Water runs down the middle of the alley, a silver tear in the shadows, and I can hear a baby crying.
I’m walking a narrow Guatemalan City street, a street without house numbers, mailboxes, doorbells — more like a path through tin dominoes rusted right through.
Brown eyes lurk in doorways, peer out between barred gates. A girl in a grimy pink t-shirt keeps clanking at an iron gate. It echos, a cry off cardboard walls. When I am closer, I smile and nod. She does neither. Clank. Clank.
I don’t know my way through this place, can’t find my way out of the garbage of questions.
Do the eyes of God see extravagant wealth in Guatemalan shanty towns, these desperate hands clinging to Him like a belt wrapped around the waist, their hands full of the treasure of Him — do the richest live here, and I just can’t see?
Do the eyes of God see sickening poverty in the manicured burbs of the impoverished self-sufficiency of Atlanta — do we live the lives of lack, so full of ourselves and our stuff that we aren’t ravished for God?
Where’s the real pit?
Doesn’t God dwell with the poor and won’t we always have the poor with us and blessed are the poor for theirs is the kingdom of heaven and my heart aches and I don’t know what anything means.
But aren’t we to commanded to give to the poor, to free the oppressed and when we defend the cause of the poor and the needy, isn’t this what it means to know God? To know GOD. I mean, what’s ugly, what’s beauty, what’s poverty, what’s riches and am I to laugh in this place or weep or maybe it’s a poignant mingling of both and who’s got real answers, real grime under fingernails, because I’m dying here and so are the children.
I can see open fires in the hollows of the shacks, smoke hanging. The interiors look like forages. I have to wonder: what more than all this could make steel hearts run molten? I step over a canine bag of ribs, papery skin over mountainous hip bones. My stomach churns. I’m just a sheltered farm hick who leaves the farm generally only for the preacher in the pulpit on Sunday.
I’m not telling the world anything it doesn’t already know, nothing it hasn’t already felt, wretched over.
But this isn’t about telling; this is about experiencing, this is about smelling the stench in the nostrils, the vile in the marrow, about touching the cheek of a child born behind the bars, about smiling love into forgotten children and unveiling the God-beauty hidden behind tin.
Hand-scrubbed clothes hang across the street attached to bamboo poles, underwear and t-shirts and faded jeans strung up with knots of braided rope. There are no pins in a place like this, in a place where everything’s come a bit undone, and I’m unpinned, and hell’s come early and fierce. My chest physically hurts. I need water to put out this fire.
There are streets where your soul trips and you feel it in the gut, in the cracking of your hard spine: this ain’t no fallen world — this is a world right shattered. I can feel the slivers of bone pierce right through my heart, my own silver leaking in shadows.
Unpinned and leaking away — maybe this is the only way to know God. Being here, caring about this place, this people — isn’t this what it means to know God? Isn’t this what I say I want more than breathing? And yet — every breath in this place hurts me deep, heaving up through all the ache of humanity.
Around a corner, we step into the shack of a mother, her four children, and the Compassion team, the pastor of the local church — he tells us his name — Saul — “but not the crazy king,” he says and we laugh — Saul, his Compassion church volunteers, they hand out groceries, a bag of rice, beans. A baby murmurs in dreams from the bed, stretches out, curls up small. I have no idea how they find clean water to fill the kettle on the stove. I have no idea how I’ll find a way to fill my life after this. Leaking away.
We ask the mother, beautiful and gentle, what her dreams are for her oldest daughter, a child sponsored with Compassion, and she says just wants her to study hard at school. There’s a picture drawn with crayons taped to the tin wall behind her. I ask the mother if I might give her little girl a Spanish Jesus Storybook Bible and she nods grateful and the daughter, she clutches it to her chest, a life preserver. And I kneel, whisper it to her, finger tapping the book’s sure spine, “Study this hard,” and I smile and nod. She does both. Whispers it back, “Si, si.” Maybe that’s my only answer too — just to study His words hard, His gentle eyes and His thrumming heart, and there find answers for all this throbbing ache?
The mother asks for prayers for their health, lays her slender hand on the black curls of her youngest daughter, a child waiting for a Compassion sponsor, and tells us the little one’s lungs often hurt, that she struggles for breaths. At the hem of hell, we bow our heads and pray for a child to breathe. I can hardly. On the way out of the ghetto, I step over puddles of muddied water.
In the sanctuary of the church, where the local church implements the Compassion program, where they holistically nurture the whole child, physically, spiritually, economically, socially, another family, transplants from the northwest rural mountains of Guatemala down to the city dump, they come to meet us, six children, the mother, the grandmother. They wear traditional clothing, woven tapestry, long skirts. It is too unsafe for us to meet them in their home, a tin shack on squatters land.
Hell’s dangerous and isn’t physical poverty the most heinous of crimes against humanity?
We encircle them and I pray. We give them groceries. I embrace the grandmother. We squeeze each other and I resuscitate, breathe deep, and in a moment we speak the same language of clinging. I can still feel her hands on me, the curve of her shoulders, the way we breathed together, the way we breathed together.
The way, in that moment, I knew God.
