Former garbage picker challenges eucharistic congress to help poor

IMAGE: CNS photo/Simone Orendain

By Simone Orendain

CEBU, Philippines (CNS) — Maria
Georgia “Maggie” Cogtas of Cebu told of a childhood without playing,
only tough work as a garbage picker at dumpsites, construction sites and on the

Cogtas, 21, also told more than
12,000 people at the 51st International Eucharistic Congress about the massive celebration
two weeks ago commemorating the child Jesus, who has been venerated in Cebu for
hundreds of years.

“On our peripheries were
children scavenging, begging, busy selling cold water, food and candles in the
perimeters of our churches,” said Cogtas. “As we happily celebrated
the child Jesus, other children needed our attention. What have we done for
them? Or are they also receiving the pathetic and emotionless look I got from
people back when I was a street child?”

Cardinal John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan
of Abuja, Nigeria, posed a similar question to the delegates.

“Can we celebrate the
Eucharist together in the International Eucharistic Congress with all pomp and
pageantry and (then) allow everybody to crawl back into our respective oases of
poverty and misery, or affluence and indifference?” he asked.

Cardinal Onaiyekan referred to
the Gospel of the five loaves and two fishes that Jesus multiplied to feed a
crowd of 5,000 with plenty leftover. He said Jesus feeling pity and concern for
the hungry crowd showed mercy and nudged his disciples into action.

“Do something!” the
cardinal exclaimed. “Do not say the problem is too much, you cannot feed
everybody or that what we have would not make any difference. Jesus does not
want to hear that. And God is challenging us: ‘Do the little you can with the
right spirit and God will do the rest.’

“The miracle of the loaves
can be repeated over and over again in our world of today if there are generous
hearts among the disciples of Jesus ready to share what they have with those in
greater need,” he said.

Cogtas said before she became an
active advocate for street children, she was so caught up in her pain and
suffering that she barely made time to pray. She and her twin brother were the
youngest of seven neglected children, abandoned by their father, with an absent
working mother who eventually also left them.

“We had no choice but to
fend for ourselves,” she said.

The recent psychology graduate said
she was able to pay for high school with what she earned from scavenging. Then a
Catholic organization that works to evangelize public servants, voters and
young people offered her a college scholarship. Dilaab (Flame) Foundation
scholarship recipients are required to give time to street children every week.
To do this they had to go through training and formation.

Cogtas said seeing the street
children accept their brokenness from abuse and neglect helped her overcome
rejection, and she learned to stop being ashamed of herself. She said she was
especially ashamed of her excessively sweaty palms, which often made people
recoil from her touch.

As her confidence grew, she also
developed a gift that only her hands could perform: drawing caricatures of
people, which she said quickly gained acceptance from peers who had otherwise
shunned her. Cogtas gave Cardinal Onaiyekan a caricature; Jan. 29, the day of
his presentation, was also his birthday.

In the five years since Cogtas
started working with the children, she noted how confident they had become. She
said 90 percent of them were in school and “dreaming big.”

Dozens recently received first Communion,
she said. At first the children wanted to receive Communion out of curiosity,
but now they “greatly understand that the bread and wine is Jesus.”

“I am proud to say that I
am one of the street children,” she said. “I came from a broken
family. I had no more hope of going to school. But thanks to these street
children they became a gift for me. I encountered God and was able to heal
myself from some bad experiences.”

Cogtas expressed hope that the
children would become public servants, such as police officers or teachers,
engineers who could build homes for the poor, or priests who could evangelize. She
said she wished their parents could find steady work so the children would not
have to go to school on empty stomachs, without school supplies, an umbrella or
rain shoes for the rainy season.

“How many have enough
electricity to study?” she asked. “How many have someone to help them
with difficult lessons? And after studying they could sleep soundly with a full

Cogtas called on the church to

“What can we do so that
they may not lose hope in God, if at times nobody can support them,” she
asked. “There are a lot of street children that live outside our parishes.
Can we not turn our parishes into child-friendly parishes with walk-in
facilities, where they could take a bath, eat and study? Our churches are the
closest place where they could see God. But they can also be the closest place
where our children can see their dreams.”

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