The smell hit me first. Not too profound—after all, I was standing on the edge of the Guatemala City garbage dump—but it’s true. The smell is haunting.

I’ve showered, washed my clothes, walked around upscale shopping malls, but still, the memory of the smell lingers.

The tombs overlooking Guatemala City’s dump.

You need a permit to enter the Guatemala City dump. Because of this, my first experience was from the closest vantage point possible: the cemetery.

The buzzards pick at the dump constantly alongside people.

I walked between mausoleums with careful steps suitable for treading hallowed ground, but the sanctity of the place was already compromised by the unholy smell. I could taste methane. I felt the weight of decay in the air.

Near the edge of the canyon, black vultures hopped in crooked paths before slouching and taking flight. I crept to the edge of the lookout, watching one of the scavengers descend into the dump below looking for anything to salvage from the city’s trash.

Imagine my horror as I watched it land and take its place amongst a crowd of people doing the exact same thing.

A view of the Guatemala City garbage dump.

Trash

Human scavengers. Men and women who dig through waste to find things to use, eat, or sell. They spend all day in filth in order to bring home a couple of dollars to sustain their families.

The dump permeates the community. Outside of the landfill, scavengers carry bags full of findings to local businessmen who buy recyclables or transform damaged goods into something usable. Trash lines the streets and pours out of open garages.

In the 80-year life of the dump, people have flocked to the area from impoverished rural villages, knowing they can at least survive by scavenging. Now, more than 10,000 people live around the dump, many of them born here as second or third generation scavengers.

Some of the elderly from the dump community gathered in Potter’s House for a Bible study and monthly food donation.

It’s one of those places you just want to hold your breath, roll up your windows and pass as quickly as possible. Don’t linger. Don’t touch anything. And hope it will be over before you know it.

Comforted

But people live here. People carrying the heavy burden of poverty—many struggling with malnutrition, addiction, lack of education, abuse, disease—are surviving in one of the city’s darkest places. The garbage dump doesn’t just permeate the streets—it’s personified in the daily struggles of the people who call this place home.

That’s why I’m comforted to know Potter’s House is here.

For 25 years, this organization has been working with the dump community to bring holistic support and hope to thousands of families. Potter’s House works to provide personal development, health, education, micro-enterprise and community support for thousands.

One of the treasures.

Countless volunteers and staff members have ventured into this place where so many of us would rather drive past. Many of us would be much more comfortable going home and getting on with our lives, away from the darkness of the garbage dump.

Scavengers to Treasures

But more is asked of us. Christ followers are often called to the darkest places. And I don’t think we’re necessarily called to just “bring light” but to recognize and encourage the light that already exists in people the world has rejected.

Potter’s House knows the value of the scavengers, or as they are known here, the treasures. Through the eyes of the Potter’s House family, some of the despair of the dump falls away. People are not defined by how and where they live, but rather by how they were created by God.

Darkness only exists where we lose sight of the light of creation in front of us. With this perspective in mind, I’m less overwhelmed by the dump and ready to meet the treasures of the Potter’s House family.

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Next Steps
    • Learn more about the Potter’s House (La Casa del Alfarero) from their website.
    • Next time you take out the trash, stop and think about the hands that it will touch after it leaves your home. In the United States, we do not have the same types of open dumps where people scavenge, but many people dig through dumpsters to find sustenance. Say a prayer for them.
    • Where is the “darkest place” in your community? Who lives there? Have you ever visited?
    • Pray for the work of Potter’s House in Guatemala City and their U.S. partners who fundraise on their behalf. Pray for the treasures living in the dump community.
    Next Steps

About the Author: Laura is a journalism fellow with World Next Door. She graduated from the University of Arizona, Tucson with a degree in Animal Sciences and a minor in Spanish. She is constantly learning, making friends, dancing, and trying to understand her role in alleviating the suffering of others. Laura also attracts a lot of awkward situations.

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Comments

  1. Barry Rodriguez said... 

    Reply

    May 24th, 2012 at 11:01 am  

    Wow. That image of the buzzard landing among the people in the dump really hits home.

    It sounds like Potter’s House is really doing some great stuff. I am VERY excited to read more, Laura!

    • Laura Stump said... 

      Reply

      May 24th, 2012 at 4:10 pm  

      I’m excited to share more!

