Turning Ashes into Beauty Under the Mango Trees

Nicaragua is a stunningly beautiful country. Lush jungles, exotic flowers, and breath-taking smiles. It is truly a country where the beauty of God’s creation is on full display! The environment at it’s best! Last month I had the opportunity to visit the country and witness stories of unbelievable physical and spiritual transformation in the lives of vulnerable families.

Food for the Hungry has been working in Nicaragua since a massive earthquake struck the Central American nation in December of 1972. But much of our current programming and responses to extreme poverty have come as a result of the devastating Hurricane Mitch in 1998. Following the Category 5 storm, thousands of people were forced to flee flood areas and seek a new way of life where ever they could.

Many found a place called El Limonal.

The name sounds tranquil. But the history of this area is anything but.

The environment where children pay in El Limonal, Nicaragua

A Toxic Environment

You see, El Limonal is one of the main garbage dumps about a two hour drive from  the capital city of Managua. Far from a picture of tropical flourishing. It was the opposite. Families fleeing the floods and devastation of the storm, moved into the dump where they could forage through trash for food and supplies. Their homes were destroyed. So they stayed in El Limonal.

But today, life is springing on the edges of the dump. When I visited the small thriving community one of it’s leaders, welling with pride declared to me,

We’ve pushed back the darkness of the dump, and now we have a thriving community. We are the architects of our own opportunity!”

And their actions match their convictions.

The environment in El Limonal, NicaraguaAs I walked down the streets (where there were none before) I came across a dozen kids reading and playing under a few mango trees. The trees were situated between a church that the community organized and helped build, and a series of well-built classrooms that I’m told serve over 350 students. A church and school at the fringe of a dump that used to produce nothing but filth and sorrow.

When Food for the Hungry first started working with this settlement of people, they didn’t yet believe that they could become a thriving community. Not only did they lack hope, but they lacked encouragement to rebuild. They felt abandoned, betrayed and alone. But as we walked with them, and shared with them small ways they could save their money, smart ways to earn an income, healthy ways to cook and keep clean, they understood that God can redeem and make all things new. Even a scattering of families on the outskirts of a dump. As they listened with their eyes, their hearts and minds were opened to the potential of a new narrative for their lives.

Families are benefitting from clean up the environment in El Limonal, NicaraguaToday, Food for the Hungry has plans to exit the community of El Limonal in the next few years. Why? Because the people of El Limonal are fully capable of thriving. As the community leader declared, they are the architects of their own opportunity! And when a once vulnerable community, bound by physical and spiritual shackles of poverty, reaches that point of confidence, resources and cooperation, we know it is time to leave.

My time in El Limonal reminded me of what is described in Isaiah 61:2-3:

…to proclaim the year of the LORD’S favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to grant to those who mourn in Zion – to give them a beautiful crown instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirt; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he may be glorified.”

The people of El Limonal have turned the ashes of their physical and spiritual surroundings into a work of beauty. A flourishing community, where children gather under mango trees and attend school, and hope for a brighter future abounds. This is what ending physical and spiritual poverty in the hard places looks like.


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