Outside, the scorching rays of the sun bounced off the streets, and cause an illusion of wavering images. Even the grass stood still as if too hot to move. But the sound of the children’s delighted chatter tinged with bouts of giggles and snickers shattered the oppressing atmosphere.
Twelve-year-old Nica was sharing a joke with several of the girls. Nica is just one of the thousands of children living in one of the biggest slum areas in Iloilo City. (Iloilo, popularly known as the City of Love is located right at the center of the Philippine archipelago. It is one of the fastest-growing modern cities in the nation. With the increasing influx of people from the northern and southern districts, the Iloilo City Urban Poor Affairs Office declared that as of 2016, there are over 13,000 households squatting all over the city.)
Surrounded by poverty, drugs, prostitution, and gambling, these kids were convinced they have no future. Having alcoholic fathers and mothers addicted to gambling, these kids, in order to survive has to scavenge for garbage during the night.
Sighing, I looked at Nica. She, along with other kids have gathered that day for the Summer Discipleship Class. Her laugh was like a burst water main arching into the brilliant summer sky soaking everyone around her with unrestrained gales. We were told that her father was recently imprisoned for drug trafficking so she and her sister have to scavenge garbage for them to have something to eat. How could she laugh in the middle of a heartbreaking situation?
Then I remembered what she said earlier that day when we asked her what she was thankful to God for. I could still remember how her face glowed when she said, “I thank God because even when things are difficult at home, I know He is with me!”
I was brought back to the first time I met Nica and her neighbors. My friends Joan Rasberry (who was still single then) and Rowena Siastres had been greatly involved in visiting and ministering to children from the streets and slums for years and had heard lots of amazing stories from them. That day, together with our friends Lofel Diamante and May Guillem, we were greeted with smiles as we went to their houses. We brought gifts. We sang, played and taught them about the love of Jesus.
I could still see their eager faces as they learned about Him and how He loves them. They were so happy, they hugged us and slobbered us with kisses as we said our goodbyes. I’ve instantly fallen in love with the children. Right there and then I decided to become a volunteer for the children’s ministry. I believed that they needed me to teach them the love of God and the ways of life. But, I thought wrong.
I came to realize that I needed them as much as they needed me. I needed them to teach me what childlike faith and courage look like. I needed them to prove to me that it is possible to find joy even in the midst of chaos and confusion. I needed them to teach me to appreciate what I have and how to live in the present. I needed them to remind me never to lose hope. Yes. I needed them.
When I looked up, I saw Nica walking towards me. Her eyes, her lips, and her spirit all at once smiled at me.
* Marve Gelera, a librarian at the Department of Education, is one of the volunteers of the children’s outreach of Oasis For Life in Iloilo City, Philippines. She, together with her friends, go to the slum areas and the streets regularly, to minister the message of hope and love to kids and teenagers.