Faith in the Shadow

Banado Sur, Asuncion, Paraguay

The rituals of life often help us stay connected to who we are. For some, it is their daily penance at the gym. For others, it is the first morning cup of coffee before anyone else is awake. For me, it is going to church on Sunday. It is one of the few things that is consistent in my life no matter where I am in the world. My other daily rituals of my Atlanta life, showering every morning, staying up until 2am, and drinking a Snapple Tea with breakfast, usually go right out the window, but the adage holds true that every town has a bar and a church. So, I can usually count on that ritual, and while I make no claim of always having spiritual mountain top experiences every time I walk into a church, there is great comfort and connection in the rhythm of Sunday worship every week.

Last Sunday was no exception. Continuing the trend from Kenya and the Camino, I am spending my summer in Mass as my options in the Banado seem to be Catholic or Assembly of God. I actually went to Mass twice last Sunday, but it was the first one at 8am on the outskirts of the Banado that was really impactful.

Due to logistical challenges and a sinus infection, I had not been able to go to church at all the week before. I really wanted to attend a service led by Pa’i Oliva. He is the founder and force driving our in country partner Mil Solidarios. Pa’i, as he is referred to in the neighborhood, came to Paraguay as a Jesuit missionary in 1964. In the 1970s and 1980s, he lived in exile in Argentina working with Paraguayan refugees because the ruling regime of the time had tried to kill him and left him for dead in the Paraguay River. He then swam across to Argentina and continued his work from exile. If you looking for the actual “Most Interesting Man in the World,” you would be hard pressed to find a more qualified candidate. In short, Pa’i is pretty much everything that I want to be when I grow up. Though, having just turned 27, we can debate whether or not I should have done that already.

By asking around the neighborhood with assistance of the one of the host families, I finally found the early morning service that Pa’i was leading. Right as I walked up to the church, the whole setting struck me. The building was a plain one room church structure with a small steeple stuck on to the front. Right next-door was something that resembled a barn. The church itself did not look like a place where a national hero and near saintly 85 year old Jesuit preached. It looked like a far-flung outpost. The most striking thing about the setting was where the church was located. It was on the edge of the Banado in full view of the city dump. I have mentioned before that the main industry for this community is recycling things from the dump because the people live in the shadow of this mountain of trash. In most of the Banado, the dump is present more through smell than sight, but at this church, the stories high mound of waste dominated the landscape. This was the poorest part of the Banado – those living on the margin of the margin. I said that I don’t want these to turn into sob stories, but the setting made the rest of it more remarkable.

My last post was about the shades of hope, but this about joy and faith. I felt both inside that church. There were no more than 20 people there. They all clearly knew each other and lived close by. There was no church bell, so instead, the service was rung in by beating a piece of metal against an old steel rim off a car. There were a lot of children there, and they sang loud and off key in a way that was more joyful than annoying. The prayer requests were very real. It was Father’s Day, and one of the children offered up a prayer for all those who did not have fathers. Another prayed for those who were not good fathers. In the spirit of John Wesley, it was a service that left me feeling strangely warmed. I felt God in that place and moving within the people. It was a Spirit field service in a place where one might least expect it – the shadow of a garbage dump.

One of the questions that I have been asked in the course of the United Methodist candidacy process is “what does the kingdom of God look like to you.” My answer to that question before focused on the small Methodist church that I attend while doing my Teach for America training in LA where truly diverse congregation including a large homeless contingent met for worship and lunch every Sunday and built a skate park as part of their church grounds. I’m adding this church that list. It was a service led by a national hero yet in the humblest of circumstances. It is a group of people who, on paper, have little to celebrate; yet the children sang with infectious joy. To me, it reminds me how much strength and joy can be found in God – no matter the location.