February 2017

Faith That Moved Mountains of Refuse

As we embark on our LYCIG (leading your church into growth) program, I have been reflecting on just how much difference the church can make in a community. I came across the story of Saúl and Pilar Cruz-Ramos a few years ago from friends who had been out with a group of Cambridge students to help with their project in Mexico. I found their story an enormous encouragement to believe that God can do great things through ordinary people in ordinary places. I trust that you, dear reader, will feel similarly.

Jalalpa in is not generally a magnet for graduates and high-fliers.  Set to the West of the Mexico City, the Jalalpa ravine is home to an estimated 2 million people living in appalling slum conditions. Yet inadequate housing, education, and public sanitation, and its burgeoning gang culture were the very things that attracted former university lecturer Saúl Cruz-Ramos and his wife Pilar.  Some years before moving to work in Jalalpa, Cruz had been approached to set up a course teaching Christian business professionals about integrating faith and profession.  As he began to teach he was so struck by the need for faith to transform all of life, that after only nine months, he began to seek ways to meet both the spiritual and temporal needs of Mexico’s poor.

After many frustrations, in 1987 the couple were offered a piece of property in the chaos of Jalalpa.  Attracted from the countryside by the lure of the big city, families crammed themselves into an area that could not support them.  Jalalpa lacked even basic sanitation, so the lower part of the ravine was awash with raw sewage.  There was so little housing that people even resorted to building shacks on islands of rubbish in the middle of the sewage lake.  Separated from their original communities, parents had no idea how to care for their children and so childhood illness, malnutrition, and teenage gangs proliferated. The land offered to the Cruz family was essentially a rubbish dump, but in it they saw a great opportunity to build something for the community. 

In a space cleared amongst the rubbish, they established a little community center for local children.  Armonía (meaning “peace”) as they named it, was an almost instant success, as there was nothing like it in the whole area, but it took a lot longer to make inroads into the adult community.  Eventually an opportunity arose involving the problem with sewerage.  In a meeting with Pilar de Cruz, the municipal president agreed to supply expert assistance and allow connection of pipes to the main sewage system, on condition that the community could dig the necessary holes and provide the pipes.  With the help of a team from a seminary in Boston, Massachusetts, the community fulfilled their side of the bargain and Jalalpa was at last connected to the city’s sewers.

Following heavy rains and mudslides, Armonía began a programme of building safe, well-constructed housing, and then through another deal with the municipal president of constructing paved roads.  They also introduced significant social transformation, by providing education on childcare, and strengthening family life.  Saúl performed a number of marriages in a community that had known only informal cohabitation.  Spiritual change, however, was longer in coming.

It did come though, when a drunken street brawler named Carlos gambled away all his family’s grocery money.  Afraid of his wife’s reaction, he searched amongst some rubbish and found some chicken entrails, which he took home to feed his family.  When the inevitable food poisoning followed, in desperation he telephoned Saúl and Pilar for help.  They showed such selfless love to his family—ferrying them from hospital to hospital in their own car as the chicken’s emetic effect was at its height—that Carlos was overwhelmed.  The next day he became a Christian.  He began to meet regularly with Saúl and within weeks the congregation had grown to 70 and the community asked if the services could be held at the centre.  The effect of just two lives being transformed by a relationship with God produced within just two decades, a community centre, opportunities for education, sanitation, roads and safe housing in an area that formerly knew nothing of such things. As that faith spread into the community the effect only grew and multiplied.  Truly faith can move even the mountains of refuse.