by Bob Lupton, August 2011 Nicaragua is a lush tropical land with awe-inspiring volcanoes, abundant lakes, rich fertile soil, stunning coastline views – and grinding poverty. Centuries of conflict and ravages of nature have reduced its capital, Managua, to a sprawling barrio. No manicured town square framed with historic buildings, no modern skyscrapers, no wide tree-lined boulevards – just miles of drab, squat buildings and tin-roofed shacks laced together with a confusing network of pot-holed streets and dirt alleys. From a ten thousand foot approach the smog from cooking fires, belching diesel engines and tens of thousands of smoke-spewing motorcycles obscures the view of the city. At three thousand feet you can make out the fenced boundaries of La Chureca, the smoldering city dump with its convoys of garbage trucks and swarms of human scavengers.
At ground level the 1400 dwellers of La Chureca (which means “the dump”) ignore the pollution. These “dump people,” as they are known to mission groups, survive by foraging glass, plastic, aluminum and various other discarded junk. They live in hovels constructed from materials gleaned from cast-offs of the city. From all appearances they are the most wretched of the poor in a poverty-stricken country.
A Texas church group on a mission trip to Nicaragua wanted to see for themselves the on-ground conditions at La Chureca. What they saw touched them deeply – ill-clad urchins combing through mountains of garbage hoping to find enough saleable rubbish to trade for a morsel of food; women dragging heavy bags of trash to makeshift sorting areas; men scooping up armfuls of heaping refuse. How could they survive the filth, the stench, the disease? The images burned indelibly into the consciences of the compassionate visitors.
Something simply had to be done. Something significant, more than typical service project activities or suitcases full of clothes, something that would permanently change the lives, the futures, of these desperately poor people. It would require drastic intervention to release them from this enslavement.
The Americans returned home but they did not forget. Over the following months they organized a task force, assembled a plan, raised money, bought rural land, and designed a new, wholesome community for the people of La Chureca, far from the stench of the refuse pit. Each little home would have enough land to grow food to feed a family. Surrounding acreage of rich volcanic soil would yield agricultural produce sufficient to support the entire village. In this healthy rural environment parents could pursue time-honored farming traditions while their children breathed clean air, bathed in ample pure water, and developed their minds at a nearby school. The vision of dramatic transformation was absolutely intoxicating!
Hundreds of volunteers mobilized around the project. Architects designed, engineers researched, marketers promoted, planners organized. Energy was high and money flowed. Soon dozens of houses were springing out of the ground, sturdy little homes that would protect against the monsoon winds and rain. The modest construction cost was held even lower by all the volunteer hands – less than $12,000 per house!
The dedication ceremony was euphoric. Scores of volunteers flew in for the event. Emotional prayers of thanksgiving were lifted heavenward. Praise music reverberated from loudspeakers. Smiling “New La Chureca” families in their freshly donated clothes posed proudly in front of their new homes. No one could ever remember a celebration so joyous, so inspiring, so right.
Two years later all the families were living back at the dump! They had sold their rural homes for a fraction of their worth and returned to the urban recycling business that had supported their community for generations. These were recyclers – not farmers. And by the way, the actual name of their village is Los Martinez, not La Chureca (the dump) as outsiders named them.
The lesson learned: don’t get ahead of the people! Listen closely to those you seek to help, especially to what is not being said—unspoken feelings may contain essential clues to effective service.*