Azaria Spencer

A Transformed Life

Joseph has been mentoring Danilo for over a year and a half now and their relationship has not always been easy. Together they have learned what mentoring looks like and how to build friendship and trust. Through Joseph’s faithful commitment and perseverance, a genuine and honest bond has grown that allows for vulnerability, and transformation.

Last night when Joseph and Pete (a visiting volunteer from the UK) arrived at ‘Casa Alexis’ (our protection home) to meet David (friend from church) and I for dinner two things were obvious. First the smell they brought in with them was an indication that they needed to change and that they had been on the rubbish dump. Second, it was obvious that Joseph, in particular, had something to share. He couldn’t wait to tell us about his day, more specifically his mentoring session with Danilo.

After shoes were removed and put outside a safe distance from us, Joseph dove into sharing about his day. He had invited Pete to share in his mentoring sessions and they had first taken José to McDonalds for a treat. Their time had been special and happy. They had then taken Danilo to a nice outdoor food-court and sat and shared with each other over good coffee. Joseph’s excitement grew as he explained that Danilo had shared his testimony. The impact of Danilo’s testimony was still clear as Joseph recounted parts of it to us. We decided that over dinner we would hear the whole thing, and I will shortly share it with you too.
But first we will dive back into what happened after Danilo shared his testimony with Joseph and Pete. Once their coffees were finished Joseph, moved by Danilo’s story, wanted to show Pete the rubbish dump where Danilo, his mother and some of his younger siblings all work.
Which explains the smell.

At the dump they had met with one of Danilo’s younger sisters and she had excitedly bombarded Joseph with questions, desperate to follow in her big brother’s footsteps and be a part of our foundation. Wanting a mentor of her own and more opportunities to study and learn.
Joseph’s passion and drive to impact more lives was audible and visible. I could hear it in his voice, he would do everything in his power to make her dreams come true. As is the nature of our work, there are always more children to reach and help. And it is one of my greatest joys to work alongside a team full of people willing and ready to go above and beyond to help change lives.

Now back to Danilo and a testimony of transformation.

It was a blessing to sit and eat with friends as they retold Danilo’s testimony to us. Both Pete and Joseph had clearly been moved by his story and the day they had just spent together in ministry and service.
Danilo had shared, and Joseph had translated for Pete.
He had begun by sharing a bit about his family. Danilo is 15 and is one of 8 children, coming somewhere in the middle of the family. He currently lives with his mother and younger siblings. They work on the rubbish dump, separating and sorting plastics. Towards the beginning of his testimony Danilo had shared that 7 years ago his older brother, aged 22 at the time, was shot dead in front of his wife and four young children. That is certainly one way to set the scene, a stark and raw insight into the reality of his life and the context he grew up in. Apparently, although clearly saddened by this fact, Danilo had shared it in a ‘matter of fact’ tone and simply carried on. He had first started smoking and drinking when he was around 5-7 years old, influenced by friends and unaware that there was a different way to live. He had begun work on the dump at just 8 years old, long and late hours doing manual labour, surrounded by filth. He told them that from that tender age of 8 as he grew up, he was spending more and more time with the wrong kind of people and living in a very self-centred way. He and his friends would often steal in order to buy drugs and at 13 years old he was taking cocaine. He expressed to Joseph and Pete that he was able to hide these lifestyle choices from his mother. He and his friends were living lives that involved crime, drugs and drink and I imagine he still didn’t know there was a different way.

It was when he was 13 that he met someone from ‘Mi Arca’ (now SKD Guatemala) and his life began to change. Jonathan told him about a different way to live, he told him about God and forgiveness. Danilo’s eyes welled as he told Joseph he had never heard about forgiveness before that day. It must have been like a weight taken from his shoulders, suddenly he saw the world and his life differently. He began to distance himself from those negative influences, the friends, the drink, the drugs. He began to take his education seriously and stopped being so selfish. He accepted God’s forgiveness and love and his life was transformed.
He told Joseph and Pete that through coming to the centre, making good Christian friends and having Joseph as a mentor he has finally had positive influences in his life and these things have had a massive impact.

I can testify to the change in him over the two years I have known him. His attitude and behaviour have drastically transformed. The self-centred, immature, angry boy I met when I first moved here is now a happy, delightful, helpful, strong young man. He now volunteers with us at our centre and continues to grow daily into who God wants him to be.

Rubbish Dump

rubbish dump 3

I had no choice but to put my foot down and allow the green mush to ooze inside the gaps of my sandal. A strange statement to make, but wholly true. We had just finished visiting a family whilst they were working on the rubbish dump and there was no other exit. Our only option was to walk through the rubbish and hope that there wasn’t anything too disturbing underfoot. I know it could have been worse, but freshly deposited avocados seemed pretty grim at the time. Of course, my poor footwear choice was my own fault. I had not gone into work that day thinking I would be going into ‘la terminal’ never mind onto the dump.
However, my footwear and avocado covered feet are insignificant in comparison to what I saw and learned that day.

