On our 2015 Guatemalan vacation, we strolled Antigua’s streets, bought textiles of a dozen textures and colors, hiked a volcano, and sipped espresso at cafe Fat Cat’s, a finca (coffee farm) and anywhere else they poured. Indigenos brightened the scenery as they sold wares, shared food, tended to babies, and worked the land. I looked for Juana and Wilmer everywhere we traveled, including Guate, Antigua, Panajachel, Santa Cruz, and Nahuala.
My daughter arranged an eco-lodge stay (www.utopiaecohotel.com) where I “out-aged” most by three decades. I tried to match their adventurous spirit, agreeing to a way-edgy raft trip (no life jackets, helmets, or insurance forms). At the first of a dozen waterfalls, I fell off. Miraculously, I didn’t hit my head or lose my eyeglasses…or drown, like an Israeli tourist, one year after our visit…
Semuc Champey provided safer sensory wonders. We swam in cascading pools and then took a steep, sinuous hike despite rain drizzling our necks. In the faces of young locals, I saw the shy smile, the bright eyes, of Juana’s and Wilmer’s photos. Were they able to enjoy Guatemala’s beautiful places?
Everywhere we saw the contrast between Guatemala’s beauty and the ugly truth that most have no potable water; most own no land. The world-famous Guatemalan coffee’s too expensive for them to try, as are fruits like mangoes, pineapples, nispero, and caimito. Beyond the bucolic scenes before me, folks are in survival mode, water jugs balanced on their heads, wood strapped on their backs. Children beg for money or holler, “Senor o senora, quiere _?” selling everything from woven bracelets to walking sticks, cervesas (beers) to dulce (candy). The young entrepreneurs switch craftily to English— “Hey, mister, wanna beer?”—after sizing us up. According to a U.N. official, they aren’t scrounging up money for extras. “A staggering 83 percent of Guatemalans live in extreme poverty,” he said during a 11-19-17 Telesur interview (www.telesurtv.net/english/news/UN-83-of-Guatemalans-Live-in-Extreme-Poverty--20171119-0021.html). “46.5 percent…under the age of five suffer from chronic malnutrition” (ibid). Also, “Guatemalans live two different realities, one…modern and functional.” In the other, “a minority controls the political and economic power…the rest “suffer(s) from discrimination, impunity, corruption and other human rights violations” (ibid). We saw hints of that wealthy minority: tinted Rolls Royce windows; palatial roofs that arched over massive gates. At such places stamd guards: always uniformed, never smiling. Sunglasses mask eyes that knew the story behind those shiny quetzales, a story that, according to the article, reeks of social and economic injustice, the chasm between rich and poor.
The chasm plunged dizzyingly at Potter’s House, a ministry next tp the Guatemala City dump, one of the world’s largest landfills. On Christmas Eve 1986, according to http://pottershouse.org.gt, “two Guatemalans…Lisbeth and Gladys went to the trash dump—the poorest, most dangerous place in Guatemala City” because a friend begged them to do so. “The moment I set foot in the dump the stench overwhelmed me,” said Gladys. “Slowly a great pain inside me welled up as I saw children playing in the filth, people rummaging through the trash…children and adults sniffing glue” (ibid). Though vowing never to return, in 1991, Gladys opened Potter’s House doors, ministering to those lovingly called “treasures.” Our daughter doubted we’d find a driver who’d come here, but one of her regulars agreed.
The street got more pocked and more trash-strewn as we searched for 29 calle 7-42, zona 3. Finally, we pulled up to an inauspicious concrete building amid crumbling structures, paid the driver, and hopped out. Raggedy people milled about an enormous pit filled with mountains of trash, growling bulldozers, and human beings, bending, picking, claiming. The odor of a million spoiled meals pervaded the air. Two skeleton-like men staggered by, their eyes wide-open and unblinking. A dead mouse lay near my foot, and a puppy circled, then crumpled to the ground. Poor thing would soon be as still as the mouse. Every fiber in my body cried for relief…and we’d been here 30 seconds. I again thought of Juana and Wilmer, whose pastor had written to me of the extreme poverty of the children in his congregation. Of course, Potter’s House served an urban population, but did Juana and Wilmer suffer from this kind of need?
We wobbled our way inside the building, my daughter whispering, “This is one of the craziest things I’ve ever done.” In the lobby, we checked in, then sat down and waited, along with others, to be beeped past another massive door. I fidgeted as I tried to process what went on outside by that dump.
Buzz. The door opened. There stood a woman with thick hair and an olive complexion. She held out her hand and said, “I’m Andrea. Welcome to Potter’s House!” We exchanged pleasantries, moved up staircases, and reached a conference room where we were served fresh cookies and coffee. Andrea showed us a DVD that dug past the rubble we’d seen outside to learn about poverty.
“Don’t focus on all the stuff. That alone doesn’t make you poor.” My eyes widened as the presentation walked us through the God-ordained truth that each human, made in God’s image, is a treasure, whether they live by a dump or behind a walled estate. Like a pie, poverty’s divided in wedges: spiritual, intellectual, relational, legal, physical, civic, and economic. Often, I’ve been too lazy, sated in the pursuit of comfort, to help friends in need of encouragement, a ride, a prayer. In oh, so many ways, I’m “wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked” (Revelation 3:15). How often I hurry into my hermetically-sealed house-box to chill out; a.k.a., stare for an hour or more at a gigantic screen. My poverty looks and smells different from those here, who bribe gang members to enter a 40-acre dump that daily gains a million pounds of weight. To eke out a living, these materially poor Guatemalans “breathe in toxic fumes and sift through biohazardous materials” (http://endeavors.unc.edu/win2008/guatemala.php).
