Friday 26th May
“Amazing, disturbing, inspiring and depressing”. These were the words I heard from the Lord Bishop of Bristol, Rt. Rev Mike Hill, after his day with our project here in Guatemala City.
Bishop Mike Hill has been visiting us over the last few days and wanted to see for himself the work I am doing here with Mi Arca and so accompanied me on a whirlwind tour of our Centre, the new building we would like to use for the Protection Home and then onto the streets.
I was dropping Mike off, together with his armed bodyguard, at his hotel and Mike was reflecting back over his day. He mentioned how it would take him time to process what he had seen and wondered how I was able to keep going with the relentless demands on my time, the pain of seeing so much abuse and the constant dangers all around on a daily basis.
I have known Mike since 1987 when I joined his staff team as a youth worker and then five years later left the parish in Chesham Bois to move to Guatemala and founded The Toybox Charity and the El Castillo project.
When Mike, his bodyguard, the Mi Arca street team and me headed to the streets I was sure he would find the afternoon and evening difficult. No sooner as we arrived in La Terminal a man was shot in the chest and sadly Mike had to witness the guy fighting for his life as the municipal ambulance team tried to keep blood loss to a minimum. The reality of the visit was hard for Mike, as it would be for any visitor, as it´s not everyday people from the UK see this sort of thing.
The following day, and with some time to reflect on his experience on the streets, Mike delivered a powerful message to a group of invited guests at the British Embassy Residence in Guatemala City. The Embassy has always been very supportive of our work and had invited Mike and me to The Residence to talk about the work on the streets and for Mike to discuss “Spiritual life in public space” and guests included the pastor of my church, a Guatemalan Bishop, members of the British community, UNICEF, local VIPs and the Attorney General. It was a very special time.
The photo shows me with Bishop Mike Hill and Chargé d’ Affaires of the British Embassy, Mr. Andrew Tate.
Over the last two weeks we have seen our two CMS missionaries, Mark and Rosalie Balfour, be taken to Mexico so that Rosalie can get urgent treatment on her leg after a fall here in Guatemala, Joesph Soden recover enough to return home to the UK and to welcome his brother Ben Soden to Guatemala.
On one of the last trips to the streets with me Joseph was keen to say goodbye to the various groups of street youths and this photo was taken by one of the boys when we said our goodbye to the guys at La Casona.
It was heartbreaking to find little Jonathan in La Casona abusing solvents. You will see him in the photo and, like me, will struggle to understand how a baby-faced 10-year-old boy can live like this. I have tried to get to know Jonathan over the last few weeks and am slowly building up a picture of his life in order to try and help prevent him living on the streets full-time. It can become rather overwhelming seeing young children living like this but it only reinforces my determination to make a difference in his life.
Ben arrived in Guatemala City to a mass of photos, applause, shouts of joy and tons of hugs from staff, volunteers and children. Ben will spend two weeks studying Spanish in Antigua before moving to Guatemala City where he will begin working with the street team. Ben´s gifts and skills will help him quickly develop the relationships that are at the centre of our work and I will help him take on the responsibility for coordinating the expansion of the street work in August this year.
It has been interesting working with the kids in the mentoring programme recently and it is so much fun being at the Centre when the kids pile in from school and seek that extra bit of support, a hug, some food and a place to belong. Just as I was leaving the kids decided to gather around me (I was kneeling at the time due to my back issues) and pray for me. What an incredible time that was!
Little Jesus had celebrated his birthday in style with us and I had managed to find some extra money to buy him a cool present. The resilience of Jesus and his brother Marcos never ceases to amaze me. They have now moved from their home in the country to a room near the rubbish dump in La Terminal. I know they miss the weekends at their old home as the fresh air and countryside was good for them. But the fact they had to get up at 3:30am everyday in order to get the first bus into the city (a 2-hour journey) so that their mum could start work on the dump first thing while they walked to school was draining on them and I could see just how tired they were everyday.
Juan Carlos, another boy in the mentoring programme, told me recently that he had a dream of becoming a volunteer fire and rescue worker. Los Bomberos, as they are called here, do an amazing job and seem to spend most of their time picking up dead bodies from around the city, but do offer immediate support to people every hour of the day and night. Juan Carlos told me that he had learned in the Centre that we must help others and so he went home and told his mum about his dream.
That was many months ago and so after talking with him I spoke to a friend of mine who volunteers each week with Los Bomberos. Byron, a friend from my church, invited Juan Carlos and me to the station to get to know their work and to talk with him about the junior brigade. Juan Carlos was in his element as any 12-year-old would be in a fire and rescue station. At the end of his visit Byron offered to sponsor Juan Carlos through his junior bombero training and so all that is needed now is for Juan Carlos to obtain good school results later this year. Another child with his mind fixed on success.
This last week has been very stressful and tiring but I always count it a joy and privilege to work here in Guatemala and to serve these children. One of the boys I work closely with is 9-year-old Moses who has been in a mentoring relationship with me for the last 3 years. Over the last few weeks I have been exploring the mentoring module called “community” with Moses and it became very clear from the beginning that he saw community as a dangerous place.
Our first discussion around the idea included the drawing of a map of where he lives and since he lives between two family members, two maps were created. On both maps large areas were identified with red marker pen as dangerous and only one place was coloured in as “safe”. The safe place was our Centre and despite me asking him three times in different ways where he feels safe he replied: “only in The Centre”. I am sure that is true for so many of the children who come everyday and so I wanted to take time here to say THANK YOU to all of you who gave so generously to get this Centre up and running over a year and a half ago.
As I was leaving The Centre today one of the boys came and asked to talk with me alone. I thought he was going to talk with me about a gift he had just received from a sponsor in the UK, but when I looked into his luring eyes I could see that it was something rather more serious. “I have nowhere to sleep tonight Duncan”, he told me. His face told me there was so much more to the profoundly heartbreaking statement and he looked at me with hope that I could offer him a solution.
My mind immediately went to the Protection Home but had to discount that idea, as we have no adults there at the moment, just me camping in one of the rooms till I can find a more permanent place to live. I offered him a night at the Centre, but that would mean me having to sleep there on the sofa to keep him safe. But with my back the way it is right now that was not an option. My only other idea was to talk with him about staying with his mum again but this would certainly mean more pain and rejection but it was better than the street.
I can´t leave him just there at the end of a paragraph as you will want to know what happened to him. For the moment we are having to assess his situation daily and pray that one day we will find Guatemala families who will open up their homes and offer these kids a loving, caring and protective family. After all, that is what they all want. When I asked little Duncan in Honduras recently what he would prefer, a children´s home or a family, he said right away: “I want to have a family”.
One of the reasons we are exploring the idea of a Protection Home is not to create another children´s home, but rather offer a short-term space for the most vulnerable children we work with based on the UK boarding house model. While they are able to stay in the home Monday to Friday our prevention team will work with their family in order to strengthen the family unit and help create a safer and more loving place in which children can grow up. More about this in the coming months.