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REV. FR. BENiGNO P. BELTRAN, SVD - COORDINATOR, TONDO MILLENNIUM CHALLENGE
Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation (JPIC) Secretariat of the Society of the Divine Word

 

Father of Smokey Mountain -
Looking Out for Mother Earth, its Children and the Residents of Smokey Mountain
By Imelda Roberts


As I write about Father Benigno Beltran, I feel it is an honor, a blessing, and at the same time, a huge undertaking to write about him. His life and legacy is a book by itself. How do I start describing a Father whose monumental tasks are personally overwhelming to me? Would I even have enough space to write about his contributions to the world and to a place close to my young life? But having experienced the kind of life Father Beltran is now fighting for - same abject poverty I lived in Divisoria, Moriones and Balut, Tondo at some point in my young life, I truly understood and felt the tremendous responsibility that lay in his hands. Unlike me, it was a consolation we did not live in Smokey Mountain itself, but close enough to see for myself the kind of life nobody deserves. Unlike me, Father Beltran stayed in Smokey Mountain, Tondo to help and live with the poor. In my case, due to tragic circumstances in my family life and the opportunity to help myself and family, I was quick to live Tondo and never turned back. It was only after over two decades that I went back to visit Tondo. It was on my 53rd birthday, October 2007, when I first met Father Beltran and learned of the tremendous progress that occured in Smokey Mountain because of one Father. I could not believe that the "notorious" place known for the world's worst slums is now a closed landfill and has been home to Father Beltran for almost three decades.

Now that I am writing about Father Beltran, this is certainly a huge task. But, I am inspired to have the opportunity to share his story, echo what has been written by so many about him, and share the dreams of the people he represents. Let me also focus on his work in Smokey Mountain, how I saw him and his work when I first met him in Tondo, Manila. As I followed some of recent news and email updates about him, without a doubt, Father Benigno Beltran is not your ordinary priest. To me, he is the Father of Smokey Mountain.

SMOKEY MOUNTAIN
"I have learned that God is speaking through the poor.
You should not come to the poor to save them, but to save yourself."

Father Ben as his followers would call him, is the parish priest for the Parish of the Risen Christ in Smokey Mountain, Tondo, Manila. For over a quarter of a century he has been a living proof that there is hope amidst the extreme poverty surrounding his parish. He has been an inspiration to thousands of people, especially the families in Smokey Mountain whose lives he touches everyday.

Just like the mountains of 2,000,000-ton garbage that filled the space of Smokey Mountain for over 40 years, who would even think that transformation was possible. How Father Ben did it was not only a miracle, but that passion and the strong belief that the poor squatter residents of this community deserve a decent life was worth fighting for. Father Ben started his crusade to change what he saw in the early 80's - a 100 feet high of garbage, the deadly methane gas, other pollutants killing the air and the water, but most of all the lives of over 25,000 scavengers who made a living out of garbage. It was a deadly combination against the human race and the earth they live in. He was dead serious to change this world.

It was in 1983 when Father Ben's vision became clearer. It was also the time when the government relocated the squatters of Smokey Mountain to another area to reclaim the waterfront area close by. However, due to lack of jobs where they were relocated, the residents came back to Smokey Mountain begging for help. His heart went out for those people and a dream to transform Smokey Mountain with its residents began in earnest. Despite death threats from those who opposed the work he was doing for residents who wanted to resettle back to Smokey Mountain, he continued. He worked on setting up groups and appointed "leaders" to address a variety of issues in the community such as health, education, livelihood, and housing. He also made spirituality and the Bible as the center of their lives. In one of the interviews he said, " I have learned that God is speaking through the poor. You should not come to the poor to save them, but to save yourself. We should not think that only theologians understand the Bible. We have not listened to the poor. Just because they are unlettered does not mean that the truths of the Bible cannot be revealed to them."

In 1993, a joint venture agreement between the National Housing Authority (NHA) and R-II Builders Inc. (RBI) was made to build a low-cost housing project at Smokey Mountain. On 15 August 2007, this agreement was declared valid by the Philippine Suprement Court. Father Ben who worked hard on modest housing project for the people of Smokey Mountain in an interview with BBC said, "You have a dream, and believe that it's not your destiny, that it's not God's will for you to be impoverished like that. We marched on the streed and forced the government to rehabilitate the dump. That got us to where we are now."

WHO IS FATHER BEN BEFORE SMOKEY MOUNTAIN

He graduated as a valedictorian from both his elementary and high school and after college he entered the seminary of the Society of the Divine World. He taught in the seminary but decided he would "look for the poorest of the poor to be with them." Through the help of the Sisters of Charity, Mother's Theresa order he found the needy place he was looking for - the Smokey Mountain. As if destined to be in Smokey Mountain, he spent most of his life in this Mountain, than the mountains of Lanao del Norte where he is originally from. For 30 years, 1978 to 2008, Father Ben was the Parish of the Risen Christ in Smokey Mountain, Tondo, Manila. In 2008, he briefly left to be a Leader-in-Residence Guest Professor at P. F. Drucker Graduate School of Management Bakke Graduate University. From 1987 to present, he is the Executive Director for Sandiwaan Learning Center (SLC). In a temporary relocation site, the SCL was established, with the Day Care centers, a Back-to-School program for out-of-school youth and adults and a vocational training program through the Open University of the Polytechnic University of the Philippines .