  2. Lorena said... 

    Reply

    May 24th, 2012 at 11:09 am  

    AWESOME WRITING, God bless you Laura :)

    • Laura Stump said... 

      Reply

      May 24th, 2012 at 4:11 pm  

      Hello Lorena! :) God bless you and all of the wonderful work you’re doing at Potter’s House. It’s a blessing to write about you guys.

  3. Nancy Carter said... 

    Reply

    May 24th, 2012 at 3:07 pm  

    Great article. God bless all who live and volunteer there.

    • Laura Stump said... 

      Reply

      May 24th, 2012 at 4:12 pm  

      Thank you, Nancy!

  4. Mary said... 

    Reply

    May 24th, 2012 at 7:53 pm  

    Laura – your Valentine is still on my desk! One of our church mission teams went to Potter’s House last year. So striking – the difference of life for us sitting at home on our ‘puters and those sifting through disposed stuff for a living! You captured it well!

    • Laura Stump said... 

      Reply

      May 27th, 2012 at 1:17 pm  

      Good to hear from you, Mary! You’re right–it’s a humbling contrast. It makes me even more grateful for the work of Potter’s House.

  5. Julie B said... 

    Reply

    May 24th, 2012 at 9:10 pm  

    I loved this and hope to never forget it. You will want to say the same thing when you are in South Africa this summer…

    “And I don’t think we’re necessarily called to just “bring light” but to recognize and encourage the light that already exists in people the world has rejected.”

    Thank you for venturing into this space and sharing it with us.

    • Laura Stump said... 

      Reply

      May 27th, 2012 at 1:21 pm  

      No problem, Julie. Thanks for the tip for South Africa!

  6. JimM said... 

    Reply

    May 24th, 2012 at 11:09 pm  

    “..the sanctity of the place was already compromised by the unholy smell. I could taste methane. I felt the weight of decay in the air.”

    “Now, more than 10,000 people live around the dump, many of them born here as second or third generation scavengers.”

    “People are not defined by how and where they live, but rather by how they were created by God.”

    Laura, you find yourself yet again in another Holy place…I don’t know how you keep doing it, but you have a gift in your ability to bring the reader along holding our hand.. as a guide would for an uncertain traveler.

    Cant wait to see the rest of this story.

    • Laura Stump said... 

      Reply

      May 27th, 2012 at 1:24 pm  

      Thanks Jim. It’s a blessing to be welcomed into these places filled with such incredible people–thanks for following their stories!

  7. Jocelyn said... 

    Reply

    May 25th, 2012 at 3:36 am  

    It’s crazy to me how the smell is the same everywhere we go- the Guatemala City garbage dump, the Kawangware slum, the alleys in Phnom Penh and side streets of Calcutta. The pungent scent of poverty permeates our world- lingering, after the initial whiff, with uncomfortable familiarity.

    • Laura Stump said... 

      Reply

      May 27th, 2012 at 1:53 pm  

      So true, Joce.

  8. Carolina Cardona said... 

    Reply

    May 25th, 2012 at 11:15 am  

    Amazing job! I love it! We miss you :)

    • Laura Stump said... 

      Reply

      May 27th, 2012 at 1:54 pm  

      Thank you Carolina! Thanks to you and everyone at Potter’s House. I miss you all very much too!

  9. Dave Rod said... 

    Reply

    May 25th, 2012 at 7:06 pm  

    Yes! ” People are defined by how they were created by God” . That one truth alone, when embraced, can change the world. Thank you Laura!

  10. Amy Sorrells said... 

    Reply

    May 25th, 2012 at 7:59 pm  

    “But more is asked of us.”

    Indeed.

  11. Jessica said... 

    Reply

    May 26th, 2012 at 3:57 pm  

    “Darkness only exists where we lose sight of the light of creation in front of us.”

    I’m taking that with me. Thanks, Laura

  12. Rob Terrell said... 

    Reply

    June 11th, 2012 at 10:18 pm  

    Having seen the very image that Laura describes in this dump, I am reminded of how my stomach turned while standing on the edge of the dump. I wanted to reach down and pull one of them out. In a way, that’s exactly what Potter’s House does in working with the families of the treasures. (Thank you Lord for reaching down and pulling me out of my sin.) Thanks for walking with them Laura.

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