Beauty over ashes

My hands are clean now.  I took care of that last night as I watched the dirt swirl inside the porcelain sink before it was swallowed down through the pipes.  I looked long into the art of it, finite bits of Cristo Rey being washed away by water I can't drink.  I'm amused.  I can't remember the last time I was so dirty.

There are some particles still clinging to me that can't be seen.   I breathed them in and they nestled themselves down close to my heart.  I feel them there, a longing.

Our group of nearly thirty boards the yellow bus and we travel through the paved streets of Nicaragua.  The blur of skinny cows and smoking volcanoes passes by our periphery.  I am quietly lost in my thoughts and curiosity.  I welcome the experience.

The bus slows and sways into a sharp right turn as it heads onto a dirt covered road spotted by its own display of ditches.  We wobble our way through the overhang of sparse trees as we stir up dust clouds behind us.  Though it is the rainy season, they have not had enough to satisfy the parched demands of the earth.

Spotting the field ahead, we see strips of color screaming loudly in boastful neon hues.  It is out of place and strangely alluring to the eye.  Someone tells me they are scraps of fabric from the Under Armour factory a few miles away.  They have been tossed away and taken here along with all of Managua's discards.

Traveling further down the dirt road, the scent assaults us through the open windows of the bus.  The unpleasant thickness of smoke invades our air before we can shut it out.  As the heavy barrier lightens, we see piles of trash crackling beneath black flames.  Ash shoots into the air and floats silently down to where the wind wills it.  The people are making room for more.

There is a garbage truck just ahead that we follow.  I see a lone passenger standing on top of it as it lurches him precariously back and forth.  He is soon joined by others that heave themselves onto the moving mass and begin to look through its contents.  It pulls off to the side of the road, and as we pass we see a group of people gathering to discover what might be used to recycle and sell.

The trash stretches out and around the open field.  Piles of garbage one on top of the other.  People are scattered over the mounds with their children barefoot in the dump, fingers in their mouths.  The birds are there too.  Big, black and foreboding.  What I am seeing is both fascinating and horrifying.

We begin to pass houses, though shanty would be a better term to describe their construction.  Most are patched together with rusted corrugated metal and random pieces of wood defining their shape.  There is no shortage of barbed wire protecting the inhabitants.  We have entered the barrio of Cristo Rey.

We come to a narrow side street that the skilled driver carefully backs into before he quiets the engine.  To our left is a concrete building with white paper letters taped high above the entrance "Iglesia Tabernaculo de Esperanza," Church Tabernacle of Hope.

Moises and Sarita live in a concrete house a few feet from the church with their three children.  It is small and dark inside with thick air hugging the lungs.  A short time ago they said goodbye to a nicer house with nicer things when they said yes to God's call to come to Cristo Rey to begin a ministry.

Two years ago, a church from Cincinnati learns about Moises and Sarita.  They gather up a group of volunteers and travel to this Nicaraguan barrio to help fund and erect the building that stands before me.    It is crude by American standards with its lack of doors and windows.  The floor is comprised of the same dirt that is already sticking to my skin as the breeze kicks up.

We unload from the bus, and already we are greeted by the children.  They are seated between the church and Pastor Moises' house waiting for food from a feeding program that started earlier this year.  They are singing joy and all of this happy inspiration right into us.  It is a beautiful sacrifice of praise that catches my ear.  This is the Gospel.

The day is long and hot.  The men labor over the hard work of mixing mortar by hand and carrying it in  5 gallon buckets to the interior of the church.  They heave large stone onto the evened out sand and lay them flat, brick by heavy brick, hour after hour until the pattern of the floor is evident.  The work continues in the outdoor kitchen that is nestled behind the home.  This is where they prepare meals for the children as the dirt grabs at their feet, or if it should rain, the mud.

Near the end of the day Sarita takes us for a walk through the neighborhood streets, past the homes that  house these beautiful, happy children.  It was suggested that we pray for those inside, but my head won't cooperate.  It took its own walk into the reality of my surroundings, through the open doors where it could look right into the faces of its people.

I thought that perhaps my coming here to Nicaragua would invite feelings of guilt over my own comparison of wealth.  I thought that I might be overcome with sadness or pity for the people who live here.  I prepared myself for a deeply emotional experience that I would think about for the rest of my life, but my eyes remained clear.  It did not cross my mind that what I would see, what I would feel is joy.

Instead of sorrow, I see hope.  Instead of seeing what Cristo Rey is, I am seeing what it could be.  Instead of being overwhelmed and discouraged by the extreme poverty, I am encouraged by the Christ ordained efforts of a few people over the course of two years.  And all of this is stirring inside of me, leaving me in a state of restlessness that I feel requires both action and stillness.

I look into the sky that has been holding back rain.  Not one drop falls to my upturned face, but I can see the gift that I am given instead.  It is not what I expect, but so much more than I could have imagined.  It is magnificently placed, arching high and full over the dusty streets of this shanty town.  I pause in awe and wonder over the beauty stretched out.  A rainbow!

It seems to chase me long after we board the bus and drive away, and I can't stop thinking about it.  I look down at my clean hands.  They are open and ready to give and receive the promises of God.


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