Last Friday night our beloved slum beside the slaughter house burned down. Nobody lite a match, it doesn’t happen that way. However, Seventy year old wooden shacks – seventy year old wiring – over-loaded circuits. Lights left on in an abandoned shack. It was horrible. An area the size of two city blocks completely devastated. Nothing was left standing.
But our kids – now fire victims - are okay. All of them. No one hurt. No one had to go to the hospital emergency room. Some scratches, burns and bruises, but nothing worse. There won’t be any scars, except the fear, the horror and lasting night mares of the children.
It was near midnight. The electricity went out, and the only light was from the flames. This fire ‘hurt’ me, Fr. Joe, more than most. This slum is my home; where I grew up as a young slaughter house priest.
Those over 45 years ago, we all started with nothing, really. Our first make-shift chapel under a bridge next to a railroad track, then in a wooden, tin roof slum house, finally the second floor above an illegal school. In those days, our slaughter house kids were too poor and too much laughed at because they lived literally above and beside the pig holding pens in the slaughter house. No school wanted them, and those who did, our kids dropped out in weeks because all the other kids bullied them, scorned them. So we began our own kindergarten in a non-used pig pen, - anything to ‘get started.’
Yes, that was years ago, but these memories flashed through my mind, as I stood there, watching the flames. And the original community, with and wooden shack homes haven’t changed that much.
Those kids, now adults, educated, send their own kids, even grandkids to our kindergarten, escaped with their lives and little more.
Forty five shacks/ homes, and seventy three families – over twenty children.
The house I ‘grew up in’ in the slums as a young priest – trashed…. The 2nd floor completely burned out, roof caved in, windows all broken.
Slum Fire is ugly. Not nice to anyone– doesn’t care: just burns and burns, till there is nothing left. And the wind –fickle: blows the fire this way and that. No favourites. Doesn’t really care how much you plead nor beg. After 3 hours, the wind switched back on itself, and the burning didn’t spread any further. But the damage was done; forty six wooden shacks and seventy six families.
I was there, a few steps away, in safety, holding a couple of six years old by the hand – to dry their tears. A boy was holding a charred statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary which he and his sister had run back into the flames of their burning shack to rescue. No mum to stop them as she is in prison.
I kept telling the kids: Don’t worry; we can build a new house, and in the morning, buy you some new school clothes so you can go back to school on Monday. And then they started to console me, as I ‘choked up a bit.’ They said … Don’t worry, fr. Joe, we will take care of you.
And as you know we NEVER close our schools. Our slaughter house kindergarten of course has moved out from that un-used pig pen of years ago to another part of the slum - small child walking distance, but safe from the fire area. Two of the fire victim families with no place to stay, came and ‘set up camp.’ A couple days in the school.
Now, they are with relatives near-by.
Together, in partnership, with district office, local police, army and hospitals and the temple and the schools our community will bounce back, that’s what we do here in the slum. The slum might look weak and fragile from the outside, houses made of rotten wood and families poorly dressed. But we are stronger that some might think – we have (unfortunately) many years of experience with fires and accidents and tragedies – HOWEVER we always come back and we will this time too.