Monday, June 24, 2019

Breaking (...or enabling?) the Cycle of Poverty

I’m in Guatemala City today, beginning a 10 day trip in which I’m observing, asking questions, and just listening. I’m here scouting for creation care opportunities, or, what you might call “environmental missions”. Poverty and the decay of creation often go hand in hand, but that doesn’t mean wealthier peoples or cultures are excluded from poverty that takes on other forms, nor from the decay of creation. In fact, wealthier nations often cause much of the decay of creation that the poorer ones suffer from, or at least exacerbate it. But I digress...back to today.

Guatemala City is a very unique place—having suffered civil war for more than 30 years, as well as an earthquake in 1976, the city has not had the chance to do much “city planning”, so that shanty towns and other communities of squatters developed wherever they could build a shelter after the earthquake, and have remained there since. As a result, all of the garbage that the city produces, goes to the city dump. This is located right in the middle of the city. On a windy day, the scent can be smelled quite a ways away. A putrid, rotting smell. It is such a humanitarian disaster it is hard to describe. The National cemetery is at the edge of the dump, and as the rains erode the hillside, graves fall down to the trash, with bones and bodies decomposing along with the trash. It is a hygienic nightmare. What is more, there is an entire economic system developed around the dump, which includes politics (as usual), money, real estate, NGO’s, and so much more. Every year politicians say they will change things, they will close off the dump, they will move it to another location. But it just doesn’t happen.

The people that live in the area surrounding the dump, work in the dump. They are scavengers, the poorest of the poor. Socioeconomically at the bottom of the caste system. Throughout the day, the trucks that bring garbage to the dump first pass through the surrounding neighborhoods, where street after street, different people sort through the trash to find “valuables”. This may be clothing items which they collect to fix up, or to sell. It may be mattresses and box springs in which every piece of material or fabric is removed, since it can be used for something else, until only the wood and metal frames or springs are left. Those may be sold for scrap. All around the dump, the streets are littered with trash, and more specifically, the large bags found on the trucks taking the trash to the dump which are piled up on sidewalks, in the streets... Why? Because each and every item removed from the trash trucks has a certain value, can be used to make a living.

Finally, the trash makes it to the dump. Once dumped out onto the other rotting garbage, there are people picking through what’s left of it for food or items that will help them make it through another day. Google “Guatemala City Dump” and you’ll see things you can’t imagine.

But here’s the thing: we see the poverty, and altruistically, we want to do something about it. We think we can fix the problem...so we send short-term missionary teams down, we pay for clean water, we provide all that we think the people need, we start NGO’s to do “good work” (and it IS good work). But there are so many things wrong with how we do this. If you lived here, you’d see how it really is an intricately developed economic system. It’s nothing like what we think of as an “economy” in our North American perspetive.
Two examples:
Example #1: There is trash everywhere, so we think we should introduce recycling as a solution to the problem. We fund the project, get it going, and hire a few people to run the business. "Wonderful", we think.
Example #2: The communities around the dump either have little to no water, or have no clean, safe drinking water. They have to buy water that has been filtered from a local person who has paid for a filtration system himself in order to sell clean water to his neighbors. Like a “mom and pop shop”. What do the well-meaning people from churches from North America do? Pay for a water filtration system for one of the clinics so that they can give water out freely. Problem solved. Right?

What just happened in each of these two cases?
Example #1: Though it may not look like it, there is a massive recycling program that goes on throughout Guatemala. Before trash is taken to the landfill, items are picked through by people in the streets as the trucks make stops for all their friends who have a friend, who want to sort through the "stuff". Everyone takes what will help them make a living--it's their own way of recycling. If we go into this situation thinking we could solve the problem by creating a few jobs for a few people with a "north american recycling program", we'll do more harm than good. We'll take the resources away from those who depended on them to make a living.
Example #2: If we create a water filtration system and give pure water away for free, we're subsidizing the clinic's free water, whereas the poor mom and pop shop next door can't make a living anymore because they can't give water away for free. We help some, but we hurt others in the process.

