In Colombia, South America, 1997 was a year of lawlessness and murder. The drug cartels ran unchecked not only in the cities but also in the rural mountain districts. No one was safe and the frightened victims from the countryside would try to escape the violence and guerrilla warfare by rushing to the cities to find food, protection, and perhaps work. Invasion cities were built overnight out of junk and trash on land where folks had no permission to squat. Single mothers with a half-dozen homeless kids hunkered down under cardboard or a piece of sheet metal to keep out of the rain or scorching sun. Once there, they were slapped with the cruel reality that there was no food, no protection, and no work. There were thirty-two such invasion cities in Monteria.
Barrios were a little different. The city would give the poor dwellers permission to build on the land or would sell the land outright to the people for a small price. The shelters in the barrios were constructed out of gathered stones or concrete blocks. But the characteristic level of abject poverty was the same—no jobs, no money, no hope!
I went into several of the squalid huts. Because of the recent heavy rains, the floors of the invasion-city units were soggy mud holes. The sewage ran down the center of the makeshift roads or behind the huts. As little babies crawled along the floors and through the mud, I watched with amazement and wondered why far more of them did not die from lung congestion and parasites. My feeble coping skills acquired over the years totally failed me when a pair of haunting, hungry eyes locked in on mine with a panicked plea: “Please help me; I have no hope of getting out of here!”
Then, like a burst of warm Colorado sunshine, I experienced a bit of the Divine. In front of me was a small, whitewashed building that was being used as a school. Alita was only fifteen years old; she was the teacher. Over the years she had walked out of the barrio every day to attend a small Catholic school in the city. “I knew I wanted to do something for these children in the invasion cities and barrios,” she told me.
Alita had gone through the tenth grade but had given up her opportunity to enter the eleventh grade in order to start teaching the children of her neighborhood how to read and write. She had never received any teacher training but simply taught as she had been taught.
She could only teach the children a half day because she had ninety students—forty-five in the morning and forty-five in the afternoon. The prior week another fifteen children came, but she simply could not handle them and had to turn them away. “I was able to bring some bananas today to my school to feed some of my students who have been going hungry. I did not eat today, but that is just fine,” she told me.
I looked around her little whitewashed school building with pictures and artwork fixed to the outside walls, and I stopped and thanked God for Alita.
The work of the world does not wait to be done by the perfect or pretty people. God’s work is accomplished by people of great compassion who will pour out their own lives so that others are better off!