The Man behind the Soup Kitchen, Part 2

After Benjie’s mother hands her an apple, a little girl touches the back of his mother’s hand to her forehead as a gesture of respect. The sign in the back reads, “Free food for the hungry, free drink for the thirsty.”

If you go to the corner of Examiner Street and Quezon Ave in Quezon City, and you go on a weekend night, look for the parking lot of the Bank of Commerce where Benjie sets up his soup kitchen. The turnout varies. I’ve seen a low of maybe forty and a high of maybe a hundred and fifty people waiting patiently or helping to set up by bringing stuff from Benjie’s house nearby. They get a full meal. something to drink and a dessert. The people are orderly, friendly and grateful. When I stop by there to bring a dessert or take pictures I always happier when I leave than when I came.  

Benjie with one of the soup kitchen children

Benjie’s story

In 2012 when I was walking home from my job at the call center I saw two kids eating fried chicken from the dumpster. I thought to myself that if I just felt sorry for them and went on, that would be the end of it. Pity them and go on. I decided to set up a soup kitchen. I started it with my younger daughter and my niece. We set up a small table on the street corner and twelve people showed up. We served scrambled eggs and rice. It grew into a larger activity because people supported me, and I operated three times every week. So that’s about it.

What about your friendship with the squatters?

Okay, you’re talking about the squatters in Makati. First, I have a friend who’s influential, not because he’s rich but because he has many friends. He’s a policeman who did dirty work for the Marcos government and the Cory transition. He was supplying me with drugs, but he was giving them to me for free. His sons were also policemen, and they were saying, “Dad, we’re not in the business of giving that boy drugs.” Actually, he was not selling drugs but just giving them to me. He was about thirty or forty years my senior. He brought me to his friends. Most of them were from a poor neighborhood. I think they were his assets. In solving crimes they need those kinds of people.

Oh, you mean informers.

Yes. When I went to the policeman’s safe house, I met a man from the forest of Montalban. We became friends. Through him I later met Jose, the guy you met from Makati. So that was the beginning of the friendship. I was his friend because he was a friend of my friend. During the times I was quite well off, I brought them clothes, food or building materials.

This was before your father got sick.

Yes. The people we met were from the boondocks. The guy from Makati and I, we’d bring them to basketball games. Poor people really appreciate that. They never thought that one day they’d be watching live professional basketball games ( PBA)  inside the Areneta Coliseum. We had four or five people, but I also had friends guarding the gates. I could bring in five, ten people at a time without paying. They knew I was bringing in people from the poor. Sometimes rebels from the New People’s Army, not because they were rebels but because I knew they are from the mountains. They appreciated it because they’d been so isolated in the mountains. They didn’t know what a mall looked liked. They’d had no opportunity to watch basketball games.

I also have friends who are military rebel soldiers. During Cory’s time there were rebellions, as you can see on the internet about the Reformed Armed Forces Movement [which was instrumental in the destabilization of presidencies of Ferdinand Marcos and Cory Aquino.] After the failed coup attempt against Corazon Aquino, they were holed up in the Amoranto Sports Complex in Quezon City. They had no food. One of them was my friend, so I brought them food.

Eventually these rebel soldiers left. Some of them are now in government, while others are in prison. They are among my connections because I fed them. So the reason I have no qualms when my children go out, besides the protection of my higher power, is I think no one would dare put a hand on my children because I have friends all over. I have friends from heaven and friends from hell. I’m connected with military right-wing soldiers and leftist rebels. When we were still rich, when I had birthday parties, the guests would be rebel soldiers, soldiers, communist rebels and then ex-convicts and policemen. They would all be sitting at the same table, drinking. They won’t be arguing. They would just be celebrating because it was my birthday. It was just like I was a safe pass. I brought policemen to the rebel-infested mountains for a holiday. It was okay. I brought communist rebels down here to enjoy the city. It was okay. That was me way back then. It seems improbable, but I was able to do that. One of my friends told you I let my children stay with them in the squatters’ area for two and a half days.

Benjie opens a box of goodies from abroad

Explain why you decided to do that.

It was in the early 1990s. We were still financially well-off. I was in the early stages of my marriage. I had two young children, probably age four and five, and I noticed they seemed to be aloof with poor people. There was prejudice. I also saw that with my wife. I’m not saying they were bad, but they’d always been in a rich environment with rich people. I thought they were beginning to think they were better than the poor.

It’s certainly a very common failing.

Yes. They didn’t know I had friends with the poor—or at least how deep my friendships were. So I told my wife and that we were going on vacation and they should pack up their things for two days and two nights. They were happy to do as I said. Then I brought them to Makati to this depressed area. I left them with those people for two and a half days. They had to experience it firsthand. If I’d been there they would have been clinging to me and asking me to ask people to do things for them. So they had to experience firsthand drinking coffee that’s so weak it looks like tea. They were able to share a room the size of our bathroom with six or seven people. So it turned out good for me and for them. They began to appreciate that it’s better to see poor people as just the same as rich people. These people are really appreciative. They don’t ask for anything. Most of the time, it’s the poor who are more charitable, more kind. They will give you everything they have. So that was probably the start of my family’s relationship with the poor.