Father Ben is also the Executive Director of "Mga Anak ng Daigdig" (MAID). Under his leadership. Father Ben founded MAID. Since its founding in 1994, MAIDs has given over 350 performances to raise environmental awareness and call for peace. In the process, it has given underprivileged youth the chance to raise their self-esteem, secure an education and provide for their future. The MAIDs dance company debuted in 1994 giving a premier concert entitled “The Cry of Mother Nature” at the Philippine International Convention Center. The company has since toured by invitation throughout the Philippines , Australia , United States , Germany and Japan.

As current President of the National Coalition for Urban Transformation, Father Ben is involved in fostering projects on waste management, tree-planting, livelihood programs for the urban poor and advocacy for the rights of women and children.

In 2008, he was appointed as Chief Empowerment Officer, for the Veritas Social Empowement, Inc. Veritas is a social enterprise that seeks to connect the urban poor with impoverished farmers and fishermen utilizing the Internet so that they can trade directly through the Veritas e-Trading Network. Through the Veritas Institute for Entrepreneurial Leadership, women from the slums in Tondo are trained to engage in business. The Veritas e-Trading Network is using computers in a B2B strategy to bridge the digital divide.

His work in Smokey Mountain has earned Father Ben numerous awards including the following:

  • National Book Award, given by the Manila Critics Circle for THE CHRISTOLOGY OF THE INARTICULATE as Book of the Year, 1988.
  • Catholic Author Award, given by the Archdiocese of Manila in 1993.
  • Ninoy Aquino Fellowship Award , given the Embassy of the United States of America for Community Service, 1996.
  • Robert Pierce Award , given by World Vision International for Community Service, 1998.
  • Fr. Nery Satur Award for Environmental Heroism , given by UNESCO Theater Institute, Earth Savers Movement and the Department of Tourism, 2003.
  • 100 Planet Earth Lovers - World Expo 2005 – Aichi, Japan .

UNTED NATION'S MILLENNIUM DEVELOPMENT GOALS - TONDO MILLENNIUM CHALLENGE

With his incridble achievements and outstanding contributions to Smokey Mountain, it is no wonder why Father Ben was appointment Coordinator for the Tondo Millennium Challenge. This project is in response to the Milllennium Development Goals(MDG) of the United Nations for Tondo, Manila. Under the Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation (JPIC) Secretariat of the Society of the Divine Word, Tondo Millennium Challenge is well served with Father Ben as its overall coodinator.

Indeed, JPIC's choice to have Father Ben in this project was well suited for what he has accomplished in Smokey Mountain. JPIC's attitude and commitment to "the transformation of society and the world by analyzing unjust structures and promoting human dignity, and the preservation of the environment, rather than remain silent to the human tragedies and violence to the environment that continue to plague our world, " was aptly the same kind of thinking that drives Father's Ben passion to Smokey Mountain, Mother Earth, and his peace undertaking. Even before the MDGs of 2000, Father Ben understood from the very beginning structures and programs must be in place to alleviate adjust systems that make poor become poorer. Instead of handouts, he began to transform their lives by giving them true empowerment. Instead of simply discussing the issues, he acted on them and proved that something can be done.

In his email reponse to me he said. "The projects he started for Smokey Mountain widened in scope to include Tondo, the poorest district in the City of Manila, with close to a million residents."

MAKING A DIFFERENCE IN THE LIVES OF A MILLION RESIDENTS IN TONDO

Knowing Father Ben, he is one man who does not shy away from such a problem. Instead, what I saw was a man determined to prove that things can be done if we "link our arms together" and confront the issues confronting Tondo and the rest of the world. Having Father Ben coordinate the MDG goals as far as Tondo is concerned is a huge blessing for one of the most densely populated areas of land in the world.

Tondo, considered as the poorest district of Manila and with the largest squatter colonies in the world, has an estimated population of close to a million people. While it is still too soon to tell what the overall and specific outcomes of this project, I do not have a doubt in my mind that the residents of Tondo will soon have another Father looking out for their best interest. It is another uphill climb, but the Father of Smokey Mountain is sure ready to take another journey to lead the transformation of Manila's poorest district.

 

 

 

Click photo to see larger version.
Montalban Mountain

Like the mountain in Marikina, Philippines in which Fr. Ben and his "soldiers" must plant a million trees, Fr.Ben's love for Mother Earth moves mountain.

Father Ben with Richard Gutierrez

From celebrities like Richard Gutierrez to kids in his community, Fr. Ben could certainly use the help of anyone in his crusade to save the environment.

Father Ben with GMA Artists

Fr. Ben hopes "these television and movie artists from our tree-planting at the Marikina Watershed in Montalban will encourage more people to help us plant a million trees so that we can combat global warming and assure Manilans of water to drink."

Father Ben during tree planting with youth.

Fr. Ben engages the youth to be with him in his environmental projects.


Fr. Ben leads and mentors members of the Philippine Youth Environment Network.

The aftermath of typhoon Ondoy
During the disaster of typhoon Ondoy, Fr Ben was a panelist in a telethon, and he said, "I admired the resilience, trust in God in the face of calamity, the Filipinos should also link their arms to manage their garbage, lessen their carbon emissions. I think only mother listened to me. My destiny - tell the truth and not to be believed."

Child Care Center

Fr. Ben's Sandiwaan Center for Learning serves as a childcare center, feeding center and a place to mold their hearts and minds despite the difficult struggles in their families.

Kids Graduation
For over two decades, Fr. Ben's program graduates 500 kids each year focused on spiritual being, nutrition, basic education and preparation for further learning.

Out of School Youth
Pictur out-of-school learners during a computer-assembly workshop.

With Al Gore
Fr. Ben with former US Vice President Al Gore, June 8, 2010. Vice President Gore spoke to a few thousand people regarding the Inconvenient Truth, with emphasis on the Philippines.

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