Over the next days at the Bible study we talked a lot about what had happened at the dump. It didn’t make sense. We hadn’t brought enough food, but it had fed people for five hours, and there was some left.The food had simply multiplied.
Christmas With the Rag Pickers by Frank Alarcon
Not far from the central post office in downtown El Paso, Where I worked as a parcel-post driver, is a decrepit yellow-brick building with the name Our Lady’s Youth Center painted in blue letters over the door. The director is Richard Thomas, a Jesuit priest with a concern for the poor. I used to skip lunch to go to the Center because Father Rick held a Bible study then.
On a chilly day in November 1972, I came to the Center as usual. About 15 other men and women filed into an upstairs room, where Father Rick was waiting. He was in his mid-forties at the time, tall, already a bit gray, and so lean we’d joke that his trousers were held up by faith.
Father Rick really lived by his vow of poverty. I’d seen his room at the Center. It had a cot, a bureau, some books, no air-conditioning. I used to wonder why anybody would choose to live like that. That morning, Father Rick read a passage from the fourteenth chapter of Luke:
When you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you (Lk.14).
“I’ve never thrown a party like,” Father Rick said. “Have you?” Over the next few days we asked ourselves what would happen if we took the Bible passage literally. And if we had a feast, whom would we invite? “The poorest people I know,” said Father Rick, “live at the dump in Juarez.”
Father Rick had been spending time just across the Rio Grande in our sister city, Juarez, Mexico, visiting the rag pickers, the Dump People, they were called, men and women who made their living sifting through garbage at the city dump. The Dump People sold their gleanings to the man who had the recycling concession from the government. He paid whatever he chose, and it wasn’t much. A determined rag picker toiling, seven days a week from dawn till dark, might earn five dollars a week.
Well, Christmas was just a month away. What if we fixed a Christmas dinner for the rag-pickers of Juarez? We’d prepare the food in our homes and take it across the river on Christmas morning. We figured that if we brought 100 meals, 150 to be on the safe side, it would be enough. After all, not many people would be working then.
So on Christmas Day about a dozen of us gathered at the Center to drive to Juarez. I came in my pickup with its homemade camper shell perched on top. I brought 25 bologna sandwiches, my favorite meal. Others brought tamales and burritos, fruit, salads, bags of candy and cookies, and a ham. We piled into our vehicles, drove across the Stanton Street Bridge into Mexico, and mad our way through the empty streets toward the city dump.
It’s a good thing Father Rick knew the way. We drove through adobe barrios and then onto gravel roads and finally to a dusty track on the edge of town where many of the scattered dwellings were made of cardboard. Up ahead we could see the dump itself, low hills of garbage half a mile wide, half a mile deep. It was smoldering; the stench of burning and rotting garbage filled the air.
Father Rick had been right: Most Dump People had taken Christmas off. Only a few dozen men and women scrabbled over the hills with homemade rakes, raising clouds of dust. A little boy, maybe five, was sitting on the ground near-by, gnawing on a cantaloupe rind. One of God’s children, eating garbage! My eyes stung, and not just from the smoke.
At the edge of the dump we improvised a table, resting plywood on steel drums. We covered it with sheets and spread out the food. We’d easily have enough for the few people at the dump that day.
Around 11:00 an old man, then a woman with a child, drifted over, their faces streaked with sweat and dirt. We invited them to join us. Father Rick said a blessing and timidly our guests stepped up to the table and helped themselves. One of our group started to strum a guitar and a line began to form. People took their turns politely and ancient looking man, a pregnant woman who seemed still a child herself, youngsters with stick-thin arms and legs.
I climbed onto the roof of my camper to see if we could expect any more guests and gulped. The low hills of trash had hidden a great swarm of laboring men, women and children. People were spread out everywhere, camouflaged by the trash and, to my, alarm; they were stopping their work and coming toward us. Soon there must have been 300 people lined up to receive our meager offering. Father Rick threw up his hands and laughed.
“We can’t feed you all,” he said in Spanish. But you’re welcome to what we have.”
