| 9 min read | by Doug Marrin, firstname.lastname@example.org |
The more I talk to people around Dexter, the more I hear about many of us going beyond our borders to share what we can. These stories are always heartwarming and encouraging and it’s obvious these trips have had their impact on the folks who have taken them. Who knows, maybe this is one of the factors that have made our communities so great.
I had the chance to escape the Michigan winter last week and go with one of these local groups to Belize. The purpose was to do some construction work for a local church congregation. And while we were able to leave them with some needed improvements, we came home with even more.
The main objective of the trip for the group from Dexter United Church (DUMC) was to prepare and pour a concrete slab for an addition to Omega Ministries, a non-denominational church in the city of St. Ignacio. DUMC has been making trips and working side-by-side with Omega to alleviate the effects of poverty for the past seven years.
“We come alongside,” says Tom Snyder, Pastor of Missions at DUMC. “God was already at work here long before we showed up. They’ve got the pastors, youth leaders, volunteers, and leadership. What they don’t have is resources.”
Pastora Eugenia Salazar leads Omega and is an unstoppable force when it comes to caring for those who are vulnerable. She oversees the sponsorship of 100 children in local schools including the all-important school lunch. Eugenia has rescued women out of prostitution. On more than one occasion she has thrown herself in the middle of domestic disputes to protect the women and children. She distributes food and medicine, counsels women and children, and provides new clothing for those who can’t afford it. She relentlessly pushes against the effects of abject poverty in the St. Ignacio area.
“God has done so much for me in my life, taken me out of abuse and rejection and shown me love and embrace,” says Eugenia in broken English. “I can never repay him for what he has done. All I do is from gratitude for what I myself have received.”
During an outbreak of dengue fever two months ago she spent sleepless days and nights shuttling medicine to homes and making hospital rounds. In a country where you don’t get medical help if you don’t have the money, Omega paid the hospital bills for 26 people, mostly kids, which likely saved their lives.
Omega’s church itself is unassuming. It is a simple concrete slab with a roof but no walls. A storage shed was built last year as well as a woman’s shelter. Our assignment this year was to lay the foundation for a new addition so that Omega can conduct adult and children activities simultaneously. When we arrived at the site, the team got busy preparing the ground. I got busy writing.
John Hannich took a welcomed break building the forms for the concrete footings. His first trip to Omega was five years ago and he has come every year since. “My brother Jeremy knew I liked construction and thought I might enjoy the trip,” John says wiping his forehead. “I had just finished college, and he knew I needed to refocus on what’s really important in life.”
“The trip really opened my eyes to my own life as far as what I was really searching for,” he adds. Noting the stark difference between the two cultures he says, “What do you pursue when there are no material goods, status, or money to get them with? You’re left with yourself and the people around you. The cultural shift from stuff and image, to people and needs, is startling.”
Belize is a coastal Caribbean country located on the northeastern coast of Central America and is bordered on the northwest by Mexico with Guatemala wrapping around the southern and western borders. The landmass of the country is less than a fourth of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula and has a population size approximately the same as Washtenaw County – approaching 400,000.
Pastor Snyder explains that the things we take for granted living in the states, things such as food on the table, a place to live, school, and other things we consider basic necessities, aren’t guaranteed in Belize.
“Parents at the bottom of the socio-economic scale are spending all their time just trying to achieve the basic necessities like food and medicine for their families,” he says. “They just don’t have the time or energy to engage in their children’s lives as we do. After years and even generations of this, you can become disillusioned.”
“There are no social safety nets here,” he continues. “Once you’re outside of your family, you’re on your own with nobody to help in a place where resources are already scarce to non-existent. That’s where Omega Ministries comes into play.”
Pastor Snyder explains, “Unlike in the states, instead of being a community center, Omega Church is the center of their community.” This is in the truest sense of ‘community’. People stand with each other in more than lip-service and thin intentions. They share what they can in goods, food, time, and money when it’s available.
