Several years ago I was having a chat with my grandmother, when she said, out of the blue, “You keep talking about this ‘dump’ that you work in. It can’t be that bad-what is it REALLY?” I had to pause for a moment. In our modern day vernacular, it’s not unusual to hear people say “Oh, this house is such a dump” or “That place I work in is a real dump.” People don’t live in dumps, or work in dumps–in fact, most people couldn’t even tell you where the dump was if you asked them.
This past Saturday, I spent the day, along with 2300 other people, in “the dump.” We played games, ate (that is the true test of having arrived in this ministry-when you are walking along, in “the dump” and realize that you are eating your lunch as you do so–and don’t even think twice about it.) sat on Papa Noel’s lap, made crafts…with lots and lots and lots and lots…of GLITTER! Listened to several different groups provide the Gospel message in their own way, and just generally had a great time. I worked the entrance this year, as usual. I love seeing the people arrive, all dressed up in their “Sunday best” for a fun-filled day. Small children wiggled and fidgeted as their parents tried to keep them quiet until they passed through the line. Young mothers…really young mothers…came shyly through the line carrying that precious baby that should be a doll instead of a living, breathing reminder that childhood is officially over at the age of 12, or 14, or 17…Little old people whose eyes reflect a lifetime of hardship, hands that are gnarled from years of struggle to provide for their families, backs that are bowed with the weight of a thousand lifetimes. And yet they smile. They grasp my hand with their worn one-my rather “pristine” hand that has never really known what it means to work until my fingers cramp and refuse to straighten out. They look into my eyes with their wrinkled little faces and their wonderful, toothless smiles…sometimes they shyly shake my hand and sometimes they throw their arms around me and whisper “Dios te bendiga, niña” (“God bless you, little girl”)…They come, one and all…from the very tiniest of babies to the little old people who couldn’t tell you their age if you asked…they just know that they have been alive forever. Little girls, sweet and innocent, for another year at least. Little boys already swaggering with the first touches of the “bravado” that is the rule here…young men who are too “cool” to be here, and yet want desperately to play games and collect candy and sit on Papa Noel’s lap…
There is one group that always make stop for a moment. At the end of the party, we hand out gift bags. They contain about a weeks worth of staples for a family-rice, sugar, salt, flour…Every adult who comes through the gate receives this bag, and each child receives a gift bag with toys, school supplies and hygiene items such as toothbrushes and toothpaste-luxuries here for many. There is always a group of people who refuse to play the games or see Papa Noel. They come through the gates and go immediately to the designated area where they will receive their gifts bags…and just wait. Although we have enough for everyone, and tell them so, they aren’t willing to risk the possibility that maybe, just this time, there won’t be enough, and they will be the one who doesn’t get that food bag that will help them feed their children this week. They wait, patiently, not willing to take that chance, and go play just that one game over there that looks like it might really be fun…it’s not worth the risk.
I stood and observed this yearly happening with a friend of ours who has lived in several Latin American countries, and seen poverty at it’s very deepest levels. His insight is refreshing…he gets it. Poverty is not simply the absence of money. There is emotional poverty–when life is so hard, for so long, with no end in sight, you simply go through the motions. No laughter, no joy, no hope. There is educational poverty. Contrary to what we might think, lack of education is not ignorance. Ignorance is knowing what is right, and choosing to do the opposite, out of spite or anger, or whatever. When you are uneducated, you simply don’t…know. Education is the “great divide” between developed and undeveloped countries. It’s human nature to want to learn, to grow, to know. When that is denied, hope flickers, and dies…leading to emotional poverty. Poverty, despair and desperation have faces. They have feelings. They once had hopes, dreams, and aspirations…now they just exist, waiting.
My grandmother never really understood what I meant when I talked about the dump. She could not conceive of a place where life was so hopeless. As I stood there Saturday, remembering that conversation, it hit me. The “dump” is not a place. It’s despair and desperation and poverty and anger and frustration…in short…it’s the very world in which we live. It’s standing in Zambiza watching parents try to forget their worries for a few minutes. It’s walking down the street and seeing anger overflow in the people as they make their way through the day…
I often say that we have the greatest job in the world. We get to be a part of changing lives. We make people smile…we brighten their eyes, even if just for a moment…And we work in a dump. Full of garbage and thrown away dreams and melted hopes. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
It’s a DUMP, Mamaw. And you knew in your heart that I was exactly where I wanted to be. And you let me be there.