the one question you’ve got to look in the mirror & really ask
I don’t know her name.
Don’t know the names of any of the women whose homes I walked into where the earth gives away, them living in tin shacks clinging like bare barnacles up the side of sheer ravine, them hanging on at the end of the world.
I wait at the edge.
From behind the shacks at the rim of the gorge, a dog barks. His hollowed flank’s this gully, his ribs protruding like whitened knuckles.
I can see a man small down there, a man struggling down the thread of stairs strung down this gaping earth, a sagging sack of something swaying on his shoulders.
Laundered jeans hang over the sharp edges of tin roofs, drying in sun. A boy in a baseball cap carries a long knife up the steep incline. Somewhere in the belly of the gully, a whitehaired woman sweeps clay-hardened steps, a cleaning of the earth’s open wounds. She wipes the stifling humidity off her brow.
How could I have known how I’d be ripped open, made to howl too?
I follow the team down into this open mouth of shanties. Follow the team through a crack in the tin gate, step up these washed away sand bags, and into her house. I stand in her house.
It has no running water — or insulation, drywall, flooring, paint, chair, window or kitchen. There is tin. There is a bunk bed. There are three little boys —- Walfred, Werner, Wilman. She tells us these names, her hand touching each of their heads, and each boy lights.
I take a photo of a stick framed picture of Walfred sitting atop a shelf at the open doorway.
The woman of the house, her father sits outside on the ground, tells Dustin how the hurricane of Agatha swept away the previous clinging tin last May, buried it in dozens of feet of smothering red mud. The children had escaped in the relentless, pounding rain to the shelter of the police station. It sheet rained for days.
And when it stopped, he hauled the mud away with his bare hands, with one bucket, with determination sheerer than these cliffs, right up the side of this mountain. I think this would take weeks. I think this would take something out of the center of a man, to build a house again on the same sliding, swallowing, earth because there is no other place to go. He built this shelter again, what his daughter, his grandsons needed, with materials bought by Compassion.
He tells us he’s scared to get a job, to leave Walfred, Werner, Wilman all day because of the gangs that recruit little boys out of the gorge and into the belly of the drug dragon. Walfred sits on the corner of his bed. There a plaque with the word Papa written on in sparkles leaning on a ledge.
I see Walfred’s pile of school books, his name written in red on the edge of the pages.
This is a house with less than a handful of books, within yards of the gang lords. Where is the Word that can do war here at the edge? This twists me inside out.
I reach for my bag, murmur to Daniel, the Compassion worker accompanying our team, if I might give this Walfred? I hold out one of the copies of the Jesus Storybook Bible I have brought to Guatemala.
He nods and asks the mother in Spanish. She tells us she’s only ever gone to to church a couple of times, that someday she may go back, that Compassion helps counsel her … and Walfred can have the Bible.
Papa, the name in sparkles, He meets His children here.
His brothers pile around him and the only picture book in this house, the Word in the center of Walfred, Werner and Wilman. I pray He stays at the center.
The boys flip pages, name pictures, planets, people, name hope.
Later, at the door, Werner asks me with his hands, folding them out like a book, then pointing to his chest.
Do I have another Bible — for him?
I’m wrung right out now and I gesture, a circle, around the brothers. They will have to share, keep God in the center of their circle. I dig out a kaleidoscope for Werner and as the team files out, Walfred and I are left back in the one room house.
He nods toward the Bible. It is really for him to keep? And I nod, Si, Si.
It is yours. Yours to wield. You will need it.
I don’t say these things but I know that he knows because of what he does next. He smiles, and in this one room of only he and I, he slips the Jesus words under his pillow. He will cling to this in the ravine.
He looks up at me, “Gracias” and Compassion is more than bread and a blanket; its ultimately the beliefs of a man that will save him.
Walfred will have to hide the Jesus words, wear them as armor, to survive the crime of this place, to avoid the gangs that kill 16 people everyday in the city of Guatemala, to climb out of this pit and this is why Compassion does everything in Jesus’s name.
He’s just a boy, younger than my Levi, same smile as my Josh.
I can see his white clinging knuckles.
I want to pluck him this steep ravine, save him from these streets and sin and scarcity and Satan and only One person can. That’s the Hand that has him in His grip.
The bodyguard escorting us, he motions that we need to keep moving. I leave Walfred, his brothers, with a Bible under their pillow.
I leave Walfred with his own soulguard.
God knows his name. He has it written on the edge of His pages in red.
We’re to descend deeper into the gorge, to another house visit lower down, but the pastor that’s guiding us, he unexpectedly directs down a narrow stairwell, into the home of a mother of nine, ages 18 to 5 months.
The floor’s swept clean, a speckled hen clucks in the corner, a peeled sapling trunk holds up the tin ceiling. We squeal with delight over the baby. The baby squeals with delight over us.
Three of this mama’s nine, are enrolled in the local Compassion program that is administered by a local church.
The father, he shakes each of our hands, the mother apologizes that she has nothing to give us.
We ask about their heart’s desires. The hen clucks. They tell of us a daughter wanting to be a secretary, about health and safe living conditions. The baby coos.
The bodyguard motions again and we only have a moment to pray and the mother asks that we pray for the house in the rains, the waters running through here, the fear of slipping away down the mountain and we seek the ear of the Father who hears.
