|Franciscan priest Pete Montallana|
On Sunday mornings, Franciscan Priest Pete Montallana says Mass before a crowd of bedraggled residents in an open space amid ramshackle homes.
Montallana is no outsider; he himself lives in a 1,500-peso-per-month room ($36) in the middle of this Quezon City slum. His bathroom is shared with dozens of others.
Welcome to Apolo West Riverside in San Francisco Del Monte district.
Montallana belongs to the Orders of Friar Minor whose charism is to live with the poor.
Since he studied theology in the 1970s, the 62-year-old said he has "inserted" himself into colonies of informal settlers a number of times.
"But not every priest is made for this kind of life. It’s a grace, a gift from God," says Montallana in his room on the second level of a makeshift, three-story hut.
His mission is simple: to nourish the faith of these people and to help them realize their rights as urban poor settlers.
In December last year, the priest gathered the people for Simbang Gabi, the nine-day dawn Mass that culminates on Christmas Day. He also held collections for families and, in between, gave seminars on human rights.
Out of these gatherings emerged a basic ecclesial community of leaders who meet every Saturday at Montallana’s cramped room to reflect on the people's struggles in relation to the Gospel.
"They’re not that 'solid' yet, but they’ll grow in time," says Montallana.
The priest adds that the realization his preaching was having an impact first came when he woke up one morning to find his neighbor, a grouchy cab driver, sweeping trash on the road.
"Given a chance to hear the word of God, people change," he says. "I could sense a change in consciousness."
While scavenging for used plastic by the murky river that runs through the community, street children find a fetus among the trash, and decide to bury it. When a neighbor dies, everybody helps out as if it’s their "own dead."
After a flood that submerges their homes, they go back and resume their daily lives.
"There is so much humanity here. And this is the mystery in lives of the urban poor,' says the Franciscan priest.
Montallana says he experienced a kind of "epiphany" in November last year after a fire razed a slum community not far from his convent.
"I was listless. How could I sleep comfortably in the convent. The fire became a challenge for me to focus on the poor," he says. He asked for a one-year leave from his superiors to rejoin the informal settlers and live among the people.
Montallana doesn’t spend all his time in the slums. He goes to the mountains and work with indigenous peoples who are fighting for their land.
His year-long leave to "stay out" expires this month. He plans to move to another slum and begin another year of "table fellowship" with the poor.
"Among the poor, I see God himself," he says.
India: Conservatives say it is inappropriate for him to wash women's feet.