I set off on my recent mission trip to Nicaragua with every intention of spending a week in service to poor orphans and with the hope that the encounter would deepen my relatively limited, first-world perspective on poverty. My perspective was indeed startlingly altered by my time there but in a way that was completely unexpected. My wife and I had gone to help out at Hogar Belen, a home for abandoned and disabled children, and found ourselves instead assisiting the orphanage in their outreach to those even less fortunate than themselves.
An orphanage helping the poor…? I thought the orphans were the poor.
Twice a month the staff of Hogar Belen, heads to the city dump to hand out food. The orphanage itself is
in fact, quite poor by American standards. However, by Nicaraguan standards it is more than a step above the poverty ladder. American parishes like St. Paul the Apostle Church in New York and St. Brigid’s Parish in Atlanta have become “sister” parishes with the home, sending funds and volunteers to fix up the property and serve the children’s needs.
Because of their generosity, Hogar Belen felt the call to give back and that call brought them to Chureca—to do what they call The Dump Ministry.
We spent the night before filling plastic bags with milk, grain, sugar, beans, and pasta. We also added a bowl of cereal and included baby formula for mothers with infants. Thirteen members of the mission group I was leading spent two and a half hours getting all of this ready, a task that the two-member night staff ordinarily does alone.
Driving to the dump
The next day, ten of us crammed into two vans along with two members of Hogar Belen’s staff and made our way to the dump. We were told that the area was dangerous and we were to keep the doors locked and the windows closed. My heart raced as we turned the corner to the entrance of the garbage dump. Almost immediately, two young men jumped onto the rear bumper of the van in front of us, the one carrying much of the supplies we were bringing, and they rode to where the food was going. We later learned that the men meant no harm to those inside, they simply wanted to get a head start to get some food.
Those who work at the dump also live there. It is a kind of shantytown filled with cardboard and corrugated tin homes. A strong wind could most likely collapse the more weakly built structutres.
Doña Ramona is the dump resident who runs a distribution center out of her home. She keeps a list of the other residents and their needs.
“Rivera, Maria—con leche,” she hollers, letting both the residents know to come forward and the workers to give her the baby formula with her care package. Occasionally someone from another neighborhood tries to sneak into the mix, often to try to sell the food and drink to a young woman in exchange for sex, money, or favors like drug peddling. Dona Ramona will have none of it.
“Only for personas en this neighborhood,” she yells in Spanglish.
As the residents and volunteers meet and exchange pleasantries, Dona Ramona’s son enters the home and plops himself down exhausted on the hammock just off the entranceway that was covered with flies.
In the best college Spanish I could muster, I asked him if he had just come from school.
“Mas calor para escuela, si?” (It’s too hot for school, right?)
“No, mas largo pero no calor.” (No, too long but not too hot.)
He is taking basic high school courses but soon he will have to go and work in the garbage dump.
When I asked him if he was going to go to college after high school, his eyes grew grim. “I’d like to,” he said, in flawless English, “but I have to take care of my mother.” He jumped up, shook my hand and ran off to work amongst the garbabge.
The residents of the dump have become an almost untouchable class. Those who are born in Chureca are doomed to die there. Dona Ramona’s own daughter had died of stomach cancer just a month before our visit and yet, Doña Ramona presses on, giving to her neighbors and making sure that all get what they need. She surveys the dump often to make sure she’s got all the information right and records it all with military precision in her notebook.
My friend Joe pointed out that nearly everything he saw in the dump was pregnant, women, dogs, cats, gerbils, even the pig who makes his home in Doña Ramona’s living room. Someone remarked privately that “perhaps birth control isn’t such a bad idea after all.” Someone else commented that they had seen condoms littered all over the lane. “Birth control isn’t the issue” one of our group members said “poverty is.”
True enough. Prostitution is rampant at Chureca with women selling themselves to men at higher prices for unprotected sex. The money makes a difference in the short run, but in the longer term, another mouth to feed is simply crushing economically. I shudder to think of the infant mortality rate and the percentage of sexually transmitted diseases.
As foreign as this place seemed to me I was struck by the similarities between the residents of Chureca and myself. As I looked into people’s eyes, I was able to see that they weren’t all that different from me. They are part of my family—the family of the human race with all of its frailties.
I prayed with them, leading them holding hands with a filthy and smelly old man and somehow it was beautiful.
As we walked out of Doña Ramona’s home, I nearly cracked my head on the beam that lines the entranceway, much to the delight of the little children and Doña Ramona herself. I told her that bonk was God reminding me that I hadn’t properly said good-bye. As I embraced Dona Ramona she laughed a big hearty laugh in my arms. I whispered to her, “Usted ha enseñado a este gringo mudo mucho.” (You have taught this dumb gringo much). Which made her laugh a lot harder.
But in fact, I was serious. Here was a woman whose daughter had died just a month ago, who lives amongst pigs and filth, with cardboard for walls and a hammock filled with flies. She is poor and yet, she gives of herself making sure that charity is received for all those who need it.
Initially, I thought that perhaps Doña Ramona was selfish and had sold out her community in order to get the food first. Perhaps she was even withholding food or extorting money from people so that they could get on her precious list. I’m embarrassed by the thought now. I was told by the staff at the orphanage that they had asked the residents if there was a leader in the community that everyone trusted that they could work with to set up a safe distribution center for food delivery.