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NICARAGUA, HONDURAS, EL SALVADOR, and GUATEMALA—This issue begins coverage of the elite nine in our ninth annual Hope Award for Effective Compassion contest. Every year since 2006 WORLD reporters have traveled the United States (and in the past three years, foreign countries as well) to research and write about Christian poverty-fighting programs that offer challenging, personal, and spiritual help. (To see the 77 profiles of past years’ contenders, go to wng.org/compassion.)
Starting in our next issue, we plan to reveal this year’s domestic Final Four by running profiles of the winner and runner-up in each of our four regions: Midwest, Northeast, West, and South. This issue spotlights our International Region winner, the programs of Compassion International in Central America. We’re impressed with how Compassion fights fatalism (and its religious, social, and economic causes and results) through programs that help children while bulwarking local churches.
This article has two parts. We need context to comprehend the fight against fatalism, so I’ll first report on the 475-mile road trip my wife and I took along the Pan-American Highway, visiting Compassion child sponsorship sites along the way. Second, I’ll give examples from three specific Compassion programs.
Part one: Heading down the highway, looking for compassion
Tourist guides issue warnings: “Crime, including robbery and rape. … Dangerous. Use extreme caution.” CNN labels one city in Honduras the world’s most violent, and the UN calls El Salvador the world’s most violent nation. The U.S. State Department warns visitors to Central America to watch for kidnapping and extortion attempts, and not to travel after dark.
That doesn’t sound like a region of the world where compassion would take hold, and it’s also an area largely ignored by the White House and American media. From the 1950s through the 1980s the United States and the Soviet Union waged proxy conflicts in these countries and more than 100,000 Central Americans died—but when the Cold War ended in 1989, hard life went on under the international radar, and neo-Marxism re-emerged. Former Sandinista strongman Daniel Ortega is once again Nicaragua’s president, this time with support from the Roman Catholic Church.
Names of neighborhoods in the capital, Managua, honor Sandinistas like Eduardo Contreras, who grabbed hostages at a Christmas party in 1974 and died in a 1976 shoot-out. The real rulers of Barrio Contreras, though, are gangs with colorful names like Eating Dead and Gargoyles. Amid that tough terrain sits the Vida y Esperanza (Life and Hope) Student Center, where nearly 400 Compassion-sponsored children learn about Jesus and how to cook, make clothes, use computers, and protect themselves from sexual abusers.
One recent graduate of Compassion’s child development program, Luis Miguel Gutierrez, started attending church seven years ago and was surprised to find people who showed love without expecting anything in return. He had one sponsor over all the years, from Nevada: He keeps her picture in his wallet and says without her he would be lost in drugs. Now Luis is reading Rick Warren’s A Purpose-Driven Life, hopes to become a dentist, and says his father, who had five children with different women, has started going to a church’s small group meetings.
We headed north on the Pan-American along a rugged Pacific coast dominated by a chain of volcanos, the Cordillera Los Maribios. Alongside banana trees, grazing cows, thatched roofs, and horses with their ribs showing, six Ortega billboards proclaimed “Christiana, Socialista, Solidaria” (Christianity, Socialism, Solidarity). At the entrance to Nicaragua’s second largest city, Leon, founded 489 years ago, a weather-worn billboard commemorates “Year 30 of the Sandinista Revolution, 1979-2009.” A lumpy, dirty road took us to Barrio Walter Ferretti, named after the former head of the Sandinista Police.
The Compassion student center here is in a Baptist church behind a 12-foot fence topped by eight strands of barbed wire, and an 8-foot fence topped by 12 barbed strands. Half of the 430 children in this project are from Christian families, half are not. They all get gospel teaching and lunch: rice, beef mixed with potato, and juice on the day we were there. Most adults in this area lack paying work, and those who get jobs as vendors typically earn only $45 per month. This lunch is the only time these poor children get beef or chicken: Several children carried small plastic bags into which they placed little pieces to take home to younger brothers and sisters.
Arlen Geronima Obando Salinas, 8, wore a cardboard heart proclaiming “Amo a Jesus” (I love Jesus). She invited us to visit her nearby home and guided us down a sloping, uneven path of dirt, rocks, and sandbags, with stagnant water and litter collecting in deep ruts. Here sat her 12-by-20-foot shanty with its dirt floor, its walls made of canvas, plastic, cardboard, and bits of wood and tin, and its torn black plastic roof held in place by rocks and a pair of sneakers.
