PERU-How to describe Lima? If my early-1970s Marxism still possessed me, I would describe homeless residents living and defecating on trash heaps. Families living in flimsy homes on hillsides. Then I would juxtapose those details with snapshots of rich Lima residents paragliding above a Malibu-like, oceanfront mall or shopping at the mall's 14 jewelry and 18 gift stores. But two other comparisons suggest a different perspective.
First comparison: Cuba and Peru. Five years ago in Havana, the phrase I heard frequently was "uno mundo mejor," a better world. That was the official goal of the Castro regime, but many Cubans used it sarcastically: Five decades of Communism had stopped economic progress and turned the island into a prison. In Lima recently, though, the phrase I often heard was "poco a poco," economic improvement little by little.
I'd like to show you how, in a world full of thorns and thistles, little by little is the way to create gardens. In the 1980s, Peru faced hyperinflation and Maoist "Shining Path" terrorism. Now most of that is relegated to the file of bad memories, as Peruvians have roadmaps to progress. Huge economic, political, and spiritual problems remain, but Lima is now home to a drama of upward mobility. Let's see parts of it . . .
Look: A trash heap in the dangerous Tacora section of Lima, the place to fence stolen goods. Seven men passively sitting on a sidewalk, some apparently drugged out although it is still before noon. Suddenly two vans pull up and nine men in light blue shirts surround the sidewalk-sitters.
An arrest? No. One of the blue shirts attracts attention by banging a bass drum, much as Salvation Army members did a century ago. A second blue shirt pleads with the sitters: "Not long ago we were all like you sitting there. God sent Jesus to die on the cross for you and for me. I was a drug addict for 12 years. God gave me back my family, gave me love. If I can change, you can change. Look at the effort God makes to show His love for you. You don't even have to go. God comes to you."
Look: Men who were on a trash heap a short time ago now live at the Lima dormitory of Victory Outreach, a ministry begun in San Antonio by Freddie Garcia four decades ago. Garcia discipled Luis Salazar, who now disciples men in Lima and throughout the Hispanic world. The men dance and jump as they sing hymns: They are novatos, novices, and do intensive Bible study. Over a two-year period the men can become guerreros, warriors; then vencedores, overcomers; then conquistadores, conquerors. They gain greater liberty and responsibility as they show that their hearts have changed. Later, some work as bakers, carpenters, mechanics, or pastors.
Look: Their counselors through the stages are men like Ricardo Castro who themselves were long-term addicts. Castro left a broken home at age 14 and spent the next 16 years as an addict, sometimes on a trash heap, sometimes sleeping in cemeteries. He went through rehab programs, therapies, and medical treatments, but not until he grasped God's love for him did he change. He's now had 16 drug-free years.
The ex-addicts come from similar backgrounds and have similar problems to those currently on the trash heap. God uses the constructive envy of those who ask, "If that person can leave drugs behind and lead a better life, why can't I?"
Drive to the outskirts of Lima, to an area known as San Juan de Lurigancho. Land uninhabited or unimproved for at least five years can now be occupied by the landless poor, and hundreds have moved onto one stony hillside here. Such "invasions" in other countries have often been wrongful seizures of the property of others; Peru, largely through the work of free-market economist Hernando de Soto, has worked out a better path that allows the poor to become owners of land that was going to waste.
Snapshot: As families put up structures-initially straw or hay, then plywood, then brick or concrete with a stucco finish-the process of legitimization begins. Over several years the "invasion" becomes known as a "human settlement," and city authorities provide electricity and water. Residents work hard. Many men go early to their jobs as bricklayers (earning $20 per day), bus and cab drivers, and street vendors, and they don't return home until the evening. Many women do needlework or peel garlic for 10 cents per pound, making $3 per day.
Snapshot: To get title to their land, residents have to show that they have built a community, so here at San Juan de Lurigancho residents have poured sweat equity into a community center, a sport court, and retaining walls, walkways, and roads, often very steep. They have built an evangelical church that one out of five attend, according to Pastor Javier Ramos, and more are "getting acquainted." Their community library includes books by Peruvian authors but also The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid, Hamlet, Uncle Tom's Cabin, and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
Snapshot: Let's go inside some homes such as that of Erika Tejada, a mother and community leader with the evangelical relief group Food for the Hungry. Her living room still has a dirt floor, and a boulder too big to remove takes up one-fourth of the space, but she has water, electricity, a refrigerator, and a boom box. She came to San Juan de Lurigancho eight years ago because "a friend of mine told me there was land for sale here for 180 sols," about $60.
She also says that her family dynamics have improved: "I was a grumpy person, yelling all the time. I've changed." Her husband puts up canopies for events, so he leaves early and returns late: "He never beat me but he beat the children. He has changed. He can listen now." The Tejadas expect to have legal title to their land soon, and their community is gaining recognition as a legal political subdivision.
Look some more: Sofia Ccamasa, 31, lives with her bricklayer husband and four children on another newly settled hillside outside Lima. Entry to her house is over a pile of rubble, but the house itself has a cement floor rather than dirt, a corrugated roof, electricity and a television, a bed made of bricks, and . . . a handwritten chart of the multiplication table on the wall.
Look: Down the hill sits Cristo Redento, an evangelical church where 50 children are gathered near a sign on the wall, "Soy un Creacion Maravillosa y por esto doy gracios" (I am a marvelous creation and for that I give thanks). Christ the Redeemer is one of 220 Peruvian evangelical churches working with Compassion International, with an average of 200 sponsored children in each church. The students take classes that teach them about God-"Tue res la luz," (You are the light)-and manners: "Levanta la mano al hablar," (raise your hand to speak).