While the guys are sweating it out in the 90-degree sun digging, leveling, and smoothing the clay, Eugenia takes me around to several of the schools where Omega is sponsoring children.
School is expensive in Belize. There is no public school free-of-charge. If you are a kid and no one has the money for you to attend classes, you don’t go. Prices vary by school and by region, but elementary school costs about $600 U.S. dollars a year. High school costs about $1,800.
The average household income is around $11,800 (U.S). Skilled professionals earn much more. Unskilled earn less. Having two, three, or even more kids in school devastates the budget of a good income. If you’re at the low-end, in poverty, your kids don’t go to school unless you find a sponsor.
Eugenia understands kids are the key to ending the cycle of poverty, and this is their main ministry. This involves getting as many children in school as they can. However, school is not just about education.
“It is very important these children get this meal at school,” says Eugenia. “Often it is the only meal they get for the day. At home, there is no food. They also learn how to get along with each other and to do the schoolwork when they don’t feel like it. It is good training for life.”
Darin Rowe installs solar energy for a living and has experience with construction. When the opportunity for this trip arose, it seemed like a good chance to use those skills in a very focused humanitarian effort.
“It is striking how this young country is struggling financially with no real industry to drive it, and yet, there is hope in the midst of despair,” he says. “The living conditions are a bit shocking compared to what we have back home. However, the people are genuinely warm and accepting. There’s real energy here in the face of dire circumstances, and I hope I can take that zest for life back home.”
Eugenia and I stop into Faith Nazarene School. Checking in at the principal’s office, there is one of the students Omega sponsors sitting in a chair, “Anna” (not her real name). The principle explains the 11-year-old is complaining of stomach pains. Eugenia, the pastora, sits down next to her and begins speaking to her as a mother would a sick child.
“What’s wrong mi amor?” she says softly. “Are you not feeling well?”
Anna keeps her head down without answering. Eugenia continues gently talking to her until the young girl responds, mumbling that her stomach hurts. Eugenia gets up and motions me outside the office. “I know this child and her situation,” she tells me. “I don’t think she is sick. She probably hasn’t eaten in a while.”
The day’s plans abruptly change. The Shepherdess is now completely focused on Anna. She returns to the office and the young girl.
Omega Ministries is devoted to alleviating poverty. Some of the programs that Omega has in place to help people lift themselves out of poverty include:
- Garden starting and garden instruction.
- Chickens – providing coops, feed, and chicks with the intention of selling eggs/chickens for income.
- Sewing machine instruction to enable women to earn money as a seamstress.
- Teaching basic cooking skills including food safety and sanitary practices.
- Currently sponsoring 100 kids in school which include tuition, books and supplies, uniforms, and most importantly food.
I follow along as Pastora takes Anna out to a separate building that is the cafeteria. She pays for a hot dog, Oreo cookies, and pineapple soda which is poured into a plastic bag so the school can keep the bottle deposit.
Sitting at a picnic table, Anna eats the hot dog with startling speed and sips her soda out of the bag through a straw. Eugenia continues soothing her, telling her how special she is, how beautiful she is, and the wonderful things God has in store for her. The young girl glows under the attention and the food.
“Doesn’t she have nice boots?” Eugenia suddenly asks me pointing to Anna’s pink boots.
“Yes!” I answer enthusiastically, happy to have something to contribute. “Where I come from in Michigan, the temperature is negative-one (Celsius) and we have snow. Many people in Michigan would like to have boots as nice as yours to protect their feet.”
Anna gives me an incredible smile which is worth the price of the trip. “You think they would like my boots?” she asks.
“Oh yes,” I reply to the girl who has never seen snow. “If they were big enough, I would like your boots,” waggling my big foot off the ground. She laughs.
Anna’s command of English is flawless. English is the official language of Belize and it required learning in school for the past 30 years. Everyone under the age of 30 speaks fluent English and most people over 30 have good to passable English.
At age 80, former Dexter High School teacher Dan Teare is on his third trip to Belize. Dan was raised to help others and he has served people in countless ways locally around Dexter as well as around the world with different organizations.
