FROM RUBBISH HEAP TO HEAVEN – Darwin Ramos: Garbage Scavenger, Servant of God

Featured Image: Darwin Ramos in 2010, two years before his death.

– Fr Leonard E Dollentas

On March 29, 2019, the Vatican declared a Filipino teenager, Darwin Ramos, “Servant of God.” The declaration, which was made by the Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints Cardinal Angelo Becciu, is the preliminary process for sainthood. Overwhelmed by the Vatican’s declaration, the Bishop of the diocese of Cubao Msgr Honesto Ongtioco declared: “The Vatican has given us the go signal to go deeper in his life how he lived his faith and how he gave witness to Jesus to whom he was very close.” Referring to Darwin being a street child, he added: “Darwin is an example of holiness and that being a street child afflicted with myopathy closely unites him with his Catholic faith.”

EARLY LIFE

Darwin Ramos was born on December 17, 1994, in the slum area of Pasay City. Slum dwellers live in dilapidated and congested areas prone to criminality and immorality.  Darwin was the second child of a very poor family. His mother worked as a contractual laundrywoman. She would use her day’s meager income to feed the whole family. Falling into the desperation of not having work, his father became an alcoholic.

Seeing the hardship his mother endured, Darwin and his younger sister became scavengers. They would spend their day going through the garbage areas and streets to recover discarded newspapers, bottles, tin cans, plastic waste items which they sold. For children living in slum areas food is the primary concern every day, they did not have the chance to go to the school. 

HIS DISEASE AND SUFFERING

As a scavenger, Darwin was always on the move searching for items to be sold. Body pain was always part of his day’s work. One day he felt a terrible pain in his legs. The boy, toughened to withstand everyday hardship in the streets, became even stronger when in pain. However, he felt that he was not only in pain, but his legs also seemed to be unresponsive. His condition became more severe that after few days, he was stumbling and his muscles weakened.   

This condition would later be diagnosed as the initial symptoms of Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Duchenne.com explained this disease as follows: “Duchenne muscular dystrophy, sometimes shortened to DMD or just Duchenne, is a rare genetic disease. It primarily affects males, but, in rare cases, it can also affect females. Duchenne causes the muscles in the body to become weak and damaged over time, and is eventually fatal.” 

Not having enough income for the monthly rent for their house in the slums, extreme poverty pushed the family to live in the streets. His father saw an opportunity to make money and took advantage of Darwin’s illness and condition. He became an enterprising father using his son for business. Every morning he would bring Darwin at the foot of the stairs leading to the  Metro Rail Transit (MRT) Libertad station to beg. He would position him so that he could be seen by people taking the train. His miserable condition was enough to pierce the heart of the passers-by. Being a grown-up boy, he felt a terrible shame in that situation. But he had to bury his head as there was no other way to earn money to feed his family. Addicted to alcohol, his father would always take a large portion of the money to buy liquor. With patience, love, and understanding for his father, Darwin would not say anything as long there was something left to buy food to feed his brothers and sisters.

HIS LIFE AT TULAY NG KABATAAN FOUNDATION

In 2006, Darwin came in contact with the social workers and educators of Tulay ng Kabataan (“Bridge of the Children”) Foundation, founded by a French Jesuit priest Fr Jean Francois Thomas SJ, who had been rescuing neglected and abused street children. The social workers brought Darwin to the center run by the foundation. His condition, however, had already aggravated even before he moved to the foundation. By this time, he could no longer stand without assistance. As he discovered enormous love and comfort at the center, he also discovered the Catholic faith. He was baptized on December 23, 2006. One year after, he received First Communion and Confirmation.

He was hospitalized several times after he suffered a number of severe respiratory problems.  Despite his difficult condition, he was never a burden to anyone in the foundation. On the contrary, he was an inspiration as he had inspired the staff and other children to embrace suffering with joy. For him, his illness was his “mission.”  One day, he said to the priest of the foundation: “You know Father, I think Jesus wants me to hold on until the end, just like he did” (Matthieu Dauchez, Stronger than Darkness, Paris: Éditions Artège, March 2015, p 74). 

In his misery, he did take time out to entrust himself to Jesus. A caregiver from the Foundation recalled: “One day when Darwin was feverish, he insisted to be helped to get out of bed to join the others in the center so that he could lead the evening prayer. It was Jesus before anything else.”

Darwin died in a hospital on Sunday, September 23, 2012. As He was intimately united with Jesus in his suffering, he finally was united with Him in the eternal life.

CAUSE OF BEATIFICATION AND CANONIZATION

Darwin’s life reminds us of the life of St Therese of the Child Jesus. Therese suffered but found comforts offering them to Jesus and she died young. Therese’s life and death was hidden until The Story of a Soul, the autobiography she had written, was published. After the death of Darwin, the memory of his life became an inspiration to many, especially the street children and the poor. A number of people began visiting his tomb at the Pasay City public cemetery.

In 2015, a French Priest, Fr Matthieu Dauchez, wrote the book cited above that tenderly described the life of Darwin entitled Stronger than Darkness. Among other books and articles written about him are the following: Prophètes de la Beauté (Prophets of Beauty) written by another French priest  Fr Daniel-Ange de Maupeou d’Ableiges. An article entitled “Darwin Ramos” was featured in La Vie in April 2015- La Vie is a weekly French Roman Catholic magazine, edited by Malesherbes Publications, a member of the Groupe La Vie-Le Monde.

Many of the readers were touched by Darwin’s example of joy and love in the midst of poverty and suffering. One of the books about him says: “In spite of the disease, it is his joy of living and his luminous glance that will have touched more than one. Darwin has left the image of a young boy edifying with holiness, who despite his young age, quickly realized that his illness, much more than an irreversible ordeal, was nonetheless a mission… A mission guided by the One he loved so much to call his Friend: Jesus.” (Alexandra Chapeleau, March 20, 2015).

A number of readers had testified to the graces received through his intercession. The “Darwin Ramos Association,” an association organized to drum up awareness of Darwin’s life, requested Bishop Honesto Ongtioco of Cubao Diocese to initiate the cause of beatification and canonization of Darwin Ramos. On March 14, 2018, a Dominican priest Fr Thomas de Gabory, OP, was assigned as Postulator. To help him with the laborious work ahead, Fr Robert T. Young, a Filipino canon lawyer, was nominated as vice-postulator. As Darwin’s cause of beatification and canonization had been formally initiated, he could become the first non-martyr saint of the Philippines, and the third layman to be raised to the altars. (The first two Filipino saints are martyrs: St Lorenzo Ruiz, a married Filipino Chinese man, and St Pedro Calungsod, a teenager who served as a catechist. If Darwin is canonized, he will be the third saint of the country.)

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