(This month I am highlighting the plight of starving children in Guatemala. I had a chance to travel with Food for the Poor to help bring awareness to these precious gifts from God. The following are my very personal and tearful observations. Please read for hope and direction.)
Food for the Poor: Guatemala Trip Day One
I’m traveling with Food for the Poor to experience their work in Guatemala. As a host and spokesperson for those campaigns, I take my job seriously. I believe anything worth doing for the Lord is worth doing with a sincere passion. Consequently, I am excited to see for myself the life saving work of this important Christian relief organization.
I traveled from Seattle to Houston yesterday and spent the night in a marvelously generic hotel near the airport. This odd staging ground seemed appropriate for the journey I’m about to begin. Airport hotels are, for the most part, soulless in their decor. They feel more like an extension of the airport than an expression of the city where they abide. Consequently, I spent last night in Houston without being inconvenienced by the burden of city ambiance. Hotels near the airport are keenly aware that you are not bedding down in this location to see the sites. Instead, you are passing through or heading to a meeting or event that has little to do with the scenery.
Heading east from the west coast, my body was reluctant to go to sleep on local time. So I parked myself in the lobby to mingle quietly with my fellow airport row travelers. I hadn’t met up with my group yet, so I sat alone in the corner of the entry lounge twiddling on my ipad. Don’t know if twiddling is the right word, but it seems appropriate to express the aimless intent of my evening activity. In olden days, I would have been reading a newspaper or perusing the latest cave scrawl.
To contrast my ipad isolation, an ever increasing number of mildly inebriated, college aged, seemingly unattached adults began congregating in the lobby around me. At a ratio of 8 men to one woman, the room began to increase in volume and exaggerated bravado. Half of the gathering had drinks in hand, the others were between drinks in hand. As the crowd grew to 40 or so revelers, I began to suspect I had unwittingly found myself in the center of an alcohol fueled flash mob.
However, as the volume increased, I began to hear the phrase “party bus” bantered about. As best as I can surmise, I had inadvertently stumbled upon some sort of “bar bus” bus stop. Having never been on a party bus, I am unable to further elaborate. Eventually I headed back to my room as my non-inebriated presence became a distraction to the pre “party bus” tailgating.
As I headed back to my nondescript room, I was struck by the obvious contrasts. Here I am in a airport hotel in Houston, waiting for my adventure in Guatemala to begin. In the next few days I will see gorgeous scenery and devastating poverty. I’ll experience the cultural landscape of Guatemala for the first time and I’ll experience some of my first interactions with poverty induced sickness, disease, and malnutrition. In Guatemala I will celebrate life, and I will be confronted by death; the daily threat and reality of death that faces thousands of impoverished Guatemalans.
I think about that “party bus.” It all seems to me like such a waste of existence. The fleeting, temporary euphoria of inebriation at the cost of financial and relational integrity. The headaches and heartaches that will greet each partier in the morning. It is easy for me to judge the worth of such an activity. It is easy for me to look down upon such behavior.
Even so, I am struck with this profound truth. In the coming days I will see and experience things that will break my heart. I will be confronted with existences that call into question so much of my frivolous behavior and life. In a very real way, my activities at home will begin to seem as noble or meaningful as that “party bus.”
Guilt is a lousy motivator; so is fear. Ultimately, we do the work of the Kingdom based on calling and conviction. With this in mind, I am committed to face the inconsistencies in my faith’s theology and practice. I’m willing to gaze intently into faces that break my heart. I do this with the hope and assurance that I will find Jesus. I will see him among the ruins, I will experience him among the despair, and I will look to his guidance for my response.
Food for the Poor: Guatemala Trip Day Two
We arrived in Guatemala City on a pleasant, partly cloudy day. Not much humidity, clear air, and a slight breeze. Our group of twenty travelers from radio stations around the country headed directly to the Sor Lucia Roge Nutritional Center in town. The Nutritional Center is actually an orphanage where extremely malnourished children are rescued back to life. It is immaculately clean and well staffed by smiling helpers. When you enter the facility’s grounds and courtyard you are greeted by well kept green grass; vibrant flowering plants and trees, and the gracious smile of Sister Ana Cristina.
Sister Ana Cristina exudes a Mother Teresa like joy and passion for the children she has dedicated her life to rescuing. In total, there are about ninety kids from infant to grade school aged living at the center. The first two rooms each have about twelve cribs, mostly full of infants and tiny toddlers. At first, most of the children stand at the edge of their cribs staring blankly at the new guests. After a few minutes, some of the children are letting us hold them or gently caress their shoulder or face. The children show their appreciation with a tempered response that reflects the cost of prolonged malnutrition. They are being well fed at this moment, but they have traveled a dangerous journey to get here. The lasting signs of malnutrition are still very much evident. The emaciation might be gone, but their skin still has the look of a child that has seen too many difficult days.
