We spent Wednesday evening at the nicest mall we’ve seen anywhere in the world. There are touches of luxury everywhere, beginning with the red or green lights above the underground parking spaces to show empty stalls.
Name a brand of expensive wristwatch or sportswear and you can probably find it here. Models in off-the- shoulder mini-dresses distribute samples of expensive perfumes or gourmet chocolate. People who are used to shopping at Saks 5th Avenue or on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills could feel at home in this place. It is a palace of conspicuous consumption.
In the movie theater, there are plush recliner seats similar to those in first class on an airliner. The popcorn is cheaper than in theaters at home—but we order from our seats, and it is delivered by a dark-suited waiter.
If your life were dedicated to acquiring things or treating yourself to pleasant experiences, it would be easy to think that heaven ought to be like this.
In contrast, on Saturday, Sister S. and I had the privilege of joining a group of evangelical Christians as they distributed clothing, blankets, children’s toys, and food to people who live in the Guatemala City landfill, a ravine below the city cemetery.
Each day these people dig through heaps of garbage to eke out their subsistence by salvaging repairable or recyclable items from the trash. The largest flock of buzzards I have ever seen circles overhead like seagulls over a hoard of picnickers at the beach. The scene reminds me of one of Dante’s circles of hell—but it is all too real, all too concrete. No words or photos can capture the unrelenting stench of decay or the feel of grit in your teeth from the fine dust that swirls in the winds of this ravine.
Some 1,500 people lined up to receive gifts and a light lunch of a roll, a Guatemalan tamale wrapped in a banana leaf, and a glass of punch.
The visitors who brought the gifts were mostly Guatemalans, but they also included a visiting family from Iowa and a handful of LDS senior missionaries from all over the United States, with visiting family members in tow. Gifts were donated by both businesses and individuals; several hundred of the blankets were provided by LDS missionaries.
The group brought along a generator, portable sound system, and keyboard. A talented musician spent the hours in the landfill singing Christian pop music, trying to spread a bit of the word about Jesus. At the edge of the crowd, a man in tattered clothing and what might have been dreadlocks (or maybe only matted hair) danced along.
My wife and I went home to enjoy long showers—and felt a little guilty just for having the privilege.
We have to admire people so dedicated to helping the least fortunate among us. Members of the Guatemalan group sponsoring the activity, la Asociación del Cinco, have pledged to donate five percent of their income to helping the poor.
But what is the best way for us to help people so poor?
Discussions about the problem too often are polarized. On one side are those who say, “I pulled myself up by my bootstraps. Let them do the same. That way they’ll appreciate what they get.” Others may answer, “These people are so far down they’ll never get out of their hole, and society owes it to them to help. We’ve got to take from those who have in order to give to those who have not.”
What’s the right answer? I don’t know. But surely there has to be some viable middle ground.
Those who work most closely with people at this level of poverty say the answer isn’t simply to give them money. It’s spent too fast, with no lasting result.
Education may well be the answer—in the long run. There’s a public school perched on the edge of the ravine that serves the children of the area. By law children and teens are no longer allowed to work in the landfill with their parents; they should be in school. La Asociación del Cinco also has a school to help some of the children eight to 12 years old.
Human nature being what it is, there are undoubtedly some at the dump who would not take advantage of an offer of help if it required long-term commitment. But could there not be some system worked out to help those willing to train for viable jobs? Perhaps instead of paying back the aid they receive, they could pay it forward, helping finance retraining for others. It seems like an idea worth a try. I for one would support it.
In the meantime, those who are sacrificing every day to help people trapped in poverty—people condemned to live in the dump—have all my respect.