God of the Trash Heap

I had brought my running shoes to Mexico. Behind our mission site director’s house is a giant trash heap…

I had brought my running shoes to Mexico. Behind our mission site director’s house is a giant trash heap – all the garbage of Matamoros piled into a huge mountain. It sits in a wide open field that stretches miles in every direction, making it ideal for running. So I ran a mile across the field to the trash heap and bore left. As I was running, thoughts were flashing through my mind. I was in a zone. All the while, I was running into new territory, not paying attention. When it came time to turn around and head for home, I discovered that I was lost.

I began to run on goat paths past scattered trash, cacti, and sage brush. And nothing looked familiar. Panicky thoughts began to rise up in me – I began throwing out “Oh God, help-me-get-out-of-this-one” prayers.

And then I heard, “Go back to the trash heap and start over.”

As much as I hated to back-track, that’s what I did. And then peace began to come back to me. I recognized a dirt road and began to follow it home. And as I ran along, I sensed God saying, “Whenever you get lost, look for me at the trash heap. I like to hang out there with the people living nearby. And when you find me, I’ll show you the way home.”

Afterwards, I reflected – so often in life we find ourselves caught up in self-absorbed thinking – and relished in the truth of the revelation of the trash heap. In a way, we’re lost. We look for Jesus in Bible studies and self-help books, and he doesn’t seem to be around. But every time I’ve gone looking for him in a slum near some trash heap, there he is, reflected in the eyes of a child playing nearby or some old crone waving at me. Jesus wasn’t kidding when he said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” He hangs out with them. He makes his home with them.

Recently, our organization sent a team of missionaries to Nicaragua on their way around the world. One young woman named Jeanette Wheeler wrote a great blog about spending time with a community that lived in the trash heap of Diriamba.

She paints the picture of day-to-day life for these Nicaraguans in a blog that she wrote:

[The] reality is [that] this is the neighborhood for over 300 people: men, woman, and children. This is the home and backyard of our friend Michelle, her husband and twin daughters. Precious, beautiful princesses do not belong here. Where is the castle and pink dresses? There is no vacation; young boys work to help their families. The widows and elderly don’t retire. A ‘day on the job’ is a treasure hunt to search for things of ‘worth’. At the end of the day, the scales determine your wage – did you find enough? A downpour doesn’t stop the progress. You need to eat today… I have been blown away, changed, convicted and blessed by those who are said to have ‘nothing’.

We need to identify with the poor. We need to put ourselves in their shoes (if they have any) and walk around a bit. We may be wealthy in America, but we need to see our own poverty of spirit. Identifying with the poor is not only part of the faith that Jesus gave to us; it is a sacramental part of our sanctification. In other words, walking with Jesus requires walking with the poor.

Last year, convinced of this truth, I took a month off of life and went to Africa with my wife Karen. After you’ve hung out with the poor in Swaziland or Mozambique, it wakes you up to how good you’ve got it. You feel guilty for any complaining you’ve done lately. It makes it hard to feel sorry for folks in America wallowing in their victimization. Of course, poverty can be relative, too. There always seem to be those people who hang out on the margins of society who had no safety net underneath them when they suffered calamity, becoming the widows and orphans that Jesus targets for care. But something profound happened during that time overseas – I realized my own poverty and the poverty all around me.

The good news is that many young people are waking up to the reality of their privilege relative to the world. Last summer, we sent several short-term mission teams over to different locations in Africa to hold orphans and care for widows, in addition to the work that our regular staff does year-round. And then, we joined them. Our job was to help those volunteers make sense of what they were experiencing and to hold up the arms of those caring for them. But perhaps in a larger sense, our job was to have our hearts broken. That’s what keeps them supple and beating as Jesus’ heart beats. That’s what gives us credibility as leaders.

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Author Henry Nouwen says:

Those who are marginal in the world are central in the Church, and that is how it is supposed to be! Thus, we are called as members of the Church to keep going to the margins of our society… We can trust that when we reach out with all our energy to the margins of our society we will discover that petty disagreements, fruitless debates, and paralyzing rivalries will recede and gradually vanish. The Church will always be renewed when our attention shifts from ourselves to those who need our care. The blessing of Jesus always comes to us through the poor. The most remarkable experience of those who work with the poor is that, in the end, the poor give more than they receive.

When we claim our own poverty and connect with the poverty of our brothers and sisters, we become the Church of the poor, which is the Church of Jesus. Solidarity is essential for the Church of the poor. Both pain and joy must be shared. As one body, we will experience deeply one another’s agonies as well as one another’s ecstasies. As Paul says: “If one part is hurt, all the parts share its pain. And if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy.” (1 Corinthians 12:26)

We might prefer not to be part of the body, because it makes us feel the pain of others so intensely. Sometimes, I look at the poverty in places like Swaziland, and I despair of ever seeing hope reborn. Children are abused, teenagers are promiscuous, and the poverty is crushing for those who are weakest. Orphans have to walk miles just to get a plate of corn mush. It all seems so unfair.

At times like that, I like to remember Jesus’ heart for the poor. With fervor, he proclaims that the way to the Kingdom is not saying many prayers or offering many sacrifices but in feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and visiting the sick and the prisoners. He longs for a just world. He wants us to live with the same hunger and thirst. Every time we love others deeply, we feel their pain deeply. However, joy is hidden in the pain. And when we share the pain and joy, we begin to grow thirsty.

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