The following is a guest post from Todd Hiestand, pastor at The Well in Suburban Philadelphia. Todd and 13 others from his church served with us in June and these are his reflections on their time with us. You can read Todd’s blog here and follow him on twitter here.
I always love it when you meet someone and from that point on your life takes a difference course than you could have ever expected. About a year ago, at an IdeaCamp conference I was introduced to a young looking, old man named Bill Cummings (I seriously had no clue he was in his 40s, I thought he was 33 at most!).
I had heard that the director of Lemonade International was at the conference and I really was looking forward to meeting him. Lemonade International focuses on educating and empowering people in the largest urban slum in Central America – La Limonada in Guatemala City. Since one of our soon-to-be four children is adopted from Guatemala, we instantly connected.
La Limonada, a ravine in the center of Guatemala City, is the largest slum in Central America and is also home to the fourth highest murder rate in the world. The slum developed in the 1950s as people came to Guatemala City seeking work. When they were unable to find work they ended up taking residence in the ravine. Since then, it has grown to be the home of somewhere between 60,000 and 100,000 people.
They are nothing short of horrible. The terrain is so rough there are no roads. The homes are made of corrugated tin roof, cement block and sometimes plastic sheeting and cardboard. Gang violence is a major problem (as it is in all of Guatemala City). The drug of choice is glue. The river running through the center of the ravine is serves as the garbage dump and sewage system.
Add all this up and these men, women and children are outcasts of their city. There is a saying in Guatemala City that “Even Santa Claus doesn’t visit La Limonada.” If you are applying for a job and you put La Limonada as your address on your application, you won’t get the job. Most churches in the city don’t touch this community because it is so unsafe and the people “aren’t going to support your ministry.” Yes, that’s an actual quote from a pastor who serves in Limonada as he was explaining why he gets flack from other ministers for “wasting his time” with “those people.”
Generally speaking, if you are from La Limonada you may as well not exist.
But all is not lost. Tita Evertsz has been quietly serving this community for over 15 years after seeing the desperate needs in this community. As she says, “God has tattood the people of La Limonada on my heart.” Her story is long, and I won’t try and retell it here, but she has basically given her life to serve among the people of the community. In the process, she has established two schools. These schools and more importantly, the teachers and volunteers that serve there, have become a bright source of hope in La Limonada.
Pastor Shorty has also begun to give his life to the people of La Limonada as well. Shorty is a former gang member and drug addict who ended up back in his home country after being deported from the USA. While in jail in the Los Angeles area he gave his life to Jesus Christ and shortly after returning to his home country God told him to plant churches in and around the city. He is now in the process of planting a network of house churches in Limonada.
Lemonade International came alongside Tita and Pastor Shorty two years ago to support the work there. It is through Lemonade’s partnership that the second school was opened and they have been able to help expand and support the work being done.
This June, 13 of us from The Well went down to serve alongside the 30+ teachers and workers in La Limonada. Some of us has been witness to extreme poverty in the past so we thought we were prepared for what we would see. We we not. The first day there, we were floored with the desperate conditions these people were living in. Where was hope in a place like this? But, as the week wore on and we met more and more people who were quietly giving their lives to the the people of La Limonada, we were struck with a sense that this is exactly where Jesus would be. Somehow a sense of hope exists in this seemingly hopeless place.
We got back from Guatemala over a month ago and I am still processing the whole experience. That’s mostly why I have been silent on my blog for so long. I am trying to give it all time, let it sink in. At this point, I have a few semi-connected thoughts running through my head and I may write more fully on some of them in the coming days and weeks.
- Pastor Shorty gets it. He is living out all the “missional” stuff that we have been talking about here in America. But there is one main difference – I don’t know that I have ever met someone who believes in the transforming power of the Gospel as much as he does. That belief is contagious and I’ve been infected.
- The teachers in Limonada are heros in the truest sense of the word. Most of them grew up in Limonada and have chosen to stay there and serve their community. While we were there, word spread that they might not be paid their $7/day salary. Their response? “Don’t worry about it, we’ll be here on Monday. Pay us if you can but we’re not going anywhere.”
- I had the chance to preach at one of the home churches in Limonada. What do you say to people who have nothing? This was one of the more humbling experiences I had all week and I have a hard time expressing how this affected me.
- Praying with someone who doesn’t speak your language is a test on how much you actually believe in prayer. After our home group we prayed with people. The first young man that I prayed with was struggling to come out of the gang life. It’s likely that he had killed someone in the last couple weeks and yet he was there seeking God. As I began praying for him I realized that this might be one of the only times I have prayed with someone and my words were only being heard by God. This guy had no clue what I was saying and he wasn’t going to be impressed with how eloquent my prayers were. I almost didn’t know what to do. This hit me hard. I realized just how much my prayers weren’t really prayers but really good speeches. I thought I was over that. I ended up praying the only thing I knew for sure over and over again, “God, change this man’s life. Set him free from sin and death and let him walk in the life offered in your Son.”
- I can count the number of sober men over 30 that I saw on one hand. Read that again. I was in a slum with over 60,000 people and can only remember seeing 5 or less sober grown men. One of the biggest problems for the kids we met that week was that they just wanted to be loved. They are not getting that from their parents and especially not their fathers. We saw first hand the pain and issues this causes. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know the importance that father plays in a child’s life. This is huge need and it’s beyond my grasp of how to address it. But I do know what it means for me now. I need to love my own children well! So, fathers, love your children and love them well. Love their mothers too.
- Responding to God’s calling doesn’t always make sense and is often stupid in the eyes of mankind. I can’t tell you how many times we heard of teachers and workers there who had taken children into their homes without a second thought. The thought process was: This child needs a home. I have a home. This child can live with me. Done. I was so stuck with their willingness to say “yes” when God placed a call on their lives. There was a beautiful wreck-less abandon the are living with. We calculate too much.
- The people in Limonada can only see a day in front of them, on their good days. They really don’t have the luxury of having too many long term plans. They don’t necessarily know where their next meal will come from let alone their next pay check. The result? Desperate dependence on prayer.
I could go on and on and on. But one thing is clear, after serving alongside of Tita, Pastor Shorty and the many teachers, social workers and volunteers we know that we desire to maintain our relationship with those serving God in La Limonada. God has tattooed this place on our hearts…
We cannot go back to normal. Instead, the biggest challenge we have now is to redefine normal.
For now, alongside of asking God how he would have us partner with our brothers and sisters in La Limonada now and into the future, I’m seeking to be faithful to the roles and worlds that God has placed me.
We’ll see where that leads.