My plane landed late that evening in Nicaragua and after clearing customs was immediately comforted as I recognized my old friends’ crazy smiling faces through the terminal windows in the midst of the chaotic crowd. After some brief hugging and hand shaking in the open humid topical air we loaded into a van and headed an hour out of the city to the orphanage they had all worked hard to establish. On the way they shared what they had been doing through the missions’ partnership, and about the political, social and economic condition of Nicaragua. I learned that the unemployment rate was over 50% and the extreme poverty that resulted was having a devastating ripple effect on a country that had once been considered one of the wealthiest in Central America.
Since I arrived a couple of days before the conference started I had the chance to hang out with my old comrades and experience what they had been doing. On one of the days they took me to visit the Managua city dump which provides trash disposal for some two million people. Visiting a dump in a developing nation isn’t something that most tourists would do; but if you want to discover the truth about a society’s condition it is the most revealing place to begin. It tells the story of the cycle of poverty in a way that would both shock and devastate people who aren’t spiritually prepared to see it. As heartbreaking as it was, what I saw that day in Managua is not unique; it is a scenario that is reproduced in nearly every city in the developing nations of the world. Thousands of people literally spend their entire lives in these dumps; some never even seeing the outside world. This is their entire livelihood. Their houses are built from what can be savaged from the refuge; their food comes from its waste; and whatever income is made by cashing in and recycling the debris.
We stood on a hill that rose above a landscape of miles of garbage, observing truck after truck dump its towering loads. With every load literally hundreds of people – men, women and children – stormed the trucks hoping to be the first to extract the precious resources that the rest of their society considered useless garbage. We were told that it wasn’t uncommon for people in their zeal for trash to end losing their lives after becoming buried alive under the discarded piles of rubble. Looking from our vantage point I could only think of what hell must be like. Here and there methane gas pockets erupted in flames, which was another common source of devastating injury or death to the people who inhabited that place. Everything was polluted far beyond anything I had ever seen. Children swam and bathed in a small lake that was not only surrounded by trash, but had decaying rubbish floating in it. As I viewed the hopeless scene before me, God was re-breaking and renewing my heart for suffering humanity – reminding me again that I couldn’t hide behind busyness, feeling overwhelmed or extreme weariness. I had to do something. I could never cease being an active participant in his Kingdom. I could not give up. I had to collect myself and muster up the courage by his Spirit to continue to run the race to the end.
When I first became aware of statistics and numbers for extreme poverty they didn’t really affect me because the crisis of the world seemed so far removed. The fact remains that they were real numbers that exposed the condition of real people, many of whom were innocent children. They revealed the ominous gap between the world’s rich and poor that is drastically widening. For example, before our latest national recession the average family in America made approximately $55,000 a year while nearly half the world’s population lives on less than two dollars a day. According to the UN (United Nations) there are presently two hundred million children living and working in the streets. In today’s world 2.5 billion people (1/3 of the world’s population) do not have access to clean drinkable water. Polluted water is responsible for 80% of all illness and
death in the developing world, killing a child every eight seconds. Over 2 billion people are presently starving worldwide and another 2 billion are malnourished. Poverty creates a vicious cycle of not only physical pain and despair, but one of hopelessness. People who are caught in it see no way out until someone brings them not only a message of hope but a means to both spiritual and physical freedom. This then is the harvest field God has called us to – and from my experience it is a field of not only hope, but of great joy and extreme fulfillment.
Before we can break the cycle we have to understand that it isn’t so much a cycle, but a downward spiral. Often the spiral begins with a leadership that is corrupt. It is a leadership that is either self promoting, not caring about the condition of its people, or it has bought into an ideology that leads away from Christ-likeness. Either way it is not godly. When God is removed so is the blessing that once prospered and the spiral begins. As the economy depresses and inflates, people lose their means of provision which forces them to other more desperate means of survival. Historically, they have turned to the land. When a people are desperate to feed their families the ideals of environmental stewardship vanish and the land becomes abused beyond sustainability. Trees are deforested for fuel and timber causing top soil to erode and be washed away by unrestrained runoff. The land then becomes ineffective in its ability to produce crops. The conditions of poverty and hunger are exacerbated and people become vulnerable to disease and violence. Children are often the ones who suffer the most. Instead of receiving education and attending school, they are forced to help the family survive and therefore illiteracy increases. With the lack of even the most basic necessities of survival, these conditions lead to a hotbed of unrest with theft, more violent crimes and even political upheaval stimulating an even heavier hand of government. The population then becomes even more repressed and oppressed. Desperate people end up doing desperate things – even to the point of selling their young children into prostitution. In the midst of despair the society loses its moral compass and therefore diseases such as AIDS rise to epidemic levels. Again, the children are the ones who really suffer, becoming parentless and ending up in orphanages or on the streets where they are yet more vulnerable to the atrocities of the sex trade or child soldiering. It is estimated that some ten million children are victims of today’s international sex slave industry.
Two years ago Nancy and I went to Zambia, Africa along with our mission’s director and a few others in hopes of setting up a long term ministry base in an extremely poor community near the city of Ndola. We were invited by Kirk Schauer, founder of a ministry called Seeds of Hope. The primary objective of Seeds of Hope is to drill wells and produce water filters in poverty stricken areas. Seeing their work gave a whole new meaning to Jesus’ statement, “I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink”. I understood why providing clean water to thirsty people is a means of ministering to Jesus and what he meant when he said, “As you did it to the least of these, you did it to me”. I also realized that the cycle or downward spiral is all too real; yet in the midst of it all there is a great hope. And that hope is the Church.