“One of our apostolates is at the fishport, the big complex a short walk from our home, the point of reference we use when describing where we live to other Manilians. Tahanang Puso used to visit the fishport by night, when the fish comes in off the boats and is pushed around the port in great vats by gumbooted men and women. Children used to work here late into the night, stealing thrown-away second-rate fish to sell later for the tiniest profit for their families. It was dangerous work. Since the government legislated more firmly against this child labour a few years ago, there are few children who work by night, though still many families with parents employed in the port squat here. We now visit the port by day, when the port is at its quietest, when the adults are at rest and when the small children who call the port home are unoccupied by the diversions of the port at night and welcome our distraction.
When we arrive at the fishport, the children (often naked and wet from a swim in the harbor) come running to us squealing, in a flurry of hands around waists. Despite the ugliness of their surroundings, these pot-bellied unschooled children with their black-smeared faces have a sweetness which makes our visits to them among my favourites in this mission. The girls glow in awe when you affirm their prettiness with something so simple as a few clips in their hair.
We have a special friend who lives at the fishport. Kuya Nonoy is 26. His home is a deck chair under one of the many hangars, raised high on a mountain of crates for the smallest measure of privacy. He sleeps under the bright fluorescent lights of the port and takes whatever rest he can during the day, because the nights belong to the small wooden cart from which he sells small little candies and sachets of drink to the port workers. The cart is his livelihood, and the means to see his special family every few months. Tahanang Puso met Kuya Nonoy last year. He was newly widowed; his young wife died a few months after the birth of their third child, a baby named Jerome. For many months, Kuya Nonoy struggled to care for his weak newborn baby, alone in the fishport, this gentle young grieving man. Eventually, he made the decision – the hardest decision, because Filipinos are terrified to be alone – to allow his young children to live with the willing family of his wife, in a far away province. I see in this so much love, so much sacrifice. The fishport is no place for children, he tells us, the children here do not go to school, it is no good life. And so he works hard, so that every few months he might have enough money to spend on the hours-long bus which takes him to his children and have enough to give his in-laws so that he can claim the dignity of providing for his children. He returns from these visits back to the fishport calm and happy. His eldest daughter is learning to read, he will say with quiet pride. Jerome is learning to walk.
I love deeply our visits to Kuya Nonoy. He is a gentle man. With my broken Tagalog, and his hard-learned English, we piece together simple conversations. In snatches I learn more about his life in the province, before he was lured to the big city as a teenager. He says a small thing which reveals his enduring love for his wife, his loss. We learn about our friends like this – little pieces of information shared in growing trust. We invite him to our home for lunch, and we are joyous when he arrives (and early!). He wants to learn English, so we give him a gift of a little English-Tagalog dictionary. In January, we visited the Fishport at night, a throwback to the old days, for good reason: it was Kuya Nonoy’s birthday. We arrived with a cake, and he was a little embarrassed. “I have nothing prepared - it’s not my birthday!” he said. And we laughed and said, of course it is. We sang and cut the cake, and, in the Filipino way, insisted he make a wish (birthday wishes are shared aloud here). His wish: A long life filled with friends like us.
In Heart’s Home, we speak often about the consolation of our presence. In this so-simple mission, I did not reckon on the consolation of the presence of our friends to we who have no answers to their suffering. Our friendship with Kuya Nonoy is beautiful and humbles me. “
- Manila, Philippines