“As far as a developing country goes, Belize is an easy place to come,” he says. “It’s safe. The people are exceedingly friendly. As far as lifestyle and living conditions, I don’t see any bad here, just different. I don’t think we’re supposed to judge how other people live unless they’re doing something harmful.”
“Omega’s outreach is going everywhere and helping everyone they can,” he adds. “I can’t begin to fathom the depth Pastora and her family have to serve God this way. She seems to be enamored with making life better for people.”
There are scant public programs to help people out of a dire situation. People are left to fend for themselves. Homelessness is often addressed by families combining into ramshackle dwellings of a few hundred square feet already too small for one family. If there is no family around, people do what they can.
Eugenia’s daughter, Paula, came across a young man 15-years-old living in the jungle under a tarp. His parents abandoned him and his five younger siblings. With nowhere to go, not knowing what else to do, they went into the wild and lived there for two months before Paula found them. The young man was dutifully caring for his brothers and sisters washing their clothes, foraging for food and potable water.
According to indexmundi.com, a third of the country’s population is under 15 years old. Over half of the people living in Belize are under 25 years of age with the median age at 23.7 years. That’s a lot of kids in a population of approximately 400,000.
A bell rings and there are suddenly kids all over the school courtyard, about 20 of them surround Eugenia. She speaks to each one by name telling them how wonderful they are and how beautiful and handsome they look. She calls them princes and princesses and that she loves them. I watch these kids, who have less than other kids even by Belizian standards, sparkle under her attention.
The students finish their recess and reluctantly slog their way back to the classrooms. Although looking and sounding much better under Eugenia’s attention, Anna is leaving with us. She sits up front in Eugenia’s Rav4. I’m in the back.
“You know what feels good when I’m sick?” asks Eugenia, and without waiting for an answer, “Ice cream! We are going to get ice cream!”
All smiles in the passenger’s seat, no arguments from the back. I wonder what the guys are coming along with their digging. Anna is very chatty now catching Eugenia up on recent events.
Steve Stimac is on his second trip to Belize. He finds the poverty a humbling experience. “I don’t think I’ve seen poverty at this level even when I worked inner-city in Michigan,” he says. “There is no comparison between Michigan poverty and Belize poverty.”
“Even though we come from different socio-economic backgrounds, we’re all the same deep down,” he says. “Standing around the worksite talking to the local guys, you quickly realize our struggles are the same and our dreams are the same. We’re just live in different places under different conditions.”
At the ice cream shop, Anna orders two scoops of cheesecake flavor. Eugenia excitedly tells her to get it in a waffle cone. The young girl does not know what a waffle cone is and balks. Eugenia insists. We sit outside. I watch Anna’s eyes widen after she takes a bite of the cone.
Anna lives with her two older brothers and older sister in a 12’ x 12’ shack. There is no electricity or running water. Anna’s mother abandoned the family when Anna was a baby and the others were just toddlers. “The dad, he’s a drunk who don’t care about his kids,” says Eugenia bluntly. “He disappears for days even weeks at a time to be drunk. I want to build a bigger shelter so these kids can come to live there, and we take care of them.”
Anna tells Eugenia that the teacher wants her to bring two-dozen cupcakes for a bake sale to pay the school’s electrical bill. She does not know how she can make cupcakes and is afraid of disappointing the teacher. So, as in so many things, she turns to her Pastora. The conversation quickly turns to excited talk of flavors, colors, and decorations for cupcakes to be made at Eugenia’s house.
It is Eugenia’s and Omega’s selfless service in helping people that astounds the Dexter group. The men have been taken to a much deeper level of meaning – as a Christian and as a human. The team is watching people who have nothing empty themselves to people in need. The word ‘woke’ is always a little awkward to use, yet it best describes the work Omega is doing in the guys from America.
