It is the stench of the place.
The rotting flesh, the burning rubber, the foul festering and decay. I’m a farmer’s daughter, a farmer’s wife, and this is what I know: I’ve fed hogs and I’ve extracted stillborn piglets from the uterus of sows in a gush of fetid fluids, and I’ve hauled manure. And I know the fetor of death exhaling from bloated green bellies and the way bones reek with the blackened remnants. I know this stench I’m inhaling, that’s seeping into my pores. I step over a skull. A rat? A dog?
The bones of God?
Children run ahead of me. They have no shoes. They run along the earthen gutter in their bare feet and barren hopes. This is their street, their home, on the trash of the Guatemala City dump, the refuse people, the garbage families. It should be oxymoronic these terms, impossible. Incompatible. Why am I not screaming mad here?
Why am I walking sedate, passing blithely through, as if all of this was normal, acceptable — and not a splaying horror, a gross injustice to humanity, to souls? Aren’t these the Imago Dei? Aren’t these persons made in the image of a holy God, icons of the Divine? Wake up, God, wake up!
I want to cup their faces, look into their eyes. What are you doing here? You were not made for this. I am no better and I don’t know why I wasn’t born here, why my children weren’t born here and we all could have been. We all could have been.
Child, we are next door neighbours, you and I, and I am next to you, and there are no miles between who I am and who you are and you are my mirror, a manifestation of my soul and all my righteousness is far filthier than your rags and I can feel it in my gut — the haunting ache of my own poverty of spirit — echoing, echoing.
I am a canyon in a dump and there is this interior falling away, this falling in shock, this deadening, hollow shock… an inner gaping. Groping. Gasping. A soundless wild scream.
I do put another foot in front of the other.
A woman stands in the door of red spray painted 189. It’s more like a branding seared into her skin, her tin, than an actual house number, all this more like livestock penning than the burbs.
She wraps a strand of her black hair, frayed and nested, around her finger. She doesn’t take her eyes off me. I try to tell myself that I am not a spectator, that she is not the show. I can’t feel the thin walls of me. Only this numbness, this inner shocked paralysis that just keeps moving, fleeing. Squatters, these mothers, these fathers, these children, they recycle, sort, scavenge. Plastics. Cardboards. Metals. Dreams.
I walk past a decapitated doll head, muddied and grey, lying in the gutter. I heave to breathe. The air’s decomposing. Where exactly is God? I want His house number.
We’re told we can get a better view of the dump from the cemetery. Who could could have imagined a script this sinister? They take us to the tombs.
There are flowers here. The veneration of the dead up on an escarpment, rows of monuments and mausoleums and memorials, streets and stop signs and crowds of people with bouquets, hearses and funerary weeping women and a “Te Vender” — a for sale sign — on a tomb and moss over engraved names . There’s an ice cream cart with it’s bell ringing — that’s the only reason I turn — its vendor winding alongside the weeping women. Tink, tink, tink. I can’t imagine. I can hardly breathe.
Vultures keep circling. I can see them overhead. Black shadows soaring. Waiting. Wide wheeling over the cemetery, then out over the dump, over the barefooted children, back round over the graves. Full circle.
At the precipice we see the lines of trucks, the garbage coming endlessly. No hydraulics here. Every piece of rotting mass has to be muscled out of every truck by a man. A mother.
Two girls smile toothless for a photo. I stand witnessing. Barely breathing. The air hangs, thrumming with the wings of a thousand vultures, landing, diving, ripping.
Their oily black bodies drop onto limbs of a tree aflame in orange blooms. I witness this. This flaming, fragrant tree hanging from the cemetery out over the dump, branches reaching out to the scavenging humped figures. Vultures nestled with blooms. I ask the translator the name of the blooming tree. No one knows. The trucks keep backing up.
We pass the ice cream vendor on the way out of the cemetery. Hear his ringing.
At the center, at the Compassion program centered out of a church,we serve lunch to the children of the dump. They line up with their own plastic bowl and cup. Do I imagine where have they scavenged these? Lisa-Jo spoons rice. Lindsey heaps on beans and meat. Amanda offers tortillas. I ladle lemonade. There are lemon pits swirling.
I fill each cup to the rim for children living on the rim. I fill a cup that looks like the basin for a small blender. I swallow hard. I fill a cup that is a white cowboy boot with a spur. My heart can feel it’s forcing sharpness. Get moving God! Do Something! Move your people! Wake up! Wake up! Come riding!
I hand the white boot back to the little boy. I smile and he smiles. A sliver of light cracks the canyon.
A man, his wife, they lay a ticket stub on counter. We find styrofoam cups, two disposable bowls. We pray. We eat. Children laugh. I must seem worn, taut. I’m asked if I have a head ache. I can only thump my chest. Whisper raspy. “A heart ache.” I bang my chest again with the palm of my had. I can feel it all splintering.
I do ask about the ticket stubs, the man and the woman.
The couple live in the dump. They were given the tickets to come eat with us, share their story. We meet them after lunch in the church sanctuary. She never stops wringing her hands nervous. Their two daughters hold hands. The son keeps his eyes on the floor. I glimpse a smile now and then. The father speaks quiet. He tells us he goes to church services every other night. I shift my feet. Someone is awake — has been awake all along. I ask through the translator if he fears for his safety. He says no. God is with them. I nod, chin trembling.
We ask them about dreams, do they have dreams for their children?
What are your dreams for your children when you live in a dump? What are your prayers? What is your hope in all this decaying mess? What is His house number? Is the tomb really empty?
I can’t imagine this either, how he’s going to answer. He’s a father living on a garbage heap.
His black eyes circle all of ours.
“It doesn’t matter to us what our children grow up to become or do.” His voice is gentle, certain. I lean forward, praying he will still dream. Please, still pray. Even if…
And he does and the most important of all and I didn’t see it coming.
“All that matters is that they follow the Lord, that they live only for the Lord.”
Where did all this flooding light come from?
My chin wobbles hard and I let’s go. It doesn’t matter what garbage heap you live on, we all recycle only this, this the only dream prayer of all the filthy ragged ones on this circling globe.
Follow. Live only for.
I raise my hands and smile when we pray and there is a fragrant tree blooming beauty over our stench, a tree with nails driven right through that let’s the vultures land and brazenly blooms on, and I know where all this Light comes from. It’s when I say Amen and we raise our heads that I remember. And I can see it again.
It was laying on the earth up at the very end of the cemetery, right at the precipice where the dead gave way to the living dead and I had stepped over it like the skull and the doll head. And I had turned.
I had knelt.
I had touched it.
Like Love sacrificed on the garbage heap of Golgotha, the place of the skull, remnant of He Who witnesses the ache of the pit and never leaves, a wreath circling out around all the living, that holds us all, a preserver, crown of all that will assuredly conquer.
God dwells in shadows and in pits, and in the skin of all who seek and reach, brazenly bold to those with eyes to see.
And when I see the family later clapping hands in games and filling the church halls with laughter, like bells ringing happy in the land of the dead, I see Christ and believe it again anew, a wonder! The tomb is empty.
Oh the fragrance in this place…
Seeing Christ in the midst of the mess – footage from our trip to the dump & the Compassion Center:
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