Look: It's Saturday, and the father of one child has volunteered to paint one of the church's classrooms a bright yellow. As he works, so do 12- and 13-year-olds. Some are making excellent chocolate to sell in the marketplace and on the streets. Others are silk-screening T-shirts: They'll sell 20 to 30 and net $1 for each. The money will pay the cost of summer camp, but the larger goal is to teach the students to earn money. Significantly, their teacher was once a student in this school: He shows them the way up but not out.
Look: There's time to meet an elementary school teacher who was a sponsored child, Elizabeth Nicolas Ramirez. She now wants to become a missionary and go to rough places like the one she grew up in, teaching children that they need to know Christ.
Watch for overlooked talent: Three other American visitors and I found ourselves one afternoon babysitting 120 homeless teens and gang members. We were in a cement Lima courtyard surrounded by dilapidated buildings: A ministry putting on an evangelistic dinner/party for these youthful drug users/sellers had decided to collect these youths in this holding area for two hours, without giving them much to do.
I had heard stories about many of the gang members: abused by dads, neglected by glue-sniffing moms, heading toward the Tacora trash heap. The situation could have been tense, but it turned out not to be a Southern Hemisphere version of the Sharks vs. the Jets: These kids didn't have enough energy to rumble. Most just sat, often with glazed eyes, cached in T-shirts-Atlanta Braves, Seattle Mariners, North Carolina basketball-that had slid down the map from North America.
After those lackadaisical hours we piled onto rickety buses to head to the church in the Brena section of Lima where the party was scheduled. Several guys, packed in, started pounding on another: Fight night? But then three of the kids pulled out of their baggy clothes charandos, little guitars. Three others pulled out sampore, the Andean pipes. Two others pulled out corrugated cans and combs.
Suddenly they were beautifully playing songs, the music bouncing off the bus walls. One talented teen played both the charando and the sampore, Bob Dylan-like. It was 10 minutes of heaven, unexpected and wonderful, after two hours of tense boredom. But at the church, the street kids turned listless once again. Ministry staffers tried to rouse them with a hard rock beat and humorous skits; the response was tepid at best, with skills and talents invisible once more.
That experience made real to me the questions a networking group, VIVA, is asking about how help is offered in Lima. The organization is promoting El Sistema de Mejoramiento de la Calidad (Quality Improvement System) with the goal of promoting effective compassion. Coordinator Irma Marquez says of street kids, "They want to live under their own rules. They ask, 'Why should I work if someone will always help me? Why should I go back home? Someone will provide me with food.'. . . Churches committed to welfarism give them food and some entertainment, but welfarism does not help the child."
The Peruvian poor have a way out. They can leave behind addiction and alcoholism. Over time, they can build homes and gain property. They can create and expand businesses, with helps from microfinancing. They can gain an education. They have talents that often remain hidden.
None of this should suggest that the road is easy. To see what may happen over time to the San Juan de Lurigancho hillside "invasion," I visited Cesar Vallejo, a part of southern Lima (named after a Peruvian poet) that was initially settled in an invasion about three decades ago. Now it is a developed entity with a school for grades 7-11 that teaches students how to enter occupations such as metalworking, cosmetology, and electronics.
Some of the resources and results are impressive. Twelve Dell computers sit in one room and eight other computers in another: Students learn to do Google searches and to use Microsoft Word and Excel. Seventh-graders in a chemistry workshop make cleaning and disinfectant materials, while 10th-graders manufacture industrial chemicals. Teachers say that 90 percent who start the chemistry program graduate.
But problems are evident. Graffiti clog the walls of this established community. School walls have broken glass and razor wire on top. Two out of five teen girls have sexually transmitted diseases and some are pregnant.
A visit to Chile in 2002 left me impressed with the country's educational voucher system that allowed almost half the school population to go to private schools, many with a Christian base. No such program exists in Peru, and Christians have little influence in government schools that operate on a nominally semi-Catholic base. On the other hand, Peru's growing number of evangelical churches inspire members like Jurik Cordoba to volunteer as community aides: She says, "I believe in transforming lives. . . . I want marriages to be founded on the Rock."
Peru needs more of that. The physical foundations on some hillsides are shaky, particularly when heavy rains come, but other foundations may be even more fragile. Much of Peru's nominal Catholicism does little to help people think biblically. Old Andean practices of witchcraft are often mixed in with church-based rituals. Many homes have family violence. Government rules hinder entrepreneurship. Many among the affluent have problems similar to those hitting the United States.
Nevertheless, I witnessed upward mobility and the opportunity for more of it. In Cuba five years ago, I saw not only poverty but hopelessness-for as long as the Castro regime lasts. Peru is different. Poverty is not just a lack of money but a decision to renounce hope by assuming that everything will stay the same. Many Peruvians are not poor.
Microloan groups can create another roadmap to economic advance. I visited in Cuzco, the two-mile-high former citadel of the Incas, a microloan group called Kallarisunchis, which means "to begin." It has 250 participants who receive four-month loans ranging from $100 to $1,000, with an interest rate of 2.5 percent per month. (Loan sharks charged 18 percent to 20 percent per month.) Current members recommend and take responsibility for new members.
Members at one regular meeting encouraged each other and talked about their businesses: They drive taxis, fix cars, make filing cabinets, sell paintings, operate hostels, knit and sell clothes, make jewelry, and market health products and cosmetics. They like running their own businesses, maintaining flexible hours, and not being reliant on bosses. Crucially, they hold each other accountable: As microloan groups have become popular around the world, some have lost the personal touch, and that's trouble.
One example of how a good microloan system works: Carolina Quispe Mestas says that participation in Kallarisunchis gave her more desire to work hard and also led to greater involvement in her church. She founded four years ago a neighborhood retail association that now has 39 members and a collection of shops located just across the street from a large and growing church, the Iglesia Evangelistica Maranatha.