August 11, 2015
The View of God from the Garbage Heap
Post by Brittany Tedesco
I remember it as though it were yesterday. I'd only recently started working for Christian Aid Mission, and it was my turn to lead staff meeting. I opened our Prayerline publication, located the prayer item for the day, and started reading. And then my throat tightened a bit. The words jumped out and startled me.
That was the day I learned that actual communities of people live in and around giant garbage dumps as a means of survival.
The particular garbage dump I read about that day was Smokey Mountain in Manila, Philippines: a "mountain" made of more than 2 million tons of garbage. It earned its name from the "smokey" cloud of methane gas it produced. Shanty towns had been built around the trash heap, from which men, women, and children would emerge each day to scavenge for recyclable materials or anything else they could sell. The average family earned $1 per day.
Smokey Mountain closed down when the government moved it to a new district. The new 50-acre landfill is home to tens of thousands of people, many who used to live at Smokey Mountain. Nearly 1,000 of those scavengers were killed in a garbage landslide.
Children who live near a dump in the Philippines attend a Christian preschool assisted by Christian Aid Mission.
Christian Aid Mission supports a ministry there, started by a woman with a heart for slum children. She and her family moved right into that garbage city with all of its poverty, stench, disease, and heartbreak to start a preschool. Certainly she's had her struggles, including intermittently contracting various illnesses that fester there--but her goal is ever before her: to win souls among those garbage dwellers. She's ministered to hundreds of children, and through them, to parents.
Little did I know at the time, but that garbage community in the Philippines is one of many throughout the world.
In Phnom Penh, Cambodia, people built little hovels around a landfill spanning nearly 100 acres. An indigenous ministry we assist opened Joy Daycare Center for children living near the dump. Ministry workers pick the children up from their homes and take them to this haven where they receive a nutritious meal, education, and the knowledge of Jesus.
Writes the ministry leader, "While their families and older siblings would go out to pick through the garbage, usually the smallest children of these families would play in the dump or wait for their parents to come back with something to eat. These children suffer greatly from malnutrition and diseases which flourish in such toxic environments."
Can you imagine that life? I can't. I count myself blessed to have been born into a developed country. . . but then, I always feel a little strange using that word "blessed" about my circumstances. It makes me wonder why I was spared from a life of extreme destitution and others weren't.
Anne Easker, our summer intern, wrote in her guest post a few weeks ago that it "seems outrageously unfair to be a young woman in the west, so extraordinarily wealthy."
I share her sentiments about the fairness of it all. I'm grateful, just bewildered that the scales seemed to be so tipped in my favor.
But maybe, in some ways, they're not.
A few days ago I came across this verse in the book of James: "did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith" (2:5 NASB).
One of our staff members has conducted extensive research on missions in India, and in one of our staff meetings he contrasted church planting methods in the U.S. with those of native believers in India.
Church planting in the U.S. typically happens this way: an established church will plant a sister church in an adjacent city or town by constructing a building, sending some of its congregation to it, and hoping it grows. The empty seats are gradually filled, but mainly by people who are already Christians who live nearby.
Church planting in India typically happens this way: a local believer, or native missionary, visits the homes in his community to meet families and learn of their struggles. Then, he prays for them. Miraculous healings or answers to prayer are more frequent than not.
The families realize that the God of the missionary has power. . . whereas the local witchdoctor couldn't help them, except perhaps temporarily. They want to know about this God. They learn about Jesus, repent of their sins, and invite their friends and neighbors to hear about Him too. A church is formed. No building necessary.
A striking contrast, is it not? One is so measured, careful, logical, committee-oriented. The other is so vibrant, contagious, exciting, simple. Simple faith: the kind God seems to have granted so abundantly to the poor of this world.
Is it our wealth that causes our measured approach to the gospel? Does it foster cynicism and doubt? Is it a substitute for the kind of simple faith that moves mountains?
Jesus told us a person can't serve God and wealth. If sorting through garbage is your sole means of earning income, you don't have the temptation—let alone the option—of chasing after wealth. You are the poorest of the poor. But according to Scripture, that's not such a terrible place to be.
"Believers who are poor have something to boast about, for God has honored them. And those who are rich should boast that God has humbled them. They will fade away like a little flower in the field" (James 1:9-10 NLT).
Does God know something we don't? (Probability level: high)
Inhabitants of "Garbage City" in Cairo sort the city's trash for recyclables or anything of value.
Since the 1940s, a community of poor people known as the Zabbaleen in southeast Cairo have acted as the city's garbage collectors. Their largest settlement is in Mokattam village or "Garbage City." They collect trash, bring it back to their homes to sort, and sell what they can.
In the heart of their community, down a winding pathway through heaps of garbage, is a breathtaking cave church with the capacity to seat 20,000. Surprise: around 90 percent of Garbage City inhabitants are Coptic Christians. Poor people who are rich in faith.
The Rohingya are a people without a homeland. Denied citizenship by Burma where they migrated two centuries ago, and unwanted back in Bangladesh, they set up little shanties without latrines or clean water. Many sort garbage for anything salvageable.
An indigenous ministry in Bangladesh, supported by Christian Aid Mission, has worked among this despised people group for several years. They've provided the Rohingya with fishing nets and rickshaws to earn a living. They're educating the children--the first generation of Rohingya who will know how to read and write. Soon, they'll finish translating the Jesus Film into the Rohingya language.
I was touched by the photos our South Asia Director showed us in staff meeting one week. Several Rohingya families desired to be baptized, but there was no pond or lake nearby their little settlement (and their makeshift shelters don't come equipped with bathtubs). So they used what they had: large garbage bags filled with water that someone had fetched from far away.
A Rohingya man uses his bicycle rickshaw to haul items he found in the trash for resale.
The freshly submerged believers standing in those garbage bags had big smiles. How joyful they looked.
One ministry leader who works among the Rohingya said, "the number of believers is increasing day by day." Theirs is vibrant, contagious faith.
If God chose the poor of this world to be rich in faith, and faith is eternal...who are the blessed ones, really? Oh, our worldly goods make us comfortable for the here and now, but faith is the currency of heaven. How might the first be last and the last be first then--when all is stripped away but our faith?
The view of God just might be bigger from the garbage heap.