Now we’ve seen the families, played with the Compassion sponsored children, fed craving stomachs, prayed and prayed and prayed — now, to see the other ministry offered from within the walls of this church. We step into a small room near the barred entrance. It’s the cleanest room I’ve seen off the streets of Guatemala City. Water runs here, pure and cold.
The translator tells us that the church sought out the purification system from Healing Waters, half paid for by Compassion, the remaining a loan from Healing Waters. That they sell bottles of water to families living in the dump for only ⅓ of the going price. That out of that income, they repay the loan, fund building materials for families in shanty town, offer a feeding program to families living in the dump, and serve a weekly community meal at the church for anyone hungry.
I ask the translator to ask the Pastor, “How many members do you have fellowshipping here, to run the Compassion program, all these satellite ministries?”
120 members? Offering meals and Bible classes twice a week to 80 Compassion children? Administering Compassion’s complete program to 80 children, all their parents? Feeding families living in the dump, offering building supplies, providing clean water — all from a church of 120 members in an appallingly poor community? All with volunteers?
I grope about for words, tell the translator to tell the Pastor: “Will you come to North America, show us how to care like this? Teach pastors to give to communities like this — show church members to pour out like this?” I can hear water running, filling bottles. The pastor shakes his head, smiles. But I’m not done, overwhelmed, and I had asked it days ago, the tears streaming, “How do I do this?” and I now ask this Pastor, peer into his eyes, “How do you do this? How do you all do this?”
And he tells me in Spanish, his eyes never leaving my face, that he fell into a drug addiction at 13, that all his teen years, he stumbled through drug addiction. I just shake my head, stunned. This man? Then he got saved. I ask him how. How did he find God here?
“I passed a billboard and it made me think. Made me start reading my Bible, starting in the book of Proverbs.”
“What did the billboard say?” I need to know — what are the answers in this place? The translator is working hard, exchanging our words quickly, his eyes and mine never leaving each other.
“The billboard?” Our faces are close, urgent, and I am anxious for a sign. Any sign. “The billboard, it said, “God is love. Now experience it.” His eyes are brimming. I can hardly swallow, this burning lump. God is love — even here. Now experience it — even everywhere. The water streaming, I can hear it, the water streaming. I am standing right next to the pump.
And hasn’t that always been my answer, not to only tell of that love, not to only know of that love, not to only believe in that love — but to taste it, to smell the sweet fragrance of, to feel it in my marrow, to experience it, the holy experience of it, God under the skin, breath in the lung, God pulsing through the vein, enveloping everything.
And I can hear it in this place, God’s a fountain, a pump that keeps pumping, spilling, filling, love that transcends the physical, that’s endless, eternal, that satisfies thirsts that have nothing to do with water, love that streams through dumps and wrecked hearts, that cleans our inner filth and percolates right down to our parched depths.
I am wide open. Fill me, fill me.
“So I went to a church service, laid out prostrate on the floor, and I gave my life to God.” The Pastor, he tells me this in earnest, his face inches away, and everything keeps blurring for me.
“When I stood up, the addiction was gone. I never felt any cravings again.” I know — Fill me, fill me. Only this craving for God. To experience Him. Love. That, anywhere, everywhere, His love, His presence, His person, He is enough and that isn’t a physical experience but a filling in the canyons of the soul.
“Never again the cravings.” He tells me, his hand punctuating the air, “not since that day — August 10th, 1986, 8:30 in the evening.”
Why does he tell me this? My eyes grow wide, flood.
Why does he tell me the year, the date, the time?
Why does God step out from behind veils and make His face blindingly known?
I can only whisper it, English into Spanish eyes: “August 10th is my birthday.”
The translator murmurs it. I wait for the translation, searching the pastor’s eyes.
And then he hears. Breaks. Tears and smile and a grasping of my hand, a shaking, a liquid laughing, and his other hand touches his chest and the translator tells me his heart. “And that is the day of my rebirth. Us — you and I —-” He moves his hand between us, a hand to express the God between us and I have no words either.
Only the experience of it, in my gut, in my bones, in my veins and this, hearing only this, the breaking of the amniotic waters, the hope gushing clean, the new life murmuring in dreams, curling up small and so large. I am put back together again and swept away.
“And I do all this…” Pastor Saul finds words in the waters, the wet eyes seeking… “I do all this because he who has been loved much… serves much.”
I nod. I can only keep shaking his hand, only keep nodding. Swept away.
And this is what births hope in hell holes: The extravagant, lavish love of God that drives us to our knees in thanks — because it’s only bowed low in gratitude for unmerited love that we can wash the wounds of the world.
It is only the bent stance of thanks that bows low to serve.
When the moments comes that the plane lifts from Guatemala, I crack open, weep silence, and I want to claw my way back, stay here and somehow serve, and when I am home on the farm in Canada, surrounded by beautiful kids and walls of windows and running hot water and shelves of books and books and books, I experience His love and I am a stream again late at night and I keep forgetting how to do this, what to do.
And in the dark still, I kneel beside my bed and I murmur it aloud, just one word to Him, the word He tells me will change everything, “Thank-you.” Here I am in the stance to wash feet, to serve.
Somewhere in the shadows, someone is thirsty, and tap water runs.
And I can hear the river of grace that flows on and on… and on.
He defended the cause of the poor and needy,
and so all went well.
Is that not what it means to know me?”
declares the LORD.