When I signed up for the missions trip to Mexico City, all I knew was that Nick was going, this was his third time, and he had invited me. Me, a wannabe English teacher and bachelorette. My wildest hopes were being fulfilled.
When I told my parents, my mother arched her eyebrows and questioned, “And when will you be going on this trip?”
“In June, as soon as college is done. Others from church will be going, too.”
“When do you intend to get a job?” my father added.
“When I get back. This’ll be a life-changing experience. Besides, a missions trip looks very good on a resume,” I declared.
My father nodded, thinking about my statements. I had won him over on the idea. My mother, however . . .
“All I’m going to say is that you can’t continue to live with us forever without a paycheck coming in. We aren’t made of money, you know.” She emphasized the word ‘money’, as she always did when the clear or not-so-clear topic was my future.
I smiled. Her argument was moot now that my father had agreed with me.
What had I been expecting? I groaned as I left the air-conditioned luxury of the hotel lobby and emerged into the simmering heat outside.
“Come on, Natalie,” Nick teased. “You aren’t going to melt!”
The rest of our small group was boarding a microbus that would take us to the first of our visits, the largest of Mexico City’s dumps. Nick held out his hand to help me aboard.
“Got your bottled water?” he asked. I nodded and smiled, then wondered aloud why a landfill area would be on our itinerary.
“You’ll see,” Nick mumbled.
As our bus crawled along crowded streets, I tried to pry information from him but Nick had become silent and contemplative.
The bus stopped.
“Stay close,” Nick said as he disembarked. “We have to walk the rest of the way.”
Several minutes later our little group stopped. We stood at the edge of a mound of refuse that sprawled over the area like Mexico City seemed to sprawl over the landscape as seen from the air.
The heat cooked the garbage and filled the air with the stench of decay. The heaps of garbage seemed alive, and I could distinguish men, women, and children atop the highest piles.
“What are they doing?” I asked and pointed.
“Surviving,” Nick muttered. “Those are the pepenadores, scavengers. They’re born here, live here, and die here.”
“But what are they doing?” someone else insisted.
“They collect aluminum, plastic, glass, tin, you name it, for a few pesos. When they find things like food that might still be edible, or clothing that can be worn, they use it.”
As we watched, a young man hefted a cracked porcelain sink onto his shoulder and walked toward a cluster of boxlike shelters.
Nick nodded in approval. “Good eyes. He’ll either use that as a wash basin or try to sell it to a middle man for a couple pesos. You’ll have to tie a cloth over your noses and mouths as we go into this area. Methane gas can do a number on your lungs.”
Obeying Nick, we followed him as he climbed a pile toward a mother and two children digging through an area. As we approached, a vulture alighted on a more distant pile.
A girl about five years old stared at me and then at my water bottle. I started to hand it to her.
“What’re you doing!” Nick hissed. “Don’t you know that you’ll be surrounded by beggars if you give her that?”
I withdrew my offer, and the girl stuck two fingers in her mouth and sucked at them. Turning to Nick, I demanded, “Then why did you bring us here if we can’t help them?”
Nick’s face darkened with anger and he led us back to the waiting microbus.
Later that evening Nick apologized to me.
“Look, I feel just as helpless as you when I see stuff like that,” he continued. “The question is what can you do that will give them lasting hope? I think you and I know the answer.”
I nodded, ashamed of my original motives for this trip. Jesus was the only answer for this kind of despair, and living with and teaching the people was the way.
“So what will you do?” His question pierced my heart.
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