One of the most generous gifts I ever received came in a little plastic sandwich bag. It taught me that while it may be more blessed to give than to receive, sometimes you’re more blissed when you get than when you give.
It had been a long, sticky day on Smokey Mountain. This was the one with an “e” in the Philippines, not those without in Tennessee. It was far less picturesque.
The name had been given to the largest landfill site in the Metro Manila area. It came from the way the huge piles of trash—some estimated two million tons a year—would spontaneously combust, smoke drifting across the slopes like simmering volcano.
Bandanas wrapped around their faces to filter the ash and block some of the sickly sweet stench of decay, people would pick through the mounds of rubbish for things they could recycle for a few pesos. Small children worked alongside their parents, groups clustering behind the garbage trucks as they arrived and backed up to dump their loads, eager for the best pickings.
More than twenty thousand people made their home on the lower slopes of Smokey Mountain, shacks put together from whatever they could find. I was visiting to write about some of the different programs run by a wide range of government and international relief groups.
In addition to feeding, education, and health services, there were three churches on the dump. I spent the afternoon with the pastor of one of them. In his late twenties, he’d grown up on Smokey Mountain, been supported through school by one of the charitable organizations working there, and graduated with a science degree.
He’d been offered a good job in another part of the country, but had chosen to stay with his people. Home was a small, two-room shack. He showed me where the church met on Sundays, told me about the different ways people in the congregation were helping each other, and let me tag along as he visited some of his parishioners.
We were both thirsty and damp by the end, as we headed back along one of the “strip malls” featuring a string of small stalls. We agreed a Coke would be great. We stopped at one of the stands where the vendor opened the bottles and poured the contents into a small sandwich bag—the bottle being too valuable to part with. Then she stuck in a straw, and closed the bag around it with a rubber band. It felt a bit like I was drinking the goldfish I might have won at a fair, but it tasted wonderful.
I reached into my pocket to pay, but my pastor-guide stopped me. “No, you’re my guest,” he said. “Let me.” He pulled a few coins from his pocket and paid.
I don’t know what he earned, but it wasn’t much. For me the Cokes would have been some loose change. For him, a chunk of his budget. I tried to work out what a similar gesture would have been if I’d been playing host back home. Maybe buy someone a tailored suit? My “largesse” in occasionally picking up the tab at Denny’s suddenly seemed rather meager.
I was given much more than a drink. I received a lesson in true generosity. And when people talk about the sweet scent of heaven, I think of it being accented with a splash of rotting garbage.