True Poverty

Guest ColumnistCommunity News

by Kelly Soifer

We drive for an hour or more in a beat up minivan called Old Blue. It drinks oil like mad, and its gears grind and grunt as it lurches over muddy roads and cobblestones. It almost feels like it sucks in its breath to squeeze through the narrow calles in the tiny little pueblos, inching its way past multicolored buses, strong Mayan women carrying loaded baskets on their heads, and children and skinny dogs darting in and out.

Painted signs assault us everywhere – advertisements for Coke, Pepsi, Bimbo white bread, Gallo Cerveza, cell phones, Burger King. I take this all in, gazing out the window, as the high school students seem only focused on their conversation – reliving the same jokes and stories over and over. Out the window I see trees exploding on the hills like broccoli, and clouds scudding past the tops of volcanoes. The people have incredibly black hair and wide cheekbones and smooth brown skin.

Right when I want to challenge the students to stop talking and just see what is around them, the van stops. They spill out of Old Blue, and immediately dive in to the life of the village. They say Hola to everyone they encounter. They know every child’s name and the stories about these children start flowing. I realize they have indeed been taking everything in.

As we walk into the village we slip and stumble on the mud. We pause at the darkened doorway of the home we are to work at. Truly, I hate to say it, but it’s a shack. Trash rings the outer walls. Two tiny cats scoot around. Their hair is matted, eyes gooey with dirt and disease. My own cats at home seem like sea lions in comparison! Chickens and roosters scratch around and inside various rooms. A duck waddles up with six incongruously soft and clean yellow ducklings. A bull is latched to a post, dropping feces and urine in its pen. There are children everywhere, running in and out of rooms, up and down paths, grabbing our hands, constantly reaching up for abrazos. I am not bothered by the filth; but I shudder at the children living in the midst of this. Disease and dirt are everywhere. No amount of mission trips and work teams could make this village sanitary.

In the midst of this, the team leader, a quiet, hardworking Guatemalan missionary named Hector directs us in building an additional room. We are tearing out existing walls made out of cornstalks, replacing them each with a sheet of corrugated metal.
This is still so substandard – there is no insulation, and water and mud can still seep in at the bottom. Yet it is a tangible step up from the way it was – the cornstalks break down and dissolve in the monsoonal rains of June and July.

The tools are few and basic. Two hammers, a shovel, a measuring tape, tin snips, a t-square, a level, a post-hole digger. The only truly advanced tool available is a cordless handsaw with a small blade – it can cut through a 4×4 piece of wood.

There is not enough space or tools for everyone to work. So the girls from our youth group go play with the children. They start with simple games – jump rope, duck duck goose (pato pato gonzo), tag, and so on. The children giggle and play with abandon. Our students sing the two Spanish songs they know in their Taco Bell Spanish. I love hearing it all.

Slowly, other children show up. I am never quite sure how that happens. It’s not as if the phones in the kitchens start ringing through the village! Yet the word spreads fast that the gringos are there. Starting at half a dozen, the numbers inch upward. By the time we leave at mid-afternoon, 25-30 children have come over. Young mothers, who are clearly the same age as the girls from our youth group, stand to the side and watch, with their babies on their hips.

Games keep getting invented and laughter continues to chatter through the heavy afternoon rain. As we slip and slide in the mud, the children are completely unfazed by the rain. We gingerly avoid the puddles, while the Mayan children stomp through without breaking stride. They don’t splash in the puddles to feel reckless – they simply don’t notice them. They are blissfully unaware of the cold and wet and filth around them. They are children.

We are called in at lunch to the main room of the home. The walls are lined with the items of life – pots and pans and hats and boots and bags. Nothing is thrown away. We sit on rickety plastic chairs that barely hold us. The mother has cooked all morning over an open fire in this room, making tortillas and rice for us in thanks. We are shamed. We have everything back home. Though we left much of our affluence behind to come here, it comes with us anyway in our thoughts, our expensive rain jackets and running shoes, our height and the braces on our teeth. We awkwardly sit down. They hand us bowls of rice and corn tortillas. We are hungry, and it tastes good.

Every set of eyes in the home are on us. I know they are looking to see if we like the food. Of course we do. But it is difficult to eat in front of them. I want to hand my bowl back and say No! You! Please eat this. I have had three square meals every single day of my life. But I do not. We have just built a room on their house. To reject their generosity would be rude.

Then Hector, the visionary leader, tells us more about the children around us. José is twelve, though he is the size of an American eight year old. His dad is not around. José loves to work with Hector. He is very talented, and learns quickly. José’s mother asked Hector to take José to live with him because his life would be better. Hector wants to figure out a way for José to get out of the village, but he also knows he cannot take on that responsibility himself. I watch José go back and forth – he helps Hector build, then runs up the hill to play Duck Duck Goose. This manchild must grow up so fast. He is reluctant at times, I can tell.

We hear about other children and their needs. We even lay hands on one girl who has been having seizures. We pray wimpy, baffled, we-don’t-really-know-how-to-pray prayers. Then Hector prays. His words flow out in a torrent. He prays for the children. He prays for healing. He prays for the truth. He prays for protection. He repents on behalf of the people in the village, who are still trapped in their ancient folk religions. He prays they will stop offering animal sacrifices to their animistic god. It moves me to hear him repent on behalf of his village. Like Nehemiah repenting for Israel. Like Jesus weeping over Jerusalem and their sin. I feel like a gringo.

We say Amen and lift our heads. The girl, only 8 or 9, has been crying. Not little girl tears, but big heaving sobs. It feels like a combination of fear coupled with an awareness of the Spirit coming down on her. I want to see God keep working in this remote village. I am thankful for Hector’s ministry there, and his heart for the children.

We finish our construction for the day. The thunder rumbles through the canyon like a freight train next to a bedroom window. The rain patters on the corrugated roof, so loud we can’t talk to each other. The children and my students keep playing.

Finally, we must go. As we wait for the van to pull up, one of Hector’s young friends from the village, Antonio, asks me why we come. He is part of a small group of men being discipled by Hector. I tell him, in Spanish, that I want our students to see the way others live, to see poverty, to see God at work in other believers, to share God’s love themselves. He replied, But there is not much poverty in Guatemala.

I gasp internally. Antonio continues. India and Africa are much poorer. You should go there – they really need help. I am embarrassed. I stutter out something about not being able to travel that far, and that God was using Guatemalans to teach us a great deal.

Antonio did not say this out of pride. He really believes those other places need our help more. We will take care of our people, his words said to me. I could tell he believed that God would use them to care for others. With that, we left. His words both inspire and haunt me. It seems that I have much to learn about the true face of poverty.

Looking at his disciples, he said:
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. (Luke 6:20)