Inside, Arlen’s mom, Jacquelyn de la Cruz Salinas, 27, who had her first child when she was 13 and now has six, said, “I would like to fix my house. I would like my husband to have a good job.” Arlen’s dad, Armado Obando, 31, used to get $80 per month as a tanner, which was insufficient since basic food for the family costs $40 per week. It’s worse now: He’s unemployed and gets a tiny amount of cash by selling wood he has gathered. He feels a failure: “As head of the household I don’t like this kind of roof. When it rains, half the house is wet.”
Arlen’s goal in life is “to work and provide food for my little brother.” The Obando family is having a hard time materially, but Arlen happily showed off her most precious possession, a 9-by-12 envelope containing letters from her Compassion sponsor. She had evidently read and refolded the letters many times: Arlen said when she receives a letter, “I get very excited. I pray for her. If I had magic, I would run to love her.”
On the road again, we passed a ballpark where a Samsung-supported Little League team was practicing. The two-lane potholed blacktop took us past tall sugarcane growing and big buzzards looking up from their snack. Near the border some expensive-looking houses had tiled roofs, but farmers had rifles slung over their shoulders, and a supermercado (supermarket) sat by a billboard for China Motors.
The border crossing into Honduras displayed a Sandinista poster with a big photo of Ortega’s wife, Rosario Murillo, nicknamed La Chamuca (the witch). She was unpopular until Ortega’s daughter from a previous marriage accused Ortega of molesting her after she turned 11 and raping her when she was 15. Crowds waved “Ortega Violador” (“Rapist Ortega”) signs, but judges gave legal immunity to their president and Murillo gained fans for standing by her man.
Honduras brought a series of military checkpoints as we passed by gated communities featuring houses of brick and tile with mint green and yellow walls, pink satellite dishes, red roof tiles, and corners like those of a castle. Next to them sat shacks of canvas, plastic, and corrugated metal, and down the road stood more military checkpoints. Then came stone quarries, fenced-in electric plants, a row of hills resembling a sleeping lizard’s spine, Spanglish eateries with names like Resturant Pollolandia (chicken land), and more military checkpoints.
We crossed the border to El Salvador, a country named after Christ that features armed guards at restaurants. The city of San Miguel: a mall with a movie theater, a Volkswagen dealer, a Masonic Temple, and churches named La Luz del Mundo (the light of the world). At a pier with fish-sellers and armed guards, six sunset-silhouetted teens jumped into the Pacific off a ladder 60 feet above sea level.
Near the Iglesia Evangelica Jesus de Nazaret (Evangelical Church of Jesus of Nazareth), which hosts a Compassion project in Comalapa, El Salvador, stands the home of Santos Alejandro Alvarado and Ana Diaz de Alvarado. They and their two small children live in a one-room cement-block house with a stone floor and a corrugated roof held up by concrete pillars and braced by wood. It’s a big step up from the Nicaraguan family whose house we visited: The Alvarados have two double beds, a plastic dresser, and a wooden wardrobe. The house has an extension with metal sides where Ana bakes tortillas over a fire, and a covered patio with a propane cookstove, a stone water trough/sink, a treadle sewing machine, and a hammock where their 2-year-old slept. It even has a working light bulb inside and one outside, with barbed wire surrounding a yard of pressed dirt. Three trees, each about 8 inches in diameter, provide shade.
Alejandro Alvarado earns $100 per month selling milk house-to-house: His employer owns the two cows next door and a Suzuki X 10-0-2 motorcycle that he uses for deliveries. Money is tight, but his wife compliments him: “If anyone asks him to do an extra job, he does it. He’s a responsible man: First the family, then his own needs.” They lived together unmarried for five years but married four years ago because, Alejandro says, “I became a Christian and wanted to follow God.” Ana adds, “Before he said, ‘It’s good to be free,’ so I didn’t believe it when he asked about marriage.” Now that both believe in Christ, she is full of hope: “We are poor, but I lack nothing.” Asked what she wants for her children, “I’d like them to have a life even better than I am living.”
