Heal Their Lands

Heal Their Lands

Posted on August 08, 2017


Can you imagine how hard it must be to leave your family, your friends, your culture, your language, your belongings, and the only place you have ever known? I'm not talking about just going on a vacation, a study abroad trip, or a mission trip. I'm talking about leaving everything behind because you do not feel as though it is feasible or sustainable for your life to stay where you are, and you are afraid for your life and future. This usually means relocating with next to nothing and starting completely over.

Maybe you do know what that is like. But I pray that you don't, because I can only imagine how difficult and painful it would be to make those sacrifices.

I have been involved in humanitarian mission work in Central and South America for 8 years now. When I was 16 years old I set foot in a Colombian slum for the first time, saw the circumstances in which thousands live in (just in the one city), and heard stories of the things they have survived and live through currently. Civil war, drug violence, human trafficking, gang violence, extreme poverty, physical abuse, mental and emotional abuse, addiction, disease, murdered loved ones, caste systems based on skin color, discrimination based on neighborhood…I've since been traveling to Guatemala but see the same issues in different contexts. I find it important to share with others what I’ve seen and learned, not to push any political agenda but so we can have a context for understanding what some of the immigrants in the US have been through and might be trying to escape.

When we talk about illegal, Latino immigrants in the United States, it is often associated with lack of opportunity in their own countries. While that is a major motivation for many immigrating to the US, it is some of the other issues previously listed that drive it all - they all feed into why there is a lack of opportunity for work, for safety, for hope of a better future. It's a much more complex issue than most make it out to be. Illegal immigration is a much bigger job to tackle than simply creating policy from the US end.

Before going to Guatemala I watched the documentary, Reparando, which provides history on what lead to the formation of slums in the Guatemala City dump and the Guatemala City slum called La Limonada. If I hadn't watched this documentary it would have lead me to make assumptions for why these communities existed, which would have been far off from the reality of how they came about. Here is a brief highlight of some historical details, which are important because the United States played a part.

The United States owned United Fruit Company was the largest land owner in Guatemala at the beginning of the twentieth century, as well as the largest employer. They provided crops for many countries and relied on unskilled, underpaid Guatemalans. During the United States' fight to prevent the spread of communism Guatemala was under the US's watchful eye as well. The Guatemalan president promoted an agrarian reform law which redistributed unused land from the United Fruit Company to landless Guatemalans. The US saw this as an act of communism, and on June 18, 1954, the CIA dropped leaflets in Guatemala City demanding for the president to step down. Confusion and a scramble for power brought a new president, who immediately reversed the land reforms and forced many Guatemalan peasants from their land. The government militarized, leading the citizens to form their own resistance in demand of democracy. A civil war emerged and led to widespread massacres. Over the 36-year conflict, thousands of people were brutally murdered and over a million others were displaced. Over 450 Mayan villages were destroyed and the people lost their homes and farms. Many of these displaced people moved into the cities in search of a better opportunity, but a lack of jobs and resources dashed their hopes. Squatter communities formed slums filled with desperate people, one of the largest squatter settlements (in all of Central America) being the Guatemala City dump.

There are many Guatemalans that still have a distrust of the US. (I've often seen hateful graffiti about the United States on walls.) A more subtle element of the time we spend in Guatemala is repairing some of the perceptions of the US and Americans. Still, Guatemala is one of the top countries that make up Latino immigrants in the US. You have to wonder what leads someone to immigrate, often risking their lives to do so, to a country they are generally bitter towards, to escape the suffering they attribute to the country they are heading to. It's the violence, the gangs, the discrimination that limits opportunity, and the other problems I previously mentioned that drive them to this decision so often.

We go to these countries to encourage those who are serving every day and are fighting the brokenness and injustices that exist, coming alongside them during our stay, so the circumstances in the country can improve. It's those who are in the community every day that are making a difference and we want to join them in ways that are useful. Put generally, if we want to make ground on solving the immigration issues in the US we must see that healing comes to the homes of those who are coming. Eradicating the injustices that are driving people to the point of leaving their loved ones and the only place they've ever known is what I believe is going to have the greatest impact on the illegal immigration issue, so they do not have to make the difficult decision to risk everything to come here. I want Latinos to thrive in their home countries so they do not have to struggle in an unfamiliar one. I want Latinos to feel hopeful and confident in their beautiful countries and cultures so they do not feel as though they have to assimilate to a different one. Until people feel they can have a wonderful life available to them in their own country illegal immigration will always be a major political debate and conversation. Instead of looking at this problem from our government offices, we need to look at it from the streets and homes of the countries these immigrants are coming from - especially when the U.S. had a hand in the suffering that exists.

