"The Poor Need You To Fight Poverty With Them." -Pinky Escarez
Hardhome. Anyone familiar with the HBO series Game of Thrones will know what this word means. In the Wiki of Ice and Fire, Hardhome is described as “a ruined free folk settlement that lies north beyond the Wall. It is on the tip of the peninsula Storrold's Point on the Shivering Sea.” It is also the title of the eighth episode of Season 5. In this episode, Jon Snow and Tormund Giantsbane arrive at Hardhome to convince the Wildlings to join them in their fight against the Whitewalkers. The promise of safer settlements and assured provisions for their young eventually convince the Wildlings to join forces with Jon Snow, albeit too late as a massive army of the undead descends upon them and makes a new army out of victims. Jon Snow escapes, but not without looking in horror at the many lives he believes he was not able to save. Still, he risked life and limb in trying to save more lives in the hopes of uniting people against the monsters of winter.
Many times we feel like we are Jon Snow, with our noble causes and passionate desire to change the world. Being the bastard of Winterfell was never a hindrance for Jon to be raised and educated like his highborn half-siblings. Hence he also held the same values of honor and valor like Ned Stark. But being sent to the Wall and eventually living amongst the Wildlings taught him something – that he knew nothing.
And like him, living in the comfort zones, despite all our well-intentioned words and acts, we all know nothing. Nothing of the life the poor and marginalized truly live. Nothing of the day-to-day struggle to exist in the midst of poverty, even occasional violence. Unlike the great houses in Westeros such as the Starks where Jon Snow belonged, the poor beyond the Wall do not have comfort zones and fortified dwellings and lofty traditions and the luxuries of a warm bed at night. But outside the Wall, they are one great community, and they don’t bend the knee.
Inside Ateneo and inside our homes, we are like the Starks, Baratheons, Targaryens and Lannisters. We have bannermen to keep us safe and provisions to keep us not only alive but healthy. When we refer to the poor, we call them collectively as the poor. Isn’t it funny how the term actually renders them faceless? It will take an immersion for most of us to actually witness and experience for ourselves how the poor are in fact very much like us, although living in less-than-acceptable surroundings as we have been accustomed to.
They want the same things as us – a bright future, healthy loved ones, the occasional luxuries – except the disparity between what is luxury to them and what is luxury to us could be shocking. Having pork chops for dinner could be luxury to them while for us the latest iPhone model is our idea of luxury. Indeed, when you go live with the poor, you’re not doing them a favour, you are educating yourself and this begins by the realization that no matter what you have learned in the best schools, you know nothing.
Until you share a piece of galunggong with five other kids in your foster family’s home, until you sleep on a banig with the same kids, unwashed and unkempt till the next morning’s meager supply of clean water, until you take a dump in a hole on the concrete floor that needs no flush, and until you realize you do not want to squander your God-given blessings so you will not end up like them but instead empower them to be more capable than their few opportunities offer.
When the Wildlings finally agreed to leave Hardhome with Jon, were they grateful? Were they awestruck by this young hero who thought he could save them all? When the undead descended upon them, did they obviously despair? No, because they have always been freefolk. But they have also always been accepting of their fate. Freedom for them is not being saved, but being considered equals, seen as worthy to fight with.
The poor in our midst don’t need saving. They do not want you to be patronizing. They do not want your pity. While most of them are the least, the last and the lonely, they are in fact the ones who can teach us a thing or two about humility. They don’t need you to pull them out of their poverty, but they need you to fight poverty with them. They don’t need you to teach them what they do not know, but they need you to understand their context and so together you can both learn from each other’s lives. They don’t need you to exhort about the virtues of helping the poor, but they need you to be out there with them in their struggles. And believe me, we will all be the better for it learning things from them. I should know this thing, because I was once like them.
Let’s know something, Ateneo.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Today we beg the grace of humility to be in solidarity with our brothers and sisters whom we call the poor. But Lord we are also poor. Poor in our understanding and appreciation of their daily struggles, their daily joys, and aspirations. Teach us to get out of our intellectual rut and to immerse ourselves in authentic acceptance and experience of others’ evangelizing existence. We are not us and they are not the others. We are essentially not men-and-women for others, but grant us the grace to see we are here for one another. Amen.
(The preceding reflection was delivered by Pinky Escarez over the Ateneo High School public address system in the morning of July 6, 2015. Photo shows Mrs. Escarez (in black) with her family. She is currently the Admission and Aid Officer for Basic Education of Ateneo de Manila University. )