Many Salvadorans will have a better life only if they corral violent gangs such as Mara Salvatrucha, MS-13, which began in Los Angeles and spread through El Salvador as the United States deported members. A faded sign across the street from San Salvador’s major cathedral glorifies an older gang by using the word HEROES alongside drawings of Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, Che Guevara, and Fidel Castro. On the morning we strolled by the city’s central park, men with pushcarts full of bananas were giving way to other men wearing red shirts in preparation for a Marxist rally scheduled for the afternoon: One wore a white baseball jersey with RED SOX in big red letters.
From the El Salvador-Guatemala border a four-lane highway to Los Lirios brought us to the home of Glenda Lorena Santos, who had terrible prospects after her father abandoned her when she was one week old. Now, though, her living conditions are a further step up from the Alvarados’: green cement floor and metal roof held up by wooden posts; bed, dresser, table, and cookstove; a small television showing the Disney Channel as she made perfectly thin and round tortillas. (That takes talent: My tortilla attempts resembled English muffins.) Her husband drives a tractor for sugarcane harvesting, and they will own the house within two years by paying $80 each month.
Their household also contains a deep sadness. Near the television hangs a picture of a little girl, Estrellita, with the inscription “Para mi familia. Te Amo Papi. Te Amo Mami y Hermanos.” (For my family. I love you, Daddy. I love you, Mommy and brothers/sisters.) Estrellita died of cancer, and Compassion International helped with the medical bills, which surprised the Santos family and bonded the parents with the church. Glenda Santos now fears for her other children—“When they get sick, I get really worried. I think God is testing me”—and wants to protect them in every way: “Some girls are drinking and having parties. My girls are responsible and they respect me.”
And one further step up: Ana Maria de Secan and her children welcomed us to their home with its wooden rather than plastic chairs, and its china dishes alongside plastic ones. They also have a refrigerator, two bedrooms (each with a king-sized mattress), and two small televisions (one is connected to a DVD player won as a prize for memorizing Bible verses). Outside were seven chickens and a dozen trees, a chain link rather than barbed wire fence, and four bicycles, including two child-sized ones. Everything was tidy, except for one corner of the ample yard that contained the remains of a canvas and corrugated metal house like those lived in by the poor: It sheltered Secan and her husband as “poco a poco” (little by little) they saved and worked to construct their second house.
The road hasn’t been easy. Ana, fatherless and the oldest of eight brothers and sisters, walked six miles daily to get an education, and now earns $120 per month purifying water at the nearby church that hosts a Compassion project. Her husband worked for 11 years in sugarcane, then nabbed a job as a long-haul truck driver two years ago, and with that experience is now getting $180 per month to haul steel for short distances—and he can be in his own home at night. With their faith in Christ growing, the Secans aren’t stopping: Ana is taking courses to get a bachelor’s degree in computers, and her husband is getting his high-school diploma.
Part Two: Untwisting the tree—Our International Region winner
Throughout much of Central America unemployment is high, pay is low, and health problems include malnutrition, diarrhea, malaria, dengue, and parasites. Compassion International faces many obstacles in its mission to improve children’s lives, but here’s one example from each of the countries in which we visited sites:
At the Seventh Christian Mission Church in Managua, we met Dayana, a deaf 14-year-old. Her mom told us that when Dayana was 7 they started coming to the Compassion project, where a tutor went way beyond her job description by patiently learning sign language—and then teaching it to the whole after-school class so children could communicate with Dayana. Without that extra effort, Dayana would be “isolated,” the mom said—and angry.
Now Dayana wins Special Olympics medals while running like a lanky colt, and her classmates applaud by raising both hands and wiggling their fingers. Dayana and her mom live in a sheet-metal shed in the back of a yard, but Dayana signs, “Mom, I’m not going to be as poor as you.” Asked what the best thing about knowing sign language is, Dayana signed that she now can follow worship and “feel the Holy Spirit in my head.”
