This is a guest post from City Square member Nathan Rosswog
If I believe in God, it’s because of a garbage dump that smells like shit.
In the summer of 2008, my friend Clay and I backpacked through Central America for three months. We had no structured itinerary for our trip, but our goal was simple: Our desire was to meet people we had never met, to hear their stories and look into their eyes, and find connection between all of humanity. Truthfully, we wanted to find God in a way and place we had never found him before.
Though our trip was well-intentioned, it was poorly planned. In fact, the night before our departure from Florida to Guatemala City, our contact in Guatemala called to say he couldn’t meet us at the airport, but would send his friend Carlos to pick us up instead. Which was great, because we had no idea what Carlos looked like.
That vignette served as a microcosm for our entire trip: any flimsy planning we attempted to do was quickly blown away by the winds of travel, unexpected circumstances and Latin American instability. Still, despite the setbacks-Clay losing his passport, staying in an extremely dilapidated and sketchy hotel in San Salvador, wandering around aimlessly in Guatemala City for hours after taking a “short walk” and getting lost- I have never experienced God more clearly than on that pilgrimage.
I saw God everywhere.
I saw God in the natural beauty of Guatemala and Nicaragua; in the chiseled mountains and rolling fields and rushing, crystal waters.
I saw God on the top of the mountain in Guatemala where we were living and
working: He was in the strength of quiet and serious women who carried baskets of fruit on their heads every day; He was in the dedication of the calloused machete men who went into the fields to work the land, and of course he was in the laughter of the children as they played soccer.
I saw God in the funeral processions for loved ones, complete with pinatas, banners, and flowers; and I saw God in the general commitment to relationships and people that is lacking here in the United States.
I saw God in conversations, in lifestyles, in the street and on the mountaintop, in
the alleyways and hotels and buses and smiles and tears.
I saw God everywhere.
But mostly, I saw God in La Chureca, a Nicaraguan garbage dump community that was home to over 800 people. It was hell on Earth.
On the first day that Clay and I ventured into the dump, I noticed a blackened, soot-filled Teddy Bear that was suspended by its neck with wire hanging over the entrance. Below the bear fires burned, and the smoke that rose from these burning pyres had darkened the Teddy Bear’s coat to a deep soot-grey. I couldn’t help but ruminate on the imagery: though an ominous welcome, the blackened bear was an appropriate portrayal of the brokenness and death that lay inside. Once inside, my suspicions were confirmed: one quick glance revealed three-legged dogs that scoured for food, heaps of trash that burned incessantly, creating a canvas of ash and soot that blanketed the community, and children who, despite their surroundings, used the mountains of trash to play King of the Hill and Hide and Seek (children are the best of every culture, aren’t they?) People’s eyes were downcast and lifeless, shoulders were heavy from the weight of the discarded garbage and discarded lives. Literally, the place I was standing had “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” I was in hell.
The questions began immediately, and furiously: Where was God in this place? If these people are in Hell now, what kind of God would send them to an eternal one? What does salvation mean to these people? What relevance does church have in this place, when survival is the goal and trust is unknown?
Though most of my questions weren’t answered and many of them rage to this day, I began to see clearly -probably for the first time- that all of my preconceived notions about Sin, Hell, Salvation, Heaven and God were rapidly dismantled. It was unsettling to realize that Sin was tangibly real, and not simply a vague theological concept: It was clear to me that the greed and selfishness that created this dump, and the structures in place that perpetuated it, were nothing short of an abomination before God. Hell was real: I was in it. Salvation was real: In a palpable and desperate way, this place needed saved.
Oh, but the joy I felt when I realized that if Hell was real, Heaven was too! As I spent time with the people and heard stories of hope, of families sticking together, of neighbor helping neighbor, I knew all was not lost. As I spoke with the children about their dreams for the future, I knew that Death had not completely won, and that Life was still breathing there, though softly. I knew, or rather I choose to believe, that God hears the prayers of the nine year old girl there who prays every night to be a doctor, and that one day he will take the bones of poverty and sin that reside in that dump and breathe life into them until they are dancing upon the injustice that they now know. I choose to believe.
I believe in God, and it’s because of a garbage dump that smells like shit.