The first time I went to Nicaragua was on a service/learning trip back in 2010 when I was working as a university chaplain in Victoria. As we’ve since done with youth from St Aidan’s three times, a group came together and we planned a visit that included learning about the social and economic challenges of the country, staying with local families, and working on a community project.
That first time we visited several different locations as part of our orientation, one of which was La Chureca, the huge garbage dump in Managua. Some of you will have heard me speak about this before. La Chureca at that time was about 7 square kms in area (that’s bigger than this entire parish of The Beach), and several thousand people lived right in it. The dump had been there for some time, but when a huge earthquake hit Managua in 1972 many people lost their homes and livelihoods, and the dump grew exponentially as the debris from all the collapsed buildings was carted off there. People who had lost their homes and incomes gradually moved onto the site to scavenge materials to make shelters from, and then began to make a living by gathering items from the garbage that they could sell for scrap or recycling.
Los churequeros, as the people who live there are called, are the poorest of Nicaragua’s poor. They live in dangerously unhealthy conditions, and often resort to eating the food scraps that are dumped from restaurants. 50% of the inhabitants are children. We were guided through the dump community that day by Yamileth, a woman who had lived there and raised her kids there for several years, before managing to find more safe and stable work and moving out of the dump. She acted as our translator and took us to talk to some of the churequeros. We also met with an organization providing some schooling there for the kids.
As always, before our visit we were briefed about safety protocols and respect:
- No taking photos of the people as though they were tourist attractions
- No wandering off
- No eating or drinking of anything there
- Watch out for broken glass and other dangers underfoot
And because of the air pollution there from the constantly smouldering garbage fires and the leaked chemicals, our visit couldn’t be a long one.
So we arrived, we took in the sights and smells and statistics, we listened to Yamileth tell her story, and then she took us to one of the shacks where a family lived. It was little more than a couple of pieces of corrugated iron and some tarps, but it was home. And while Yamileth translated we heard from the woman who lived there a little bit about what her life was like. It was moving and shocking, and brought some of us to tears.
Time was nearly up, and our eyes were stinging from the pollution, so we were about to leave when the woman told us to wait a minute. She went inside, and a minute later came out carrying a tray of plastic cups filled with a kind of purple Kool-Aid, no doubt mixed from a powder with water. Exactly what we’d been warned not to touch, ever, because of the risk of ingesting bacteria or parasites from unclean water.
What to do? She who lived on others’ garbage and made barely enough money to feed herself and her kids, was offering us rich Canadians a gift of pure hospitality and generosity from what little she had. Like the widow in Luke’s gospel reading today, who put two pennies into the temple treasury – all she had to live on that day – or like Al in Michael’s story last week, who offered part of his welfare money to a mother with a baby at St Stephen’s breakfast program, this woman was offering us a generous gift. Gonzalo and I exchanged a glance and a nod, I said a silent prayer, and we all thanked her and drank the juice. (And we were fine.)
What I’ve learned from times spent in economically impoverished communities is that the generosity of the poor and the mutual care within the community put our rich lifestyle to shame. We who have plenty, more than enough, are often so cautious and stingy in our giving. As Jesus said of the rich in his day, “All of them have contributed out of their abundance,” whereas the woman “out of her poverty has given everything she had.”
What Jesus is calling us to is sometimes called sacrificial giving: “Giving till it hurts.” If I barely notice the difference to my bank account that my giving makes, I’m not giving sacrificially.
Of course it’s easy to justify our tight hold on our wealth: we want to be good stewards, we want our children to benefit, we have to pay our taxes… If we gave too much away then we’d be in need ourselves. But how much is enough?
One of the spiritual practices of not just Christianity but many faith traditions is intentional proportional giving, including the practice of tithing – giving away one tenth of your income. Some churches do that, too, designating a percentage of their income to be given away. It’s a practice and a discipline based on gratitude and trust: we thank God for the generosity bestowed on us, and we give a portion gladly back. That’s a great starting place.
There’s also the spiritual practice of going with your first impulse of generosity in a situation, before you can rationalize it away. Like St Aidan giving away the king’s horse that had just been given to him, to the first beggar he came across. Or like keeping a stash of spare change in your pocket or in your car, to give to those asking for it, before you argue yourself out of it.
Another story: when we lived in Kapuskasing and served a church there, we had two young children and really wanted to fly back to England to introduce our baby daughter to her grandparents, but we couldn’t afford it. Then one day, completely out of the blue, we got a cheque to cover our flights! And the person who’d done this was a single parent with two teenage kids. She was likely no better off than we were, probably worse, but she’d heard us say we were longing to go back, and she impulsively dipped into her savings and gave us the money. I suspect God often nudges us to be impulsively generous, but how often do we actually respond?
And then there’s the long-term spiritual practice of engaging your responsibility as a citizen to see that the economic policies of our city, our province, our country, are those that will decrease the gap between rich and poor, not widen it, and to see that our taxes are used in ways that promote communal health and wellbeing for all. And that can be tough sledding! It’s not particularly rewarding in the short-term, and it requires real commitment to just keep at it, writing to MPs, attending meetings, voting, signing petitions. But we have a God given responsibility to see that those who lack, those who are on the margins, are tended to, included, safeguarded.
Some of you may have seen the Yukon village of Old Crow in the CBC news this past week – the Vuntut Gwich’in Indigenous community where some of our youth went on a service/learning trip in 2018. It’s the most northerly community in Canada, well within the Arctic Circle, and it was featured in the news because of its recent installation of a vast field of solar panels to decrease its dependence on diesel being flown in for power. They’re on track to be carbon neutral by 2030, despite being in such a remote and cold location. They’ve cared for that land for thousands of years, and they’re continuing to do so now, as they face new challenges.
What impressed me when we were there was the close sense of community, and the way decisions are made and tasks carried out in such a way that the whole community benefits, not just some. So when the hunt is on, for instance, and caribou meat is brought back to the village, it’s prepared and smoked in communal smoke houses, and everyone gets their share, young or old, hunters or not. In fact the most vulnerable are given their share first.
Old Crow, Kapuskasing, La Chureca in Managua – these are places where I’ve learned that although I am well off materially, sometimes I am really spiritually poor by comparison with those who have much less. I have a less generous heart. I’m cautious when I could be extravagant in sharing. I hold back, when others freely give.
We have so much to learn about radical generosity and hospitality. And, thanks be to God, we have so many opportunities to practise! - to practise moving beyond comfortable giving to sacrificial giving; beyond self-interest to care for the whole community; beyond what’s reasonable to what’s extraordinary.
Jesus highlighted for us the widow with so little, who cared and loved enough to give it all away. May he teach us to see her, really see her, as living in the way of the kingdom of heaven, to which we’re all invited. Amen.