Standing in the city cemetery in Guatemala City, a contradictory mix of life and death covers the landscape. A nearby ministry started by a Guatemala Baptist leader seeks to tip the balance toward life.
Because people are buried above ground, cemetery structures housing bodies carry the presence of death much more than simple grave markers.
Yet, the place also remains full of life as people can be found throughout the cemetery.
Not just mourners, but also individuals who work and even live in the cemetery. Some offer services – like playing music – for funerals.
Crosses – a symbol of both death and life – stretch into the sky from nearly every direction.
Nearby, the Tabitha Ministry lives outs the vision of the cross, ministering to women and children often cast out by society.
Situated in the poorest part of the capital city, Tabitha overlooks the cemetery and the city dump.
Carol Bercian started Tabitha a decade ago while serving as director of children’s ministries for the Convention of Baptist Churches in Guatemala.
Gary Snowden, missions mobilization team leader for Churchnet (also known as the Baptist General Convention of Missouri) and associate pastor at First Baptist Church of Lee’s Summit, Missouri, has visited Tabitha numerous times over the past several years. Both Churchnet and First Baptist support Tabitha.
“The Tabitha Ministry is a remarkable place that certainly gives visible evidence of Jesus’ words about ministering to ‘the least of these,'” Snowden told EthicsDaily.com following a visit to Tabitha in January.
In a city where people remain divided by wealth differences, inequalities exist even in death.
In the city cemetery, wealthier families own structures – often with ornate decorations – that house the remains of their loved ones.
Those without family units share massive structures that stack as many as eight coffins high and stretch dozens long.
Visitors can walk between the structures as if walking down a supermarket aisle with shelved coffins on each side.
The burial units are rented. If a family cannot afford payments, their loved one’s remains could be evicted and transferred to a mass grave.
Holes in the large units – sometimes with trash thrown inside – testify to recent removals. Even in death, one’s status is not final as the threat of destabilizing poverty remains.
In this context of inequality, Tabitha attempts to offer not only spiritual life, but also physical and social life.
Snowden explained that Bercian started Tabitha after she “observed the plight of young children who were accompanying their parents to the Guatemala City dump in search of items to recycle or sell and in some cases even looking for food.”
“Children have been rescued from human trafficking and abusive situations through the ministry,” he said, “and on a less dramatic but no less important scale, hundreds of children in recent years have been provided with food, a safe environment, early childhood education and Christian love by the teachers and staff of the Tabitha Ministry.”
A back corner of the cemetery offers a view overlooking the city dump, the largest in Central America.
Much as toxic fumes from the dump mix with the surrounding air, life and death intermingle in the dump.
A constant stream of trash trucks rumbles into the dump to add to the piles. Hundreds of buzzards circle overhead. Thousands of people, including many children, walk through the dump looking for items to recycle, sell or even eat.
Tabitha ministers to those living next to the dump, offering early childhood education (preschool through second grade) to about 90 children.
The children, many of whom would otherwise not receive regular meals, also get two meals and a snack each day. Rather than entering the dump, the children instead receive food and education.
Tabitha also provides skills training – like making handcrafts to sell – to women, many of whom are single mothers. Many of the women have become Christians.
Additionally, a new mission church started meeting in the building over the past year.
Currently, Tabitha is working on structural repairs to its building following seismic activity.
Such shifting of the land sometimes causes massive sinkholes in the dump, burying people alive to die in the trash.
Last year, a fire burned deep in the dump for weeks, puffing smoke into the air like one of the region’s volcanoes.
Sandwiched between the cemetery and poorly constructed houses, the dump sits somewhere between life and death – as do the thousands of people who live next to it and work in it every day from dawn to dusk.
The Tabitha Ministry and Guatemalan Baptists like Bercian willingly engage this neighborhood to minister.
Just blocks away from the dump, classrooms full of smiling children beam even brighter than the colorful paintings on the walls of Tabitha’s building. Tabitha brings life, love and hope into its community.
As the words – taken from 1 Samuel 2 – painted on a classroom in Tabitha declare: “From the dust he lifts up the lowly and out of the dump the poor to seat them in the middle of princes and give them a splendorous throne.”
Editor’s note: For the first article in this two-part report on Guatemala and Baptists, check out Guatemalan Baptists Train for Transforming Ministry. A photo news story from Kaylor’s trip to Guatemala is available here.
Brian Kaylor is editor and president of Word&Way, associate director of Churchnet, and a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com.