Desperate ‘Promised Land’

Aug. 3-16, 2006
Desperate ‘Promised Land’
By Luke Eggleston/ SUN staff writer
Rochester Diocese priest labors to alleviate poverty in Payatas

The outskirts of metropolitan Manila are home to a “Promised Land” of sorts. But this latter-day Promised Land, Payatas, is no land of milk and honey. It is a land of trash and refuse, of poverty and despair. Payatas, which literally translates as “Promised Land,” is a landfill located in Quezon City, an area in metro Manila, inhabited by a population similar in size to that of Syracuse.

Six years ago, Father Jim Hewes was sitting down to peruse the newspaper when he came across a story so startling it would alter his perception forever.
A headline in the newspaper caught his attention, stating “Manilla garbage pile collapses, killing 31.” The article went on to reveal that a landfill located near the Philippine capital was the actual home for 140,000 people. “I was stunned. I can’t remember anything affecting me so much,” said Father Hewes. “It is unimaginable that people could live among garbage, but to have some of them killed by it is beyond belief.”

The avalanche occurred when portions of the dump collapsed. Some of the debris exploded due to stoves and downed power lines. Although initial reports placed the death toll at 31, later indications suggested it was closer to 150. Although he has never ventured to Payatas, Father Hewes, the pastor at St. John the Evangelist in Clyde, N.Y., and St. Patrick Church in Savannah, N.Y., knew that he had to do something. For the past 20 years, Father Hewes has led directed retreats at Stella Maris Retreat Center in Skaneateles with Father John Rose of St. Mary of Mt. Carmel in Utica. Over the years they’ve become close friends. The retreats are joint ventures for the Rochester and Syracuse Dioceses. Father Rose said that Father Hewes has made social justice and life issues important elements in his ministry.

“He’s a very dedicated priest who champions the downtrodden and people who are down and out,” he said. “He’s immersed in the social dimension of the Gospel and that’s been the hallmark of his priesthood.” Immediately after reading the article, Father Hewes began searching for a non-governmental group helping the people in Payatas. An exhaustive investigation revealed the only group offering relief to the people of Payatas to be the Religious of the Virgin Mary, an order of sisters whose work in the Philippines is supported by Catholic Charities of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Not only is Payatas a site for dumping refuse, area gangs use it as a disposal point for the corpses of their victims. Father Hewes’ contacts revealed that one of the major issues facing the people who dwell in Payatas is something as simple as obtaining clean drinking water.

According to Father Hewes, the individuals who currently ferry water out to the landfill are often crooked, selling water at an exorbitant price. The water is also often tainted. Compelled by sympathy and compassion, Father Hewes devised a method for helping the people of Payatas. During his seminary years, Father Hewes had dabbled in music and he still had on hand a cassette tape he had made in those days. On a whim one day, Father Hewes offered the tape to two parishioners, Nancy and John Bryan, both of whom are professional musicians. As a surprise, the couple returned Father Hewes’ music to him at Christmas time, only this time the tape had been professionally produced. Father Hewes was so impressed with the new version that he was inspired to use it in his fundraising efforts for Payatas. Along with the Bryans and local musician Glenn McClure, Father Hewes had a new compact disc produced with the intention of selling it.

The CD is called “Song for the Promised Land” and the cover features images from Payatas.
So far, sales from the CD have enabled Catholic Charities to acquire two new water trucks to transport water to the people in Payatas. The CD has also yielded enough money to purchase one more truck. After reading an article about Father Hewes efforts to aid the residents of Payatas, Molly Grisham, a Tennessee school teacher and freelance video producer, contacted the Rochester area priest.

Grisham had ventured to Payatas as part of the “Xtreme Team,” a ministry of the American Baptist Churches. They arrived at the Promised Land mere days after the devastating collapse. The group consisted of six young people who were to pair off with a resident of Payatas. However, many of the people who were to participate had been killed in the landslide. Instead of pairing off with locals and working with them, the group spent much of the day with Raneir Chu, an attorney who was the head of the co-op “Xtreme Team” was to work with, “and simply walked around, talked with the people, prayed and walked away shaken to the core at the injustice we had witnessed,” Grisham said, via email, as she is currently serving in Peru. The visit to Payatas affected Grisham profoundly.

“I would describe my life as being pretty ‘even,’” she said. “My highs are not too high and my lows are not too low but I can, even six years after visiting Payatas, say that it was and still is the single most significant event of my life,” she said. “I was shocked at the mountains [of refuse]. Shocked at the number of people who lived off of it. Shocked at the waste we produce. Shocked at the injustice that put them in that position. Shocked at the despair and hopelessness. But most of all, I was shocked that the collapse happened and no one seemed to care. “As we stood there that day feeling lost, alone and confused we asked Raneir what we could do,” Grisham continued. “His response still haunts me today.

“He said, ‘You are here. Take a look around, no one else is here. Your presence has done more today than you will ever know.’ That moment taught me a great lesson in understanding the ministry of presence.” Father Hewes has nearly sold of out copies of the CD but says he will run off another batch if the interest is there. “If we start getting more of a response, we’ll do another run,” he said.
Those wishing to obtain a copy of the CD, may contact St. John/St. Patrick Church, 114 Sodus St., Clyde, N.Y. 14433 or email Father Hewes at fhewes@dor.org.

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