Go Where It Hurts
“Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.”
– Henri Nouwen, priest, professor, writer, theologian
Bolivia is a land of heart-stopping beauty and breathtaking variety, but that is not the Bolivia Lincoln Terceros and Lily Fluharty showed me.
I spent yesterday wandering through the Academia de Futbol Tahuichi Aguilera, a huge park turned colossal soccer academy. I must have passed 50 soccer fields, each one full of bouncing yellow, green and orange soccer jerseys almost radioactive in color. So much life was teeming in this park, jammed with boys and girls radiant with energy. Their joy and vibrancy were infectious.
But later, I entered a darker, different world as I wound my way through Santa Cruz’s streets, after sunset, with Lincoln Terceros, a staffer at NOVO Communities residential rehabilitation center for men. Lincoln is something of a local saint to the city’s addicted and homeless. He visits them regularly in the night, offering food and – for those ready for a change – a way off the streets, out of addiction and on a road that can lead to personal and spiritual salvation.
He helped explain the complex street dynamics as he stopped our van at a small shop to pick up bread, before we headed out to give the food to homeless men and women. We were headed to Ramada, a bustling intersection that grows more dangerous as the night progresses.
As we dodged swarming pedestrians and other vans, pulsating with neon lights, Lincoln pointed a finger and said, “This is where you find all the prostitutes.” It can be extremely dangerous at night, he says. “Even if there is a cop standing next to you, you will get everything robbed from your pockets.”
Lincoln is a veteran of these streets. Perhaps that’s why he seems so cool, calm and collected as he describes the dangers around us. He tells me that God moved on his heart, urging him to reach out to the people on these streets. He is unafraid to walk right into the worst slums of Santa Cruz, and one reason is that he’s likely to be known wherever he goes.
Lincoln’s ministry is called Conpasion (compassion), and it is usually just him and one other person from the ministry roaming the streets. One night, nine years ago, Lincoln was out in streets on an especially rainy and cold day. He people out living on the streets, wet and cold, and was overcome with a conviction to help these people. So he started a coat drive to help give these people a fighting chance to brave the weather. From there Lincoln has become the go-to for street outreach in Santa Cruz, even training other missionaries in the underground knowledge of neighborhoods.
As we move through neighborhoods, it seems every person we see gives Lincoln a fist bump. He’s earned his respect here. At one intersection he tells me how he was surrounded here one night by street children planning to rob him. But once he lowered the hood on his sweater, they recognized “brother Lincoln” and left him alone.
Another night, using his cell phone light to dress the wound of a homeless boy, some other boys snatched Lincoln’s wallet and phone from his hands. But when the wounded boy scolded the group they returned his belongings on the spot. This is clearly a neighborhood where it pays to be known on the street.
In the streets where the homeless live, they huddle under tattered blankets, sniffing glue fumes. A block away, a line of prostitutes beckoned to “johns” to find a room in one of the many nearby hostels. Lincoln pointed out a transaction happening in front of us. “You see, they are negotiating right now to go to a room,” he said.
A man on the street jumped up, exploding with joy when he saw Lincoln approaching. Later we found the man and his girlfriend huddled under a blanket, openly sniffing glue fumes out of a bottle. Lincoln called his buddy out, saying, “You have a blanket. You don’t need that [glue] to keep you warm.” Lincoln interviews his street friend, who shares his story of going out on the streets at 10 years old. He’s now 29 and has never left. The man points to another group of intoxicated men across the street. He explains that he’s now “solo” on the streets with his girlfriend, no longer hanging with his crew because it’s easier for him to stay sober on his own. Lincoln offers each group he meets an introduction to NOVO if they ever want a place to go turn their lives around. One man in the intoxicated group across the street turns out to be an ex-NOVO resident. Lincoln pleads with the man to come back to NOVO, but he’s clearly intoxicated and is ambivalent to return.
Next to the couple, a man emerged from under a maroon blanket. He was bruised and swollen, with scabs all over his face. His name is Ramon, and he’s sick because he has stopped drinking and the withdrawal from alcohol has thrown him into a violent fit of vomiting. Lincoln bought Ramon a Powerade, telling him to drink fluids with glucose to counteract the withdrawal symptoms. Down the street, another homeless group told us that Ramon “stuck his nose into something he shouldn’t have” and got beaten up.
