Fellow Passengers: This week’s Pastoral Passage (I Corinthians 4:9-13) transports me to Jardim Gramacho, the world’s largest landfill, located just outside Rio de Janeiro. An aerial view of the expansive garbage dump would reveal what looks like a colony of worker ants, but a close up view shows they are in fact thousands of catadores, people who live in the dump and make their living sifting through the garbage and selling recyclable and re-usable materials. The lives of the catadores, many of them teenagers who have known no other life, are beautifully documented in the 2010 movie Waste Land by filmmaker Lucy Walker. She follows the Brazilian artist Vik Muniz into the landfill, as he works on a new project. Muniz has made a career of creating art from unusual media, such as re-creating photographs of children who work in sugar plantations, using sugar from the fields to create the art. Similarly, in his “Pictures of Garbage” series seen in Waste Land, he creates portraits of the garbage pickers, using materials gleaned from the mountains of rubbish to create the works of art. The unusual work brings tens of thousands of dollars when auctioned off, with the artist donating all the proceeds back into the workers cooperative formed by his subjects. More than focusing on the economic value and the money fetched by the finished product, though, the film underscores the essential value and worth of the people who populate the dump, and it dignifies their lives and their work of survival.
I imagine hearing the catadores’ voices reading today’s Passage from The Message translation: It seems to me that God has put us who bear his Message on stage in a theater in which no one wants to buy a ticket. We’re something everyone stands around and stares at, like an accident in the street. We’re the Messiah’s misfits. You might be sure of yourselves, but we live in the midst of frailties and uncertainties. You might be well-thought-of by others, but we’re mostly kicked around. Much of the time we don’t have enough to eat, we wear patched and threadbare clothes, we get doors slammed in our faces, and we pick up odd jobs anywhere we can to eke out a living. When they call us names, we say, “God bless you.” When they spread rumors about us, we put in a good word for them. We’re treated like garbage, potato peelings from the culture’s kitchen. And it’s not getting any better.
You’ve probably heard the expression, “one person’s garbage is another’s treasure.” The catadores and dumpster-divers of the world live out that expression. I thought of them when reading today’s passage from I Corinthians. When I read those verses and put them next to Jesus’ words in the Beatitudes, it seems clearer than ever that God has a built-in bias toward the bums of the world. God especially treasures those people the world tends to treat as garbage. So the next time you hear someone referred to as “scum of the earth,” think about what it means for them to be the preferred passengers on the gospel train, and think also what it means for them to be bestowing blessings on us, even as they receive the brunt of the world’s curses. If we want to fully receive and experience that blessing, I suspect it will require us cultivating the courage to follow Jesus as He goes dumpster-diving for His treasured children in the Jardim Gramachos of our world.
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