Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Transforming Gehena

In the Gospels, Jesus talks of Gehena, translated as “hell” as a place of fire, wailing and gnashing of teeth and constant despair.  While many have interpreted Gehena as a place in the afterlife, reserved for those who did not believe or have done wrong, the word Gehena as Jesus speaks of it in the Gospels is the constantly burning garbage dump outside the city gates, where the poorest of the poor dwell.  It was a place of great suffering and struggle…those who Jesus spoke to understood the pain of Gehena.  Through the power of God, the presence of Christ, even Gehena could be transformed.  This is the hope and promise we read of in Scripture, and it is the transformation which still takes place when Emmanuel is present in today’s Gehenas.

I spent the afternoon dwelling in Gehena. Like many major cities, Tijuana’s landfill is home to the poorest of the poor, who take what has been thrown away by others and transform it.  Decades worth of garbage have created huge mounds of earth, which were covered by sand.  Those who cannot afford any other land build their homes on the landfill out of left over and discarded materials.  The children suffer skin lesions from methane gas which leaks from the earth.  Rain water and erosion wash away the sand, exposing garbage, which eventually flows downward into homes.

But Emanuel, God with us, is present in Gehena.  In 1999, a pregnant 13 year old girl living in Gehena was surviving by sifting through garbage to find recyclable materials and selling them for a small profit.  She met Sister Teresa, a 63 year old nun serving in the area.  Sister Teresa asked the young girl what she would like to do if given the opportunity.  She wanted to learn how to do hair and nails. 

The pair set out together and found 15 other women in the community.  Following a micro-loan system, Sister Teresa helped the women receive training and open a small business.  Things went well, and soon a bakery was added to the organization, and then, using the money the women were making in their businesses,  a daycare to tend to the women’s children while they worked.  Time passed, and the daycare became a school and a generation of children had, for the first time, the opportunity for an education.  Recently, the women closed the beauty salon, deciding a health clinic was the best use of the space—a doctor volunteers once a week while the women continue to work and provide for their families.  Gehena transformed.

This is not to say that all is as it should be.  Families still live in substandard dwellings on top of a landfill.  Poverty and health issues are still profound problems for the community, which lacks basic sanitation and running water.  But through the power of Emanuel, through the gifts of the Holy Spirit, present in a 63 year old nun and a 13 year old pregnant girl, life has been transformed in Gehena. 

And this is the power of Jesus, crucified and risen.  Our world is not as it is in heaven.  We wait, long, for the day when we experience the world as God intended it to be.  But on this day, we live knowing transformation is possible, that Emanuel dwells in each and every broken and dark place on earth—even and especially Gehena.

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