Today I went to look for Dina (19) - the girl that weighs just 29kg, has advanced tuberculosis and has a baby to care for whilst living on the street. I last saw her 3 Sundays ago when she and her sister came to church. Every time I try to find her I'm always hopeful that the TB medicine will finally have started to work and that she will look less like a skeleton and more like a human, and that she will no longer have the hacking cough that makes me wonder if she will live to see another day. It sounds dramatic and it is really, but I have to keep reminding myself that I've seen many people here in worse bodily condition seemingly continuing without improvement for months on end. I'm afraid of becoming desensitised to this kind of suffering due to the indifference of many of the local people. It is daily life here and therefore accepted as normal. I'm also genuinely worried for Dina as I just can't see how she can continue living as she is. Every time I see her I'm relieved that she's still alive but so disappointed to see no visible improvement.
Anyway, it wasn't Dina who I saw initially but a very large group of teenage boys. They were in the vicinity of a petrol station where Dina's family are living but on the other side of the road. Some of the group were partially hidden behind a white truck but even from a distance of a hundred metres I could see what they were doing due to the plastic bags they were holding and waving around in the air or inhaling deeply from.
I crossed the road to speak to the group. As I got closer I recognised quite a few of them from the Drop-In (homeless people outreach) at our church. The Drop-in sadly closes for the summer break from April until mid-June so I hadn't seen any of these boys for quite a while. Some of them recognised me and came over to greet me but others stared vacantly at me with glazed eyes as they swayed from side to side and tried to form words without much success. One boy stood in front of me and took my arms and then just kept repeating the same word over and over again and although I listened carefully I hadn't a clue what he was saying. Looking around I was surprised and disappointed to see a few adults in the group although they seemed to be passed out and there were a fair number of girls present. The adults were mixed gender and one woman was lying in an undignified heap her clothes not really covering her body properly. Seeing the adults really made me sad as it just legitimises the behaviour in the minds of the teenagers.
I asked a few of the kids that looked very young how old they were and they all said 13 or 14 but I knew they were lying. Another boy that I knew told me some of the kids were 10 but I believe they were younger than that, maybe 8. Some of the group looked sheepish as I stood in their midst, other leered at me and made stupid comments whilst others asked sensible questions. I counted at least 25 mostly teenagers by the end of the short intervention. It was like being in the presence of a group of animals as they stumbled around senselessly mumbling unintelligible things to each other and trying unsuccessfully to focus their eyes. No matter how many times I see this it always makes me sad. I don't see animals or dirty rebellious street kids, I see lonely, helpless souls desperate for someone to notice that they are throwing their lives away because they just don't care enough to live anymore.
Then Matt* appeared. Matt was a regular Drop-In attendee and had previously stopped taking solvents and had even gone back to school for a while. I asked him what he was doing there and he said he was bored at his house. He seemed solvent free but I knew it was only a matter of time if he stayed in the group.
He seemed to want to stay there though so I had to leave him. The one thing I found really difficult is that the solvents kept coming out whilst I was present. During our ministry in Olongapo, on most occasions, the boys were ashamed for us to see them taking solvents and would hide them. This was a whole different ball game as even when I confronted some of the really young kids telling them to stop they just ignored me, oblivious due to the effect of the drug.
It always astonishes me that they do this so openly in public on the edge of a main public road, with numerous adults milling around and making no attempt to stop the children who are basically sniffing themselves to a slow death. Even on this day there were at least 10 men across the road watching me as I spoke to these teenagers and not one of them did or said anything to assist. Later when I left they wished me "Good day" as if they hadn't a care in the world.
After a while I realised that there was no point staying there as there is currently no specific long term ministry for them and they were in no fit state to communicate with me. A few of them also started asking me for food, sometimes I can do this but with 25 of them high on solvents it just wasn't an option today. Most of them know where the church is so I reminded them of the Drop-In opening on June 18th as I left.
I then saw Dina sitting across the road watching me. She was with a few older ladies and some very young children who grabbed my legs as I approached. I went to chat with her, disappointed once again that she still looked as thin and as ill as she had 3 weeks before. She confirmed that she was still ill and that she hadn't been back to the church as she was too tired. I reminded her that if she wanted real help she should ask God as I can only help her in small ways. She asked me again to rent a place for her family but I just can't do it even though the money is there as it's not possible to supervise them properly and our Olongapo house project was a disaster. I told her that I would like to one day have a Night Shelter for them but that it can't happen right now. If it was just her and the baby I would definitely do more but there are numerous people in the family and I'm not even sure that they aren't linked to the group of solvent teens....
I invited Dina again to come to the church but she said she was worried about clothes. I told her she could come to my house before church and I would give her food and clothes and she could accompany us to the church. I said she could bring as many people as she wanted with her and one younger boy seemed quite keen on this idea. I shared the Gospel with him in brief and was even able to use my new Tagalog phrase "I was freed from sin."
As I left Dina I glanced back across the road to the large group of solvent kids and the few adults. I watched them for a while rooted to the spot wanting so much to do something, anything to help them but knowing that it is not yet possible. I can pray for them though and hope that each of them will one day be saved.
So how do I feel now? Honestly pretty helpless and overwhelmed by the scale of this problem right near my house and at a loss as to know how to move forward with wisdom. It's easy to offer the world practically without making any spiritual progress but it's also a temptation to walk away as the problem is just too big.
Please pray for wisdom and a clear strategy moving forward. I was reminded of the verse;
Matthew 19 vs 26 "With man this is impossible but with God all things are possible"
and Helen Keller's quote;
"I am only one, but I am still one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something. And because I cannot do everything I will not refuse to do the something that I can do."
They're Rugby Boys, Don't You Know? at Amazon