“for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part” 2 Corinthians 8:2
Arriving in Lima
When our group arrived in Lima Peru, we took a bus ride past block after dusty, dirty block of thrown together wooden buildings where people lived and worked. Our destination was Scripture Union, a ministry dedicated to the service of abandoned boys and gospel outreach, located in downtown Lima. I was a chaperon for our youth group’s mission’s trip to the place known by its residents as the saddest city on earth. The evidence of this sadness would overwhelm us before the trip was done.
Our focus would be to serve the boys in the orphanage known as street boys. A street boy can range in age from six years old to the late teens. These are boys who have been abandoned by their parents for economic reasons and left to fend for themselves in the cruel streets of Lima. Most live lives filled with theft, prostitution and glue sniffing. But some accept the help and rules of the orphanage and these were the boys we would love and care for. To our surprise, by the end of our trip, Peruvians, street boys included, would do more for us than we could have possibly done for them.
My Peruvian Friend
I met Saul Camarena while carrying sacks of sand to the roof of the orphanage. He’s a short man with glasses, dark hair and chocolate colored skin. He approached me on the stairway and introduced himself in English, inviting me to his accounting office to see his computer. He showed me his Spanish version of Windows and we chatted briefly about our families and faith. I felt an instant connection with him, amazed at how quickly a common faith in Christ can traverse cultural differences and connect hearts on a spiritual level. Our friendship has continued to this day.
As the days unfolded, Saul would occasionally translate for us as we worked beside the Peruvians on the roof, building more rooms for the street boys. On one occasion, I took a break and talked with him as we gazed over the half built wall, looking down on the dry, dusty streets below. Though it was July, since we south of the equator, we were experiencing the cool cloudiness of a Peruvian winter.
Though the buildings were smaller, Lima reminded me of a dirty, gray New York city; the constant sound of horns and motor rumblings with a pronounced smell of exhaust, trapped around us by the cloud layer.
Invitation to Dinner
As we stared down at the street, Saul invited me to bring a few of the boys from our youth group to his home to meet his family. I agreed and we settled on the Thursday night before we would leave to return to South Carolina.
The day before our dinner, Saul took me aside, his brow and forehead displaying concern. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but we are very poor.” At first, I wasn’t sure what he meant, but now I know he was concerned for the boys and me, that their poverty would affect us. His sorrow was that he couldn’t afford the luxury he knew we were used too.
Saul lived 50 kilometers from Lima, about an hours drive. Each day, it cost him a Peruvian Nuevo Sol coin (about 33 cents) to ride to and from work. As we boarded the bus, Saul insisted on paying our fair. I argued, but could tell not allowing it would have been against his deep desire and joy. It was very humbling, especially when I found out later that he made only $200 a month.
As the dilapidated bus bounced along the mountainous terrain, I noticed that each hill was crowded with small wooden shacks. They were brightly painted as if in an effort to dispel the dismal aura of poverty. I was saddened when I thought of each family crowded together, struggling to survive.
When we got to Saul’s village, we stepped off the bus into what felt like a scene from National Geographic; the poverty, the trash, the sickly looking dogs in search of scraps. The sadness of the place dulled our hearts as we followed Saul down a couple of blocks and across the cracked street.
We walked up to what looked like a concrete storage area between two other buildings, but when Saul took out a key and opened the door, I realized it was his home. We followed him in and waited in the living room area while he went toward the back. The house had a concrete floor with a wooden post resting on two wooden blocks as a support in the middle of the room. A blanket separated the main room into a living area and a bedroom area. There was also a kitchen bathroom area that had only a portion of a roof and a little storage section that may have served as an additional sleeping area.
Thursday Night Church
Though it was Thursday night, when Saul returned he surprised me by inviting us to go to church with him. Before the trip, my pastor warned me to have a short sermon ready because I might be asked to speak at a church. I’m so glad he mentioned this because this is exactly what happened. Also, since one of our boys played guitar, we were asked to sing a song we’d learned in Spanish, using their guitar, which was missing a string.
Missing Guitar String
Though a missing guitar string would be a big deal in a church I might attend back home, I began to understand it was very insignificant in this little Peruvian church. We Americans would have maybe even delayed the service until the string was replaced, but not in Saul’s church. Peruvians had learned the importance of putting missing guitar strings in the proper place, behind relationships.
Saul’s church would have loved to have had a nicer guitar, but they didn’t. So, they went ahead and gathered together on Thursday night anyway, focusing on worshiping the Lord and each other; this spoke deeply to my heart.
There were about 12-15 people at the church, dressed in simple clean but slightly ripped or worn clothing, fully focused on what we had to say and on the sermon Saul preached. During the singing, their zeal and joy was contagious. Though many of them were missing teeth, the delight of their smiles was beautiful. Their joy had absolutely nothing to do with what they had or how they were. It had everything to do with their relationships with God, with each other and with us.
When the service was over, the people gathered around and made us feel very welcomed. We then went back to Saul’s house to eat along with several of his friends from church. They seemed delighted to get a chance to get to know us.
The Love of Christ Demonstrated
Saul’s wife served us a wonderful meal of chicken, potatoes and fried yuca, which is similar to a potato. We drank a clove drink called chicha morada. They could only afford to give us portions of napkins (a forth of a napkin folded into a triangle), but by now I knew that they would have given us napkins of silk if they could have.
I’m sure the meal was very expensive. They sacrificed so much to make us feel welcome. Again I felt the contrast of how a similar meal might be experienced at home. We would have surely worked hard at being hospitable and making our guests feel comfortable, but would we have spent so large a potion of our monthly income to make them feel welcome? I doubted it.
When the meal was done, Saul’s countenance displayed concern. Looking at each of us, he said, “We’re sorry we couldn’t do more.”
At this remark, tears began to well up in my eyes and as I looked around the modest room I saw it had the same impact on my boys. How could he say this? He had given us all he could out of his poverty and now he wanted to give us more. That moment, in Saul’s concrete home, I received an example of sacrificial love. Saul and his wife truly loved us as Christ had loved them. I feel the impact of their love even to this day.
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.” John 13:34
As the conversation waned, I began to think about how we would get home. I was in the most remote place my life had ever carried me, yet I was responsible to get us all back to the orphanage. Earlier in the week, I heard someone say that the area we were staying was the highest crime district in all of Lima. I wasn’t even sure what bus to take and where to get off.
This turned out to be no problem because Saul informed me he wanted to ride back with us on the bus to insure our safety. I gladly accepted.
When the night bus pulled to a halt at the stop nearest our destination, we expected to get directions and say our good-byes. However, this was not the end of Saul’s kindnesses.
He got off the bus and accompanied us all the way to the front gate of our building, several blocks away. Then he waited for the security guards to unlock the gates. When he was sure we were safely inside, he turned to catch another bus and ride home. Looking through the bars, I watched his short frame walk off into the dangerous streets of Lima by himself; having once again given us all he had.
Back to the Rat Race
We returned to the States the next morning, back to busy duties and abundant prosperity and newer guitars with all the strings. As I write these memories years later, the impact of my visit to Peru remains fresh in my heart.
In my living room, my gaze wanders over painted walls, lovely pictures, soft furnishings, a color television set and my daughter’s guitar. Yet as I think of Peru, joy fills my heart.
I pray God will give me a heart like Saul’s and his family, and like the people in his church; even like the Street boys, who delighted in giving us simple multi-colored bracelets to remember them by.
We had the audacity to think we were going to love and serve a few people in Lima, Peru. And by God’s grace, maybe we did. But far, far greater was the lasting ways they loved and served us.