Last Friday I joined the team from Iris to go to the Bocaria. This was my second trip to the Bocaria. The first time I went, I join a group of Mozambicans to go to the homes in the village beside the dump where we prayed and ministered to people there. This time, I decided I would join the team that goes up on top of this large dump. I thought I was prepared emotionally, yet nothing can prepare one for this experience. One look showed this was a place of complete desolation and desperation.
The climb to the top of the dump is steep and long. I am not sure of the exact height of this dump, but it was at least 3 stories high, if not more. As I reached the top, I saw before me a vast wasteland that stretched as far as I could see. Scattered about were people searching through the garbage or sitting on cardboard sifting through their finds. It was difficult to breathe due to the smell of the rotting garbage and the smoke from the fires that burned throughout the dump. Flies swarmed everywhere. During my time there, I did my best to not be bothered by them and swat at them, but there were times when I just couldn't help myself. Farther beyond us, large dump trucks brought in new loads of garbage and plows were pushing the piles of garbage around as well. Many people were gathered around this area. We were invited to only talk with the people who were sitting down as they were resting. We were asked to not speak with the people who were up because they were working and would not want to be interrupted.
We walked over to a woman sitting on a flattened cardboard box. Around her were piles of glass bottles, cans, and plastics. On her cardboard were several bags. One was a larger tote bag that was filled with food she had found in the garbage. I was sickened to see a swarm of hundreds of flies around this food, knowing that she and others would eat it later. As pitiful as her situation may sound to you, I was struck by how beautiful and regal she appeared sitting amidst the garbage. A young pastor who spoke the local tribal language of Shongun began speaking with her about God. We were then asked to share anything that God revealed to us for her and he would translate it for the woman. We all were silent. I can't speak for the visitors with me, but I know that I was speechless. Who was I, a privileged white lady, to share anything with her. Someone finally spoke up and shared a message of God's love for her. She then was asked how we could pray for her. She asked for prayer for her unborn child. We gathered around her to pray. As we came close, she was clearly embarassed that we all would be able to see the food she had collected in that bag I had mentioned. She shyly took it and tied it closed. We laid hands on her and prayed. She sat peacefully with her eyes closed. Then she thanked each of us with a warm handshake and smile.
We continued on to where an older and younger woman were sorting items. The young pastor spoke with the older woman and asked for us to share. I so wanted to share something with her and begged the Lord for a word to bless her. It was then that my eyes were drawn to the capulana she had tied around her waist. It was decorated in butterflies (Those of you who know the third grade science curriculum at DC would know how fond we third grade teachers and students are of butterflies! So it was perfect for me!) Immediately I recalled the verse from 1 Corinthians 5:17 that tells us that we are a new creation in Christ Jesus. I spoke up and shared this message with her. We then prayed for her, and again we were thanked with a warm handshake. All of this time, the young woman beside her watched and listened. The group moved on without noting her. Her face was so expressionless. I had to see her smile. I had to bless her in some way. I saw that she had the biggest, most gorgeous, gentle brown eyes. In the best Portuguese I could muster, I told her that she had beautiful eyes. I was rewarded with a big, joyful smile, and again, a warm handshake of appreciation.
I caught up to the group. At this point we were where the dump trucks and plows were. The dump truck would dump its load and dozens of men, women, and children would hastily climb up on it, dig through it with metal picks, and search out items of value to them. They reminded me of ants swarming a pile of crumbs. Occasionally, the plow would come through to then plow down the pile. The plow was followed by more people hoping that something would be turned up in its wake. The Mozambican pastor who lives and ministers full time at the dump came to talk with us at this point. He shared that they all had heavy hearts because three of their friends had died this past week. He did not say what they died of, but as he continued we were able to figure it out. He shared that the people sometimes get so caught up in their work that they do not pay attention to and listen for the dump trucks and plows. When this happens, they sometimes get run over. This is how little their lives are valued. Apparently, at least one or more of their friends had died this way.