Lincoln pointed out nearby hostels that have been converted into vagrant shelters, brothel accommodations, and all-hour wifi hubs, where young people spend all night playing video games or watching pornography. Then they return to their street “homes” and sleep during the day. As bleak as these scenes have been, Lincoln informed me that next week, we will be going to the most dangerous part of the city to do outreach – the favella – a patch of jungle, deep within the inner city, that has been converted into a homeless community.
There are various tiers of street life in Santa Cruz. Some children stay in the all-night hostels and internet cafes, making money on the streets and able to shower daily. However, there are many that can’t afford the street hostels and spend their days and nights in the city’s many empty lots and canal systems. Some of the children have run away from home, finding they can make some kind of living on their own by washing windows or selling candies on the side of the road.
But many others were born on the streets. Josue, currently a resident at the NOVO Communities rehabilitation center in Santa Cruz, tells me his mother lived on the streets, and he and all his siblings were born homeless. All he has ever known is the life and culture of Santa Cruz streets. Another man on the streets tells me that he ran away from home when he was 10 years old. He’s now 29 and has been living on the streets ever since. For many children, working the streets is essential for survival; their families can’t afford to support them. They might be just 10 years old, but they need work. And if they stay at home while working the streets, abusive parents may take the money they earn. Thus, they choose instead to run away and live on the streets, on their own.
The day after my journey with Lincoln, I joined Lily Fluharty, one Lincoln’s trainees out to the city’s drainage canals where children shelter. Lily leads me to the edge of a drainage canal and bends down beneath a concrete slab. Inside two small tunnels are children and teenagers, huddled together, hiding from the wind under blankets.
One of them comes stumbling out, holding a plastic bottle of glue. Known as “hermana,” sister in Spanish, she’s street royalty. She’s been immersed in street culture and its slang for so long that she sounds like a gangster when she speaks. Lily gently rousts the kids out of their blankets and rubs each one on the head. She knows them all by name, what they’re up to, who they hang with, what corners they sit on, what they’re struggling with.
Lily, now 28, first came to Bolivia 10 years ago. She tells the story about how she always wanted to open an orphanage, even as early as 3 years old. She had made big plans during her gap year after high school to travel to the African continent, but her plans fell through. After a couple from her church told her about Bolivia, she prayed and googled the country. What started as a 3 month trip extended to 4 months, “and now 10 years,” she says. She explains that after a short time of watching drug-addicted children living on the streets, she felt God had called her to Santa Cruz to work with them. She knew this was where she was going to stay, and she and several partners, Ellie Veldhuizen and Anelise Schrammen, established a ministry, Anchor of Hope, to run daily street outreach in the Santa Cruz slums. Anchor of Hope just moved to a tidy, two-story home, which functions as a community center where the children can come for classes, do artwork, play games, hear devotionals by local pastors, be connected to other services and ministries, have healthcare visits and seek counseling or mentorship.
Both day and night, it’s not uncommon to find Lily, Ellie, Anelise, or Romina Mendez, their social worker, roaming city parks, talking with homeless, intoxicated teens and children, dressing their wounds, playing cards, taking them to hospital, and praying. On my journey with Lily, we met a 12-year-old boy who’s the leader of some 20-30 street children. He distributes drugs to them, but also enforces rules, keeps order and beats up anyone who dares to mess with a member of his group.
The boys in this group have no reason to trust anyone. They are trained in street crime, and most are hooked on drugs – glue, marijuana, cocaine, and a new crude form of crack that has infiltrated the street groups in the last two years. Lily roams the edges of their “favela,” hoping to pick off some of the kids before they enter the urban jungle and its violence and heavy drug abuse (though there is violence here, too – Lily reports that a child who stole drugs from one group was recently murdered, shot in front of other children to deliver a message).
Once they leave the tunnel and enter the woods, Lily says, these children may be lost for a long time. But the love is tangible when she is around. She buys each boy a lemonade and an empanada. She pulls out a stack of Dos cards (the Latin American version of UNO), and with her gentle manner she brings out shy smiles, laughs, and warm hugs from these street-toughened kids.
Seeing these children leaves me and Jony (my translator and a longtime counselor at Yeldall Manor rehab in the U.K.) feeling a deep unease. They are so young, and so highly intoxicated. One young teenage girl whom Lily pulled out of a drainage tunnel reminded me of a childhood friend. It was hard to look at her, even harder to look away.
