Written and lived by James Rathman
A crowd of desperate people covered in sweaty dirt on their faces, hair, clothing, and everywhere, were screaming at me for help, begging me, pleading with me, and reaching at me with their dirty hands through my open car door window. My driver Bismark, and the Managuan, Nicaraguan policeman in the back seat were screaming at me in broken Spanish, to roll my window back up! Suddenly, a gust of wind blew grey dirty clouds of ashes over everybody, going in everyone’s eyes and down their throats and lungs from the smoldering fires simmering all around us. Mountains of garbage and debris were either blowing a thick dust, simmering, or burning all around us. Dirty hands kept reaching at me, and my tongue kept tasting a coated paste of dirt on my lips. My face, hair, clothing, and everything, was a coat of caked on sweated dirt from only being in the trash and garbage dump of LaChureca for an hour. Everyone kept screaming at me as I rolled up the car window. If there was a hell on earth, this was it, and I was in it.
Bismark and the policeman screamed at me in a concert of Spanish and broken English never to roll my window down again! The crowd kept yelling at me, begging, pleading through my closed car window, screaming for “one one one,” wanting one American dollar, or anything that I could give them. I didn’t care what Bismark or the cops said or how loudly they yelled. I quickly rolled down the window again and the crowd screamed and reached at me. Bismark and the policeman were quiet as they saw I just didn’t care what they said. I reached through everyone and put money into the hands of a woman with a soiled bandana, grayish face, and partially red lips showing through filth, a woman whom I’d made an earlier nod and gesture to. A few minutes earlier when I had done that with the woman, she knew that I was letting her know that I was going to try to help her. Everyone kept screaming, reaching, and I quickly rolled the window back up as dirty hands pulled back from around my face. Within the past hour, a number of police and Bismark had kept a perimeter around me while I was out and about on foot distributing clothing, food, and saying the name Jesus in LaChureca. We had to retreat to our vehicles as more and more of the 1,500 residents of the trash dump of LaChureca kept running toward us. And right then, in the car’s front passenger seat, I made a long moment of eye contact with an elderly woman from the back of the crowd having deep age lines on her face. She knew it, and I knew it, in that long glance, that I wanted to help her, and we both knew it wasn’t going to happen.
Johnny the police Inspector and his thin tan face were sitting close by on his dirt bike, waiting to give the order for his men and for everyone to pull out. Ramshackle lean-to’s for homes were in front of us, consisting of poles stuck in the ground and anything and everything that could be found attached to them for walls and a roof. There was cardboard, tin, and every scrap material that could be found, being used for homes. No one had running water or electricity, with human beings living in huts so broken down that most Americans wouldn’t have them for doghouses. Living in extreme poverty in the garbage deposit of La Chureca, desperate people were just trying to survive for the day, and in the best case, live past a 30 year life expectancy.
For a third time in four days, my short one sentence prayer, “Just tell me what you want me to do,” had me and the crew that God took me to, in one of the most impoverished and treacherous neighborhoods in the western hemisphere. I had flown into Managua, Nicaragua, without a plan, moved by the Holy Spirit to serve Jesus where young children were suffering and hungry.
Back on the first morning in Managua, sitting in my room, I woke up smack in the middle of a dangerous Barrio. I didn’t have the slightest clue of any logistics whatsoever in how I could go about serving God. I didn’t know Spanish, I had no vehicle, no map, no communications, no interpreter, no security, no contacts, and I didn’t know where I’d get food for myself let alone for anyone else. I didn’t even know exactly where I was. Sitting in my room on that first day, I knew who I was as a person, in regards to being contemptible to God and His word for most of my life. This realization suddenly struck me, and I was with incredulity that God would actually allow someone like me, to serve Him. Knowing who I was, humbled, tears were rolling down my face, and I put my hands together and said, “Just tell me what you want me to do. “ Four days after this prayer, and four blocks outside of the dump, Jhohnny the Inspector and his dirt bike, along with Bismark and me, had rendezvoused again that day. We had been sitting idle for about ten minutes with the two of them speaking in Spanish. I asked what the delay was with going into LaChuraca again. I suspected that my new friends were not telling me something. Finally, they let me know that an American missionary had been shot in the head and robbed the day before in La Chureca. Then, I wasn’t sure if they were trying to smooth the story over, or we had a translation problem, but they said that the missionary only had a gun pointed at her head and robbed, but not shot.