For the rest of our time, this pastor took us to meet several of the people living there. It was then that a recurring theme of "abandonment" was illustrated. The first man we met, we were told, would not talk to us. He was very quiet, but he would listen and would accept our message of God's love for him. He believed in God. This man had been abandoned by his family as a child and had lived in this dump for the past 20 years. A member of our group from South Africa shared a vision God gave him for this man and we prayed for him. This was followed by another loving handshake for each person in our group. We next were introduced to a woman whose husband had abandoned her, therefore she was forced to live here. We prayed for her. All of these cherished sons and daughters of the Most High were abandoned by society, left here to make a living amongst our refuse. I knew in my heart that God had not abandoned them and that He would want them to know of this and of His great love for them. I struggled then and still to this day am questioning the Lord in how one would share this message with these people. How could these people believe that God had not abandoned them when they lived in such a place?
The pastor then wanted to take us over to the side along the wall where people lived and slept. He warned us that many would be drunk and would not speak kindly to us, but he wanted us to not let that deter us. As we walked across the expanse of garbage, I would pause from time to time to look around me. I was stunned by the size of the dump. Have you ever been in a boat on a large lake or the ocean? Recall looking around you in all directions and seeing only water and sky. This is what I can best equate what I saw to you. As I looked in all directions, all I could see was garbage and sky. Smoke burned our eyes and filled our lungs, causing us to cough. The flies covered us. The stench filled our nostrils. The dirt covered our legs and clothes. It truly was as close to being hell on earth as anything I have ever witnessed. The place was repulsive - dirty, smelly, smoky, and fly-infested. I knew that I would soon be able to leave and return to my home and all of the comforts it had to offer. But these people would not be able to leave and get out of this place. They live here and work here every day and night of the week. As we walked, I saw a young girl off to our side about 20 yards away walking barefoot in a parallel line to us. I noticed that she was just strolling along with no particular purpose. It did not appear she had anywhere to get to or that she even had any particular destination in mind. As she looked my way, I lifted my hand and waved to her. She smiled and waved back. Such a small connection between us, but it touched me deeply.
Along the side wall of the dump was a line of makeshift "homes" created from garbage. Some were made out of old suitcases, some were cardboard boxes and plastic sheets, and some were old refrigerators that were on their side with the bottom taken out so that the resident could crawl inside. The pastor took us to one man's home. He did not want to come out at first, so the Mozambicans in our group began singing an African worship song. This motivated him to crawl out and sit with us. The pastor shared his story. He had been here since a child. He had been run over several times, yet each time God healed him and he did not die. Yet he was not able to use his legs due to these accidents. He is forced to stay in his home all the time since he can't walk. He cannot go out and search for food or work. Yet God provides for him. Each day people come by with food for him. The man was thankful to God for this. As we prayed for this man, he wept openly.
At this time, the smoke from the fires was getting heavy and the wind was carrying it our way. The pastor felt it was best for us to return to the church since it was bad for our well-being to continue on. We again climbed up the side of the dump to get back to the top. It was so steep in some places; I was glad there were some gentlemen along to give us ladies a hand in some difficult spots. We made the long trek back across the dump. All of us were silent and deeply, irrevocably affected by our experience. I felt led to quietly hum a worship song to the Lord as I walked. It wasn't what I felt like doing. I felt such sorrow and discouragement. I felt numb. But I knew that I knew that it was right to give God praise, glory, and honor - even in this place.
We entered the church as the service was being carried on. It was filled with mostly women and children. A few men were present. A song was sung and a brief message shared. Then, as had happened the last time, a small child stood up front on the altar with a wicker basket. Children and women came forward to give money. Again I couldn't help thinking of how often when we have difficult and tight financial times, we are tempted to not give to the Lord. And here were children in filthy, frayed clothing who had nothing, yet they were coming forward with an offering for the collection. Even the old women who could not walk offered money, giving it to a child to take up and place in the basket for them. This clearly brings to mind the story of the widow who gave all she had in the bible. Even though it was a small amount, it was "more" in the eyes of the Lord than what the other person gave from his surplus.
Our time there ended as do all Iris trips to the Bocaria do. We passed out bread first to the children and then to the men and women present. We walked back to the truck and were taken home much dirtier than when we left and much impacted by our experience.