Embracing Community Development as a Way of Life by Joltz B. Meneses

| Written by CSWCD

joltz menesesLet me begin when I was born. It was 3 a.m. on the 3rd of July in 1971 when I struggled out of my mother’s womb. I didn’t have any idea of what life was all about and how life was to be lived in the world outside of my womb-world. My birth was painful on the part of my mother considering the pains she felt during labor. The only defense I could make was to cry. I cried out loud and groped for a caring arm. My mother was there, with her caring shoulder to carry me. She was there to provide for my needs, being the new being that I was, helpless and dependent. That was my first lesson in love and compassion. The love I received from my mother is the same love I carried on to share with others, especially those who are helpless and forlorn.

Growing up in a rural town in Ilocos Sur, I often witnessed collective action of the community people. I was so fascinated with community actions such as gamal, saranay, etc… when every event from building a house to constructing irrigation to wedding ceremonies to burying the dead was done with full participation of the whole community. I was so naïve then that I did not know the significance of these community action. But I found them very close to my ideals.

I aspired to become a priest when I was in high school. It was my dream to go to Africa as a missionary to serve the people. But I was disillusioned. I reached a point when I raised questions about the theological indifference of the church to help improve the lot of the poor.
I stopped my reading of philosophy and I went to Vigan, as a youth volunteer of Integral Youth Ministry (IYM), in charge of youth formation in the interior parishes of the Archdiocese of Nueva Segovia. It was there that I began to raise my consciousness. It is not only through priesthood that I can serve God. I can remain a lay or an ordinary person as long as I am committed to serve the people of God. It was at this juncture that the Third Look at Jesus written by Fr. Carlos Abesamis was introduced to me by Fr. Albert Rabe.

With my passion for service starting to ignite, I took social work at Saint Louis University in Baguio City as I believed it was a noble profession. Indeed it was. It led me to the path of service, though social work had earned a bad reputation as a profession of relief goods and sardines- active only during calamities. But I ventured into community organizing, believing that work for charity must be coupled with work for justice.

Eventually, I was agitated to serve more and I began to imbibe the fervor for social justice and empowerment. I took my masters in community development as I believed it was liberating and empowering. Indeed it was. During my study of community development at the College of Social work and Community Development in the University of the Philippines, I learned to define community development as a process designed to create conditions of economic and social progress for the whole community with its active participation and the fullest possible reliance upon the community’s initiative. This definition is rather academic but it somehow brought me to the substance and context of the Gospel. Community development is an expression of loving our neighbors. Economic and social progress means abundant life for the whole community. The College with its accommodating and friendly faculty prepared me to be critical and analytical. I seriously learned to debunk conventional views of helping the poor. Community development emphasizes dignity rather than charity by teaching a man how to fish rather than giving him the fish. It is not only enhancing social functioning but also instilling social accountability. It was a significant moment to embrace the people-centered philosophy of development from the mentoring of Dr. Angelito G. Manalili, known to many as Ka Lito. Community development is serving the least, and those who have less in life. Community development is Christianity in action!

community developmentThen I thought of trying to work with the government. I still have a vivid recollection of my job interview in a government agency under the Office of the President. One member of the panel of interviewers asked me a startling question; he started his query by presenting a simple association of the title community organizer with being a communist. He opined that I was a community organizer intending to work with the government, but to his knowledge, he said, community organizers are communists and even subversive. Then, he asked, “Can you comment on that?” I was tongue tied but after a while I regained my composure and replied: “Sir, as a community organizer my task is to facilitate community development processes in the community. I didn’t know that I would be considered a communist but I like the idea of being a subversive for it is true that what I am doing is a version from below, indeed it is sub version because I work with the grassroots, with the marginalized, with the disadvantaged and with the poor. ” I felt and thought that my comment was apropos. On that very same day, after my interview, I withdrew my application. Then later I found myself working with a church-related institution of the United Methodist Church.

It was here that I came to enrich community development in the context of theology. Community development as a theological discourse is to talk of God who is in the side of the poor and who blesses collective actions of the people to change their dehumanizing conditions. This is the orthopraxis of community development.

Community development is a right action to protest poverty. I was always reminded of this social reality: behind the lavish private residences in some parts of the city, which exhibit the wealth enjoyed by the very few, the chasm between the rich and the poor is so wide and is so scandalous to ponder about. From the traffic intersections, they impatiently wait for the traffic light to turn red. Then they appear, knock the windshield of the car, and do the hand-to-mouth gesture. They look sick and handicapped, hungry and hopeless. They are the ebyon or the one who desires or beggars or the one who is lacking something and who awaits it from another. They are in a degrading human situation because of poverty. It is so disturbing to see these people’s suffering without doing something about it. It is alarming when Christians are resigned to apathy and powerlessness because they think that such is the will of God in their lives. Poverty should never be understood as God’s design. The church must reject scandalous poverty. In the bible poverty is a scandalous condition inimical to human dignity, and therefore contrary to the will of God. As a protest to poverty and in solidarity with the poor, community development programs should be carried out by the church.

Community development is a right action to salvation. The Latin root of the English word “salvation” is salus or salutis and its basic meaning is health or wholeness along with derivative meanings such as beneficial, salutary and wholesome. The Hebrew word for salvation, yesha, has similarly wide meaning standing for such diverse things as happiness, wealth, prosperity, victory, and even peace. It is this fundamental connection with health and healing that enables us to recapture the biblical understanding of salvation as dealing with the whole person. Salvation should not be seen as quantitative and extensive like counting the number of souls saved, the possibility of being saved and the role which the church plays in this process. Salvation is qualitative and intensive like when people renounce their selfishness and seek authentic fellowship among human beings. That is where community development process is heading to. It is basically concerned with the people of God – the whole people of God.

community developmentMy community development background also led me to take the path of volunteerism as I always loved to do mission work. Volunteerism is turning away from erudition and spending time among the poor in the community. There is the need to move from cloister to the grimy arena of those who suffer everyday and throughout their lives. I responded to the call of sharing my talents and skills as a volunteer. I served as a Bahaginan-VSO volunteer in Pakistan in 2004. I worked with Bunyad Literacy Community Council (BUNYAD), a Muslim NGO working with women and children as a Community Development Adviser and in 2008 I re-volunteered in Mongolia as a Social Work Adviser with the Save the Children-UK. Through these humbling volunteering experiences in the international setting I personally came to know that volunteerism is not at all grand act of heroism; it is a small act of kindness, an act of free will — doing something for somebody which may not even be recognized.

Still guided by the framework of community development, after my international volunteering stints, I returned to Kapatiran-Kaunlaran Foundation Inc. – the first venue of my employment where as a young man, my orientation on participatory development haf been shaped. I came back to once more savor its caring and liberating tradition that is anchored on ecumenism and people-centered development.

For reasons of my own economic poverty, I was almost enticed to shift my career to more lucrative ones like going into business. But I opted to stay in the ambit of community development for I believe that this is the right praxis of my spirituality and faith. Community development brings me to fulfill my gusto to serve those ebyon, dal, anawim and the ptokos in biblical terms — the poor who are branded today as marginalized and disadvantaged. All this I owe to the College of Social Work and Community Development which serves as my “seminary” for a caring and liberating service to humanity.