This is why it's so important to understand the culture and context in a country before we come up with solutions to the problems. We think OUR way is the best way. That's very ethnocentric of us, and unfortunately, it's an all too common problem of our churches in the West. What we need to do it take the time to ask the questions to the locals, to trustworthy people who know the situation, and ask how we can truly help, how we can truly serve the needy, instead of offering a "quick fix" solution that "feels good", and "looks good" on instagram as we advertise our "good works". God is more interested in the long-term walk of deeper relationships than the short-term buzz we often seek through a mission trip.

Monday, April 01, 2019

The Spiritual Dangers of Disconnecting from Creation

Read this really great article that talks about how important it is we spend time out in God's creation, and the consequences of NOT doing that on our spiritual walk with God. The benefits far outweigh the negatives... Take a look!
https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/the-spiritual-dangers-of-disconnection-from-creation/

Monday, January 14, 2019

Finding your place in the Kingdom

While most people were enjoying some time off work or being with family between Christmas and New Year's, I joined over 11,000 students at URBANA, a large triennial missions conference put on by Intervarsity Christian Fellowship in St. Louis, Missouri. Five of TEAM's coaches (missions mobilizers), myself, and two other TEAM missionaries interacted personally with over 200 individuals that came to our booth to learn about TEAM.
Our group at URBANA

At the end of one seminar on creation care put on by some colleagues, I was able to share about how students can use their gifts and interests and environmental degrees for missions. In fact, one young woman, Emily, sat next to me and said she went to a Bible college but grew up on an organic farm her family owns in western PA. She has a love for the lost, and a passion to work the land, but just didn't know how she could use her non-science degree to help with environmental stewardship and reaching the lost. I couldn't keep from smiling when she mentioned this!

Another young woman came to our booth curious about creation care and missions. She's finishing up her Environmental Science degree in California, but wants to somehow use it in missions to reach the lost. She thought she would have to go back to school to get a Bible degree.

These young ladies are one reason why God has me in the place I am today with TEAM--helping people like them realize they can use their skills as well as environmental degrees for missions.

My response to both of these young ladies was to encourage them with their God-given interests/skills, and to give them specific opportunities to serve with TEAM in environmental missions, or creation care.

Two trips that are going to happen as a result of our conversations are what I call "scouting trips". Their purpose is to research and discover areas of critical environmental degradation that need to be addressed by followers of Jesus. Those who go on these trips will understand the role the church has to play in caring for creation and will develop initial plans to address those issues in appropriate ways that help TEAM accomplish its vision of starting churches. One is planned for the last two weeks of June, 2019 in Guatemala, and one in North Africa in January 2020. If you or someone you know is interested in one of these trips, please let me know. Here are the links to descriptions of the trips: Guatemala, and North Africa.

What a privilege to serve the Lord and His Kingdom here on earth right now, and to make a difference in real communities suffering from real problems.

Wednesday, December 05, 2018

Why does Creation Care matter to God?

Many Christ-followers sometimes wonder what caring for creation has to do with our faith as Christ-followers. I would answer: " Everything!"

Here's a couple straightforward reasons why:
1. Christ-followers should be known for their joy (Galatians 5:22), for their hope, and basically for being people who have LIFE IN ABUNDANCE (John 10:10).
2. Christ-followers have been reconciled to God through Christ (Romans 5:11) and are also the ones commanded to bring reconciliation to all things (Colossians 1:19-20), which includes creation, currently decaying due to no fault of it's own, but because of Adam's sin (Romans 8:19-23).

Simply put then, if we are to be people who are attractive to the world, and if we are the people who should be restoring and redeeming creation from it's bondage to decay (Romans 8:21), then being an ambassador for caring for God's creation is a simple step of obedience for all of us.

