A Day of Light
By Jason Boyett
May 1, 2007
On March 6, 2007, RELEVANT Magazine contributor and author Jason Boyett joined indie musician Braddigan and others at an event called Dia de Luz (“Day of Light”) in Managua, Nicaragua. This is an hour-by-hour account of that day.
Time to get up. Today’s a day I’ve been anticipating for weeks, with equal measures of excitement and apprehension. A few months ago, Brad “Braddigan” Corrigan—one of the founding members of the groundbreaking indie band Dispatch, the only independent act ever to headline a concert in Madison Square Garden, much less to sell out three shows in a matter of minutes—had a unique idea. A frequent traveler, he’d befriended several families in a community called La Chureca, a shantytown of a thousand or more people right in the center of Managua’s city dump. What if, Brad thought, we blessed these desperate people with a day of hope, play and music? What if, for one day, light flowed into the dump instead of trash? Today we’ll try to answer those questions.
Seventeen of our team members stumble out of our rooms at Hotel de los Cisneros for a sunrise prayer service in the dump itself. A rooster crows nearby as we climb into the vans. It’s still dark.
We arrive at the dump, and it’s on fire. In the New Testament, when Jesus talks about hell, he uses the Greek word gehenna. Gehenna was the name of the massive trash dump outside Jerusalem, where fires were kept burning to incinerate the trash. Here, the fires are whipped up by winds off of Lake Managua, which borders the north edge of the dump. Mountainous piles of trash extend for at least a mile in every direction. The smoke billows up and blows southeast. We can’t see it, but that’s the direction of La Chureca, where the people live. I can’t get that thought out of my mind. People live here, in hell.
Braddigan’s Brazilian bass player, Tiago Machado, pulls out an acoustic guitar, and we sing a few worship songs. One of them is “God of Wonders.” The music is great, but the irony of singing that particular song in a place like this is as thick as the smoke. This is the least wonderful place I’ve ever been. Wild dogs forage around. A few skeletal horses trudge along the next ridge. Two to three dozen vultures are circling off to the east. And it smells like, well, a smoky three mile-wide trash heap.
The sun rises red through the smoke and haze. The Dia de Luz begins.
After an extensive prayer time, we walk a half-mile or so toward the lake, weaving between steaming heaps of garbage, manure and ash. At one point, we cross an area of crushed glass about the size of a football field. A few residents begin to appear. Some lead donkeys trailing rickety carts. Others haul huge canvas bags. They live in La Chureca and try to make a living by scavenging the trash for recyclables, which they sell to a facility near the gate. My eyes are burning from having been exposed to the smoke for an hour. They work and live in it.
The tour and prayer time over, we head back to the hotel to clean up, eat breakfast and prepare for the event this afternoon. Near the entrance to the dump itself is a little pond. At some point during the last hour, a flock of elegant white egrets have settled in the water. Hundreds of them. Brad points them out, his eyes sparkling. “I’ve never seen those here before,” he says.
After cleaning up and taking a brief nap, I join the rest of our team for a Nicaraguan breakfast of scrambled eggs, rice, beans and fruit in the outdoor courtyard of our hotel. Brad explains his motivation for the Dia de Luz. “I’ve seen too many trash trucks bringing darkness into the dump,” he says. Many of these truck drivers run drugs. Others have set up a prostitution ring, which includes some of the children of La Chureca. “But today, we’ll bring in the opposite of trash. We’ll bring in grace and light.”
Time to go. Our team heads for the dump. Among us are about 35 of Brad’s family and friends from all across the U.S.—college students, Dispatch fans, a documentary team from Steelroots TV, a group of professional surfers (including Cheyne Cottrell, Will Tant and Kahana Kalama), photographers and journalists. When we arrive, we meet 150 or so students from the University of Virginia, here for a Spring Break service project, along with a dozen volunteers from Manna Project International.
We mill around in the haze while Brad makes some last-minute phone calls and confers with the leaders of the various groups. Finally he climbs up on a van and addresses the crowd. “Don’t think you’re gonna come here and help these people or improve their lives or lift them out of poverty,” he says. “That’s not our job today. Today our job is just to bless them.” He shares his vision: We march through the dump. We smile a lot. We pray. With permission, we help the residents gather stuff to recycle and sell. We visit the families of La Chureca and play with the kids. And we’ll end the day with a full-on rock concert on the soccer pitch at the edge of the community.
The first group spills into the dump. We walk in silence for awhile, taking in the sights and sounds and smells of such an otherworldly place. Brad sets the pace. Every time we pass someone working, Brad smiles, says “Hola,” offers a handshake and tells them in Spanish why we’re here. I’m surprised at the friendliness of the people. They gladly accept our presence here.
