I am in the city dump in Managua, Nicaragua, and it’s on fire. The winds off Lake Managua whip up flames and spark embers at all hours of the day, so the entire place is drenched in a thick, acrid haze. My eyes burn. My heart aches. I have met little boys who play barefoot among discarded hypodermic needles. I have met little girls with HIV because their parents prostituted them for extra money. I have met families who live and work here—in this massive trash dump—because this is all they know. It’s an income. It’s familiar. It’s home.
It’s 4:15 p.m., and for the last few minutes these families have become my family. Their home has become my home. One of the little boys of La Chureca, a wiry 6-year-old named Fernando, is sitting on my shoulders and wearing my sunglasses. Dozens of other kids his age are dancing and spinning and singing with the other 150 American members of our group, while the adults of La Chureca clap and laugh.
Best of all, we’re all enjoying a full-fledged rock concert as the indie musician Braddigan—along with his Puerto Rican percussionist and Brazilian bassist—sings Spanish-language versions of his acoustic roots-rock songs from a flatbed truck loaded with their gear.
Standing here among them, surrounded by the decay and horror of this place while being uplifted by the music and cross-cultural joy, I tell myself to remember. Remember this place. Remember this emotion. Remember this moment, because it is one of the holiest I’ve experienced in my life.
The event began in the visionary mind of Brad “Braddigan” Corrigan. A founding member of the groundbreaking indie band Dispatch—who made headlines by selling out Madison Square Garden for a three-night reunion benefit concert this summer—Corrigan has been a solo musician for the last three years. During that period, he’s split his time between performing in the United States and traveling to developing countries where he shares music, makes friends and uses his platform to address local needs and issues of social justice.
About a year ago, while visiting an orphanage in Managua, he was introduced to the trash dump community of La Chureca. He was devastated by the desperation he saw, but drawn to the smiles of the families living here. A crazy idea popped into his head. “I’ve seen too many trash trucks bringing darkness into the dump,” he said. “What if we swapped out those trash trucks with school buses? What if people flowed in instead of trash? What if we trucked in light instead of darkness?”
So Corrigan set a date: Tuesday, March 6, 2007. He gave the event a name: Dia de Luz (Day of Light). He came up with a simple plan: Spend a few hours working, playing and sharing with the people of La Chureca. Experience a day in the dump, and end it with a concert. He started inviting people to get involved. Before long, 30 to 40 friends and family members had agreed to join him for the event. A connection to the University of Virginia led to the addition of 110 college students already in Nicaragua for a spring break service project. Local pastors promised to bring friends, and suddenly the Dia de Luz was more than 200 people strong.
“All we wanted to do was bring light to these people,” Corrigan said after the event. “There was no other agenda but showing Christ’s love. When you walk with someone, you’re saying ‘I’m with you.’ That’s the best gift you can give.” It’s a lot easier, he said, to write a check for a good cause. But a greater, more transforming gift is the gift of time.
Many of us entered Nicaragua with extra suitcases full of toys, clothes and school supplies for the families of La Chureca. But we didn’t bring those material gifts to the dump. We wanted our hands to be free—free to offer a handshake, free to hug, free to wave and say “hola.”
That freedom has been profound, at least for me. Corrigan’s singing from the stage six feet away, and I’m dancing with 50 pounds of Fernando on my back. My shirt is caked with sweat and dirt from his skinny legs. My face is smeared black with soot from the smoke. My left shoe is slick with … something I try not to identify. I’m exhausted. I’m ecstatic. And at this moment, we all look the same—college students, musicians, kids who live in a Nicaraguan dump, journalists who came from the Texas suburbs.
Corrigan said something the day before that has stuck with me. “What you’ll feel in the dump tomorrow is what God sees every day. I think we all look the same to Him, covered in ash and dust. When you hug a dirty child without recoiling, you’re doing what God does to us. We’re dirty, but He loves us anyway. That’s unconditional love. That’s grace.”
And so here we are, enjoying a rock show despite the smoke and grime. We see beauty amid the ashes. We see light amid the darkness. We’ve stepped into a living hell, but for just a moment—a bright, shining moment—we’ve gotten a glimpse of heaven.