Later, we toured Potter’s House. Though children were gone (some ministering in rural areas, some on summer vacation) we saw a spacious lunchroom and family development, health-nutrition, and micro-enterprise centers. This organization’s drive to minister to rural countrymen again convicted me of time- and resource-wasting. How could I ever have a god-complex, after what I’d seen and learned today? How could I not give generously to missions?
We left the complex with Andrea and a guard and were joined by a woman who was what we’d call, back in Illinois, a block captain. The three locals led us down a street lined by corrugated structures mere yards from the dump. At the first home, we met stout, smiling “Maria” and several children. Maria offered us plastic lawn chair seats and said, “Mom’s with Dad at the hospital. Dad needs dialysis.”
Had toxic fumes destroyed his kidneys? While they were gone, Maria watched the children, who sat on the floor and played with meowing kittens. “They are good people,” Maria continued, “who took me in when a landlord evicted me from another area.” Apparently six communities surround the dump. Maria pointed to a back room. “A blind man lives here, too.” I nodded but didn’t see where seven could sleep. Where did they use the bathroom? Find food? The smell of cat waste, combined with the dump’s stench and the relentless heat, made me queasy, yet it didn’t affect Maria’s cheery demeanor nor interrupt the kids’ happy play. During our prayer time, Maria focused on “Dad’s” dialysis. She prayed earnestly, joyfully, seemingly grateful for what she had.
We went to another home. Dad said he worked in the dump and hoped one day to drive a truck. He and his wife radiated hope and trust and thanked God for Potter’s House. Our final stop took us to the home of “Ruth,” an El Salvadoran-born victim of sex trafficking. Ruth escaped enslavement when a man married her. They had two children. Then her husband died. Ruth fell into material poverty and eked out a living. Then someone left an infant on her doorstep. “Lord,” she prayed, “I will adopt him, but you must provide.” Ruth miraculously began to lactate and the local community brought food. Proudly, Ruth pointed to a photo of her doorstep baby and told us, “He is school-age today.” Ruth took our prayer requests and shared her own: for her cancer to stay in remission, for her son to keep his garbage truck job despite losing an arm, for her to live to see her doorstep baby grown. Despite troubles heaped upon more troubles, Ruth also acted as a neighborhood leader and tried to help others whenever she could. The simultaneous praying we did at each home melded English, Spanish, joy, and sorrow. Christ joined us; I could never forget.
Too soon, we said good-bye to Potter’s House and this place that was oh-so-rich in community. As our driver whisked us to our next stop, I thanked God for His mercy in allowing me to meet Maria, Ruth, Andrea, and the other treasures. How much they had to offer! How rich they were in faith and love!
After a short drive, our driver swerved past Mercedes and Lincolns and let us out at the gate of Paseo Cayala, a community/hotel/open-air shopping mall that offers a “haven” to Guatemala City’s “wealthy” (www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jan/09/guatemalan-capital-wealthy-haven-city). We ate lunch and strolled past gurgling fountains, more restaurants, boutiques, coffee and tea shops, nightclubs, even a church. I chatted with my daughter and husband, bought a Guatemala bumper sticker, even polished off gelato, but my heart was back at Potter’s House. I needed to grow in faith and in community. I needed to ask God how best to support the materially poor both here in Guatemala…and back in Illinois. I needed to better understand my poverty and beg God for His grace and His mercy.
On our journey, my daughter introduced us to Guatemala’s first female cartographer, a 96-year-old restaurant owner and soap opera lover who regaled us with snacks and jaw-dropping stories of her job-related travels to rural areas. We visited with the daughter of the mayor of a prominent town who’d studied and taught in the U.S. We’d eaten at least a dozen of the hundreds of tortillas made in the home of a successful entrepreneur who outfitted me in one of the beautiful trajes she sold. She wrapped and tucked and twisted the cloth into place, all the while laughing, surely, at how the Kich’e skirt and blouse didn’t complement my shape quite the way it did hers. To my daughter’s chagrin, she seconded the notion that I could wear my new outfit back to our hired car. I learned that despite the great divide between rich and poor, between ladino and indigena, Guatemalans refuse to be stereotyped and strive to define their world as best they can. Still, rule of law is not available to most in Guatemala. Basic necessities are lacking as well.
I slept on the flight back home, but even in my subconscious state, I thought of Juana and Wilmer. I would write to them about my experiences. Perhaps I’d send family photos posing in front of a volcano, Semuc Champey, or maybe one of me in the traje. I’d do all I could to connect with them. I would pray more. I would write more.
Despite my thoughts, my analyses, I did not have peace about the relationship with Juana and Wilmer. I didn’t know it yet, wouldn’t know it for three years, but it would take another trip to Guatemala to get a better grasp on my role with Compassion. Oh, I had much to learn. I had only just begun.