Even more rag pickers showed up. “There’ll never be enough,” I called to a friend. It was 1:00 P.M. now. We’d originally estimated the party would last an hour or so, but it looked as if there was still plenty of food so we kept handing it out, including thick slices of ham being carved on the tailgate of my truck by a teenage boy from the Center.
A joyous contagion was spreading. People from the shacks surrounding the dump joined us, laughing, clapping in time to the guitar music, waving burritos in the air in a kind of celebration dance. At three o’clock the crowd was larger than ever. At four o’clock we started to gather our things, urging people to help themselves to the remaining food.
There was a lot left. “Please, take it home! Yes, the ham too!” The ham just seemed inexhaustible. People filled bags with food to take to their shacks. Even that didn’t finish things. We stowed what was left in our vehicles to take to two orphanages on the way home.
That night I tried to put together what my eyes had seen with what my mind knew as impossible. All those people, eating and eating, the table still piled with food!!!!! Then other scenes crowded out the joyous ones. I remembered the little boy gnawing on garbage. And the old man struggling beneath an enormous load of flattened cardboard boxes. And the pile of garbage that began to move as a man crawled out from it. I knew all of us from the Center wished we could do something more lasting than just bringing do-gooder food from our comfortable homes. I begged God to show me a way to go back to the dump, to help on a full-time basis.
But I was just a postman. I had little. No one at the Center had much, and the need was so great. What could we possibly do to ease the burdens the size of those we’d seen?
Over the next days at the Bible study we talked a lot about what had happened at the dump. It didn’t make sense. We hadn’t brought enough food, but it had fed people for five hours, and there was some left. The food had simply multiplied.
We’d taken God at His word and He’d performed a, yes. We finally had to use the word, miracle. God had shown us that His promises work. When we’d given without restraint, in a joyous mood and without hope of repayment, he’d multiplied our small offering.
Here are a few of the thing that have happened in the 22 years since that Christmas Day. I am at the dump. Permanently, I left my job with the postal service and moved to within a hundred yards of the place where we first saw the Lord multiply our offering. My home is a room with a leaky roof, a bed, a table and enough light to read my Bible by. And it’s more than enough!
Today we have a small medical clinic built on the sit of the Christmas party; the doctor comes four times a week. Next to the clinic is a dental office, where a dentist volunteers her services three days a week. There’s a pharmacy too. If some one can’t pay even the few pesos we charge, they are still treated. We give the medicine away.
Now there’s a day-care center, where parents can drop off their little ones while they, when we first came to the dump the children, were so deep-down dirty that we had to Bathe them in stages: The first day the tub water was black, the second day gray, the third just cloudy, till at last it ran clear.
The dump people now have their own business co-op. The monopoly on recycled trash has been broken; rag pickers can now sell to whomever they choose, and the best prices are paid by their own co-op. Today the rag pickers can buy groceries at The Lord’s Store, where food is made available by the Center, and sold at or below cost.
When a powerful Juarez lawyer and tax collector, Sergio Conde Varela, heard that we were running a store at the dump, he hoped to trip us up on tax charges and even to arrest me and other “guilty” parties. But when Sergio came to the dump and saw what was going on, he quit his job, gave all his money away, and started managing the store himself. Today, in addition to overseeing the Lord’s Store, Sergio defends without charge the poor of Juarez. We even have a fire engine an old water truck with a hose attached! We have many more tasks ahead.
Jesus multiplies the loaves and fishes: Looking up, Jesus saw the crowds approaching and said to Philip, 'Where can we buy some bread for these people to eat?' He said this only to put Philip to the test; he himself knew exactly what he was going to do. Philip answered, 'Two hundred denarii would not buy enough to give them a little piece each.' One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter's brother, said, 'Here is a small boy with five barley loaves and two fish; but what is that among so many?' Jesus said to them, 'Make the people sit down.' There was plenty of grass there, and as many as five thousand men sat down. Then Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed them to those who were sitting there; he then did the same with the fish, distributing as much as they wanted. When they had eaten enough he said to the disciples, 'Pick up the pieces left over, so that nothing is wasted.' So they picked them up and filled twelve large baskets with scraps left over from the meal of five barley loaves. Seeing the sign that he had done, the people said, 'This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world' (Jn 5:5-14).