"Beyond the Dumping Ground": A Critique of the Basic Ecclesial Community Model as a Strategy for Development in an Urban Site

Article excerpt

Basic Ecclesial Communities (BEC) are small communities of Christians organized by church workers seeking to transform the prevailing society into a more equitable and just society. The paper looks at an organized "scavenger" community located in an urban dump site. The untenable conditions of the site work against the organizers' intention to develop a self-sustaining community. Hence, they overemphasize income-generating strategies, instead of social transformation, because they must help to meet the basic needs of the residents. Unlike rural BECs which may opt to lessen their contact with the capitalist marketplace to develop more communal agrarian modes of practice, urban BECs may not so easily meet their daily subsistence needs outside the market system. This raises other questions: Are church-led and "bottom-up" initiatives enough without material support from the government? Is there a point at which capitalism becomes a sufficiently dominant ideology to render ineffective alternative courses of action, hence BECs become inadequate modes of intervention on behalf of the oppressed?

Key words: liberation theology, development, poverty, Philippines

The Basic Ecclesial Community (BEC) movement in theory is the matrix out of which emerged liberation theology in many of the countries of Latin America and in the Philippines during the latter half of the 1960s. (The author here prefers to use the Philippine expression, theology of struggle.) The root word ecclesia means "assembly," and it is used here to refer to the people of God as the body of the Church. Ecclesial differs semantically from ecclesiastical, which refers to the Church as hierarchically constituted. BECs are communities of ecclesia that take their impetus from Jesus in his historic human dimension to lead them in their search for an authentic church. They are committed to the struggle for liberation, and they strategically and politically side with the poor and oppressed. BECs are rooted in faith, and their faith is of God who acts in history.

This paper examines the development debacle of an organized "scavenger" neighborhood located in the Cebu City dump site. The untenable situation in which this neighborhood is situated makes it nigh impossible for the BEC to develop into a self-reliant and self-sufficient community. Organizers promote the development of income-generating projects and "saving" techniques directed toward meeting short-term goals because they must help to meet the residents' daily needs for food, medicine, and other necessities. The residents, in turn, seem to have introjected the world view and values of competitive individualism and capitalist rationality, not the more communitarian BEC values. Hence, the BEC is not successfully incorporating the holistic and integral development approach of theologies of struggle in practice. The paper is arranged accordingly:1) it delineates the development approach underlying Cebu's BEC movement; 2) it situates and examines the development strategies of the BEC located in the Cebu City dump site; 3) it suggests that the capitalist urban society "overdetermines" the situation of the scavenger community to such an extent that the BEC approach is ineffective in promoting real social, cultural, and structural change.

The Development Strategy of Theologies of Struggle

The development approach of Cebu's BEC movement entails a long, slow process of social and structural transformation that aims to transform the world capitalist system from within by starting with changing communities in the poorest sectors of Philippine society. It seeks to develop a postcapitalist society based on ecologically sustainable modes of production in connection with new forms of political and social relationships. To achieve this aim, the BEC strategy in the Philippines involves whistle-blowing and the gradual work of reorganizing local communities from their centers into mutual self-help communities of action. …