“It’s weird but I didn’t really notice the garbage. It felt so normal, so familiar, so much like home.”
Nineteen of us just returned from a week-long mission in Mexico City. We spent three days in a dump amid the garbage of more than 21 million people. We ministered to men, women, and children who live there and work for $1/day, sorting through towering piles of garbage for recyclables and valuable metals.
Perhaps it was the colder weather and the calmer winds—the absence of swarming flies, or the scarcity of rats—that tamed the garbage dump shock for many of the team that week. Or perhaps it was something more profound.
There is no way to romanticize the Dump. Garbage is garbage wherever you go, especially tons of it. It smells; it’s toxic, unsanitary; it’s broken, used, dirty, ugly, smelly stuff. And the message the world conveys about those who live and work in it is the same: you also are a “throw away” —dirty, unwanted, and broken.
Yet here is the paradox, and perhaps the reason why the presence of this much garbage is never the predominant and overwhelming experience when ministering in the Dump.
By divine grace, we only see people there, not mountains of garbage. We see human beings, made of the same stuff that we are—created in the image and likeness of the One who consented to come into a world filled with the garbage of sin, who was born in a shabby, smelly place on the outskirts of town, and who carried the garbage of the entire human family in order to make us clean.
We meet fathers who dig and scratch to provide for their families, mothers who wait patiently for hours in long lines for food and medicine, and bright-eyed children willing to share the little the receive from us with others. Even amidst so much grit and grime, their dignity and eternal value shine brighter than the noonday sun.
We see in them what we often cannot see in our own world, crowded by so many things, drowned out by so much noise, deadened by so much pain. We see Jesus and we smell the sweet fragrance of His love that emanates from the poor, the broken, the needy.
Ironically, at home in our own lives, we often see mostly garbage. We are quick to note others’ shortcomings, despair about our own faults and failings, and complain about all that isn’t as green as what is on the other side.
Perhaps we are the ones who are more broken, who are living amid the stinking heaps of pride and self- sufficiency, of materialism, greed, and ingratitude that keep us from genuine human connection and obscure the face of God in all of us.
Our service to the poor should remind us of our own poverty. It should help us live in gratitude, with peace and joy. And even in the midst of our own garbage—our own brokenness and everything that doesn’t go the way we want it to—we can be the sweet fragrance of Christ to those around us.