This is what I spent one week doing this November with a short-term couple visiting our missions work in La Paz, Mexico. We spent a day doing a beach cleanup with non-Christians. We spent time visiting beautiful places of God's creation in that area: some that have had plenty of efforts to bring them to flourish (Genesis 1:22, 24, 28; 8:17, 9:17) and others that have not. We met with people who never would have heard the gospel but for the environmental care that our missionary friends do in that city. However, because of time spent cleaning up beaches and mangroves alongside non-Christians, and kayaking for hours on the water, and snorkeling or scuba diving to see God's beautiful underwater handiwork among coral reefs, those people who never would come to know Jesus, now DO know Jesus and follow Him.

Time spent with people is never a waste, and time spent with people while restoring God's creation breaks down boundaries so they can see Jesus in us, and see that we care about this world--God's world.

And that's why Creation Care matters to God, and why it should be an inherent, natural outworking of our faith.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Life in the desert

When we think of Mexico, we often think of the desert, cacti, rattlesnakes... Though much of those are true, the Baja Peninsula, especially near La Paz, has much more life than we think. We went on a hike into the mountains and saw much of this amazing life God created!
This was at a high point between the Sea of Cortez and the Pacific Ocean. This is looking toward the Sea of Cortez.


This is the fruit we sometimes call dragonfruit--there are at least two varieties, one that is red on the inside and one that is white, but they grow on this specific cactus variety in the mountains near La Paz. You have to take the spines off the fruit before eating, of course, but this one was delicious!

We walked along a dry riverbed ("Arroyo" is the Spanish word for these riverbeds) until it widened much more than this picture. Dry most of the year except for the few rains that come in the spring. Because it's so sandy, the water doesn't percolate down into the ground and flows quickly into these streams and down to the ocean.

As we walked along the "Arroyo", there was a small oasis of flowery shrubs in a corner with dozens of butterflies.

Black iguanas are common in this part of Mexico.


Our local guide, a new believer, called this rock formation "the protector of the mountains". Can you see the nose and mouth shapes?

Look at how this tree has put roots out to look for water!

As we were walking along the dry riverbed, we suddenly came upon this spot where water was flowing underneath the sand! It may not look like much, but it is significant!


Another tree fighting to stay alive!

This was a giant boulder that's a historic site--there's a cave underneath where native Mexicans used to live and cook.


This was affectionately called "the marriage tree" by our guide. Why do you think?


After hiking the prayer trail at Rancho El Camino with friends, we stopped to pray for the ministry God is using there.

Looks like some creature bending over to talk to me, but it's merely a dried out cactus that didn't make it. 

This is at the top of a tall mountain looking down at the ranch property. On the way up, we ran into a large rattlesnake...quite scary!!

View of the sunset at Rancho El Camino.

The top of the mountain at Rancho El Camino!

On the boardwalk in La Paz.


Mangrove cleanup in La Paz, Mexico

Last week I was with another TEAM missionary in Mexico and a short-term couple. This couple was checking out the many creation care activities that we do in La Paz. So we joined a group of people and another organization for a clean-up of one of the the mangrove beach areas.


People leave so much trash behind them at the beaches after spending the day there, and it accumulates quickly when no one is picking up after them! There likely weren’t any other Jesus followers there with us, and the main organizer is very antagonistic toward Christianity. However, because we also care for God’s creation and about the people living there, we continue working with these people to share the love of Christ with them, and we work to bring God’s creation to a point of flourishing. But that takes work! So we spent the morning cleaning up tiny pieces of plastic, bottle caps, toilet paper, broken glass from beer bottles, and other items. When we were done, we had over 10 bags of trash!

One of the neat things at the end of the clean-up was that the main organizer told us “You did a great job guys! When we got here at 9 am there was trash everywhere; now, you have to actually look for trash!”


These are the kind of comments we hope to get from non-Jesus followers, especially the ones who are antagonistic toward us. We want them to see that we actually care about God’s Creation, and through it be able to start conversations, which ultimately lead to Jesus.

How about you--what are you doing to start conversations about Jesus?