Now my two older children are grown up, when they go to Makati these people are very fond of my kids. One is an engineer and one is working with Philippine Airlines. I think my wife and I raised them properly because we taught them how to love, which I think is very rare now that people are being taught to love themselves. I taught my family to love others. So that’s it.

Why don’t you talk a little bit about the soup kitchen?

Girls at the soup kitchen

I started the soup kitchen on May 5, 2012. During one of the typhoons, I think it was 2011, a northern part of Luzon in Bulacan was underwater. I saw that in the news. They really needed relief goods like fresh water and food that was already cooked. I didn’t buy mineral water because it was too expensive. I took empty soft drink bottles and filled them with boiled water. I’m not rich but I wanted to help. My younger daughter and I cooked some noodles and packed them up. Then we brought the stuff to Bulacan with the help of some soldiers who were there to keep discipline. So that was the first major act of charity.

When I got home my Facebook friends asked about it. They asked me to post some pictures. So I did. They saw the pictures and asked when I was going back because they wanted to make donations. I told them I’d go back if they sent some money. They sent about 10,000 pesos, and I went back with rice and canned goods. After that other people said if I needed help they’d send some.

Waiting for dinner

Then sometime in April 2012, when I saw those kids eating from a dumpster, I decided to start a soup kitchen. First it was once a week. I had money left over, so I made it three times a week. Now that it’s three times a week there’s money coming from friends, but we can’t rely on that forever. Some will break off, some will need money themselves, and some may lose trust in me. For whatever reasons there won’t be regular supporters. Right now it’s not more than four or five people, and they don’t give enough to maintain a soup kitchen three times a week. I’m not complaining. I’ll do my best to maintain it. I’m thankful. Because I’m not soliciting from anybody, most of the time I have to use my own finances. But it’s okay. After all, it was my pledge to God.

I was also able to bring school supplies to three or four public schools. For the almost two years the soup kitchen has been running, I was able to give about 200-400 slippers and school supplies. I went to Montalban, so far that we had to walk for an hour just to bring school supplies.

This work is very supportive of my spirit although it’s very taxing to my finances. But it’s okay. I’m still surviving. I’m not doing this because I want to show off but because of my pledge, which came from gratitude to my higher power. And I’m grateful for my family.

Now why don’t you talk some about the interaction between you and the people who come to the soup kitchen?

Guys goofing off after dinner

In setting up a soup kitchen, you really have to be patient. You really have to be more than a psychologist. All of these people are outcasts. Most of them have personal and behavioral problems, probably because they’re outcasts. Maybe 70% of the people I feed have families, but they’re sleeping on the streets because they can’t get along with them. All I can do now is feed them. I also tried to give them an opportunity to earn money, but they have a different outlook in life. Very seldom do I see a sense of responsibility. They just want dole-outs. So I make it a point not to give them money.

Some people tell me that feeding them just keeps them asking me for food. It’s like I’m encouraging them to be beggars. Well, I just want to feed them. Some of them also go to our house when there’s no feeding. They come to our house, knock at our gate, and if I have extra food I cook for them. Food is for everyone.

I’ve heard that in other soup kitchens there’s a big free-for-all and everybody grabbing food. Can you explain what you do to keep discipline and make people stand in line with nobody eating until after the prayer?

To instill discipline in street people you really have to be tough inside. That’s was the first thing I had to consider before I set it up. Some of these people are convicts. Some have broken the law but haven’t been caught yet. The law they follow is the law of the streets, survival of the fittest. During the first month I had to psych them out. I had to show I’m the alpha male but not belittle them. I knew I had to instill discipline.

You know I stood in front of a classroom for 37 years, right?

(Laugh) Eventually they learned. It might seem I was exerting control for my own ego, but I was doing it for them. Otherwise it would have been impossible. Every now and then, new people come, like someone who just got out of jail and wants to show off. I have to show them that I’m willing to rough it up with them, but with my higher power I’m able to control them. In other soup kitchens, once the food is laid out people just lunge at the food, breaking the table and sending the food flying all over. But I made a point of saying that without discipline I’d put a stop to it. I made it clear that actually they’re not following my orders. “If you think of it this way I am your slave. I cook for you. I wash the dishes for you. I do the marketing for you. What I’m asking of you is that you help me keep this orderly.”

So that’s it. There’s been only one fight, and that was because of another incident. This was before food was served, and I was able to separate them. They probably saw that I wasn’t joking and that I could enforce what I said.

Thomas’s family home and business on wheels

I think I’ve seen quite a bit of affection between you and the people who are fed in the soup kitchen.

Yes, well, I think that has to be automatic. Without affection no one would do this for so long. If I had the viewpoint of someone who is well-off, I might be aloof. I might think a peso given to another is a peso taken away from my own. But I love these people.

Your family is still in the meat business, right?

Yes, but the business is so small it only pays for our employee. When my wife and I took it over we made it a point not to deal with anyone asking for a commission under the table. We only have two clients, Chili’s and Texas Grill. Business with them is clean. In the Philippines there’s always corruption. Money talks. In Marcos’s time the important thing was not what you knew but who you knew. Now it’s what you give them. Even if you’re the devil, if you give them money they’ll make you a saint.