Someone I work with told me that he glanced at the name of my blog and wondered what an “el callejon” was, and why I was eating it. Now, I do love to eat, but I’m hoping others see that it says Hearts!
So, what is an el callejon, and why am I heart-ing it?
El Callejon is a small squatters’ community close to Jarabacoa, D.R. It grew up more than 10 years ago when families displaced by a hurricane were told they could stay there. The government had no way to help them, and simply pointed them to some ‘vacant’ land. The people built small homes made of scrap wood, cinder block and other materials they could find.
This vacant land was not really vacant, and when the owner showed up, he built a tall cinderblock wall, complete with razor wire to keep the people from building any further. The pitted dirt road and ugly little dwellings bump up against this wall. Too high to see over, what is visible are all the tall, lovely trees, nearby yet cut off from the people. On the other side of this community is a large, lush golf course. Rarely used, this sprawling green land is off-limits and a constant reminder of how trapped the people of El Callejon are.
Today there are between 100-150 families living there. The road is a rutted dirt path where the children run around barefoot in garbage and worse. There is little for the women to do, as even menial labor in wealthy homes or nearby Jarabacoa requires a way to get there. Some of the men are able to find employment in fields or town, but not all of them do. Social problems are rampant, as is typical when many people are squished together with little to do, and no hope for something better. The family structure is weak, with marriage in the legal sense being uncommon. This leads to increased abuse, and the men come and go, leaving the women with responsibility for raising the children.
El Callejon can be translated as ‘alley’ but also takes on the meaning of ‘dead end’ or ‘street of no return’. The SI staff pastor has said that there is a feeling of darkness in this community. Satan has a grip on these precious people, lost and forgotten between wealth on both sides that passes by and ignores them. Imagine living in a literal and figurative street of no return. Imagine raising children knowing they are growing up in a dead end! What possible help can there be?
Students International has been working there, bringing the light of Jesus into this dark place for the past several years. One simple yet moving thing it has done is have students come and paint murals on the wall. Using bright colors, the murals incorporate truths from the Bible, including verses and images of hope. At the top of this blog is one that says Jesus Loves El Callejon. What a reminder to those who are living in this dead end!
Along with painting murals, SI has opened a preschool and a women’s social work site. In the past year a ‘boys club’ has started as well as a microfinance ministry. I will be working at the social work site for women, teens and girls. Approximately 100 are ministered to each week. More would like to participate, but with a one-room center, space is tight. In this small place, Jesus is proclaimed and the women are coming to know that they are of value because they are precious daughters of the King.
What a joy to watch the teens coming in carrying their Bibles. To hear the little girls reciting the memory verses Daisy gives them each week. To sit with the women singing songs of praise. Out of this focus on Jesus comes everything else, including teaching skills and crafts. Daisy has taught the women to embroider, knit and sew. In this way, they are shown that they have the ability to learn, and they can sell their handiwork to help support themselves and their children.
The work is not easy. Each day Daisy and Caroline walk in to crises, discord, sickness, problems. Each day they make a choice to continue to pour the love of Jesus into this community. I am humbled by the love and commitment they have to this small piece of God’s kingdom. Caroline and her husband (and their new son James!) are finishing their term this year, and with more than a little fear and trembling, I will be stepping in and coming alongside my sister Daisy. From the first time I met her, on our outreach in 2008, we have had a connection. This past year, that grew (helped by the fact that I could actually speak a little Spanish this time!).
I’m including my favorite picture of the two of us. Without intending it, we are mirroring each other. I love this because it shows me what it’s like to be focused on Jesus and His heart for the world. No matter that we are very different, and don’t even have the same ‘heart language’. As we strive to reflect Christ and take on His character, in some ways we all mirror each other; in our concern for others, in our seeking after Jesus, in our passion for God’s glory.
So, I heart El Callejon because Jesus does. I heart it because Jesus poured out His life for the people living in dead ends. And really, without His salvation, that’s every one of us!