I believe He hears.
At the foot of the stairs, before leaving, I tell the translator to tell this mother of nine who welcomed all 8 of us unexpected guests in, the affirmation all women in all places long to hear — that her house is clean.
That she is a very good housekeeper.
I watch her face as the translator interprets, my smile ready. And then she breaks, “Gracias, Gracias.”
The tears brim and her one arm full of the baby, she reaches for an embrace, and we cling to each other and He holds.
The pastor tells us later that he chose to stop there because this family needed particular encouragement, prayers.
Compassion is more than funds — it’s about a family that holds you tight when you are slipping. That knows your name and your needs and never gives up on you. That believes in Jesus and believes in His good life in this place, in you –and affirms you — and does this in all in Jesus’ name.
It’s the inner places of us that need the rescuing.
We climb the last flight of stairs, the sandbags into the last home.
We enter a home of tin sheeting, that tilts so precarious off the edge, that it makes our hog barn at home look like a palace, our chicken house look like a mansion. There’s a bed and one chair and light seeping in from gaps around the tin roof. There are no windows. Three children live here. The mother, her voice is soft, her eyes large. I stand in front of this board where she prepares food for this family in shadows. There’s an egg carton on the floor, a bowl of rice on a shelf.
We aren’t in her house three minutes and she begins weeping. I hadn’t prepared for such naked emotion. Such bare neediness.
I twist at my hands. I feel so tied. I think of my kitchen and my running water and my wall of windows.
She tells of the rain, and hurricane Agatha, and a horrific night in the dark, the water washing away all of the paths up out of this gulley. She’s sobbing. It’s so dim in this place — I can only see her silhouette backlit by a door out to a landing that drops off the world. She says they are haunted by the sound of rain now, that when any drops of rain now pelting their tin roof, her children cry and clutch her in fear.
I’m upended. I can’t stop reeling. I have no idea how I am going to go home.
The translator asks her — How has Compassion helped you?
She doesn’t speak of how Compassion helped repair their home after the hurricane, of food, or clothing or education. She does tell us this and it breaks my Mama heart right open.
That her one son was being led astray by the bad example of older teens in the shanty town — cuss words and disrespect and rebellious behaviour and the luring to the gangs. It is everywhere, rampant and ravaging. The school told her they no longer wanted him at the school. What is a mother to do to keep her son in the midst of gangs and crime and inner and outer corruption? She raises her hands in the air. I know, I know.
This. This is how Compassion has helped her most. Their interactions with her son at the Child Developmental Program have mentored him, modelled Christ in language and in love and in life.
“Compassion has helped me most by helping to turn my son around.” He’s away today — at school.
I am standing in utter abject poverty, in a home of people traumatized by natural disasters, in home of a family living on less than a dollar a day for each person, in a home with no toilet or shower, and my heart’s beating with this mother who cares for nothing material, for nothing more than the heart of her child. I can’t stop my chin from trembling.
Compassion is more than giving money from our pockets — it’s about giving moral and spiritual mentors to communities where desperate poverty leaves the door wide open for stalking Satan to come stealing in.
When we pray with her, she raises her hands in hope, in praise. Her lips murmur in Spanish with our lips murmuring in English.
We are one bound body — in Jesus’ name.
I’m the one tear-torn as I leave her house, lean on that one concrete wall, the only thing they own — all the other tin walls and eroding space rented. One wall on a perpendicular incline — the only thing you own.
How does my faith in a land of iphones and ipods and ipads respond to a whole city of people in ramshackled tin and relentless rain washing them away?
Because whether consciously or not, intentionally or not — faith is always responding. Either with indifference or with intercession, either with apathy or aid.
Faith cannot have a non-response.
Once we have seen, we are responsible — we will make a response.
One way or the other.
I feel everything giving away under me as we climb our way out of shanty town. I can hear the dog barking.
I leave this place of names I never knew, faces I will never forget.
In the bus, in our crawling back through the streets of crowded Guatemala City, Shaun Groves tells me that Compassion’s own protocol, though they were advised to do otherwise, is that every use of their logo must include the words, “In Jesus name.“
That Compassion’s leadership board buried a time capsule that is to be opened on a date decades hence from now, in a world that will look far different from how our post-modern world does even now. And two sponsored children are to be present on that date, for that occasion. They are to ask of the Compassion leadership in that far-away future one question. One question only.
A question of only five words. The only question that matters.
“Is it still about Jesus?“
That’s all its about right now for vulnerable young Walfred reading his Bible, for a discouraged mother of nine with a baby on her hip and tin over her head, for a sobbing mother clinging to the face of a cliff, her hands raised in prayer before the face of Jesus.
I turn away from Shaun and this question, turn to hide my heart running like a river today, turn towards the windows and more of the nameless, searching faces on the streets of Guatemala City. I can see my own reflection in the bus window.
Maybe we don’t need to know the names of the men, women, children, fastened to the edge of the world.
Maybe we only have to look in our own mirrors and ask the question of the faces there, ask of the way we invest our money, ask of how we live and spend and steer our lives:
“Is this about Jesus’ name?“
Or the comfort and ease and furtherance of mine?
Then he said to them, “Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me…
Stand with us in our last home on the edge of the world?
Prayerfully consider changing the life of a Guatemalan family — in Jesus’ name?