PERSONAL ESSAY: Poverty has no religious denomination; Iftar with a street person in Makati

MAKATI CITY (MindaNews/21 July) — His name is GabrieI. I passed him by on my way back to my tiny hotel room in Makati where I was planning to break my fast by myself. I had just left the Rustan’s store at Greenbelt where I spent a good 15 minutes shopping for my Iftar. It was now almost iftar time, 6:30 p.m. so I was in a bit of a hurry to get back to the room.

He looked just like any other beggar on the side of the road. Unfortunately, nowadays, most beggars ask for money in ways that do not encourage charitable instincts from me. But there was something different about Gabriel.

Perhaps it’s the fact that he didn’t even ask for money. Or the fact that when I took a second glance at him, his skin looked pale and loose as if he suddenly lost weight. Or the fact that when I finally saw his face from up close, his eyes were opaque. But mostly I think it was the sound of his weak voice – “Kuya, pagkain lang po” (Brother, just something to eat please). I found out later on that he hasn’t had anything for the past two days.

As weak as his voice was – he could barely be heard because of the street noise, I sensed the hunger and realized his desperation was real. And this stopped me on my tracks. I turned back, pulled out the pastry and my bottle of water and handed it to him. Meekly, he accepted it and said, “salamat po”.

By the end of the evening, I had decided to buy him a real meal (he took out one piece of chicken because he said he was saving it for later), invited him to sit at the park nearby where he can eat his meal, and engaged him in a conversation. I asked him where he is from, how he ended up in Manila, what he thinks is the solution to his predicament, and other questions which I tried to ask without being too prying.

And so there we were, sitting at one of the benches at the Legaspi park, satisfying our hunger and thirst. I was breaking my fast after 14 hours without food and water; he was having his first meal after two days.

While I was sitting there and talking with this man, I felt at peace and I ended up pondering upon one of the pillars of Islam – to practice zakat or charity. It says give alms to the poor. It didn’t say give alms to Muslim poor. No qualifier. And this is perhaps what gave me that peaceful feeling – I was doing God’s bidding.

Before we parted, he thanked me. I replied, don’t thank me. Thank God. Truly, our encounter yesterday is one of the most amazing Iftars I have had in years. I am probably just as grateful as he is for our encounter and for running into each other.

Lastly, although in the beginning of our encounter I had no confidence that I will be able to help him beyond feeding him for a night, eventually during our conversation we managed to find a solution to his predicament, a solution that is simple enough as to give it a real chance of succeeding. He himself says so. Hopefully, as I post this encounter, he should be on his way home. [Zainudin Malang is executive director of the Mindanao Human Rights Action Center (Minhrac) and represents his group in the Third Party Monitoring Team of the GPH-MILF Peace Process].