A Blaze of Warmth and Light amid Dark Forces in Guatemala
October 9, 2014
An after-school program gives kids a sense of belonging.
Children from impoverished families in Guatemala face oppression on several fronts. Illiteracy thwarts them, gangs come to schools to recruit them, and parents routinely beat them – sometimes killing them.
Humberto Chavez*, director of a ministry based in Guatemala City reaching out to such children, knows the oppressive forces first-hand. Not only does he live among the poor as an indigenous missionary, but physical and verbal abuse from his own childhood family drove him from home when he was 7 years old.
His dark-skinned father had mistreated him because he was born light-skinned, like his German mother. When his father divorced and remarried, his stepmother was also cruel toward him. For seven years, until he was 14, he lived on the streets, sleeping in abandoned cars and eating from garbage piles.
At 14 he sought out his mother, but she was too poor to care for him.
“When I found my mother, she said ‘I can’t have you here,’” he said. “I went hitch-hiking to Puerto San Jose to live with an aunt. But when I arrived at the town, I went to end of the pier, and I wanted to throw myself into the sea.”
Something in him told him not to kill himself. “I turned around and went to find my life,” he said.
He went to the house of his mother’s sister, who consented to take him under one condition – that he attend church.
Chavez found Christ, went to Bible college and pastored churches for 30 years.
“During those 30 years, I still had a little resentment toward my parents,” he said. “My wife felt called to work with children, and one time someone praying said, ‘You’re going to be the father of many children.’ I said, ‘I don’t want children – I want adults.’”
The bitterness and resentment simmering within eventually led him to forgive and reconcile with his father, and Chavez gained the heart for children that would enable him and his wife to launch the ministry.
“The Lord changed my mind and my heart, and He put the love in my heart for children,” Chavez said.
The ministry began in 1997, and Christian Aid Mission began assisting it in 2001. In a country where 40 percent of those in prison are youths, according to Chavez, the ministry offers the poorest children in the Guajitos slum hot meals three times a week, after-school tutoring, Bible instruction and, critically, a sense of belonging.
“We were called to love children to reach them with the gospel of Christ,” Chavez said. “Children become members of the ministry, and that gives them a sense of belonging. We teach them that they have ownership in the ministry – that they are to help others as they have been helped – in order to prevent delinquency.”
Violent gangs offer kids first and foremost a sense of belonging, he said. In Guatemala City, where 30 people are killed each day, gang members show up at schools to recruit children. They also send kids text messages saying, “If your family in your house doesn’t love you, come join with us. We can give you that and more,” Chavez said.
Gang initiation requirements can involve killing store owners or others, he said.
Children pray at ministry center in Guatemala City.
“Recently they sent three young people from 10 to 12 years old to kill five elderly people,’” he said. “They only killed three, and they were arrested. The jails have more than 15,000 adolescents.”
Accepting children for care between the ages of 3 and 7, the ministry is one of prevention.
“And the prevention is not theoretical – the ministry is them feeling the love of the ministry,” Chavez said. “The children long to be part of the ministry. They enter, and they don’t want to leave. It’s heaven for them inside, and they don’t want to go outside because it’s hell.”
Many of the children remain in the program as they grow older and help to care for the younger ones. Coming from homes where the father is absent in about 40 percent of the families, children in the programs sometimes find home is more dangerous than the street.
“It’s something incredible, but there are parents who are very bad, drinking, fighting, killing, even killing their children in ‘accidents,’” Chavez said.
He described how, after one child’s drunken mother and father were fighting, the mother and an uncle crashed a motorbike into a truck with the little one placed on the front end of the bike.
“The kid who was in front was part of the ministry, and he got killed when his head was injured,” Chavez said.
Rosa Contreras Hart, head of Christian Aid Mission’s Latin America Division, said Chavez and his wife Martha* regard the children as their own.
“They were really sad about this, because they said, ‘This is a kid I held in my hands, carried him, taught him the Bible, and it’s like I lost my own grandchild because I have cared for him and fed him,’” she said. “So each one is like their own child.”
Serving 80 children in one locale and 30 in another in Guatemala City, the ministry last year expanded to two other regions. A weekend program in the Solola area, 71 miles west of Guatemala City near Lake Atitlan, reaches 600 children; another 400 kids are served in the Jalapa area, 35 miles east of the capital.
Some parents come to Christ after seeing the impact the ministry has made on their children, said Chavez’s wife Martha. The couple seeks to expand an incipient program to teach parenting classes.
“We train them how to raise their children, how to reach them and instruct them in the Word of God,” Martha said. “We teach the parents to have a mind open to other ways than simply insulting them – they were mistreated, so they’re mistreating the children. The parents could be mad about something, and they’re unloading it on their children.”
The couple also seeks to develop classes on trades such as baking and carpentry – skills that could eventually translate into an escape from poverty. And they need more space so they won’t have to turn away so many children who seek care. A building they would like to purchase for their headquarters in Guatemala City would cost $100,000, they said.
“Children want to come, but they have limited space,” Contreras Hart of Christian Aid Mission said.
Chavez knows what it’s like to be turned away, and he knows the power of the gospel to change lives. The testimony of his own life ultimately affected some who most hurt him as a child.
“My father never became a Christian until he was 84 years old, on the edge of life, through the change he saw in me,” he said. “My mother also accepted Christ at the end of her life.”
*(names changed for security reasons)