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Two Degrees from Pope Francis

image: dennis sabangan rappler.com

image: dennis sabangan rappler.com

About a Boy

There’s this boy I’ve been seeing one afternoon a week. It’s not exactly a secret but not many people know about it.  Once a week, I drop what I usually do–organizing schedules, planning stuff, and chauffeuring or stringing words and stories on the computer screen or on the pages of my mind as I rearrange furniture or zigzag through city traffic. One afternoon a week, I leave all that and volunteer my time to help a street child with reading.

His favorite food is fried chicken. He’s a good dancer, loves football, and wants to be a chef someday.  He’s 10 and is just like most children his age … except for the fact that he had lived and fended for himself on the streets for most of his young life.  Recently rescued, he now stays at a center for street children managed by a religious order and sponsored by businesses and individual benefactors. This is where I, lugging reading materials, colored pictures, pens, and a home made alphabet chart, keep my once-a-week “dates” with Karl Oliver Sarhentos (not his real name).

It’s not always smooth sailing. I’ve never done any teaching and Karl Oliver has never gone to school.  He’s not always willing to sit down and read letters whose sounds don’t match the words they form, and I often forget that books are new to him.  Still, we keep at it.  Him, because he needs to catch up. Me, because I made a commitment to help. Mostly, I want to show him that learning to read opens the doors to self-sufficiency and unlimited knowledge. Wistfully, I hope my love for words and reading will rub off on him by osmosis.

On our last session before Christmas break, Karl Oliver told me self-importantly that he may not be able to resume tutoring lessons immediately after the holidays because “I need to welcome the Pope.”  I patted his back and assured him I will check with his assigned social worker before showing up.  I imagined Karl Oliver among the many, many children lining the sidewalk, waving small flags as the popemobile passed through the crowds.

Allergic to Crowds

Pope Francis’ visit to the Philippines promised not just crowds but massive throngs in unprecedented numbers.  A part of me wanted to be among the multitudes but the other part knew I would be irritable about being hemmed in by people from all sides and impatient with waiting for hours in the scorching sun or drenching rain.  Both parts of me were sad about passing up the chance of being touched by the presence of this open-and-inclusive pope, of breathing the same air even for just minutes as his motorcade passed.  I mourned for the younger me who would have happily camped with crowds of assorted humanity. No, it was not destined for me to cross paths with Pope Francis; not even by some-kilometers-distance degree.

Excitement mounted with news programs’ airing of the countdown to the pope’s arrival day.  I was watching one such program about the welcome arrangements as the news correspondent introduced the two lucky children chosen to hang the welcome garland on Pope Francis as soon as he steps on Philippine soil. I stared open-mouthed as a familiar face filled the screen. It was Karl Oliver and a girl from the same center.  The news correspondent asked what he had to say to Pope Francis. His eyes lighted up but his words were sparse, spoken with a timid swagger.  “.. ask him to play … football.”  “And where will you play?” she followed up.  “The field,” came the short reply (sounding like obviously it won’t be on the basketball court!) I had to laugh at the logic.

Some 6- to-7 million people reportedly showed up for Pope Francis’ last mass in Manila and millions more watched his 5-day visit on their TV screens.  But only one boy, a former street child who loves football and wants to be a chef one day, got to give Pope Francis the biggest, tightest welcome hug.

As for my crowd-avoiding self, well, I didn’t get anywhere near the pope at any time during his visit.  And yet,  I AM a mere two degrees of (hugging) separation from Pope Francis.  And it’s all because of this boy I’ve been seeing.


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