But the road for her and her classmates is still long and twisting. In Nicaragua, Compassion says, adults abuse eight of 10 girls by the time they are 12, and those least able to protect themselves have the most to fear during their teenage years. Dayana’s teacher told the class what’s appropriate behavior by adults and what’s not. She reminded them that everyone has rights and duties, and asked the 15 students to pass around a stone and name a right or duty when it came to them. Some U.S. students might snicker, but these responses were deeply serious: to have a name, to practice self-defense, to learn.
BABIES AND TODDLERS in El Salvador often see few colors in their dark and barren homes, so in the early stimulation area at Iglesia Evangelica Jesus de Nazaret, parents expose their Mateos and Miguels to bright colors and a variety of shapes and sizes. Many of the teen moms are eager for instruction on upgrading their children’s development, so they also welcome home visits from staff members who can show them how to help babies develop small motor coordination.
The one dad present in the early stimulation area the day we visited, Maurecio, 27, had been unemployed for seven months and was hoping for a job fixing automobile electrical systems. For now his wife is the breadwinner, making bras at a Hanes factory located in the international free trade zone that benefits from tax breaks. A Compassion staffer encouraged Maurecio by noting, “The real man is the man who takes care of his child.”
One familiar hymn instructs us to “come to the Father through Jesus his Son,” and we repeatedly saw how parents start coming to church and to Christ through programs that minister to their children. Patricia, 24, bounced on her knees her 2-year-old, Kimberly, and explained how the project had affected her thinking: ”I did not know anything about the Bible. Now I read a passage every night.” Maurecio noted that he and his wife had cohabited for four years, but because of Compassion and church teaching they were married two years ago.
CEMENT-BLOCK BUILDING, corrugated roof, cement courtyard with basketball nets and soccer goals at each end, and playground on dirt featuring a slide, swing, teeter-totter, and monkey bars: Not fancy by megachurch standards, but material accomplishments at Evangelico Bautista, a Baptist church in Masagua (more water), Guatemala. Pastor Marco Antonio Ramirez Villa Toro, 53, planted the church in Masagua with four congregants.
Until recently Ramirez earned survival money through brake shop work in Guatemala City, commuting 40 miles each way. The church gradually increased his salary: $9 per month during his first five years, $20 per month for the next five years, then $33, and eventually $50 per month. Now the church has 200 members, and he’s finally moved up to $220 per month: He says he’s still “a poor man financially but a rich man in God.”
His decision in 1997 to work with Compassion International proved crucial in church growth. At first it was hard to enroll children, since some Guatemalans thought it a foreign plot to steal their children, but now there’s a waiting list. He laughed at the notion that acts of compassion can draw attention from evangelism: In his experience, Compassion International drew in children and the parents started coming to church. Besides, he added, “To transform society, we need to do it through children. We have a saying, ‘If the tree is twisted when it’s little, you won’t be able to fix it.’”
We worshipped on Sunday morning 40 miles away, across the street from Guatemala City’s central dump, where 15,000 of the poorest live. Some of them filled gray, dark green, and burgundy plastic chairs in the church named A Deo Sea La Gloria (to God be the glory). They sang as if desiring to be worthy of that credo: “En ti, he sido libre. … Tu gracia y compasión todos necesitan. … Solo Dios puede salvar. … Perdido sin ti.” (You alone free us. We all need your grace and mercy. Only God can save. We are lost without you.)
Many of the adults came initially to the church at the request of their children enrolled in the Compassion project the church hosts. The children learn about God and also study typing, dressmaking, art, and music. Their mothers earn money by using toothpicks to make beads out of recycled paper, and by turning the plastic from discarded bags into pocketbooks.
Oddly, the best testimonial to the success of Compassion programs often comes from gang members who terrorize poor neighborhoods but generally respect churches and projects that serve the poor, as long as pastors and leaders live humbly. Roberto Medrano, Compassion’s national director for El Salvador, recalls how he once refused to hand over a camera when a gang member demanded it: Medrano told the would-be thief, “I am taking these pictures to bring food to your children.” Later, Medrano’s supervisor said he should have turned over the camera: “It’s not worth your life.” But Medrano later learned the gang member also received a scolding: “Don’t threaten a program that helps our children.”
Listen to the sounds of Central America through the reporting of Susan Olasky on The World and Everything in It:
Read profiles of the other finalists and runners-up in the 2014 Hope Award for Effective Compassion competition.