Cover Story

Hope and help for the poor

"Hope and help for the poor" Continued...

Issue: "Fighting fatalism," July 12, 2014

But the road for her and her classmates is still long and twisting. In Nicaragua, Compassion says, adults abuse eight of 10 girls by the time they are 12, and those least able to protect themselves have the most to fear during their teenage years. Dayana’s teacher told the class what’s appropriate behavior by adults and what’s not. She reminded them that everyone has rights and duties, and asked the 15 students to pass around a stone and name a right or duty when it came to them. Some U.S. students might snicker, but these responses were deeply serious: to have a name, to practice self-defense, to learn.

BABIES AND TODDLERS in El Salvador often see few colors in their dark and barren homes, so in the early stimulation area at Iglesia Evangelica Jesus de Nazaret, parents expose their Mateos and Miguels to bright colors and a variety of shapes and sizes. Many of the teen moms are eager for instruction on upgrading their children’s development, so they also welcome home visits from staff members who can show them how to help babies develop small motor coordination. 

The one dad present in the early stimulation area the day we visited, Maurecio, 27, had been unemployed for seven months and was hoping for a job fixing automobile electrical systems. For now his wife is the breadwinner, making bras at a Hanes factory located in the international free trade zone that benefits from tax breaks. A Compassion staffer encouraged Maurecio by noting, “The real man is the man who takes care of his child.”

One familiar hymn instructs us to “come to the Father through Jesus his Son,” and we repeatedly saw how parents start coming to church and to Christ through programs that minister to their children. Patricia, 24, bounced on her knees her 2-year-old, Kimberly, and explained how the project had affected her thinking: ”I did not know anything about the Bible. Now I read a passage every night.” Maurecio noted that he and his wife had cohabited for four years, but because of Compassion and church teaching they were married two years ago. 

Kids play at Evangelico Bautista.
Photo by Tim Glenn
Kids play at Evangelico Bautista.
CEMENT-BLOCK BUILDING, corrugated roof, cement courtyard with basketball nets and soccer goals at each end, and playground on dirt featuring a slide, swing, teeter-totter, and monkey bars: Not fancy by megachurch standards, but material accomplishments at Evangelico Bautista, a Baptist church in Masagua (more water), Guatemala. Pastor Marco Antonio Ramirez Villa Toro, 53, planted the church in Masagua with four congregants. 

Until recently Ramirez earned survival money through brake shop work in Guatemala City, commuting 40 miles each way. The church gradually increased his salary: $9 per month during his first five years, $20 per month for the next five years, then $33, and eventually $50 per month. Now the church has 200 members, and he’s finally moved up to $220 per month: He says he’s still “a poor man financially but a rich man in God.” 

His decision in 1997 to work with Compassion International proved crucial in church growth. At first it was hard to enroll children, since some Guatemalans thought it a foreign plot to steal their children, but now there’s a waiting list. He laughed at the notion that acts of compassion can draw attention from evangelism: In his experience, Compassion International drew in children and the parents started coming to church. Besides, he added, “To transform society, we need to do it through children. We have a saying, ‘If the tree is twisted when it’s little, you won’t be able to fix it.’” 

Guatemala City’s dump, home to 15,000.
Photo by Tim Glenn
Guatemala City’s dump, home to 15,000.
We worshipped on Sunday morning 40 miles away, across the street from Guatemala City’s central dump, where 15,000 of the poorest live. Some of them filled gray, dark green, and burgundy plastic chairs in the church named A Deo Sea La Gloria (to God be the glory). They sang as if desiring to be worthy of that credo: “En ti, he sido libre. … Tu gracia y compasión todos necesitan. … Solo Dios puede salvar. … Perdido sin ti.” (You alone free us. We all need your grace and mercy. Only God can save. We are lost without you.) 

Many of the adults came initially to the church at the request of their children enrolled in the Compassion project the church hosts. The children learn about God and also study typing, dressmaking, art, and music. Their mothers earn money by using toothpicks to make beads out of recycled paper, and by turning the plastic from discarded bags into pocketbooks.

Oddly, the best testimonial to the success of Compassion programs often comes from gang members who terrorize poor neighborhoods but generally respect churches and projects that serve the poor, as long as pastors and leaders live humbly. Roberto Medrano, Compassion’s national director for El Salvador, recalls how he once refused to hand over a camera when a gang member demanded it: Medrano told the would-be thief, “I am taking these pictures to bring food to your children.” Later, Medrano’s supervisor said he should have turned over the camera: “It’s not worth your life.” But Medrano later learned the gang member also received a scolding: “Don’t threaten a program that helps our children.”

Listen to the sounds of Central America through the reporting of Susan Olasky on The World and Everything in It:

Read profiles of the other finalists and runners-up in the 2014 Hope Award for Effective Compassion competition.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.


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