After playing tourists yesterday (which feels inappropriate given that we are in Guatemala for a mission trip, but our arrival a day early is necessitated by the flight schedules from Seattle), today was a day of exposure to the context in which we will be serving. It was a sobering and hard day.
We began with a brief stop at Safe Passage’s Antigua offices to learn more about the history of Safe Passage and get our Safe Passage t-shirts, which we will wear while at the projects. Safe Passage was started in 1999 by a woman from Maine named Hanley Denning. Hanley had traveled to Guatemala to learn Spanish before planning to return the US to pursue a career in social work. Shortly before she was to return to the states, a friend asked her to accompany her to the Guatemala City dump. Upon seeing the reality of people living in extreme poverty, families living and working together in the dump, and the fact that there were no safe places for children to learn, play, and just be kids, she instructed family back home to sell all of her things and send her the money so she could begin an after school program that served a small but healthy snack, tutoring, and a place for children to play with supervision from adults who cared about them. The first year, 46 children enrolled in the program and 70 more participated in a drop-in program. Today, Safe Passage serves 550 students from 2 years old through high school, 50 parents in adult-literacy programs that give them opportunities to earn diplomas and gain skills to participate in the formal economy, and 40+ women who are employed with Safe Passage’s social entrepreneur program that gives them jobs outside of the dump.
In the gospels, there is a story of a man who approached Jesus with a question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus’ said to keep the commandments and the man said he had done so, but still sensed he lacked something so asked Jesus what else he must do. Jesus told him, “Go sell your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven” (Matthew 19:16-30; Luke 18:18-30; Mark 10:17-31). Many scholars have debated the meaning of this story for us: are we to take Jesus’ instruction literally? Is this prescriptive for all people? Or is there meaning behind the plain sense of this passage? Regardless, Hanley Denning did exactly what Jesus told the man who asked: she sold all she had and gave not only the earnings, but also her life to serve the poorest of the poor in Guatemala City. Tragically, Hanley was killed in a car accident in 2007 but Safe Passage has not only continued, but also continued to grow since her death.
After this orientation and learning about the history of Safe Passage, we traveled into Guatemala City to see first-hand the realities of the dump and the surrounding community, and see Safe Passage’s multiple projects.
The dump is viewed from the Guatemala City cemetery that stands on the edge of the massive ravine that is the Guatemala City dump. Shortly after entering the cemetery, we viewed a stark example of Guatemala’s immense wealth disparity. There is a massive mausoleum that is flanked by “los apartamentos” (the apartments) – walls of niches for caskets. The mausoleum is the resting place of one person while the majority of the dead are stacked together. Unlike the US where a burial location is purchased up front, in Guatemala families must pay yearly “rent.” This is a burden for Guatemala’s poor and, if families fall behind, the remains of loved ones are “evicted.” Exactly what happens to remains after eviction is unknown, but it is likely that at least some are tossed into the dump.
The mausoleum and los apartamentos in the Guatemala City cemetery.
We reached an overlook in the cemetery that offers a view of the dump. The dump is a massive ravine that has been filled with trash since 1952. From the top of the ravine to the bottom, it is roughly two miles. Somewhere between 2,000-3,000 people work in the dump. Up until the early 2000’s the dump was unregulated, with no registration to work, no age limits, and no restrictions on people living inside. In 2005 there was a massive methane fire that burned for weeks. Officially, there were no fatalities in the fire but that does not necessarily reflect reality given that those who lived in the dump were, for all intents and purposes, invisible. Following the fire, the Guatemalan government established regulations, including mandatory registration and licensing fee for all workers, a minimum age of 14 for anyone entering the dump, and a wall at the entrance to regulate access. The age was raised to 16 several years ago and just recently was raised to 18 after a massive landslide swallowed four garbage trucks and numerous people. While all of that seems like progress, it was pointed out to us that for those ages 16 or 17 who had been working in the dump, they awoke one morning to find they didn’t have a job. How were they to make money? What were they to do with their time? How were they to help their families survive? There was a noticeable spike in crime in the neighborhood immediately after the minimum age was raised – which goes to show how complex the situation is and how inextricably linked the issues of poverty, crime, and community wholeness are. The work of Safe Passage is so incredibly important to provide opportunities and, at the very least, a vision of what a future outside of the dump might look like.
After viewing the dump, we went to the colegio (elementary age school building) for lunch and to meet with Todd Amani, the executive director. The colegio houses grades 1-5, which are all full day school programs registered with the Guatemalan Ministry of Education. Historically, Safe Passage has offered educational reinforcement programs – half-day programs to supplement and build upon the education of the public school system, which is half day for all grades. But in recent years, Safe Passage has been adding a full day program one grade level at a time. They are up to 5th grade so will have full day programs for all ages in seven years. We also met with Ilu, the director of Creamos – the social entrepreneurship program for woman in the community. The program includes a sewing shop that produces textiles for several major companies, as well as handmade jewelry made from trash from the dump. Women in the program make 65% more than they did working in the dump. The program also includes financial literacy training, financial planning, and development of self-esteem.
Executive Director, Todd Amani, with our team.
Ilu, the director of Creamos, the social entrepreneurship program at Safe Passage.
We then went to visit the jardin infantil (preschool…or literally “infant garden”), which has classes for age 2 through kindergarten. The jardin is an oasis in the midst of a very impoverished neighborhood. There is no green space around the dump, no places for kids to play, no safe place where kids are cared for and loved while their parent or parents are working. The jardin provides exactly these things: places to run and play, opportunities to learn and grow, and adults who love and care for the children.
Our last stop of the day was at Safe Passage’s newest building, the CRE (educational reinforcement center). This is where the programs for students in grades 6-12, adult literacy, and Creamos are housed. The property backs right up to the dump, adjacent to the dump’s entrance. Just on the other side of a cinderblock wall from the basketball court, a steady stream of garbage trucks makes it way into the dump with their loads. It is a very stark juxtaposition.
Our group at the CRE. The dump is just beyond the wall behind us. A yellow garbage truck can be seen entering the dump just behind the basketball hoop.
Safe Passage students out for recess with a dump truck leaving the dump after unloading dirt to cover the trash.
A view of the dump from the CRE.
A truck loaded with recyclables on its way out of the dump.
Viewing the dump from the CRE.
After dinner in Antigua, we returned to our hotel for time in our small groups and for compline. There was a lot to unpack from today. Much of the day was full of information and facts…but there were a lot of feelings that hadn’t been explored or expressed. The feelings in our group after what we saw and experienced ranged from sadness to confusion to anger to helplessness. There are so many layers to the issues faced by the community we find ourselves in this week. And we turned our attention to exploring them through the lens of our faith. Where do we find God present (or absent) in the community around the dump? What gives us hope that the injustices of our world can ever be righted? And who and what is God calling us to be and do in the midst of it all? How can we, as our baptismal covenant puts it, “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ,” “seek and serve all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves,” and “strive for justice and peace in our world, and respect the dignity of every human being?” Living out our faith in those ways is what is we mean by “mission.” And that is what we are here to do this week as we learn and experience all that is in store.