Review of Benigno P. Beltran, Faith and Struggle on Smokey Mountain: Hope for a Planet in Peril (Orbis, 2012).
If all the books on the Michael Ramsey Prize shortlist are as good as this, then I’m in for a treat! It is good to have an author on the shortlist who is not from the UK or the US. Beltran is from the Philippines. A Roman Catholic priest, and a teacher of theology, Beltran has also been the chaplain to the most notorious rubbish dump in the world – Smokey Mountain in Manilla. Here around 25 000 people lived as scavengers, and became a symbol of both poverty and the ecological degradation of the world.
This is a deceptively short book. It is both moving and challenging. It also covers several different genres. Most obviously, it is autobiographical. Benigno Beltran was a Pilipino priest who was sent to study in Rome. He returned to the Philippines to train seminarians. On his return he made Smokey Mountain his home, and ministered to the people there. He lived with them and offered them his care and his ministry. Eventually he was part of the ending of the rubbish dump and the resettlement of those who had lived there. On a purely human level, this is a fascinating and poignant story.
There is far more to the book than this story, however. It is also a stirring and carefully argued plea for justice in the world. This is a call for justice in the face of the immense poverty that led to people spending their lives scavenging on a rubbish dump. The interconnection of movements for justice, democracy and solidarity confronting the powerful and rich is another major theme in Beltran’s writing. He is concerned to emphasise hope in the face of despair and community in the midst of desperation. The continued need for the provision of basic necessities – clean water, safe food, sanitation and education – in a world that spends billions on weapons is starkly put. That does not detract from its truth.
Another theme is environmental. The rubbish dump on which people live is in danger of becoming a metaphor for our planet. The greed and excess of the consumer world is killing the planet and its people. It is not sustainable. Beltran offers a powerful critique, all the more valuable for its origins in the Philippines. A new relationship with the planet is needed. There are resources here.
Above all, however, this is a book about God. Each of the chapters is named for an approach to God. Beltran offers a powerful apologetic that dismisses the likes of Richard Dawkins easily – none of the so-called ‘new atheists’ have given themselves to the poor in the way that Beltran has. Faith is clearly central to that commitment. Armchair atheism, that decries poverty from a safe distance, has nothing to offer here. The positive case for God that Beltran offers is one rooted in prayer, shaped by the scriptures, expressed in theology and encountered in action with the poor. This, for me, was the highlight of the book. It is woven throughout, and beautifully done.