Many years ago I found myself standing in a San Salvadoran “chatarrería,” a junkyard. I was flanked by the now late Michael Bonderer, a nicotine-addicted, four-letter-word-dropping, endless-coffee-drinking, recovering alcoholic who had stumbled his way into leading a faith-based NGO, putting roofs over the heads of Central America’s poor.
This chatarrería had been abandoned by the city, and where most people saw wreckage, Michael saw a place to live. The junk and trash were all removed, and row upon row of concrete homes were built. A community of more than a thousand people now thrived with its own churches, stores and a school.
I marveled at it all: Bonderer’s creative vision, but also the enterprising, dogged tenacity of the Salvadoran people. Of particular interest to me were three little boys who were selling watches. Buying a few timepieces wholesale, they retailed these in San Salvador’s open-air markets, bringing home the profits to help buy food and pay the electric bills.
When I had the chance to return to the chatarrería a few years later, these boys — burgeoning entrepreneurs that they were — were the first ones I went looking for. I found the grimmest of news instead. One of San Salvador’s gangs had also noticed these boys, and the meager profits they were making. The gang demanded that the boys pay a “protection fee” in order to keep selling their wares.
In prepubescent defiance the boys refused. A few days later the trio went missing, not showing up for their suppers one evening. The sun rose the next morning to find the decapitated heads of these boys lying in the road leading to the chatarrería. I wept when the parents and neighbors of these children told me this story, and I cried fresh tears retelling it here on this page.
Since those events unfolded, I have returned to Central America many times. I have taken church groups, volunteers, college kids and my own children. This hasn’t been some moralistic crusade to “change the world,” and unquestionably it hasn’t been to colonize a people already decimated by centuries of injustice. It has been an effort to help and to learn.
Hear the stories, as agonizing as they are to take in. Feel the fear, as stifling and knee-knocking as it is. Understand why parents would take — or send — their own flesh and blood on an arduous, almost impossible, thousand-mile walk to reach tenuous safety. Believe, that when Jesus spoke of “loving your neighbor,” he certainly had people like this in mind.
Warsan Shire, in her poem, “Home,” is vividly correct: “No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark … No one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land … No one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear saying — ‘Leave, run away from me now. I don’t know what I’ve become, but I know that anywhere is safer than here.’ ”
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Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, blogger, speaker, and author of multiple books. Visit his website at www.ronniemcbrayer.org.