Breakfast at a maximum-security prison, lunch at a huge garbage dump, a stop at a shantytown before dinner, and a visit to street children before bed—that's what your day might look like if you were to follow missionary Joel Van Dyke around Guatemala City.
Van Dyke's work with Christian Reformed World Missions is to bring training in urban youth outreach to Central American leaders already passionate about that work. The training program is called The Strategy of Transformation.
"I seek to be a Barnabas (son of encouragement) to a group of grassroots leaders serving and living in the hardest places of the capital of Guatemala and the other capital cities of Central America," Van Dyke explains.
As the sun rises over the mountains around Guatemala City, Van Dyke and the team of national chaplains with whom he serves often find themselves careening up mountain roads to reach one of the concrete fortresses that serve as maximum-security prisons for gang members serving long sentences.
The chaplains have been doing this work for the past two-and-a-half years, taking food, clothing, and the gospel to some of the most dangerous men in the country. Last November, they persuaded gang members not to retaliate after a deadly episode with the police and other inmates.
On days when the prison visits are short, Van Dyke might brave the meandering mountain-ledge road back down into the heart of the city, where the national cemetery serves as the gateway to the Guatemala City garbage dump. About 11,000 people live off the garbage that the dump trucks bring there every day.
The dump is nestled in a gorge that follows a poisonous river. It ends at a slope encroaching into a toxic forest that is shrinking each year.
On their way to the gorge, the garbage collectors pick over the junk and remove anything of value, like metal or old appliances. They leave the real garbage behind for the scavengers—men and women who work up to 12 hours a day, hoping to find enough plastic and cardboard to make a meager $5 U.S.
Van Dyke serves the ministries of Potter's House and some local Young Life folks working with youths and families of the basurero (dump). "I just seek to come alongside of the folks within our networks as they love and serve their own people against all odds," he said.
Until recently, children often worked the dump with their parents, but a documentary exposé pressured the government to enforce labor laws in the garbage collection industry. Some children still sneak in, though.
"Many still sneak in to help their parents, as evidenced by the garbage avalanche that occurred this past June during the height of the rainy season," Van Dyke said. "Eighteen people were buried alive by garbage, including four children between the ages of 9 and 11."
After sharing some food with teachers, parents, and children at the dump, a similar setting awaits Van Dyke at a neighborhood called La Limonada (Lemonade). Like the dump, La Limonada follows a gorge and a putrid river that once cut through the mountain range and brought life to the jungle. Today, it carries raw sewage away from city homes.
This neighborhood, reminiscent of Brazilian favelas—sprawling slums of unfinished dwellings—straddles the river and adds its own waste to the mix. In La Limonada, Van Dyke provides training to Christian leaders who seek to bring hope to desperate hearts and strength to weary arms.
"The reality is that this is the essence of what we provide for all of the grassroots leaders we serve in the Strategy of Transformation network," Van Dyke said. "We seek to train, sustain, and model transformational leadership principles and form missional communities of leaders who serve the least, the last, and the lost of their cities."
When the sun drops behind the mountains and the city lights turn on, a nocturnal population comes into view. They are Guatemala City's street orphans. Some have no families; others have no wish to suffer their family's neglect or abuse.
They are dressed in rags, they smell of urine, their hair is a tangled crust, and they hold one hand up to their mouth and nose to fill their lungs with the glue fumes that numb their minds to the suffering. They beg, they steal, they deal, and they prostitute themselves if times are hard. The orphans' average age is 13, but they can be as young as 8.
The sounds of the city are mostly the noise of cars and horns and the buzzing of streetlights. But sometimes a cheer for Jesus echoes off the asphalt and cement.
A man named Italo, a professional clown by day and a lay evangelist by night, will clap and yell and sing until he has the attention of the children sleeping under plastic bags. They know him; sometimes he brings them food.
Van Dyke now occasionally brings groups of North American visitors to encourage Italo in his ministry. The visitors bring food and often part with a jacket or a necklace when they see children shivering in the rain or admiring what they cannot buy. Together they sing hymns and praise songs, share bananas and ham sandwiches, and drink soda out of Styrofoam cups.
Van Dyke is working to connect Italo with other people doing ministry among urban street children in other Latin American countries. They dream of a home in Guatemala City where children can spend the night in safety after a meal and some Christian fellowship.
"Italo has recently been given a green light by a church to use a building in the middle of the neighborhood where many of the street youth attempt to survive," Van Dyke said. He said plans are underway to take advantage of this resource for the children.
Working in dumps, slums, and prisons is hard. Harder still is working with the poor, the guilty, and the abandoned. But that is what it means to walk like Christ in Guatemala City.
Transforming Lives in Latin America
Thousands of people in several Latin American countries are touched, and many lives are transformed, by the work of the Christian Reformed Church.
Radio programs are beamed into Latin America; rehabilitation centers have been set up to help those with alcohol and drug addictions, and mission workers assist communities to develop infrastructure.
CRC-related agencies and organizations working in Latin America include Christian Reformed World Missions, Christian Reformed World Relief Committee, Back to God Ministries International, the Office of Race Relations, Calvin College, Calvin Theological Seminary, Faith Alive Christian Resources, Partners Worldwide, Timothy Leadership Institute, and Worldwide Christian Schools.
"The bulk of our work is in leadership training and church development. But there are some special ministries that are just wonderful and especially life-changing," says Luis Pellecer, CRWM's program director for Latin America.
