Mons. Alberto “Fr. Abet” Uy relates how the just-plain folks of Jagna started the Balay sa Kabos* Foundation: “As the pastor of Jagna, it pained me terribly that I, their shepherd, lived in the comfort of the rectory when so many, especially in the remote areas, barely survived in homes that were not much better than the stalls for livestock.” Thus five years ago, the spirit moved 12 of his Jagna flock, who might be likened to Christ’s disciples in more than their mere number, to really do something about the sorry plight of their poorest neighbors. These 12 good people agreed to spend one day every week to help a poor neighbor build a decent house. From Monday to Friday, they would work at their regular jobs and take care of their families. Sundays were for church, but their Saturdays were devoted to helping a poor family to build a house.
The Bible reminds us that God is the defender of widows. It was fitting that the very first home the Jagna volunteers built in August 2011 was for an old widow. The elderly Aling Lucia’s frail and sickly middle-aged daughter and physically disabled son-in-law shared her lean-to of dried branches and leaves. When it rained at night, the three sheltered beneath open umbrellas.
It was slow going at first, Fr. Abet recalls. When there were only 12 of them, it took at least three Saturdays to finish one tiny house. The first few homes were built solely from the donations of the Jagna community. The GI roofing sheets, sawali, kitchen and toilet fixtures, some cement and CGB for a 14’ x 14’ (200 sq. ft. or 18 sq. m.) home cost around PhP 25,000 (roughly US$ 550). This had a sala and two bedrooms, with the toilet and kitchen as separate structures in the yard.
Whenever he celebrated mass, Fr. Abet showed pictures and videos about this homegrown, from-the-grassroots-up housing apostolate to the congregation. Like the seeker in the preface to Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, Fr. Abet would ask the Jagna church-goers who their neediest neighbors were. Thus they learned to see the last and the least among them, and to grow in compassion and love. It did not matter if these poor families were observant or practicing Catholics, or their political allies. The Jagna housing apostolate went beyond such earthly matters.
Five of the core group formed a screening committee. Just like trained social workers, they visited the identifiably poor families to verify and document their circumstances. They were especially mindful of special needs which might further exacerbate poverty, such as having elderly, seriously ill or disabled family members. During their monthly meetings, the ad hoc screening committee presented their findings. Then the so-called Jagna Council of Elders decided who would receive a gift-house. The steadfast 12 who sparked this grassroots movement of loving kindness, continue to be cheerful givers.
Over the first six months of this homegrown apostolate, the number of volunteers grew to such an extent that the tiny house which used to take three Saturdays to build, took just a day. Fr. Abet estimates that Balay sa Kabos now has at least tenfold the number of regular volunteer-workers which it started with. He beams as he reflects on the revitalization of our Pinoy bayanihan. Barangay officials at the site would organize the community to volunteer for the build as well as to prepare food. Young children and even the feeble old folks would help by cleaning the surroundings before and after a build. With enough money for materials, they can build two or more houses every Saturday. To date, Balay sa Kabos has built nearly 150 houses in Jagna and in other towns of Bohol.
In 2014, they finally decided to incorporate as the Balay sa Kabos Foundation. Having a corporate identity has made them more viable and has drawn in more volunteers, friends and benefactors. Social media, especially Facebook where Balay sa Kabos has an account, has been a particular boon. Still, one does not find any corporate high fliers, or glamorous high society types or celebrity superstars among the volunteers. Balay sa Kabos does not rely on hyped-up media events, slick public relations photo-ops or glitzy fund-raisers. As Fr. Abet points out:
“Most of our volunteer-workers are of modest means. Some might even be considered poor themselves. Think of the widow’s mite. Yet every Saturday, they go to our project sites. They don’t get a single peso for their gas or pamasahe. All they receive for their labors is two simple though ample meals and two native snacks.” Clearly something more than money or prestige makes them spend their Saturdays this way.
Fr. Abet believes the pure joy, even fiesta-like atmosphere at every site keeps the volunteers going. They are demonstrably happy to be there, reaching out to their neighbors, without considering whether they can get tax deductions or NSTP credits for their efforts, or for brownie points in their Employee 201 files or a gazillion FB Likes. It’s probably as close to expressing unconditional love for a stranger as they will get. Fr. Abet read somewhere that “The joy that you give to others is the joy that comes back to you.” Without fail, tears of joy are shed at the end of each Saturday when the time comes to bless the new house which the volunteers have built for a poor neighbor, a stranger, yet also a brother, a sister, a true part of the family of humanity.
“No one is the boss here. There’s no ordering others around. We are not a construction company, but a community of loving and committed volunteers and servant leaders, all answerable to God.” Fr. Abet reminds us. As a servant leader himself, he understands the Pinoy need for “bonding.” The Balay sa Kabos community of volunteers celebrates the May 1 Jagna Fiesta together. During the hectic Christmas season, they make time to have a party or a picnic for all. These large celebrations include their families, whose support for this housing apostolate is essential to keeping them going.
Apart from work and fun, there is also time for quiet contemplation. Every year, Fr. Abet organizes two spiritual retreats or recollections for the volunteers whose true calling is building the Kingdom of God on earth together. The “Kingdom of God” is the working of God’s will in our lives. Since this is not always heaven and the volunteers are just human after all, it does take all kinds. Some volunteers are truly sincere. Others may actually be lukewarm. Unfortunately, there may even be pretenders. Through such communal spiritual exercises, Fr. Abet hopes that each one might find their right perspectives, attitudes, dispositions and intentions.
The Balay sa Kabos Foundation is a platform for evangelization in action. It goes beyond mere verbal professions of faith as it responds powerfully in real time and space, to the crying needs of the poor. The volunteers show their love for God not only within the walls of the church, but by building shelters for the poor whom Jesus loved so much. He was a carpenter who identified with the homeless. As he said "Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head." [Luke 9:58] What better way to build the Kingdom of God than to actually build for the poor who are closest to his heart.