MANILA — I met Tita Comodaz six months ago, as she sat in the window of a cooperative store in the Manila slum district of Leveriza, selling dried fish, sugar and eggs.
Around us, Leveriza formed a maze of scrap-wood shanties with rusty metal roofs that houses 18,000 people, a block from a high-rise Sheraton. Fewer than half of the people enjoy running water or toilets. In the alleys, women squatted over soapy basins of dirty clothes, twisting and beating them clean. Shouting children, some naked and some clothed, ran aimlessly at play. A few families were boiling rice over outdoor fires.
My introduction to Tita came by way of Sister Christine Tan, a prominent Filipino nun who lives and works in Leveriza. She told Tita that I wanted to move in with a Leveriza family and asked if she had room. The solemn and nervous expression on Tita's face betrayed her unease.
In deference to Sister Christine, she agreed to let me stay with them.
"Don't cook him anything special," Sister Christine said before leaving. "If he gets sick, too bad."
In the months that followed, I slept on Tita's floor, shared her meals and accompanied her and her neighbors to churches, schools, markets, political rallies, funerals and fiestas. About a third of Manila's 8 million people live in places like Leveriza. I wanted to learn something about their lives, and the way they viewed their nation's new democracy.
Materially, the change in government has changed little in Leveriza. About four out of five children still suffer from malnutrition. In Barangay Seven, where Tita lives, one infant died after being attacked by rats. And Leveriza's poverty is far from the city's most brutal.
But what was surprising about the demeaning poverty was that it had largely failed to produce a demeaned or desperate population.
By contrast, in many urban areas I'd visited in the United States, a less harsh, though still difficult, material poverty seems to have produced a more broken people--as seen in higher levels of violence, family disintegration, drug addiction and hopelessness.
What seemed noteworthy about Leveriza weren't just the examples of individual dignity, but also the emphasis on community and country. The more I came to know Tita, the more she seemed to embody those virtues and stand as an example of what is most admirable in Leveriza.
Much of the credit for this public-mindedness belongs to the work of Leveriza's Basic Christian Communities, small groups that meet for Bible studies and sponsor economic and political projects. In Leveriza, these groups have banded together into an organization known by the Filipino name Alay Kapwa, or "help your neighbor."
The prevalence of the 3,000 to 5,000 Basic Christian Communities in the Philippines, and the controversy that has often surrounded them, makes the Leveriza example one with lessons for the country at large.
The organizing work in Leveriza began in 1979, with the arrival of Sister Christine and several other nuns. As members of the Good Shepherds, the nuns had trained as traditional social workers in the 1950s while studying in a Los Angeles convent. With the arrival of liberation theology in the 1960s, and martial law in 1972, they became increasingly active in human-rights advocacy, labor activism and other social-justice work.
Like most BCCs, Alay Kapwa originated with small Bible-study groups that sought to apply scriptural lessons to events in neighborhood and national life.
Later, its members started economic projects--making soap, knitting carpets, opening cooperative stores. Later still, the work of Alay Kapwa found a more overtly political expression as its members began attending rallies that denounced the Marcos dictatorship and the presence of the U. S. military bases.
In Leveriza, as elsewhere in the Philippines, many authority figures eyed the BCCs warily, accusing them of communist collaboration. One Leveriza barangay (district) captain, a part-time government official, raided a Bible study, confiscated its religious comics and threatened to arrest the participants. Other barangay officials and the parish priest resorted to a more subtle resistance that included denying the organization use of public facilities.
A Communist Party cadre active in Leveriza told me that he had in fact tried to use Alay Kapwa as a vehicle for agitation, but had encountered only minor success. He expressed respect for Sister Christine's work, but accused her of having a reformist mentality that ignored the causes of poverty (a criticism she would deny).
Despite the opposition, Alay Kapwa now claims about 500 members, mostly women, who are active in countless projects. But its impact can't be measured in the number of song contests sponsored or pounds of rice distributed. The real work of Alay Kapwa, as articulated by its members, lies in the transformation of personal values.