The CRC has had missionaries in Latin America for decades, but often they worked alone or in small groups. Today, the work is becoming more integrated, largely because of the Latin America Administrative Council (LAAC), whose goal is to find ways for the CRC to do coordinated ministry in Latin America.
"The idea was to build a structure that would create a different approach to missions—one that is highly collaborative and focuses on unifying all the CRC ministries in each country," says Mike Bruinooge, director of ministry planning. He was asked to help get LAAC up and running and now serves in an advisory capacity.
"We do see a change in attitude and approach as people get together in planning sessions."
—Chris Meehan, CRC Communications
Ministries in Latin America
Alicia Hamming, who works for Christian Reformed World Missions (CRWM), recently helped to dig a well for a new water system in a community in the mountains of Nicaragua.
"As a team, we helped dig the trench and carry sand up the side of a mountain," Hamming says in a report to CRWM. "We learned how the community had committed to completing the project. We served by standing beside them with shovels and dirt, and shared laughter, conversation, and song together."
In 1999 CRWM, the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC), and Food for the Hungry International decided to collaborate to help equip local leaders with a biblical worldview and promote associations between institutions and churches committed to this vision.
At the Nehemiah Center in Managua, Nicaraguans and North Americans work together to help improve people's lives, as well as to offer a Reformed perspective on how to tackle the problems they face.
"In general, Latin America is an area in which evangelical churches are growing very rapidly," says Joel Huyser, Latin America field director for CRWM and a former director of the Nehemiah Center. "We want to see advances in collaboration have a greater impact on Latin America."
Gladis González Juan credits the Latin American ministry of the Christian Reformed Church with helping her obtain Christ-centered schooling. Today, she teaches English, French, and Spanish at Juan Calvino Christian School in the Dominican Republic.
"Through a scholarship, I went on to high school at Juan Calvino and graduated with honors in 1999," she says. "I enrolled in the university and pursued a degree in modern languages." She says her life was changed dramatically because of her connection to mission workers.
CRWM and CRWRC work closely here in Christian schooling, agricultural development, and training for church leaders. The CRC of the Dominican Republic has 180 congregations and many other churches that are affiliates. In addition, there are 21 Christian schools.
Recently, the CRC's Office of Race Relations began offering its "Dance of Racial Reconciliation" training in Latin America. The training was developed for use in North America, but its value is being seen in places like the Dominican Republic, where the emphasis is on achieving reconciliation between native Dominicans and the immigrant Haitian population.
CRC agencies work together in Haiti through the organization known as Sous Espwa (Source of Hope).
Sous Espwa has recently hired someone to help orient the many groups that come to Haiti to do short-term ministry. In addition, a person has been hired to help develop a follow-up center for people whose lives are touched by the BTGMI radio broadcasting.
An initiative to educate young people about HIV/AIDs has also begun. "In spite of the huge losses that many are experiencing, and in spite of the grueling conditions that many are living under, Christians in Haiti have much to teach the world. God is working in the lives of his people," says CRWM missionary Howard Van Dam.
Missionaries Caspar and Leanne Geisterfer are moving to Honduras so that Caspar can work as a church planter and trainer. "In Honduras, there is a very healthy CRC as well as very healthy diaconal branches," says Leanne Giesterfer, who worked previously in Haiti and serves as CRWRC's Latin America director.
"There is a lot of collaboration there. [CRC people] are salt and light in their communities." CRWRC is involved in setting up legal clinics and in developing literacy projects. In addition, it brings public health care information to many communities in southern Honduras.
Paul Van Tongeren, who serves with CRWM, says the work sometimes involves helping to put on conferences, such as one on "Transforming Conflicts" that drew participants from churches, schools, and development organizations.
Outreach efforts in the Guadalajara area include starting worship services in homes. Last year two house churches began in the area.
"By starting in new homes we almost always add new people, mainly relatives and neighbors of the hosts," says Wayne DeYoung, who serves with CRWM together with his wife, Sandy.
Occasionally, they take to the streets with guitars and a violin, singing praise songs to draw interest. People step outside their homes and ask questions. The DeYoungs have also held Bible studies in their home.
Scott and Marcia Geurink are helping the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Mexico plant and develop churches in Tijuana. They work with local pastors in outreach, conduct home Bible studies, and are involved in new mission starts.
They teach at and are helping to develop the new Bible Institute in Tijuana, to connect short-term mission teams from North America with projects in Tijuana, and they help in the operation of the Christian Rehab Center, which currently houses 80 men.
Missionaries serve as teachers and administrators at the Evangelical University of the Americas, as well as Instituto Farel, and the Costa Rican Center for Reformed Studies. In one of her prayer letters, teacher Cecilia Drenth, who serves with CRWM, expressed concern that the worldwide financial crisis will affect the work that she is doing, along with many others, to update courses for national accreditation at the Evangelical University of the Americas. But that doesn't mean that she and the church won't do their very best with what they have, she says.
In addition to the work of CRWM missionary Joel Van Dyke (featured in this issue), CRWRC and its partners are helping rural communities to develop more productive and conservation-minded agriculture and also assisting in preventive health care and education.
Back to God Ministries International (BTGMI) broadcasts evangelistic and devotional radio programs on 16 stations throughout El Salvador. Two Spanish-language television programs, including a Spanish-language children's program, air on 10 stations. In addition, many families use CADA DIA, a daily devotional booklet. These discipleship programs and materials are available throughout Latin America. BTGMI broadcasts Spanish programming on 400 radio stations and 120 TV stations throughout Latin America.
—Chris Meehan, CRC Communications