I pay careful attention to how the kids respond to their caretakers. There is a genuine kindness and motherly affection demonstrated by the women who faithfully care for these precious gifts from God. The babies and toddlers reach out to the caretakers as a child reaches out to someone they love and trust. As we head past the first two rooms and place the babies back into their cribs, we move to a room full of playful toddlers and grade school aged kids. They run up to us and give us hugs. We try to carry on a conversation that is limited by our language barriers. Even so, A hug or playful bounce on the knee expresses a universal connection.
Our last room is a room of pictures. A wall full of starving children. . . children with hollow eyes and despairing cries. A wall full of skin and bones. . . . children with life in their blood, but little else. These are the before pictures. The before they were rescued by sister Ana and her team of surrogate mothers. Before they received the nourishment and medical care provided by Food for the Poor.
Food for the Poor: Guatemala Trip Day Three, Four and What Day is This Anyway?
The days have been too full and too long for me to write a daily update. Sometimes it seems better to just live in the moment than to parse every moment at day’s end into a journal. I’m also not much for doing anything on a daily basis. Two excuses seem like enough preamble, what follows is an amalgamation of the remainder of my whirlwind trip.
Much of our time was spent visiting the homes of impoverished, destitute families.
Guatemala has a beauty, and a first glance tranquility, that can skew one’s perception of the dire poverty which permeates almost every hill and valley. Driving through the scenic mountains of Guatemala is a captivating journey. It’s a memorable experience due to the twisting roads, the volcanic mountain vistas, and the increasingly thin air.
At 10,000 feet above see level, the breath and heart rate quickens. As I walk a dirt road path to a house of desolation, my heart begins to resonate a deep, rapid rhythm, my breath becomes shallow and focused. It’s nothing severe, but I take notice of the change within me. This exaggerated biology could be explained by lack of exercise or the excitement of anticipating the unknown destination just a quarter mile up the road. But it seems more than physiology and elevation. Instead, it’s as if my mortality understands the reality of the moment. The reality that I am very much alive and full of life, and these families are very much dying.
Everyone will eventually die, but not this way. No, everyone will not, and should not, die this way. But at 10,000 feet above sea level, in the scenic hills of Guatemala, families are dying daily. They are dying physically, psychologically, and spiritually. Poverty steals their dreams, stunts their growth, destroys their youth, and takes away their children. Within the breathtaking vistas of the Guatemalan countryside, poverty is destroying lives made in the image of God.
So my breath, my heart, and my soul testify to the truth that these mountains contain both beauty and devastating sorrow.
We visited the rundown shack of Martin and Isabella Lopez. Martin weaves intricate colorful fabric, which takes hours of meticulous labor to produce. Despite working twelve hours a day, seven days a week, Martin is unable to earn more than six dollars a month. This is not enough money to pay the rent for his home nor provide food for his children. To earn extra pennies, Isabella and the children collect sticks to sell. Isabella brought us into her house to show us her kitchen. Her kitchen is a small pot in the corner of a dark room, perched over the ashes of burning sticks. There is no food or food pantry. Isabella is desperate, there are no signs of hope or life. Her children are malnourished and afraid.
As we walk through this tiny abode, we see blankets on the mud floor. This is where the family sleeps. This is where the day ends and begins: a cold dirt floor.
Martin has prepared for our group four eight yard rolls of fabric. We eagerly pay a fair price for each roll that has literally taken hours and weeks of Martin’s life to create. The money we pay for the vibrant textile is more than he will receive from local merchants who will take the cloth to market. Martin is grateful, humble, and keenly aware of his inability to find a solution for his family. Isabella and Martin pray blessing upon our group, as we provide mattresses to keep the children from sleeping on the floor. They pray blessing upon us. . . that we should prosper in God’s grace. They tell us that we will be remembered in their prayers always. . . always in their prayers to be remembered. Even in the cold nights, even in the hunger pains, even in the desperate hours of sickness and despair, they will hold us in their prayers. I am reminded that Jesus is speaking, that he is abiding in Martin and Isabella as we abide with them.
We leave Martin and Isabella with food, mattresses, and hope for land and a house they will someday be able to own. As we carry away our newly purchased beautiful, hand woven, silk strung fabric, I celebrate and mourn what we have just done. We have taken the only color in their house and exchanged it for daily bread and daily shelter. We have validated the tireless work of a father and mother, we have brought hope into the equation, we have provided nourishment for the children. We have paid a worthy price for a worthy handwoven fabric. Even so, the fabric was the only color in the room; the fabric was the only beautiful thing inside the darkened space. Now the color leaves with us and the thread is all that remains.
People have eternal consequences. Our best time, energy, and resources must be dedicated to people. They are made in the image of God and they deserve for us to honor that image. I’ve preached a variation of these words countless times. However, with fabric in hand, I have never been so certain of this spiritual truth. Too often we waste our lives pursuing the rust and dust, unable to see the eternal treasures found in the face of a dearly loved and cared for child.
