as told to Andy Butcher, Decision Magazine ’93
If you had told me few years ago that my search for meaning in life would end on a garbage dump, I would have probably thought you were crazy.
But that is just what has happened. As a missionary with Youth With A Mission (YWAM), I work among the people who live on Smokey Mountain. It’s largest rubbish dumps in Manila,Philippines. In recent years this dump–named after the fires which burn across its surface as refuse spontaneously combusts–has become well-known around the world as a symbol of the terrible poverty afflicting large parts of our country.
Amid the piles of garbage, the noise and the clinging stale odor, some 20,000 people make their homes and the best living they can from scavenging among the trash for bits and pieces to resell.
In befriending and helping care for these poorest of the poor, my family and I don’t have the material comforts we had when I worked in industry. But we have found our lives enriched beyond measure. We have found a peace and a purpose that eluded us all the time we were trying to make a comfortable future for ourselves.
I was working in the Middle East, away from my family and my home in the Philippines, when God called me back to him. I had grown up in the Church, as had my wife, Cristina, but we were both drifting when we married in 1980. During the four years that I worked in the Middle East, my mechanical engineering skills were able to secure a good salary. We invested in a nice home and car, aiming to set ourselves up for the years ahead.
But there was a high cost. Because I was able to be at home with my family only four weeks a year, I was missing important growth stages in my children’s lives, like the first tooth and the first step.
With spare time on my hands, I joined an expatriate workers’ church, and soon found myself with a new hunger for the Bible. As I read Scripture, I came to a crossroads. What really was the most important thing in life? Was it money, or the fact that one day I would be standing before God, accounting for my life?
THE QUESTION WHY
When in 1987 I returned to the Philippines, Cristina and I rededicated our lives to God. Not long afterward we attended a Crossroads Discipleship Training School operated by YWAM Antipolo, on the outskirts of Manila. This was a time for us to devote ourselves to learning more about God.
During that time, we were introduced to the work at Smokey Mountain. We found our hearts drawn to the people living at the rubbish dump. We wondered, “Why should some people–like ourselves–have so much while others have so little?” Cristina and I knew that we wanted to give ourselves to sharing God’s love with the people on Smokey Mountain.
Afterward Cristina and I, our 3 children moved to Smokey Mountain joining the existing YWAMers there. At first we spent time simply befriending people and getting to know them. When YWAM began ministering at the dump in 1984, it was with a belief in the saying that people don’t really care what you know until they really know that you care.
In the early days much of that practical expression of God’s love centered on health care. Binding words from scavenging or fighting, and treating diseases so common in such unhealthy surroundings. The team began immunization programs, a health clinic and feeding programs for malnourished youngsters.
FAITH IN ACTION
Over the years the work has expanded to take in wider needs beyond the immediate life-or-death needs. We immersed ourselves in a wide range of project to help develop life in the community. To realize the Bible’s promise of “a future and a hope” for God’s children.
We see no separation between “preaching the Good News” and “releasing the oppressed.” Each of our practical expressions of God’s love is linked with a declaration of the Good News. Prayers as we work with the people. Conversations about our faith. Bible study groups for those who want to know more.
As a Filipino, I am touched that so many Christians have come from overseas to give their hands to the work of caring for my fellow countrymen. At present there are five nationalities represented on our 20 person team. In addition, support in the form of prayers and pesos comes from individuals, groups and churches all over the world.
I am now responsible for directing the various ministries of our team. It is frustrating to spend less time with the people. But rewarding to see the ways lives are touched and changed by Christ. I’ve seen many people leave behind their old ways –alcoholism, drugs, violence and even occultism. They turn their lives over to Christ and become actively involved in the growing churches on the dump.
MISSIONARY FROM THE DUMP –NOT US
Recently one of the fellowships closely involved to us sent out its first missionary group to travel around in the Philippines! They shared with others the riches of heaven they had found in the dump.
Pedrito, a feared member of the most violent gangs in the community now become one of the missionaries. His tattooed body speaks of his angry past, but a big smile shows the peace and contentment that he knows today as a Christian.
Another man who used to drink and fight is now a deacon in one of the churches on the dump. He says he doesn’t want to move to a nicer area. Smokey Mountain is where he found God and he’ll serve his own people.
There is a growing sense of community on Smokey Mountain, and we believe that it is due in large part to the influence of the churches and the Christians. Despite the hardships there is much happiness. Friends greet us with warm smiles and generous hospitality when we squeeze into their lean-to-homes.
But even with many physical improvements, such as fresh water supplies and electricity, the dump is still a difficult place to live. Sickness and violence, with resulting deaths, are still common. We have wept with many families and helped them bury their dead.
Faith and hope strains us sometimes. In the face of grinding poverty it is easy to become overwhelmed. AS we seek to minister, we try our eyes fixed on Jesus rather than all the difficulties around us.
Smokey Mountain visitors never fail to be moved by the plight of the people. Many Westerners puked when I walk them around the area and introduce them to my friends.
To work here we need to have true compassion, something which flows from the heart of God. That is why we believe spending time with God in prayer and worship is a vital to our ministry. Just as feeding and caring for the people.
Psalm 113:7 declares God’s goodness and great ness over all the world. It attest that, “He raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap.” We see him doing that at Smokey Mountain.