By Helen Reid
Director of the Leeds Church Institute

It is estimated that globally over one billion people and rising are living in ‘shanty town’ contexts. As Miles Davis writes, twenty-first-century cities

[R]ather than being made of glass and steel as envisioned by earlier generations of urbanists, are instead largely constructed out of crude bricks, straw, recycled plastic, cement blocks, and scrap wood.

Living in these cities means that people are effectively exiled from the formal economy with no obvious route into industrialisation and economic growth opportunities. The intense challenges of their lives are not just in the present, but also in envisioning and creating a better future.

The environment of these cities seems worlds away from life in Leeds. What do we have in common? What can we learn? Do we share dreams of the ideal city? Where is God in our envisioning cities of the future?

The book Faith and Struggle on Smokey Mountain is set in one such place, a vast rubbish dump in Manila in the Philippines. It is not an easy read and does not propose easy hope. It tells the story of one individual’s faith journey; and also the story of an impoverished and disregarded community seeking survival and justice. It is a story of people and the environment, the specific and the global. It is theological reflection meeting religious experience and scientific study.

The author, Benigno Beltran, is a Divine Word Missionary who chose to live at the dump for 30 years, seeking his own salvation and the opportunity to listen to and serve the poor. He recalls that at night, he felt that the dump was ‘a malignant being tightening barbed wires round my heart to see if I would run away’. He stayed, ‘as a stranger in a strange land’. During this time, he learnt much, struggled alongside others, and found some peace with God, himself and with others.

Beltran writes of the physicality of the rubbish dump. Residents in Manila throw away more than three times their weight in garbage each year. While thirty percent of waste rots in the streets uncollected, the rest goes to the garbage dump. Here it decomposes, smells, pollutes, combusts and burns. A community of 25 000 people live there, recycling what they can to eke out a living. These people are the basureros – scavengers. They don’t create the waste but they fulfil a vital social function by recycling. Their drive to survive through this work means that they serve society. Yet they are poor and endure persecution, they live and work at risk of illness, injury and death. Life is hard and this is especially so for the women and children. And they all live with an acute awareness that this toxic waste is poisoning and destroying the planet.

Living on Smokey Mountain, Beltran learnt that while, as it is classically defined, theology is ‘faith seeking understanding’, it is also

Faith seeking justice
Faith seeking peace
Faith seeking life

This approach to theology means developing the awareness to choose to live according to the hope we have. Hope is a choice, a moral imperative, and it is the force that enables the poor to give themselves to the future. It is an intrinsic part of the struggle for life. In Romans, groaning with longing is the language of hope (Rom 8: 18-25).

For in this hope we were saved. …. Who hopes for what they already have?

The book tells the story of the faith community of scavengers on Smokey Mountain collectively choosing hope and imagining better worlds. Beginning in the 1980s, the scavengers actively developed social and political consciousness. At the time, local government was relocating families to empty land far from the dump, so they had to build new homes and travel to work and earn money. The scavengers moved back to Smokey Mountain and demanded the right to live there in formally constructed housing. With the support of the church locally, they employed Community Organising to challenge their housing situation; and achieved many successes including the construction of some medium rise housing.

In the longer term, the scavengers agreed long-term objectives for their community so that people could live full lives, in peace with others, creating a better world. They spearheaded a campaign to educate people in ecological responsibility and established a parish cooperative to separate non-recyclable and recyclable rubbish.

Thirty years on, life is still incredibly hard for people living on Smokey Mountain. People have an urgent priority to ensure their survival and the survival of their families. They see their needs in this order:

Spiritual Growth

Given these needs, Beltran writes,

The small victories the scavengers have achieved actualise the radiant hope that human beings will wake up from this ecological nightmare, from this unjust society and constant conflict.

The book’s subtitle is Hope for a Planet in Peril. We are offered a framework of theology and hope that is grounded in religious experience and community life. We can see God is truly present in all our cities, in the dirt, conflict and despair, as well as the hope, community life and striving. We can accept that the preferential option for the poor includes all those marginalised by the global economy, including those born in poverty, people with disabilities, the elderly and terminally ill, victims of injustice and oppression. This addresses the whole person including social, political and economic dimensions of humanity.

In response, communities must imitate life and nature by being cooperative, locally rooted, self-organising, and balancing individual and group needs. In this way, communities provide an alternative to the huge political and economic systems that have created vast urban areas of the dispossessed and fuel our journey of degrading the planet.

The book Faith and Struggle on Smokey Mountain can help us talk about what this means in Leeds. We share the same planet and can choose to live out the hope we have as a community of faith. In our theology, we can learn more about what faith seeking understanding, justice, peace and life looks like in Leeds.

Benigno P. Beltran (2012) Faith and Struggle on Smokey Mountain. Hope for a Planet in Peril Orbis books

Mike Davis (2006) Planet of Slums Verso