By Grace Sears
“I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move.” —Matthew 17:20, NIV
Ian and Simea Meldrum will never forget their first impressions of an unregulated garbage dump outside of Olinda, Brazil, on October 16, 1993. “It was horrible,” Simea said. Her husband added: “The smell, the smoke, the flies — you can’t imagine.” Dirty children who lived on the dump were malnourished and some adults who came out of their flimsy shacks had respiratory problems. How could the Presbyterian pastor who asked Simea to join in an outreach to residents of the dump have dreamed that a church might be formed here?
Simea, a native of Brazil, was serving as youth minister at an Anglican church in Olinda founded by Ian, a Briton who came to Brazil through the South American Missionary Society. She had brought the youth group to an event initiated by another pastor who planned to distribute food and clothes on World Food Day to about 50 families who lived on the dump. When Simea’s group arrived that Sunday afternoon, a Presbyterian lay leader asked her to take charge of the event because the pastor who invited her had gone to England, where he had accepted a scholarship.
I’m trapped, Simea thought. I don’t want to be here. But then she heard God speak: “Take off your sandals — the place where you are standing is holy ground.” It was not what she wanted to hear. And yet in faith she stepped barefoot onto the rubbish and claimed it for the kingdom of God. She says she cried a lot that afternoon. She believed God was giving her that horrible place, although she wanted to turn and run.
Twenty years later, the putrid mountain of garbage is covered and fenced, and many of its former inhabitants have decent housing and paying jobs. As the stench, hazards, and flies have decreased, a miasma of corruption and indifference that pervaded the city also has diminished — not only in Olinda, but in similar communities throughout Brazil.
That October Simea struggled with her call. What did God want of her? She had three young children. She was already in active ministry, and her husband not only had responsibility for the church where they were copastors but supervised four other churches in Olinda and worked with additional social-outreach ministries. Their family schedule was hard enough to manage without adding another ministry, especially one without a budget. And what could one woman do? The whole city — police, city government, churches — ignored that reeking landscape. After much prayer, she decided to visit the rubbish heap once a month.
Simea had never seen such poverty. Her life in Brazil had been sheltered: her parents had raised her in a Baptist church and sent her to good schools. Yet even as a young girl she had gone out with mission teams in her church to work with children in the poorer areas of the city. When she was 13 a visiting evangelist singled her out and said “Come on up.” She thought he would rebuke her for not sitting still, but instead he told her, “God has a plan for you. You will tell the story of what God has done all over the world.”
Conditions on the dump looked hopeless. For about a year Simea kept up monthly visits, getting to know residents, watching how they rushed toward arriving trucks to sort through fresh loads of garbage. They collected paper, plastic, and other recyclables that they could sell in the city, and scavenged any kind of food or clothing they could use themselves. Children started collecting trash at an early age instead of going to school. Mothers typically had children by several different fathers. Violence and death were so common the children were hardened to it. They would react to a death by saying, “Never mind, tomorrow it will be you.” Boys wanted to become criminals, and girls sought men to support them, but none of them seemed to have any love. Simea wept over their heartlessness.
Nevertheless, in the course of that first year, she gathered some women from the dump into a prayer group, and held a monthly Sunday School for the children, with help from her church. “God was holding me there,” she says. A local TV station donated 40 to 50 parcels of food each month. She gained residents’ trust — and contracted hepatitis, which her doctor thought did not exist in Olinda. When she asked the city government why it was not doing anything about the conditions on the rubbish heap, officials answered: “It’s too complicated.”
Then in 1994 one of the women confided that the last batch of meat some had scavenged for food included a woman’s breast. Even residents of the dump found that shocking. The next Sunday Simea told her congregation what she had heard. Some journalists were present, and reported it on local TV.
Suddenly Simea was not the only person visiting the garbage dump. First local reporters, then national and international news agencies came; CNN sent images of the Olinda garbage dump around the world. Headlines referred to Cannibalism in Brazil. News teams documented trucks dumping black bags of medical waste, including used syringes, and asked why officials had not prosecuted the perpetrators. Olinda’s outraged mayor blamed “that woman” for the horrendous publicity.
Alerted by the scandal, UNICEF investigated across the country, documenting open dumps where children were scavenging in more than 5,000 Brazilian municipalities. The public outcry moved Brazil’s government to place the children in schools. Policing dumps and creating landfills became a national issue.