Gloria, a friend of mine I met while in Guatemala City, shared a little bit about the brokenness in her country that she sees on a regular basis:
“Guatemala is governed not just by the president but by gangs. They are the informal government in this country. In Guatemala, there are dangerous zones called ‘red zones’ because they are gang territories, and people who live there are often impacted by violence, kidnapping, and deaths - even when they are not involved with them, they are at risk to be affected or be indirectly involved. In this country, there are many thefts daily so people live with fear. Small store owners have to pay extortion - even buses companies, and if they resist to pay it buses are robbed or the drivers are killed as a result and a way to push others to pay it. So in the gang territories, the red zones where the drugs and violence are a daily thing, we try to make a difference in the lives of kids, teaching them ways to be kind and using things like soccer or basketball to teach life skills. We are trying to give these kids people who really care about their lives. The main point is to be a trustworthy friend for them and then God uses us to lead them to Him, which will lead to a better quality of life. However, poverty of Guatemala is not only in the city. During the civil war in the west part of Guatemala suffered the worst. They are a large portion of the poverty in our country: people without energy, concrete floors, water purification, etc. This is the home of many immigrants in the US because they try to immigrate to have a better quality of life. We build ecological stoves and water filters in this part of the county. While helping them we see the need of God in their lives and a population crying out for a better life.”

My friend, Javier, from El Salvador, also shared about some of the realities in his country and why so many Salvadorans immigrate to the U.S.:
El Salvador is the smallest country in Central America (even smaller than Indiana) with a population of 6 million of people living here. Salvadorians are the second largest minority of Hispanics in the United States of America. The question arises about why there are so many Salvadorans in the US. Why would they decide to risk their safety and leave it all behind to come to a new and foreign country? Each year around 600 Salvadorans die from trying to illegally cross through Mexico to enter the US, many are victims of a drug cartel or gang violence. Even with these outcomes, they are still willing to leave El Salvador because they are trying to leave behind violence from gangs, police, and the military. Another reason they are so willing to leave is that so many live in poverty and are only able to make an average income of around $300/month, while they need $450/month to survive. In a country full of contrasts, beautiful sunrises, and landscapes amidst terrible violence and poverty, the only solution is to pray for the vicious cycle of poverty to end and the violence to subside so the citizens of El Salvador can feel safe in their own homes.

As much as we would like our government and politicians to attend to issues like these, it is really up to us, as human beings and as Christ followers, to care and take action. We need to go and see, sit in a rickety shack on landfill as a gang passes by, walk a narrow alley where someone was murdered, visit the dumps where thousands of people spend 12 hour days sifting through garbage for items to recycle and sell for just a few dollars and get to know the people that live in these places. Practically, contribute to an organization - through your time or resources - that is providing care, resources, and opportunities for them to learn skills and trades to better provide for themselves and meeting immediate needs. But I truly believe that love is powerful, and loving these people where they are can have a ripple effect in their communities. When love rules, injustices will have no place in their streets. Personal investment in other people is something we can all do that is a powerful antidote to suffering.

Step In To Help Right Here in Hamilton County

There's no quick or simple fix. In fact, it may even sound difficult. Love is messy and showing up requires sacrifice. But when you've seen what I've had the opportunity to see these last 8 years it is no longer an option to sit back and do nothing. Grace Church has 30 local and global partners that are fighting injustices all over the world and in our own backyard. The Grace Care Center provides an opportunity to serve our neighbors while encountering people from all over the world – some from similar situations as those I described. If you are not already involved in either of these, I encourage you to pray about how you might begin to be part of the healing of the broken places through one of these avenues. Signing up to serve can be an answer to prayer for so many.

Signup to Serve in the Care Center

Get Educated

If you want to know more about the dangerous journey Central and South Americans endure trying to make it to the US, read the book Enrique's Journey. It will inform you more on the realities of Central American countries and the risks others are willing to take to make it to the US.