Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Guatemala City Dump: Keeping the McNuggets and Leaving the Bones

Yesterday I spent the middle part of the day with a Christian Guatemalan university leader.  In this one minute video he describes the sad scene beneath us.  We are standing on an overlook located behind the National Cemetery of Guatemala.  Said to be Central America's largest municipal dump the sifted contents of this place enable thousands of the poorest of the poor to survive.

On our way to this perch we passed through Guatemala's National Cemetery.  It was like no graveyard I've ever seen before.  My host assured me that the layout and architecture is European.

This site featured two types of graves.  The rich erect large and elaborate stone or cement structures for themselves.  We noted that the most elaborate grave was as big as a house.  Integrating Egyptian types and symbols it contains the family remains of Guatemala's most popular beer company, Gallo.  Located in it's shadow is a flat, poorly-maintained, unimpressive structure.  It is the gravesite for the Mayor's family.  It seems they are realistic about the relative value of beer and politicians!  Maybe the beer fortifies them for what they must endure at the hands of their leaders.  It is better, of course, to be filled with the Holy Spirit.
Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit -- Ephesians 5:18

My host views the wall of graves in Guatemala
City's National Cemetery
The other type of grave is integrated in a wall of squares into which the coffin or corpse of one individual can be inserted.  These walls are for those who want to be interred in the National Cemetery but don't have the means to erect a building in their family's honor.  Families lease one of these squares for five years.  If the lease is not renewed at the end of that time the remains are thrown into the dump.

It is the people who separate the discarded bones from pop bottles that brought us to Guatemala.  They are called scavengers, and there are thousands of them.  Over the past five decades they've squatted on patches of ground surrounding the dump.  As the years have gone by the government has been forced to organize and recognize these squatter camps.  Thousands of people form a half dozen communities around the dump.

What I couldn't bring to you in the video was the smell and sounds of the dump.  You can see the vultures circling.  Numberless large black birds hop amongst the human scavengers and join in the fight for a morsel of discarded food, or a worn out shoe.

During my first visit to Guatemala City in May of 2013 I didn't get to visit the graveyard or the dump.  I did, however, visit the Potter's House.  I published an email about the experience.

I love this description from their website of how the ministry started nearly three decades ago:
I, Gladys Acuna, along with my friend, Lisbeth Piedrasanta, received a visit from some good friends from the States. During their stay here in Guatemala they asked us to take them to the city dump, but we declined because the dump was not safe for Guatemalans, let alone Americans.
One day, however, they went by themselves and brought food with them. They handed out the food in the name of Jesus to the people they found there. When they told us about their experience we were surprised that the dump wasn't as dangerous as we had thought.
After returning to the States, our friends sent us a letter requesting a favor. They asked us to buy blankets and give them away in the name of Jesus at Christmas to the people in the dump. And they sent money for 350 blankets.
But we were anxious about this request. First of all, there are thousands of people in the dump, and we didn't have enough blankets for all of them, and secondly, we weren't enthusiastic about the idea of spending Christmas at the dump. I really wanted to spend my time at home, cooking Christmas dinner and wearing my new dress. In retrospect, I realize how selfish that was! Lisbeth and I had hoped to distribute the blankets two days before Christmas, but the truck delivering the blankets didn't arrive until the night before Christmas, so we ventured out on Christmas Day. I now believe that was God's plan all along.
We didn't have a big car in which to take the blankets, and we didn't have a plan as to how we were going to distribute them. We just knew we had to go. We finally found Eleazar Gonzalez, a man with a van and a very big heart. The three of us set out for the dump with the blankets and some tamales, a typical Guatemalan dish.
One block from the dump we found a church and received permission from the pastor to leave the blankets there until we could return with people who needed them.
The moment I set foot in the dump the stench overwhelmed me. Slowly a great pain inside me welled up as I saw children playing in the filth, people rummaging through the trash looking for anything of value, and both children and adults sniffing glue. It was too much for me. I consciously blocked the suffering I saw from my mind. "I'll never be here again," I thought. "I'm just doing this as a favor." Fourteen years later, I'm still here!
Back home, I quickly forgot all I'd seen and experienced that day. Lisbeth, on the other hand, was deeply impacted to the point of depression, asking God how He could allow people to live in such circumstances. That night He showed her that He was going to use Christians to show the scavengers how much He really loves and cares for them. When Lisbeth shared this with me, we decided that the next year (1987) we would host a Christmas celebration for 1,000 people—500 children and 500 adults. We gave out blankets and shared the gospel that they might know more of God's love for them. The following Christmas there were 2,000 people and the next year, 3,000! We were continually amazed at how God provided during these celebrations.
At that time we were both working as Christian counselors in a center that we had founded with other colleagues. The time we had spent with the scavengers at the Christmas celebrations had made us acutely aware of their needs, such as health care. We invited two of our colleagues, Dr. Steve Hammer and Dr. Lucrecia de Hernandez, to fulfill this need. Soon after, we started teaching children and their mothers about the Bible. We got more and more requests to come back.
I had been thinking about perhaps spending only my weekends working at the dump, because I thought, "I already have a ministry" (at that time there was a shortage of Christian counselors). "Besides," I told myself, "I don't want to work in a dump. I want to work in a nice, clean office; I want to wear dresses and high-heeled shoes." But God did not agree with my excuses; He orchestrated circumstances and provided an opportunity that I could not ignore. One day we were approached by a man who offered to donate a piece of land for a ministry to the scavengers; it was only 150 feet from the dump! This was my confirmation that God wanted me to quit my job as a counselor and start working at the dump full-time. In faith, Lisbeth and I both decided to answer God's call to minister there. Some people thought we were crazy: two women, both single and professionals, have no business working in the city dump! Another person told me, "You will never get married. The chances of you finding a husband here are almost non-existent."
With conviction we started working for the poor. I now believe that God put this desire in our hearts because everything we did was His idea first. As the ministry began to grow we decided to register with the government as a legal association. We invited people to join our board of directors and we began thinking about what to call our new association. God gave Jodi Hammer the idea of "Potter's House," based on Jeremiah 18:1-6. In February of 1991 Potter's House became a legal association.
Initially only women were interested in working on staff at Potter's House. But soon, the husbands of the women in our programs started asking us when we were going to provide a program for them, so we prayed that God would send men to be on our staff. Little did I know my future husband would be one of them! God blessed us with Edgar Güitz (my husband) and Hector Rivas, two men with great ability and training in administration. Their vision for the ministry reinforced and improved much of what we were doing. Now we have a 65-member staff, and 40% of our personnel are former scavengers.
This ministry has been successful for the sole reason that God has been with us from the beginning. He began the ministry and He will sustain it. It has not been easy but I know that my life, as well as the lives of all who have worked at Potter's House, has totally changed. We like to say, "After serving at Potter's House, no one is ever the same." That has definitely been true for me. These have been the most beautiful years of my life.
I assisted yesterday in ministry to a number of women from the community, providing audio visual support to Paulie and Susan Blount.  They are giving Potter's House a week of their time, making sure that the ministry is prepared for their November VBS.  The ministry expects to reach 2000 children with the love of Jesus Christ through this outreach.

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