hit because of all the noise and vibrations! They are teaching me how to be content.”

economic and political self-sufficiency. In May 2004, amidst claims of fraud, intimidation, and vote-buying, officials were unable for more than a month to declare a presidential election winner. Popular protests—celebrated widely as “people power”—have ousted two sitting presidents. Muslim rebels in the southern island of Mindanao continue to seek independence, a struggle that has claimed 120,000 lives over three decades. And in light of rumors that President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo plans to revamp Manila’s rail system, BalicBalic residents live in constant insecurity, in fear of eviction and demolition. Their illegal, railway squatter community is a maze of impromptu homes constructed of corrugated metal sheeting, plywood, cement, and even tires. Multiple families reside in two-room homes, which can be stifling in Manila’s tropical heat, and electric fans run incessantly—at least when electrical power is obtainable. Both electricity and running water are available inconsistently, and a canal cutting through BalicBalic, once plush with vegetation, now reeks of raw sewage. The area along the train tracks serves as a front yard, an informal market, a dumping ground, and a playground for Balic-Balic residents. Believers gather there to worship and serve, friends sing karaoke, parents eke out a living, young boys play basketball. Explains Hobbes, “The poor are generally people who are oppressed, so they have low self-esteem and it is a challenge to encourage them to realize that they have beauty and amazing potential—something they have been brought up to believe is to be found only in those ‘blessed by God’— i.e. the Americanos or the rich.” Aaron Smith adds,“A major challenge here is that since the poor live so close to each other,when they do become Christians they are bombarded with temptations from their old life. Drugs, drinking, gambling, and prostitutes—whatever your struggle is, it is right outside your door, while wealthier people have more control of their surroundings and can choose to avoid places that would tempt them to sin.The poor face their temptations head on every time they leave their house.”

A N E W WAY O F L I F E Where unemployment, poverty, and drug use pervade, BBCC works against legacies of uncertainty, nurturing a living faith coupled with job skills. “There is no direct link between faith and prosperity, since prosperity can be a result of sin,” says Aaron Smith.“But there is a link between faith and having your basic needs met. Social programs are to empower the poor to become economically sufficient through trusting God to provide work as well as the strength and knowledge to do the work.” Francisco sums up the holistic approach of this ministry to and by the urban poor: “It is God’s intention that everyone should develop in four aspects of life—spiritual, physical, social, and intellectual. Jesus is our example in this, as we read in Luke 2:52—‘And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.’ Our ministry with the poor is not for them to have more money but for them to see that they need to cultivate whatever resources they have so that they can provide for their families.As people cultivate whatever resources they have and acknowledge and honor God, then we see true development.” ■

W H AT T H E P O O R H AV E T O T E AC H U S Ema (Silva) Smith grew up in Balic-Balic and became a Christian at BBCC at age 11. She did well in school and eventually earned a scholarship to attend Central College of the Philippines where she studied computer science, though she did not own a computer and had to borrow one while enrolled. Eventually, she met and married Aaron Smith.After living in the States for a time, Ema and her husband returned to partner with BBCC while on staff with Servant Partners. “In the United States,” she says,“you don’t need anything. In the morning, when you open the refrigerator, there’s milk,

(Pastor Danny Francisco may be reached at Mark Kramer’s book, Dispossessed: Life in Our World’s Urban Slums, will be released this fall from Orbis Books. Based in Madison, Wisc., Kramer can be reached at

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A MINISTRY OF PEERS BY MARK KRAMER A simple poster on the back wall of BBCC plainly notes the church’s goals:“Twenty house churches in three...