In the garbage dumps of Guatemala, children are born and raised in an environment that can impede human flourishing. They grow up in the middle of society’s waste, which makes it difficult to see a future beyond the desolation. In this community, family culture encourages partnering and starting a family of their own when they reach adolescence, with many children leaving formal education behind by age 12. It is not uncommon for 14-year-olds to begin living with a girlfriend or boyfriend; marriage rituals are rarely celebrated and it is the general custom not to marry. There is widespread lack of male accountability to families, with single mothers being commonplace, and grandmothers often assuming the role of raising children. Typical jobs are foraging in the trash for items of value, or more lucrative roles in the drug trade. Extreme poverty is expressed in many forms—from material poverty and poor health to the social and spiritual poverty that can accompany the inability to shape one’s own future.
Amidst this harsh environment, there are people following God’s call to walk alongside the poor. Potter’s House is a nonprofit that works through three Community Centers at the edge of Guatemala City’s garbage dump. The work is Christ centered, aiming to combat poverty in Guatemala through heart-level transformational development. This approach empowers families to develop the skills they need to stay together and multiply their newfound strength throughout their communities. The Potter’s House theory of transformation values psychosocial and spiritual changes, as opposed to merely addressing the symptoms of poverty.
For 30 years, communities bordering the dump have found the keys to their self-development in Potter’s House Community Centers. Communities are supported by the organization’s primary focus on family integration, education, health and nutrition, microenterprise, and community support. The Faith to Action resource Children, Orphanages, and Families: A Summary of Research to Help Guide Faith-Based Action encourages this approach, as “Findings consistently show that most parents, when presented with some support from the community, government, and/or social services, would resoundingly choose to keep their children at home” as opposed to placing them in an orphanage (p. 16). Potter’s House employs a highly effective program aimed at providing such support through livelihood training, which Faith to Action advocates as a key strategy in strengthening families.
One family who has walked the path of transformation is that of Natali and Ricardo. They had three children when they were quite young and faced the typical challenges of raising a family in the slum. Ricardo was an alcoholic and drug user, and was in a gang, where violence was ordinary. When Natali was 30 years old and in serious danger of being unable to care for her children due to their poverty and her and Ricardo’s unstable partnership, she started attending a Bible study at a Potter’s House Community Center. It was there that she found faith in Jesus, and subsequently wanted to make a drastic change in her life.
Natali joined the Potter’s House vocational school, where she received training in creating jewelry. She had a natural talent for the work and became skilled in it, to the point where she was providing for her family financially. Ricardo was initially jealous because Natali had emerged from her desperation as a capable and independent woman who provided for their children when he had not. Natali struggled with this new dynamic in her wounded marriage.
Eventually Ricardo was invited to a Potter’s House men’s group. He stopped drinking and removed himself from his gang, and he too decided to make jewelry! He joined Natali and they created their very own family business, working side by side, defying the destinies that the garbage dump assigns to most people in their circumstances.
The jewelry business grew and they hired several employees to work out of their home. Because of their financial stability, they are no longer worried about family separation caused by an inability to provide for their children. Their children are benefitting from the Potter’s House education program, which has provided them with school scholarships and tutoring. Their lives improved from the support of the Community Center and the Potter’s House staff members, 70 percent of whom are from the community themselves and have previously benefitted from the support of Potter’s House.
Several years after their transformations, it occurred to Ricardo and Natali that they were not yet married, and that taking that step would help strengthen their family and provide their children with a more loving and stable environment in which to thrive. With the assistance and encouragement of Potter’s House church partners, they decided to marry, along with two other couples with similar stories. Their children and their community celebrated not only their continued love, but also their strength in enduring their challenging journey over many years. Dignity and peace were evident on their faces, as were the pride and admiration beaming from their children. Through the support of Potter’s House, where they found the tools they desperately needed, Natali and Ricardo have succeeded in building a strong foundation for their family, as they pass on healing and wholeness to the next generation.