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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
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.