Abandoned but not forgotten
Josefa Morales was abandoned by her husband four years ago. Unable to feed and provide for her family, Josefa and her oldest daughter Juana beg to do the laundry of their neighbors for pennies a load. They cannot survive in this current condition, they cannot scavenge for enough food. While we stood in the dirt courtyard of their tiny abode, I was struck by the injustice and madness of this condition. Josefa and her children are working as hard as they can, yet they cannot do anything to improve their situation. They have no voice, they have no way to right this injustice. As we talked and prayed with the family and brought them mattresses and news of present and future help, I began to think of my own childhood.
I have never faced the hunger and poverty I’ve seen in the last week. However, I have faced the fear of dying before my time. I was extremely sick for a year of my middle school experience. At that time, I faced a lot of uncertainty and questions about my ability to live a long life. During that season, I took great comfort in God’s presence and God’s promises. I began to realize that my only certainty in life was rooted in God’s eternal, abiding presence.
As I looked into the face of Josefa Morales, a resolve rose up within me. “I have a voice, and I can use it!” I thought back to when I was sick and to the prayers I would whisper in secret to my Savior. They were desperate prayers, weeping prayers, pleading prayers, even hopeless prayers. Many times I asked the Lord to heal me so that I could serve him. I promised God that if he would let me live, I would be His voice.
As Josefa Morales tearfully spoke of her family’s hardship, one of her little boys began to cry near the edge of our conversation. A fellow male traveler and I began to comfort him. His eyes had the weight of a sensitive conscience unable to avoid his awareness of the world around him. Unable to escape into childhood indifference, he understood the need and his inability to make it better. No matter how hard he worked to help mama, he was unable to help mama. I could tell that this knowledge alone was crushing his heart. We comforted him, caressing his shoulder and head. We prayed that the Father’s heart would permeate this fatherless child.
I have a voice! God has rescued me from the pit and he has given me a voice! I will use that voice, even if no one wants to listen. Please give this child a voice, please rescue this family.
Among the refuse and ruins My children search for bread. Among the garbage they seek a future. Among the dogs, among the stench, among the discarded waste they contend for their worth. And this is always before Me. . . You and My children always before Me.
Marie Macario’s husband died trying to fish dead bloated animal carcasses out of a swollen river. He left behind a house full of dependent children. Marie Macario lives with the burden of trying to provide for her four daughters, her daughter-in-law and her six grandchildren. Her house is a cramped mud shanty, the walls are on the verge of collapsing. As I walked into the bedroom of her children and grandchildren I saw several long polls with hooks attached at their ends. The children use these polls at the nearby garbage dump. They scavenge for hours to find something they can sell or eat. As Marie somberly tells her story of hardship, her daughter-in-law begins to break down and cry.
The daughter-in-law tells us that she grew up an orphan, that she married Marie’s son but he abandoned her and her children. She tells us how Marie took her in as her own daughter, she tells us how overwhelmed she is with our generosity and our simple presence. There are twelve people in this house, yet they have only shared two small tamales and a small amount of coffee. On this day, Food for the Poor provides them with hope. They are given news that a new house will be built, they are also provided with mattresses and food. This is a temporary victory. It is a miracle worth celebrating. But it will not prevent the children and grandchildren from returning to the dump. . . unless we do something about their condition.
And there is more. . . . always more. . . .sadly more. . . . just one more to feed
Our journey through Guatemala also showed us many signs of hope. We visited new communities where Food for the Poor had built new houses and provided new ways for sustainable living. We saw community run fish, goat, pig, and chicken farms. We participated in children’s feeding programs and we repeatedly received blessings and gratitude from each community Food for the Poor serves. Every day was a day of miracles among the ruins, joy within the sorrow, hope out of the ashes.
I don’t want to paint a bleak picture for the purpose of swaying your emotions. However, I don’t want to leave you settled. You and I need to be reminded of the truth of our health and prosperity. We need to do more than just remember the poor. We must abide with the poor and their burden must abide with us. In the scenic mountains of Guatemala, among the gorgeous vistas, and the seemingly idyllic villages, there abide hungry families with hungry children. Tonight, hunger pains will lead to weeping, to sickness, and to death. Today, families will work for hours trying to survive. If they are lucky, they will find what is necessary to escape the grave. We must believe in more than fate and luck. We must be about the Kingdom that advances. We must be certain that it is our gift that will change the world.
I don’t believe that I am responsible for all the world’s poor. But I do believe that I am responsible for the poor that have been entrusted to my care. I believe that a child or maybe even many children have been entrusted to your care. They are watching you read this plea and they are waiting for your response before they head into the fields and wastelands of Guatemala. Please see them with the eyes of Jesus.
And I looked among the ashes and saw a new Kingdom rising. My heart leapt within me and I gave myself freely to the pursuit of this more permanent Kingdom. It has made all the difference in my days on earth and it shall be the joy of my eternal future.