By this point, our parade has snaked through the trash piles and reached La Chureca, where people live. There’s a soft line where the garbage gives way to ashy dirt and residences made of scrapped-together tin, cardboard and plywood. There are kids everywhere, most of them barefoot. At one point, Brad’s plan was to distribute toys and clothing to the families as we walked through their community, so most of us arrived in Nicaragua with extra suitcases full of these donated items. We decided, though, that it would be better to give these to the church-run school in La Chureca and let it handle the distribution. “It’s easy to hide behind a toy and feel like you’ve done something,” Brad says. “But it’s much more valuable to actually pick up a dirty child and hug him.” So that’s what we do. Our arms are free to hug. Our feet are free to kick soccer balls. Our hands are free to hold children’s hands as we walk the dusty streets.
We pass the soccer pitch—pretty much a big open area of dirt—where a local crew has nearly finished setting up for the concert. Brad has brought in a flatbed truck for a stage, with a full sound system and generator. Behind the stage is a 40-foot high ridge of trash. The pitch is covered in smoke. It’s a bizarre scene, and it makes me smile.
Water break at Colegio Cristiano de Esperanza (“Christian School of Hope”) in La Chureca, where we view art projects the kids have created for us. They’ve taken pieces of trash from the dump and turned them into souvenirs for us to purchase as a fundraiser. I pick out two broken acoustic ceiling tiles with little kid paintings of trees and houses, for $10 each. Art from garbage. Beauty from ashes. Somewhere, I’ve heard that before.
Brad takes off for the soccer pitch, where he, Tiago and Puerto Rican percussionist Reinaldo “Rey” de Jesus begin to set up their gear for the concert. We’re instructed to head over in a few minutes.
Our group of 150 gringos descends on the soccer field, holding hands with 80 or so Nicaraguan children and flanked by a couple dozen adults from La Chureca.
Sound check. A conga line forms, consisting primarily of Americans with small children riding on their shoulders. Clowns, in full makeup, arrive with balloons. Water bottles are distributed. Water fights begin. A soccer game erupts in the background. Dust rises into the smoke.
It’s go time. In Spanish, Brad introduces himself and his band. Cheers erupt, and the concert begins with a jamming instrumental piece. The snaking conga line dissolves into a throng of dancing Americanos, with kids still perched on their shoulders. A few of the older kids climb up onto the stage.
Brad launches into a Spanish rendition of his reggae-roots hit, “Fallin’.” It eventually merges into the English version. Somewhere in the middle of the second verse, Brad looks down at the laughing, singing, dancing crowd and, overcome with emotion, forgets the words.
Brad loses his guitar pick and replaces it with a cut-up phone card. Drenched in sweat and water, most of the white faces have now turned brown with soot and dust. We’re all the same color now. Is this what Woodstock was like?
Okay, now I’m emotional. I’m taking photos in the middle of a huge circle, where a crowd of UVA students and La Chureca residents are holding hands and spinning in a huge game of ring-around-the-rosie. Brad gets to the bridge of “Sweet Uncertain,” where he sings, in English, “Lord, you come and fill this place. Won’t you come and fill this place?” Those paying attention to the song get chills, there in the smoky 95-degree heat, because that lyrical request has already been answered. A few hands raise in worship. My eyes get teary. Is this what heaven is like?
I move to the back of the soccer pitch to take in the full scene, and I see a little boy walking toward me from the crowd at the base of the stage. He’s maybe three, and he’s crying. I can’t tell whether he’s hurt, sad or lost, but my fatherly instinct kicks in. I kneel and give him as much Spanish as I can think of. Lo siento (I’m sorry). Por que estás triste (why are you sad)? He doesn’t answer, but he allows me to wrap him up in a hug. I hold him another five minutes until he smiles again and asks me to put him down. He runs back into the crowd.
Another boy approaches me and gestures to my empty shoulders. He looks to be about six. I put away my camera and reporter’s notebook and lift him up. It’s time to stop observing and start participating.
Fernando (my new shoulder buddy) and I finish up an exhausting round of jumping, skipping, spinning and shuffling to the music. My shoulders, back and neck ache in the best way possible.
The concert ends. Brad pronounces a blessing on the crowd. “Thank you,” he says in Spanish. “You have made this a ‘day of light’ for us.” He’s so right. I have just spent a day in the most desolate, horrific places I’ve ever been. My eyes itch. My gray T-shirt is brown. My left leg is greased with manure, from the toes of my shoe to a few inches below my knee. I’ve stepped over hypodermic needles and burning embers, as little children walked barefoot nearby. I’ve met a beautiful 13-year-old girl with HIV, hepatitis and a host of other sexually transmitted diseases, because her family forced her into prostitution as an eight year-old.
And yet I’ve never had a day end better than this one, a day where I attended a rock concert in a trash dump, where I danced with Fernando’s arms wrapped around my head, where I was surrounded on all sides by a sweaty mass of grinning children and surfers and college students. This day in the dump, I will remember, was one of the holiest experiences of my life.
The crew gets to work dismantling the stage. We clean up the grounds.
It’s quiet. I stand next to Brad, and we watch the sun set behind a smoky mountain of trash as the Dia de Luz comes to a close. “Thank you, Lord,” Brad whispers. “God owned this day. It was total chaos, but it was the most beautiful chaos ever. It was the Lord’s chaos.”