It was soon apparent what we were waiting for. Back-up police officers arrived from Jhohnny’s orders, and our convoy took off and cruised down the four blocks of pitted dirt road past a desperate looking gang who were coated with filth from head to toe. Giving us hard looks, this gang would eat up any ‘shoot um up,’ Philly gang. They were desperate, desperate to eat, desperate to survive for the day, and they probably lived desperately for their entire lives. If we slowed down, there was a chance that they would jump our vehicle even with the police there.
One of Jhohnny’s men had pulled his dirt bike alongside of Bismark and me as we cruised toward the dump that day, and he gave me a hard stare. It was apparent that this policeman didn’t like gringos, and I didn’t care. I gave him my best ‘gritty Philly,’ ‘serving Jesus,’ ‘nothing was going to stop me,’ and ‘I had nothing to lose,’ hard stare, and he backed off.
Jesus literally saved my life more times than I could count. If there was a day that I was alive now, it was extra time, and in my stare to the cop, that ‘I had nothing to lose,’ made him know it. If God hadn’t taken me to Jhohnny the Inspector, it was difficult to say who might want to kill me the most, the gangs or some of the police.
And my situation on that day in the dump, with hands reaching at me, had developed after the prayer, “Just tell me what you want me to do.” With desperate people screaming at me, “one one one,” and pleading for help of any kind, Jhohnny the Inspector gave the order, and we all pulled out. Turning our vehicles around, we were moving slowly, and could only go as fast as someone could run due to the condition of the dirt roadway.
One boy, about twelve years old and wearing a dirty cap pulled tightly over a dirty bandana, ran alongside of us in hot pursuit. The look on his face was the toughest and most fearless I’d ever seen in my life. He was more of a man than I could ever be, and I knew it. If I was going into combat, I’d follow him. The boy was running, challenging Jhohnny the Inspector on his dirt bike to get closer to me, and the Inspector was trying to keep the boy away. The boy kept throwing his body toward the car and at me without care. With his forefinger up in the air and looking at me, he kept yelling, “one one one!”
Suddenly, a desperate woman stepped in front of our car, trying to stop our convoy. Jhohnny’s men quickly got her out of the way, and the police had their hands full.
Cruising out of the dump, the gang that lined the entrance roadway gave us hard stares again. Four blocks removed, I was getting ready to get out of the vehicle to pay the cops for their protection. Bismark and I looked at each other, and we couldn’t believe our eyes. There was the boy again, hopping off of the back of a trash truck that he had apparently jumped on with a gang of older boys that he was leading. As the boy stood next to us, I paid Jhohnny the inspector and we shook hands, saying warm good-byes to each other. I gave one hundred Cordobas to the boy, about five American dollars. Bismark and I drove off and we couldn’t believe it, as the boy chased us down the street with a forefinger in the air yelling, “ONE ONE ONE!”
Back at the compound, I tried to tip Bismark over and above our agreed amount, and he continually wouldn’t take it. We kept shaking hands, and somehow with the language barrier, I was able to tell him and he was able to understand, that I was broke from the trip but I’d try to get back as soon as possible by making some money in the States. As we sat in the car, Bismark told me with emotion, “You a good man!”
“No, you a good man,” I told Bismark, who was a tough ex- Nicaraguan soldier and a very humble family man.
We kept volleying back and forth with a few more, “No, you a good mans,” to each other. We finally said good-bye.
