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The garbage dump: how 20 minutes changed my life

My husband, 13-year-old son, and I went on a mission trip to Honduras with a group from our church in Devils Lake. Primarily, we worked in an orphanage there, however, one day we went to feed people living in a small village.  This is their story…

Posted 04/21/2017

Submitted by Lisa Woodrow of Munich

Our group was driving through the beautiful, scenic mountains of Honduras. We had been climbing higher and higher when we turned a corner and the landscape changed dramatically. The mountains were still there, but instead of beautiful trees and streams, the cliffs and hillsides were covered in garbage. Not just a few pieces of junk but hills and mountains of fresh, smoldering waste.

At the entrance to the garbage dump, two destitute men sat, quickly jumping up as our van approached and running behind us shouting out greetings not wanting themselves or their families to miss out on the food that they knew we were bringing.  To the right on an embankment, people were already starting to gather. To the left, a thick cloud of smoke rose from the valley below.

We exited the van and were immediately assaulted by the revolting smell of burning trash. This was not the fragrant aroma of a wood burning campfire. No, this smoke was the result of all the different elements of the garbage which were burning – plastics, paper/cardboard, and animal carcasses. We were later told that a swine meat packing plant often unloaded the putrid remnants of their operation over the side of the cliff on which we were standing.  The smoke filled the air. The smell of it was everywhere, repugnant and permeating everything.

The air was also thick with flies. As I smiled at the people gathering there, I realized, to my shock which later turned to grief, that the flies were covering them, even crawling on the faces of the children gathered there, and they did not bother to brush them away.

The fact that these flies and filth were such a part of their normal life that they did not notice was shocking and heart-breaking. I was unsure of what to say, so I continued to smile. I want to show these people that I saw them as people and equals, regardless of our vastly different socioeconomic status in life and that I was not looking at them simply as curiosities and charity.

A baby, small for her age, was handed to one of my friends to hold.  “Que bonita!” I said to the woman who appears to be the grandmother. She smiles and says, “Gracias!” How we wished that we had brought clothes to replace the very dirty sleeper for that sweet baby!

We continued walking down to the cliff edges, giving time for the rest of the residents of the small village located on the edge of the dump to gather before we handed out food. Vultures were everywhere – great kettles (flocks) of them circled overhead, crowds of them gathered on top of the heaps of garbage, competing with the people there for anything they could scavenge. Also, looking down into the valley below, another great kettle of them circled, only adding to the ominous and depressed character of the landscape.

The people here rifle through the garbage, looking for food and for anything of value to sell.  You might think that not much of value could be found in the garbage, and you may be right if you are thinking of American garbage. However, this garbage is the garbage of the second poorest nation in Central America. Not to mention the sewer systems in Latin America cannot handle toilet paper being flushed, therefore, used toilet paper is also thrown away and delivered to this dump.

The thought of the amount of bacteria and other diseases that these people come in contact with was overwhelming. It is not surprising that only 25 percent of babies born to the people here at the garbage dump survive their first year of life.

Our group soberly walked back to hand out food to the villagers who now had all gathered on the embankment by our parked bus. Instructions on how the food would be handed out in an orderly fashion were given to them by an interpreter. Our pastor addressed them briefly with these words, “Hola! We are from America. We want you to know that Jesus loves you, and we have food for you.”

We then handed out a bag of corn and a bag of beans to each adult and each child. This is not a meal any American, particularly my family, would be content with especially when you think of eating beans and corn exclusively day after day supplemented with only what they find in the garbage. Yet this food means life to these people. True gratitude shone on their faces. “Gracias,” they said. To which I replied, “De nada.”

“De nada,” instead of “You’re welcome,” literally means, “It was nothing.” As I thought of it afterwards, saying “It was nothing,” was so true. Financially, giving them this food was close to nothing. The corn and beans we handed out, which would feed them for about a week, probably would have cost about $4/person in America. Four dollars out of my pocket is truly nothing. I could afford to give them so much more, yet that was all that I could do in that moment.

We then entered our van and drove away. We had the privilege to be able to leave, air the smoke out of the van, and chase out the flies. Meanwhile, those people, those children, are still living at the dump in conditions that are about as close to hell on earth as anything I could imagine. I was only there for 20 minutes, but I will never forget the face of poverty that I met there and the overwhelming feelings of compassion for the poor that rose up inside of me. I am no longer innocent of their plight. Poverty now has a face, and it is the face of a little boy with a blank expression covered in flies.

These people are the forgotten ones – forgotten by society but not by God. The ministry we were working with are the only ones who try to help this village.  I wish it was within my power to fix all of the problems for these people, but, unfortunately, it is not. While Jesus may not have called or equipped me to “fix” poverty, world hunger, or the garbage dump, there is always a small role that I, and all of us, can play. One of my very small roles was to give a smile and food to the people that day. Jesus commanded us to take care of the poor and went as far as to say that helping the poor was akin to helping Jesus Himself.

“For I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison, and you came to visit me…I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”  Matthew 25:35,36, & 40.

I’m not sure how many of you have noticed but our culture in America lately has been very self-centered and concerned with our own perceived “rights.”  We have been spending a lot of time and energy in expressing our disgruntlement when we don’t get our own way. What would our nation and our world look like if we, instead, focused our time, energy, resources, and prayers on taking care of the needs of others? Would we realize that it truly is better to give than to receive?

Poverty really is all around us.  Get involved. Take care of the poor. Pray for them. Your small role could be sponsoring a child, giving money to ministries and relief agencies, or going and helping through a mission trip.  These are some ways that you can help take care of the poor globally, yet, you can also get involved locally in your own community. If you are unsure of the needs, ask a local food bank or social services. They are much more in tune with the needs of the people in their area. The important thing is to do something. Do not ignore the needs of others. For me, poverty has a face, and it is leading me to action. What is your face of poverty? And what actions will you take to care for someone else?