ALL residents of Angeles, from the mayor down, should bow their heads in shame because for all their vaunted urbanity, prosperity and sophistication, they can’t even take care of one small creek only a few feet wide and only a couple of kilometers long, and that it has to be someone from Betis who would do it for them.
In addition to bowing their heads, they should also strike their chest because the person who’s picking up their trash for them is none other than—gasp!—Bishop Pablo David.
Yes, they let a bishop with a doctorate in Sacred Theology from the Catholic University of Louvain (not to mention his special studies in Scripture at the Ecole Biblique et Archaeologique Francaise de Jerusalem) wade through the putrid waters of Sapang Balen to scoop up muck—rotting vegetables, rusty tin cans, soiled diapers, maggoty carcasses—with the same consecrated hands that can turn a piece of bread into the Body of Christ and a layman into a priest.
It’s now been months since he first climbed down to the creek to show the people of Angeles that no person is too high and no task is too low for a good cause, and that if someone from another town can be concerned enough for Sapang Balen, certainly they, too, can be.
The fact, however, that the creek is still dirty today and Bishop Ambo is still climbing down to the creek every Saturday morning means that the people living along the creek still don’t get it, the city government still doesn’t get it, the operators of the hotdog factory and the slaughterhouse that are dumping pig’s blood and entrails into the creek still don’t get it.
And the rest of us—well, we still don’t care.
What will it take to jolt us out of our indifference and snobbery? Why do we have to look away every time we cross the bridge and pinch our nose at the stench and pretend to retch? Isn’t Sapang Balen the squalor we have hidden away that suddenly turned up again, the crime we have committed that showed up in broad daylight?
What is in Sapang Balen that makes Bishop Ambo keep coming back, and what is in Bishop Ambo that makes him want to keep coming back, despite an uncaring public, a city government that’s unable or unwilling to support him, and the critics and cynics who constantly urge him to drop his crusade?
I think the bishop is drawn to his river the way Christ was drawn to the leper that no one wanted to approach.
Bishop Ambo can easily walk away if he wants to, and just focus on saving souls instead of saving rivers.
But like Among Ed Panlilio who considers his work as governor an extension of his ministry, Bishop Ambo knows that he cannot fully realize the Kingdom of God on earth unless he wipes out the conditions that degrade human dignity and are offensive to the Creator—like filthy rivers.
Still, whether we like it or not, Bishop Ambo will soon leave Angeles to assume his own diocese, as all auxiliary bishops eventually do. What will Angeleños do then about their Sapang Balen?
Well, they can summon the same survival instinct that helped them cope with the departure of Americans after Pinatubo closed down Clark Air Base.
Actually, with its limited size and span, Sapang Balen should be easy to clean. What’s hard is how to shift the paradigm that rivers are ours to pollute, that God created rivers precisely to serve as receptacles for man’s wastes.
We (and our parents before us, too) grew up with the attitude that it’s all right to throw our trash into the river because the flowing water will carry it away to some place where it can’t bother us anymore. It’s this kind of attitude that’s hardest to break and that’s making the task look more daunting than it really is.
Angeleños have a duty to save Sapang Balen because this is the river around which Don Angel Pantaleon de Miranda founded the town in 1829. It is the river’s constant ebb and flow that shaped the town’s landscape and created a stretch of fertile land where wealthy families built fabulous gardens and where commoners fished and farmed.
On the map, Sapang Balen looks like a dagger that’s poised to pierce the heart of Angeles City. That’s exactly what the creek has done to the town, flooding it and causing sorrow and misery, as in 1796 when the floodwaters “went a few hundred yards behind the present church” (according to historian Mariano A. Henson) and in 1881 when it swept away the town’s three bridges, and again in 1885, 1919 and 1961.
I believe that Sapang Balen has a cosmic link with Angeles City, that the life and death of one determines whether the other will live or die.
When Don Jose P. Henson (Mariano’s father) built a levee in 1912 to prevent converging streams from flowing into Sapang Balen, he only postponed an inevitable doomsday scenario for Angeles City.
In a really heavy downpour or a really prolonged monsoon season, rampaging water could breach the dike, flow into Sapang Balen, and head straight for downtown Angeles, like it almost did in August 1994, when the Pasig Potrero River nearly overtopped the area where it was nearest to Sapang Balen (a spot called Delta 5 Watchpoint).
I remember conducting emergency evacuation drills at Holy Angel University where students were trained to go up the buildings instead of down, because the lahar that eventually buried Bacolor was threatening to hit Angeles instead.
Sapang Balen today starts as a spring that flows through Enclave and Carmenville before it proceeds to the populated areas where it gets polluted. Actually its real name is Taug River; it only assumes the name Sapang Balen as it nears the city (“sapang balen” is a generic term for any creek that cuts through a town proper; Mabalacat River, for example, is also known as Sapang Balen in my hometown).
I hope the people of Angeles would start taking care of Sapang Balen themselves and continue doing so even after Bishop Ambo is gone, because when harmed, Nature has a way of striking back, and if we don’t watch out, the innocent-looking spring can turn into a real monster.