Whenever you try to help the poor, you always get back more than you give. You learn the meaning of courage. You learn the meaning of sacrifice. You see the beauty of love. Above all, you feel the strength that comes from faith, and hope, and trust in God. You realize the power of prayer.
Two weeks ago, The Best for the Least concert was held at the historic U.S. Grant Hotel in downtown San Diego to raise funds and awareness for Gawad Kalinga, a charitable entity in the Philippines that builds houses for the poor.
The event featured Ryan Cayabyab, a well-known pianist and composer in the Philippines, The Ryan Cayabyab Singers, his band, and Filipina-American diva Stephanie Reese. Also featured was Filipino painter Joey Velasco who gained prominence with his controversial depiction of the Last Supper entitled Hapag ng Pag-asa (Table of Hope). It shows Jesus Christ surrounded by twelve poor Filipino street children in place of the apostles.
During the evening, several paintings by Joey Velasco were on exhibit, like Father, Heal Our Land that shows Jesus Christ in prayer with a Filipino flag draped across his forearms; You are my Strength, My Lord that portrays a naked old man clinging to Jesus Christ in a tight embrace while clutching His crown of thorns; and Hapag ng Pag-ibig that depicts Jesus sharing an abundant meal of Philippine fruits and native dishes with Filipino children on a tree trunk table and GK houses in the background. All the characters in the painting are Filipino except that of Jesus, whom, Joey admits, he drew using a mestizo model.
The most prominent and controversial of his paintings, Hapag Pag-Asa shows Filipino street children in loose tattered clothing eating with Jesus. One child is clutching a handbag, true to Leonardo Da Vincis original painting that showed Judas Iscariot holding a bag of money. Another child eats on the ground alongside a cat. A girl and a boy are astride on a huge drum while facing Jesus. Joey revealed that he looked for his models in places where street children often stay, like on the sidewalks, under the bridges and by the riverbanks. Each figure is modeled after a real street child. He has since raised funds to help these street children get a better chance in life.
Joey offered heart-rending testimony about how he got involved in Gawad Kalinga, touching the hearts of many in the audience. Unknown to the audience, however, is the fact that Joey suffers from recurring cancer, information shared to me by Ric Bunda, one of the officers of ANCOP, the affiliate organization of GK in the U.S.
To give our readers a more extensive information about Joey Velasco, we are publishing in this issues photos of some of his paintings and reprinting an article written about him last year.
HAPAG NG PAG-ASA
AT 3 A.M.
By Fr. James B. Reuter, S.J.
The Philippine Star
At the entrance of the Major Seminary of the University of Santo Tomas , in Manila , you will see a painting. It is the “Last Supper” of Joey A. Velasco. It portrays poor children from Metro Manila, all between the ages of 4 and 14, at the Last Supper with Christ Our Lord. He has called it “Hapag ng Pag-asa”, the table of hope.
To start with, it is not really a table. It is a big delivery box, knocked apart and nailed together again as a table. Joey Velasco himself has said: “This painting reveals a story of greater hunger than a plate of rice could satisfy. What these children are starved for is love.”
Realizing that his little models were real persons, he investigated the life of each of them, and wrote a book, telling their stories. The title of the book came from a young woman who was mentally handicapped. She studied the painting and said: “You know, these children are not really poor. They have Jesus.” So he called the book: “They Have Jesus: The Stories of the Children of Hapag.”
To me, the most fascinating was the story of the child, in the painting, who is under the table, eating the crumbs that have fallen to the floor. Joey says: “The child under the table is ME!” The model for this child was the Pulitzer Prize-winning photo taken in 1994 during the Sudan Famine. It shows a starving child who collapsed on the ground, struggling to get to a food center in Sudan , Africa , in 1993. In the background, a vulture is stalking the emaciated child, waiting for him to die.
Three months later the photographer, Kevin Carter, was found dead of carbon monoxide poisoning in Johannesburg , a suicide at 33. His red pick-up truck was parked near a small river where he used to play as a child. A green garden hose attached to the vehicles exhaust funneled the fumes inside.
“Im really, really sorry,” he explained in a note left on the passenger seat beneath a knapsack. “The pain of life overrides the joy to the point that joy does not exist. I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses, anger and pain, of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners.”
“The Doll of Tinay” is the story of a five year old girl whose mother is working abroad as a domestic, and whose father is a philandering drug addict. She is the only child, in the painting, who looks straight at Our Lord. She is hugging her battered doll, but Tinay is more battered than the doll. She was raped by her father.
Dodoy, eight years old, lives under a bridge. Joey Velasco was touched by the courage and cheerfulness of his mother, Vivian. They could not stand up in their little cubicle, because the roof was only four feet from the floor. But the mother worked hard as a lavandera. The whole family did all they could to send Dodoy to public school, though they could not afford books, or pens, or paper. They smiled; they hoped for a better future; and they prayed.