Lily pleaded with the girl to join her for a medical checkup the next day, but the girl was apprehensive. She and her boyfriend were afraid they were being tricked into a pregnancy test. Most of these children consider their street groups their family. Who else takes care of them when they are sick, hungry, tired, or hurt besides their street family? They are taught a deep mistrust for the police, organizations, and missions in the streets to help them. Lily, though invigorated in her work, clearly empowered to undertake this mission, shares her frustrations at how slow and fruitless it can sometimes feel. But redemption comes, she says, when she sees a smiling face, or when a child rooted in deep mistrust and pain begins to share personal feelings.
A few days later, Lily shares that she returned to the park where we had found a group of street children roaming the streets, pickpocketing and highly intoxicated. She had encouraged a few of them to stay sober, and many were coming to her sharing their struggles and confessing their crimes and concerns. Though she had referred a few clients to NOVO and seen major success with kids coming to her center and getting off the streets, this night she left to find a few of her “kids” still living on the streets had relapsed. She shares that it was a night of tears, confusion, and a broken heart. She shares with me later that one of her children had died, a devastating blow to the Anchor of Hope family. She boasts 300 children of hers living on these streets, and her heart is anchored to each of them. Many of them have her personal phone number or social media contact, which she gladly makes available for these kids to call or text her at 2 or 3 am.
Lily shares that, “It’s hard to see them hurting. They have become like my own sons and I’ve become like their mom. I wish there was more I could do… Sounds crazy but as I love and pursue these kids I see God’s love and it’s easy to forget that God is loving and pursuing me in that same way. He meets me in my weakness and loves me when my heart aches.” She has come to the conclusion that no matter how crazy or tragic these kids behavior is, no matter how much it pains her to see them making destructive choices, she is going to meet them right where they are and love them. This is how she feels God has met her in her life.
Click the Image Below to Watch Video with Lincoln
We discuss what the anchor of hope from Hebrews 6:19 truly signifies. One of the children explains that an anchor keeps a boat from being lost in a storm. An anchor goes to the depths and holds us secure. People like Lincoln, Lily, Claudia and their teams are the anchor, going to the darkest places bringing hope and love. The arms, hands, and feet of Jesus. Both knew when God told them to pursue these ministries and they return day in and day out to find even one that is willing to change. Lily explains that it is the small success that have become her joy. She recently referred three clients to NOVO. She explains that it took four years of building a relationship with one young man until he was willing to even consider leaving the streets. He’s visibly guarded, shifting his gaze at us in the NOVO center, arms wrapped around himself, hard look. I mention Lily’s name once and he immediately lightens up and smiles, a bounce enters his step. A heart has learned to trust, even if just one person on the earth, it is still a victory.
After a month in Bolivia, I have met those who are bringing hope to those who have been left on the margins of society, crushed by addiction, trauma, abuse, poverty, and affliction. God asks us to go where in hurts, to join those in their suffering, not afraid to risk ourselves in the darkest places on earth. Sometimes those darkest places lurk within our own hearts. Therapy, psychology, and spirituality seek in many ways to heal and create cohesion out of a fractured identity, but it is very hard to come by without guides who are willing to walk the path with us. These guides are tasked with sharing a love that transcends what this world has to offer, holding us as our Father holds us. As we represent a God who is a loving Father, we are tasked with being a father to the fatherless, a friend to the friendless, close to the broken-hearted, and fully immersed in the broken condition of humanity. Many times, our own inadequacy leads the way. In this way, the places of greatest darkness and pain in our own hearts become shining tools for the benefit of others, written into a greater story of redemption that go far beyond ourselves.
Lily explains, “God is truly the Father to the fatherless and brings beauty from ashes.”
There is something very clear about this type of ministry. As when the Master of the banquet calls his servants to “go out to the street corners and invite everyone you see.” There’s little theology here, just Spirit, dirt, hands, feet and hearts. In this space, you don’t have time to pick and choose who gets to come to the table. Just go to the darkest place, find the most broken person, love them, welcome them, give them affection, and help them heal. Jesus walked through crowded streets to broken individuals, grasped them with his loving hands, and headed straight for their heart. There’s no show here, just Spirit, hands, feet, dirt, and hearts.