Bright light on a dark canvas

NOTE: This post originally appeared on First Pres Blog (http://first-pres.org/first-pres-blog/a-touch-of-love/)

Nemeh, an older lady wearing a black head scarf, led us down below street level to show us her home. Light leaked in from above, and we could see for ourselves what she was explaining to us in Arabic: when it rains, the guttered hallway leading to her room becomes a river of sewage.

And her room—her home—isn’t much more than a hallway itself. It's just big enough for a bed and an old fridge, and a few inches to walk around them. So a few of us huddled in the sewage path hallway to peer in and listen to her story, occasionally pressing ourselves against the wall to let little kids and mothers come and go into the darkness.

This is Garbage City. Almost 100,000 people live in this area of Cairo, nearly all of them Christians. Their job is to collect, sort and recycle all the trash produced by this city of 20 million people. Their entire economy and rhythm of life is centered on garbage and it is everywhere: below your feet, down each alley and on the first floor of nearly every tall brick tenement structure that make up this maze-like neighborhood. It’s even overhead: massive bundles of trash are hoisted high on pulley systems on their journey into and out of Garbage City.

RESTORING DIGNITY AND HOPE

We came here because Garbage City is a project site for Touch of Love International, a nonprofit founded and run by Emad "Eddie" Yassa (First Pres covenant partner and Egypt team leader) that restores dignity and hope to vulnerable people through microloans.

Nemeh, we learned, is on the list for a small loan to purchase two young goats. She even proudly showed us the tiny pen she’d created in the side of the gutter to house them at night. These goats promise a source of income through milk and meat that will renew itself year after year. But it was a hard conversation. Nemeh is waiting, but feels worried she’s running out of time—she’s diabetic, losing eyesight and plagued with Hepatitis C.

We visited other Touch of Love projects as well, success stories that are bringing light and hope into a what seems like a very dark place. Hanan, a single mom with two school-age boys, received a loan last year to open a small shop. We showed up at her store today, where she showed us her now-thriving business. She gave thanks to God that she’s been able to repay the loan and is making plans to expand her store. She asked us to pray for her sons, who are preparing to take their final exams.

  Saoud and her family in the courtyard where they sort trash.

Saoud and her family in the courtyard where they sort trash.

Another young mom, Souad, received a loan from TOL last March to purchase a trash contract—a supply of garbage to process and sell to recyclers. When Emad and the team visited her last spring, she was desperate. Her husband had left her, she had several very young children to care for and no source of income.

BLESSED ARE THE POOR IN SPIRIT

Today Souad, although surrounded by garbage and making a living in incredibly rough conditions, is providing for her children. Her income is increasing and she was recently able to purchase pigs to help process the biodegradable trash. Her husband has even returned. As we prayed with this young family in a courtyard full of trash, and as I saw the radiant light that seemed to shine from inside this hopeful young woman, I felt like the Sermon on the Mount had come to life.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth...

There is a richness about Souad that I will likely never know. And while her people are called the Zaballeen, Arabic for "garbage people," they are anything but worthless. They have precisely the same value, same hope, same need for Christ's love as I do. Sometimes God uses a dark canvas to show off His light most brilliantly.

*Update: Since we arrived home, Nemeh's loan was approved and she’ll be receiving her two goats soon. Thanks be to God!