Amid the furor, the Meldrums formed Paroquia do Agua Viva (the Church of Living Water) next to the dump in Olinda. In some cases residents had emerged from generations of misery and had never imagined anything better. With assistance from other churches, the church opened a nursery to take care of small children during the day. A supper club for children met twice a week. Parents attended a literacy class, as well as classes in practical skills such as sewing. In the next four years, Mennonites provided two social workers who organized an association of the garbage pickers and trained them, so they could get better prices for the materials they sold, and to qualify as paid garbage collectors for the city. In 1997 the Rt. Rev. Clovis Erly Rodrigues received the first confirmation class at Agua Viva. In 2000, after 40 were confirmed, the Anglican/Episcopal Church of Brazil recognized Agua Viva as a parish.
Olinda’s government finally mustered the political will to do something about its garbage dump. Leaders wanted to close the dump. At Agua Viva, that plan was greeted with dismay. At least the families living there eked out a living from recycling and had shelters, however inadequate. If they were evicted without means of support they would starve. The Meldrums protested, to little effect, until the Archbishop of Canterbury came to Olinda.
In planning his 1999 visit to Brazil, the Most Rev. George Carey announced he wanted to do two things: see a soccer game and visit “the church at the rubbish tip.” He stopped in Recife, about five miles away from Olinda, and met with diocesan clergy at the pro cathedral. Simea Meldrum was present, and made a request of Archbishop Carey: Please tell the mayor of Olinda that the families on the rubbish dump should receive jobs and housing, instead of simply being kicked out. Archbishop Carey not only sent a letter to the mayor but also copied it to the President of Brazil. Then he visited Agua Viva. His presence brought increased respect and attention to the church and the Meldrums’ ministry there, so their concerns were heard. The city government recognized its responsibilities; eventually it offered housing to 120 families who had been living on the dump. It began supervising garbage collection, disposal, and recycling.
Of course, as Ian points out, “it’s easier to take people out of the dump than to take the dump out of the people.” A few families sold their new homes to gain money for drugs and alcohol, and wound up worse off than before. Yet many found a new way to live through the ministry of Agua Viva, though it took years for deep change to take hold. At first church members were largely dependent on others, but with training they began to move away from dependency and develop self-esteem and responsibility. By this time, Simea says, “I had accepted that this was my place.”
Other visitors followed in the wake of the Archbishop of Canterbury. One man who came with a group from the United States in 2004 asked if the church wanted a bigger building. Since quarters were cramped, church members said yes. The next month he shipped them a prefabricated building, and later a second one. Others brought special skills and ministries. A clinic provided health care. A youth worker started a dance and drama group with three teenagers that rapidly became a key means of discipleship and growth. One of the Meldrums’ sons developed the skills to shoot videos of Agua Viva’s work. Another son, still in university, has acquired IT skills and helps multiple ministries.
The Meldrums are pleased that at Agua Viva’s annual assembly this March the candidates elected to the church council were all from the first generation of children who had come up through the church. Some of them are now attending college. In the past two decades the lives of those children have been transformed. Some of their parents now work in construction and bring home good paychecks. In following Jesus they have broken out of the cycle of poverty, substance abuse, and misery and know they belong to the family of God. Their neighborhood may not be free of violence, but neither is it ruled by gangs or ignored by the police.
Olinda is transformed. In 1993 it was strictly a bedroom community for Recife, five miles away. Medical care, shops, restaurants, and jobs were almost all in Recife, and Olinda’s economy was depressed. Simea says God gave her a great love for the city, and she asked other pastors in a ministerial association to pray against the darkness and depression in Olinda. Centuries ago things had been different; in researching the city’s history they realized that in an earlier time the relationship between the two cities had been reversed, with Olinda as the center of commerce and culture. But a fire destroyed much of Olinda, and a journalist at the time wrote, “Olinda will be eternally in debt to Recife.”
Now shops and restaurants have sprung up and the city has its own hospital. The corruption that had been endemic in city government — fed by illegal dumping, among other practices — has receded. A population that once survived by scavenging and criminal activity now contributes to the town’s economy and cleanliness instead of trashing it. The rubbish dump that routinely made its inhabitants sick in body and soul was closed in 2010, by federal law.
Brazil changed as well. The 2010 law closed Olinda’s open dump and similar dumps throughout the country. The revelations in the UNICEF survey spurred government efforts to meet the needs of poor children throughout Brazil, particularly in nutrition and education. Parents now receive direct payments for their children, making extreme malnutrition rare.
Grace Sears is an advisor to the Order of the Daughters of the King and former editor of its magazine, The Royal Cross.