After our medical mission to the lepers of Calcutta and cutting flesh, dressing wounds and feeding these poor, wretched people, we returned to the main house. Mother Teresa, as she was always known, welcomed the poor into the houses of the Missionaries of Charity to care and feed the hungry.
I knew something of their hunger, too. Breakfast for us was dry bread and hot tea with one spoon of condensed milk. No more than the poor received on the first floor. We were living with the poor. During the day we had a ladle of hot rice spooned into our bowls and a cup of curry something poured over it. I dared not ask the ingredients.
I was always hungry, especially after a day’s work on the streets or helping the lepers or helping out in the house of the dying where people that were found abandoned in the back streets and gutters were brought for medical treatment and care. Many died but without pain and surrounded by people who showed them the respect and love they had never experienced in their lives.
On another day, I put the canvas bag with the first aid kit over my shoulder and, with the brothers leading the way, walked a kilometre through the alleys of this decaying city. The slums were pitiful, thousands of hovels crammed together, clinging to one another. I recalled how similar they were to the slums of Olongapo where the piles of shanties nailed to one another and leaning dangerously over the slime of the canal between the city and the naval base.
We went to help those who had survived the early precarious years and were surviving by their own wits. These were the railway children—children that lived like rats in train stations scavenging everything they could lay their hands on.
It was a dangerous life, running and hiding from the railway police or jumping and swinging onto the old steam trains as their metal might came puffing and hissing into the great smoky stations, disgorging thousands of passengers from every door and window and rooftop.
The boys aged 10 to 15-years-old were quick and agile and went through the carriages cleaning out anything of the slightest value and gobbling up the leftover food with savage glee before the guards could stop them. I watched them swinging wildly from the windows, running along the roof of the train and swinging up into the metal girders like gymnasts on the bars. A guard ran along the platform waving a rattan cane but his angry protests were in vain.
After the boys picked the train clean, they retreated to a safe place until the danger subsided and the train guards had disappeared. Then they came to the meeting place at the end of the platform that was “neutral ground.” They ate the food we brought, hungrily stuffing themselves and drinking water from a faucet with their cupped hands. They were laughing and joking, too, recounting a narrow escape or a lucky find.
After the boys finished eating and licking the banana leaves which had wrapped the rice cakes, the brothers handed out brushes and soap. The boys gave themselves a good scrub under the supervision of the brother’s right there on the end of the platform. This prevented infection from cuts and scabs. We treated what cuts and infections we found on their bodies.
Rivulets of black soot ran down their legs onto the concrete platform. They were carefree and wild. Here, they were safe but if caught they were jailed as vagrants. Not unlike the thousands of children caged and jailed in the Philippines. They too were deprived of rights, simple respect and justice and the law protecting human rights did not extend to them. They were beaten up, locked in jails, and sometimes sexually abused by older male prisoners. Something I was to find in the Philippines years later, until the present day.
This scrubbing revealed serious wounds and cuts that were hidden under crusts of filth and dirt. If untreated, they quickly became infected. Then we went about treating and dressing the wounds, and talking to them. The brothers invited the boys to join the street school the brothers operated. Many had left the railway station life and were learning skills and literacy.
Then a week later, I was invited to help the sisters and brothers in the House of Life where we brought the rejected and dying people from the streets where they had been dumped, abandoned and left to die, covered with cockroaches and rats in the garbage dumps and the gutters.
I was assigned to the male ward. This was a part of the converted Hindu temple where Mother Teresa herself worked. It was as big as a barn, with little shafts of light penetrating the high windows but it held not the smell of death but the love of life. I met her years later in Manila, during her visit to the sisters and she came to Olongapo City; I was deeply moved by her total dedication to the poor.
Those found hopelessly sick and abandoned to die on the streets were brought to the Dying House so they could receive whatever medical help was available to ease their pain and loneliness, in an effort to save them, and many did survive and returned to health. Others beyond hope were given care and some small comfort allowed them to die feeling wanted and loved.
It was an effort to recognise their human dignity. Our goal was to bring relief and comfort, to hold the skinny skeletons of skin and bones make them feel that someone loved them at last.
It was a declaration that every human was of value and was deserving of care and love and service by another human being. One could see the reverence and love that the sisters had for the dying and the sick. They saw in them the presence of Jesus of Nazareth.
Father Shay Cullen