I have walked close to the entrance of the dump many times; I have smelt the stench from a safe distance, and I have seen the filth. I have known that some of the families we work with earn a living from the dump, collecting and sorting through rubbish. Yet for some reason I had not yet ventured into or should that be onto the dump. I guess I was in it and on top of it.
I was not prepared, physically, mentally or emotionally. Not only were my shoes impractical rendering me physically unprepared, but my heart and soul were also not ready for what the dump had for me.
It is not an experience I can easily describe. The stench as strong as the sight. Piles of rubbish and filth. Huge plastic tote bags full of recycling, evidence of the hours of manual labour, done by men, women and children. This should not have shocked me, after all we were there to visit one of the families we support. One of our boys had not done very well in his school exams and we needed to meet with his mother, but she works long hours and so it was easier for us to go to her.
There he was, little Jesús sat on an old, rusting upended wheelbarrow, he looked upset and perhaps embarrassed, he had probably guessed the reason for our visit. His name alone a stark reminder to us of our saviour. We all know that this is exactly the kind of place where we would find Jesus. With the poor, the deprived, the needy, the outcast, the immoral, the lost and broken.
There are few places worse than a rubbish dump where people slave away to earn a living but try a rubbish dump located in the heart of one of the poorest and most deprived parts of Guatemala City.
Well I saw Jesus there, in more ways than one, and my heart broke.

I love all the children we work with and try my best not to have favourites. However, I have a special place in my heart for our youth, my boys. As we stood in the middle of the dump I looked around and there in the corner I saw Dan. He was sat among the rubbish taking a break from his work and my heart broke all over again. I knew that Dan had to help his mum on the dump, I knew that sometimes he had to work until 1am, but seeing it is different. It hit my heart with as much intensity as the stench had hit my nostrils. No one, man woman but especially child, should have to live and work in these conditions.

rubbish dump puppy

As we stood chatting with Jesús’ mum I observed my surroundings. Men carrying massive loads of cardboard, women sifting through rubbish in search of plastic. Children playing, puppies by our feet, and then in our arms. Not a wise decision but I couldn’t resist. How could there even be life in a place like this? Yet, there is always life, always beauty, always hope.
If I decided to try and forget this place I imagine it would take a lifetime. The intensity of the smell and sight is enough to make your eyes water and turn your stomach but the stark reality of people’s lives there makes your heart weep.

Now perhaps you can see why my impractical footwear was the least of my worries and squishing my foot into freshly deposited avocado scraps is insignificant, it pales in comparison in light of what my eyes saw and my heart felt that day.

Rubbish dump

Youth and Motorbikes

I can still vividly recall the first time I watched not one, but two of the boys from our youth group ride off on a motorbike. I was not ready for it then and I am not ready for it now. It depends how well you know me as to whether you and wanting to call me a hypocrite right now, because many people know that I am partial to a motorbike and have often jumped at opportunities to ride them.
However, context is everything. I have come to understand what a motorbike here can represent, what it can imply.

So, when a young man, known to us as having some gang related dealings, came to our centre to collect two of our young men alarm bells began to chime.
Let’s just say there is no way he has a job that pays well enough to buy a bike, and one of the ways he might have come to have it is through gang related favours or tasks.
I stood in the doorway of our centre as one of our boys got in the driver’s seat and the other took his place on the back, as the third person on the bike. Before I had time to decide whether to say anything or not, they were revving up and off they went. Mother instinct kicked in and I called down the street, ‘be careful, be safe.’
I am not their mother, and I cannot tell them what they can and cannot do. I realised in that moment I had no control, no real authority, no right, all I had was love and care. All I could do was offer words which reflected the love in my heart. These boys are growing, and they will make many decisions some good some not so great and I will be powerless to stop or protect them.
But I can love them and show them I care. I can hope and pray that they learn and grow and that they make more good choices than bad. That we can walk alongside them to guide them in their lives as they try and navigate their way through their teens and into adulthood in one of the most complex and challenging environments I have ever come across.

Life in ‘la terminal,’ isn’t easy for anyone, all demographics face challenges some more obvious than others. Of course, we all want to help the children, innocent and vulnerable. And the women, taken advantage of, desperate and turning to things like prostitution. But what about the men? They are harder to want to help, because unfortunately in this context they are often, not always, the root of the problems. They run the gangs, they create the demand for prostitutes, they are the abusive parties. The men are the ones holding the power and making the rules in this macho society and when you add in poverty and depravity, the results are heartbreakingly destructive.
So, of course we often don’t want to help them. They get forgotten, neglected, blamed.

However, there is something far more complex to consider, the cycle of poverty and immorality runs deep, generations upon generations deep. It takes generations of misguided mindsets and abusive behaviours to create the lifestyle so prevalent in ‘la terminal.’ And perhaps instead of viewing men as part of the problem we should be viewing them as part of the solution. And where better to begin than with the young men, the present young generations and the future leaders.

Many people look at the youth we work with here and see ‘naughty’ boys, young men causing problems, getting involved in bad things. And that might be partly true. But it doesn’t have to be. It can be different.
There is so much potential for change, it only takes one person to transform a generation. Old behaviours can be broken, attitudes changed. Value can be given, purpose found.
I don’t see young men with problems I see young men with potential.
With Christ all things are possible, generations can be redeemed, and a generation can be transformed.