When he gets to the cheerful little home of Jun and Roselle , which is a squatters shack, Joey begins to crystallize his thoughts on the poor. “They have a firm trust in God as a compassionate, loving father. They have nothing. They really live a hand-to-mouth existence. But they smile and say: We live on the mercy of God Nabubuhay kami sa awa ng Diyos.”
“These poor people hold on to the truth that God will never abandon them, even if the walls of the earth crumble down. They begin and end their sentence with: kung may awa ang Poon If God will have mercy on us. They inherited this phrase from their old people from past generations. These are not merely words. This is their real life!”
“Jun and Roselle are poor children but they are rich in faith. They have what we call abundance in scarcity. Their house is filled with love and understanding. They enjoy each other. Nothing not money, power, or fame, can replace family and friends, or bring them back once they are gone. Our greatest joy is really our family.”
Whenever you try to help the poor, you always get back more than you give. You learn the meaning of courage. You learn the meaning of sacrifice, you see the beauty of love. Above all, you feel the strength that comes from faith, and hope, and trust in God. You realize the power of prayer.
The strength of this country is not on the top. It is not in the politicians. It is not in the military, or in the police. It is not in the big businessmen.
The strength of this nation is in the squatters shacks. Though we do not say it, our real power is in our courageous poor, praying under the bridge.
Hapag ng Pag-Asa revisited
By Ricardo F. Lo
Saturday, November 1, 2008
This time last year, I wrote what readers said was a touching story about Hapag ng Pag-Asa by Joey Velasco, which is a reworking of The Last Supper with streetchildren instead of the apostles sharing a humble meal with Jesus. The Hapag so moved me that I decided to give copies of it to my friends here and abroad, more than 25 so far, who Im sure would really appreciate it and its heart-rending message.
Joey has painted other versions of The Last Supper with rebels as Jesus apostles, etc. but the one that has the greatest and, I would say, lasting impact is the Hapag ng Pag-Asa. Not many people know the story behind it, so for their information I am printing the following excerpts of a chapter on Joey Velasco from the book Yayee 4: Embraced by God by Fr. Arsenio C. Jesena, SJ:
The idea of painting Hapag ng Pag-Asa The Last Supper, Christ with streetchildren came when I felt the need to remind my children about counting blessings and appreciating the food served at table. Blank space, five feet by ten feet.
I kept on saying to them, Lets save money, lets think of hungry people, but it seemed that my words fell on hard ground. They wouldnt listen.
As a father whose life was in danger, I wanted to share with them in a few weeks what I would have preached to them in a score of years.
But the words were not enough, so I thought of giving them a visual reminder by painting something that was big and provocative
And so I looked for subjects, for models. I went to the cemetery, I went under the bridge.
Initially, I regarded these children as found objects, because I had never known them personally. After paying them a little money, after feeding them some cheap noodles, I disappeared and painted in my studio alone.
That was the start of my journey. Whenever I looked at my painting every morning, I would hear voices; I would hear that painting speaking to me. I was not the one looking at the painting; the painting was looking at me.
I was not looking at the ragged children. They were looking at me, they were observing me, and they would keep on haunting me.
So after one year, I had no choice but to allow myself to be disturbed and to go back to my studio, gather the Polaroid pictures of the children, and look for every one of them. It was only at that point that I really started to know them intimately and to consider them my friends. Then I really saw the treasure in each one of them; because in going back to them, I was also going back to myself.
I learned a lot of things I had never learned from the university or from rich people, from powerful people. I learned from these children.
Before, they were just the ordinary children I saw around, the ordinary landscape of the city. Now I viewed them in a different way, perhaps accompanied by my relationship with the work I had done through that painting. So our relationships became deeper.
They taught me so many values, each of them! Heroism, bravery, courage, even Gospel truths I learned from them.
People would always ask me, What did you give them? What did you teach them? I would always reply that they were the ones who had given to me, they were the ones who had taught me, and they were the ones who had fed me.
Joey has reproduced pocket-size copies of Hapag ng Pag-Asa, with the following poem titled Poor Kids in My Pocket at the back:
I carry this picture in my pocket,
a simple reminder to me that
no matter where I am,
Jesus and the poor kids are always
in my midst.
This simple card is not a claim stub
to withdraw some blessings in return.
It is not a ticket to free me from guilt
nor a good luck charm to protect
me from harm.
Its not even to tag me as a man of charity
for all the world to see.
Its simply an understanding
between Jesus and me.
When I put my hand in my pocket
to bring out my wallet.
it is NOT for alms-giving.
This picture just makes me remember
that I must have a heart to share
that a part of me has to be offered
in simple service and deeds
to the countless little children
whose future is obscure,
who suffer and shiver in the dark
whose voices are unheard,
whose nightmares come at daytime,
and whose monsters are real.
Its a symbol of my nearness to God.
So, I carry this little piece in my pocket,
reminding no one but me,
that I can give hope
if only I care.
(Note: Joey Velasco is now in the States for a two-week exhibit of his work, starting on Monday, Nov. 3, in L.A. and San Diego in California, and in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Beneficiaries are the 12 Hapag kids of Negros and the 12 Hapag kids of Cagayan de Oro.)