“Omega has this boots-on-the-ground approach to church that is right up my alley,” says Steve Stimac. “We can tell people, ‘Jesus loves you,’ all day long but for people who are hungry, who have no place to live, who are being abused and have no hope, that doesn’t mean anything. But help them in their situation, shoulder some of the burdens, and let them know they haven’t been abandoned; now you’ve done something worthwhile. It goes back to the old saying, ‘Don’t tell me God loves me. Show me God loves me.’”
After the ice cream, we stop at a Chinese restaurant to get some chicken that Anna can take home with her. Eugenia encourages her to buy a few extras at the small grocery next door. As we rumble and crawl over the ill-maintained and rutted roads to her house, Anna is fully alive now pointing out the neighborhood kids to Eugenia and excitingly filling her in on all the teen gossip of who’s been kissing who. I can’t help but smile. It is the only time during the week I have seen Eugenia outtalked.
We stop in front of Anna’s ‘home’. I’ve seen enough of the ramshackle dwellings people live in to be somewhat desensitized but I am not prepared for this weathered, crumbling, and molding shack that looks abandoned. My heart lurches and breaks a bit as the young girl gets out of the car and picks her way through the weeds and dirt to the door.
Anna opens the door to the shack and looks in. She gives Eugenia a thumbs-up signaling that her sister is home, and her father is not.
The CIA reports that as of 2013, 41% of the population in Belize lived below the poverty line. As Steve Stimac pointed out, “There is no comparison between Michigan poverty and Belize poverty.” It is difficult for us Americans to imagine a place with no safety nets for those in need. Yet, there are no food stamps, there is no welfare, and there is no disability or Medicaid. St. Ignacio has a population of approximately 20,000. There is one social worker assigned to the city and its outlying areas. Its impossible odds.
The Borgen Report tells us that 49% of children in Belize live in poverty and are the main at-risk group. “These children lack access to basic needs such as healthcare and are vulnerable to exploitation.”
There is little hope for Anna and her siblings and other children like them, at least from the government. But what they are fortunate enough to have is a woman and her church who empties themselves out daily checking in on them, encouraging them, and watching over them. It is a bright, shining sun in a dark situation. Don’t think for a moment this failed to make an impression on a group of men who come from a place where things come relatively easy.
It was a productive week for the team. They got the concrete poured, worked on a church member’s home, and set footings for an addition to the women’s shelter where Eugenia is looking to house Anna and her siblings.
But while we Michiganders were able to share some of our talents and resources with the Belizeans, we came home with something that cannot be taught or bought. If we were to strip away our affluence, what would be left? When there is just the person without all the cultural accoutrements, what do you have? Take away the padding of prosperity and what do you, as a person in raw and organic form, have to contribute to the world around you?
These are the questions our Belizian friends gave us. These are the questions we tossed around throughout the week and continue to process now that we’re home. Every new birth takes time.
We gave them a better building.
They made us better people.
“Our culture is all about personal accomplishment,” observes John Hannich. “Here, they take care of each other. Here, it is about making sure everyone else has food and a bed to sleep in. It’s more about improving the community than yourself.”
The day after dropping Anna off, Eugenia and I are driving down her road once again after visiting other families the church looks after. “There’s Anna!” says Eugenia excitedly. Anna is walking down the road. Eugenia pulls up and checks in. There is more talk of cupcake baking on Saturday. Further down the road is Anna’s sister. They look the same age. More talk. The serious expression on the girl turns to a smile and we move on.
In front of Anna’s house, two boys are carrying scraps of wood. “Her brothers,” Eugenia explains. The boys can’t be much older than 11-year-old Anna. Pastora talks to them from the car and leaves them smiling. “They are looking for wood to make a fire to cook beans,” says Eugenia. I think about middle-schoolers back home and their after-school activities.
This was Mike Mason’s first trip to Omega in Belize and he may have summed it up for us all. “I think anybody that comes down and you have to ask the question ‘What next?’” he says. “How can you possibly go back to your old life? You’ve changed. What do you do with this new information? The experience is empowering, but empowering for what? It’s different for everybody and that’s what we have to sort out.”
The entire team is ready to repeat the trip and once again do what we can. But just as importantly, we look forward to what we can bring back home.