El Milagro. Spanish for The Miracle. It’s Trujillo, Peru’s landfill. You have to drive out past the city prison down a dusty dirt road just to get to it. Tucked away, out of sight and out of mind, hundreds of people dig through bags upon bags of garbage with their bare hands just to make a living.
They spend hours, months and years sifting through the mountains of trash that spread out for miles in search of recyclables to sell in the city. For some, trash mining is all they have ever known. They have spent their entire lives living and working in a place filled with the constant hum of swarming flies, the stench of rotting food and human excrement and the brown smoke of burning rubbish. The garbage dump is their normal.
This summer, I had the chance to step into their world and witness, first-hand, the physical poverty that these people and so many others live in every day.
For two and a half months, I served as an intern in Trujillo, Peru with a non-profit Christian organization called Inca Link. My main job as an intern was to lead short-term teams of high schoolers from the U.S. and Canada that came down to serve for 7-10 days. Each day, I would lead them through working on construction projects, organizing Bible school programs for the kids and being part of the ministries that Inca Link already had in place there.
One of these ministries was Elim, a site located just outside El Milagro that helps to educate families that work and live in and around the dump. During the summer, one of their outreach strategies is to send teams into the dump with fruit and supplies to pray for the workers and invite them to the program.
I visited El Milagro two times this summer, and it was an experience I know I will never forget. The first time I stepped inside the gate, the smell and the flies were obviously the first things that hit me. But the most overwhelming part by far, was seeing at least 100 people digging through the garbage with rakes and bare hands.
A team of 60 high schoolers and myself from Canada had come with bags of fruit to hand out. I led a group of about five students through the dump. As the only Spanish speaker in the group, my job was to translate and pray for the people to whom we gave the bags of fruit as well as invite them to Elim.
The first time approaching someone, I was so nervous and shocked that I tried to speak and no words came out. I’d never seen such poverty and filth in my life. Finally, in very broken Spanish, I was able to pray for the man we had given the fruit to and invite him to Elim.
One by one, we prayed with the workers and gave them fruit. Each time, I was able to communicate more clearly, even though it was becoming harder to choke back the tears.
Just before we were to start walking back through the dump to leave, I noticed an old man sitting alone in a pile of trash bags. I walked up to him, shook his hand, kissed his dirt-smudged cheek (as is the typical greeting in South America) and handed him some fruit.
He told me his name was Luis. I asked him if there was anything specific he would like us to pray for. I was expecting a prayer request for safety or health or better working conditions. But instead, Luis’ prayer was “that the whole world might come to know Christ.”
In that moment, God broke my heart. Luis’ humility and selflessness put me to shame. No one would have blamed him if he had wanted prayer for his family or health or the poverty that surrounded him. But Luis was more concerned about reaching people for Christ than any other physical or material thing.
Can I say the same thing about myself? Looking at my life here in the U.S. makes me thankful, but also ashamed. I am blessed with so much, yet have shared so very little. I let myself get so caught up in life and success and work that I lose focus of what really matters – sharing the love of Christ.
That day Luis reminded me of Christ’s love and for the rest of the summer, I watched the effects of that love unfold in so many ways.
More and more children are coming to Elim and getting an education. Mothers are leading Bible studies and learning practical skills to become self-sufficient. Families are becoming stronger and marriages healthier. The next generation is learning to learn and love and lead.
In this dirty, dusty place, hope is rising. From the outside, it doesn’t look like anything beautiful or miraculous. But I think “The Miracle” is the most fitting name. Because it’s there, right in the middle of those heaps of trash, that God is working miracles.