Few events in my life have left me with what I felt were lasting images, the kinds of sights that seem to be indelibly marked into my thinking. On a steamy Monday morning in August we drove in two vehicles into the depths of hell on earth. We drove through the smoke that rises from the trash burning in La Chureca, past a horse that was on the verge of death while the small, black buzzards eagerly circled its body and began picking at its flesh and past the loads of fresh trash coming into this wasteland.
We stopped outside a house on the edge of the dump. Of course, "house" here is a very loose description, as it did not at all resemble the sort of house that you and I would want to inhabit. Metal scraps had been fitted together and sectioned off into rooms. There were some cooking implements in the kitchen area, but they were covered with flies. The house was fenced in with barbed wire around the top, and strung throughout the small yard area as well.
There we met eight year old Brian, who was on his own. He was supposed to be in school, but had decided not to go for the day. I tried as hard as I could to imagine leaving my son (who's 7) alone by himself for the day under the best of circumstances, but I couldn't bring myself to see how I would do that. We played marbles, and worked in snippets of conversation in Spanish while I tried to understand what I was seeing. The idea of an 8 year old at home alone for the day doesn't fit my context. But, then again, neither did anything else about this place. The country foreign in language and culture, but it seemed even more alien than that.
On Thursday we went to visit another small community near the dump, called La Playa. We were invited there by one of the men we met at the small elementary school we were working at. We saw where he lived, which was not much more than a small shack with a few beds, and a place to cook. He pointed with pride to his light bulb – a sign of wealth in his community. La Playa (which in Spanish means "the beach"), is set right up on the shores of Lake Managua. As we walked to the water, I was overwhelmed with the thought that this should be such a picturesque spot – a tourist haven where people would come to view the spectacular lake, surrounded by mountains and trees. Instead we saw a lake filled with pollution, littered with trash all along its banks.
How different are Luis and I, really? We're both men with a family. We both work to make a living. We both have hopes and dreams and expectations for our lives. But when it comes to our living conditions, there couldn't be a more dramatic difference. I'll go to sleep tonight in a comfortable bed. I'm sure I'll eat a good meal tonight, and if I'm honest, I'll probably eat more than I need to for sustenance. If I want to, I'll wake up tomorrow and forget about Luis. There's a part of me that wishes I could.
I wrote in my journal that what I saw would be hard to explain to someone used to living like I do even with "the power of a picture and another thousand words." I could preach to you and tell you that you have no idea of how blessed and fortunate we truly are. I could tell you that while you spend $2 a day on your coffee, much of the world LIVES on that amount. I could litter the page with hundreds and thousands of descriptive words by whose power I could hope to persuade you that you have some kind of responsibility to Brian and others because of our common humanity. I could share with you the stories that we heard of young girls who, in hopes of a better life, are given over to older men who promise to take care of them, but in a few short months end up back in their homes, pregnant and unwanted. But in the end, I guess that none of those would adequately move you.
At some point in your life, I hope that you will take a trip like the one I did. I hope that you will stand in a place where you feel the crushing burden of human poverty and brokenness. This I hope not because I wish a guilt trip upon you, or because I hope to torture you somehow with thoughts of your own greed and desire for more, but because I hope that in that place you might feel something of the weight that I believe breaks the heart of God when he looks at our world.
Brian is 8, my son is 7. I know one of them made it to school today, and one of them is pretty sure to have every opportunity in life to realize his dreams. The other, I'm not so sure about. And that bothers me. Though I'm not usually a fan of being bothered, the truth is, I hope it never stops.
Tomorrow, we'll regroup and touch on two of the groups we met that were bothered by this too, and are doing something to address the great needs in La Chureca.