Guest Blog by Dustin White
The afternoon air was thick with a suffocating humidity as we meandered through our tour of the Guatemalan cemetery. Admittedly, I had the assumption that the purpose of the tour was to view thousands of modest graves, a la Arlington National Cemetery, to get an impression of the civil war and genocide that ravaged the Guatemalan countryside for nearly 40 years. Yet my perceptions were shattered as we walked amongst towering mausoleums. Ornately adorned, these mausoleums were perplexing—especially when juxtaposed to the nearby mountainside where a multitude of squatters lived in slums and shacks stacked on top of one another. As our guide explained that over 80% of Guatemala lives in debilitating poverty earning less than two dollars per day, he pointed out that these obscenely massive, albeit beautiful structures were reserved for the elite aristocratic class.
Making our way towards the back of the cemetery where those who couldn’t afford such a home to house their lifeless bodies were buried, I began to see the sky blackened with circling vultures. “What’s that?” I asked. Our guide forebodingly replied, “You’ll see… it’s the dump.” Next to a mausoleum built to mirror an Egyptian pyramid fashioned with gold and sphinx statutes, we found a seemingly endless wall of simple crypts. These crypts stacked on top of one another were rented to the families of the deceased. “Rented?” I went on, “Given the fact that these are the plots for the poor, what happens if they cannot pay?” Our guide answered, “If the family misses one month, a red slash is painted on the grave to embarrass the family. If two months of payment are missed the body is taken out and thrown into the garbage dump.” An overwhelming sense of bewilderment and dread began clutching me mercilessly as we walked closer and closer towards the valley where the vultures were circling. Approaching the ridge, I became nauseated by an indescribable stench that burned my eyes. Nothing could prepare me for what I saw down in the valley below.
Amongst the mountains of trash, cast off corpses, and vultures, were thousands of people desperately sifting through the garbage. It’s reported that over a third of the entire country’s waste is piled in that ravine, with little to no restrictions on what, or who, goes in. I sat there weeping with no way to comprehend what I was viewing. My Bible told me that all people were made in the image of God, but watching people literally fighting off vultures to be the first to dig through the rotting waste and corpses made that image difficult to recognize.
Men, women, and children spend their entire lives living in the dump. They’re born there. They “live” there. And tragically, most will die there. Speechless and weeping, we were told by our tour guide that we must tell their story. Perhaps if more people here heard their stories, our views of why people migrate here in desperation would look more like Jesus’ view. Perhaps if our legislators learned what we did that day in the cemetery and the dump, their decisions on policy would look more like Jesus’. Perhaps if the Church witnessed mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, desperately scouring through death for life, we could offer the gift of life that we’ve received from Jesus—eternal life.
Dustin White is the Associate Pastor of Dueber Church in Canton, Ohio. He and his wife Jamie have partnered and worked with Mission Year, Alterna, the Inter-Religious Task Force on Central America, and as the Immigrant Worker Project. They share life with the marginalized, practice hospitality to the stranger, and are active in advocating for the rights of immigrants.
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