As I walked away, I didn’t feel like a good man at all. I knew I was just incredibly blessed from God allowing me to serve Him. After the prayer, “Just tell me what you want me to do,” in a seeming impossible situation, God led me to provisions, the police, and Bismark, within hours on the very first day in Managua. Things took off after that each day.
Walking across the lobby of the compound, I considered that without the Lord, I wasn’t even a man let alone a good man, and I knew it.
I was covered in filthy soot, dirt, ashes; a concoction of just about everything from the dump. A few clerks behind a counter in the lobby surprisingly gave me a big smile, knowing where I’d been and glad to see that I was safe. Through my filthiness, I gave them a wave and a big smile back, touched that they cared anything about me. I realized that the people from Nicaragua were genuinely some of the most humble and decent people that I’d ever met. Walking into my room, I took off my shoes and stepped into the shower fully clothed. There wasn’t much to think about, and I put my head back and let the shower water shoot right down my throat, repeatedly spitting out dirt with a tangy foul taste. Peeling my caked on clothing off after a repetitive wash cycle, the bathroom towel and shower curtain rods became the dry cycle. Somewhat clean, but with a lingering taste of the dump in my mouth and throat, I took a look out my fifth floor window. Exotic birds cackled and car horns honked as a constant in courteous short bursts to bicyclers, pedestrians, and to other traffic. This was their custom, their way of doing things. Palm tree fronds blew about, and close by was one of many Managua communities of extreme poverty. For housing, poles were stuck in the ground here as well, and ‘anything,’ was being used as walls. Looking miles away, a fifteen hundred foot elongated grey white cloud could be seen blowing upward and at an angle from La Chureca, and this was a constant.
Days later, back in Philly, looking at pictures of the trip made me recall some things, including how quickly that I ran out of money, food, and clothing to distribute each day. I also kicked myself, for somehow not thinking to witness more about Jesus. I laughed for a moment, knowing of the language barrier that there was, and what I was doing to improvise. Thinking of how I must have looked at times, a tall blond haired, obvious foreigner, pulling out a pocket Bible from my back pocket, and holding it up in front of various people, I said, “Jesus, is the reason I’m here.” I realized that everyone that I did this with immediately helped me. There was no language barrier when it came to Jesus. Reminiscing, on the Philly flight to Atlanta, a red haired stewardess named Lola had sat next to me. I told her where I was going and what I was about to do. She said, “I’m a long term Christian, I wasn’t supposed to be on this flight. I opted for it at the last minute. No matter what, don’t let anything stop you! Go through, no matter what, don’t let anything stop you!”
Off and on for entire flight, Lola repeatedly encouraged me, and implied the Lord sent her to encourage, comfort, and tell me to push through no matter what. “Don’t let anything stop you,” was ingrained in me.
On the flight from Atlanta to Managua, Pastor Jack Connelly had sat next to me and came to the rescue after a man in front of me turned around and tried repeatedly to discourage me from going on the mission. He kept telling me stories of people being hurt and robbed, and one person who had been jumped, beaten, and stripped of all their clothing, just for a pack of gum. Pastor Jack saw what was going on and how it was playing on me, and said enough words to discourage the man until he turned around, and Pastor Jack then turned to me to encourage me. The character that Pastor Jack is, then played his harmonica in great joy, and he and his friend who was sitting across from him, encouraged me more, and then walked me through customs.
The people of LaChureca are so humble and truly so nice in their manner that it had changed my life permanently. I thought that I was going to help them, but they had helped me as a Christian in ways that I would always carry with me. As time went on, I realized that I could return the blessings and help the people of LaChureca every day no matter where I was. I could pray for them. Praise God for answering the prayer, “Just tell me what you want me to do.”
James, with Jose and his family at their home in LaChureca
Housing at La Chureca
Young boy and resident of LaChureca
A week day at LaChureca with some residents waiting for trash trucks to dump their debris, and then searching for anything of value including recyclables
Young girl living in a Managua Barrio
Please keep the people of LaChureca in your daily prayers. Amen.