In Peruvian slum, clean water opens hearts
The woman's plea was the first thing Quentin and Gina Roberts heard as they entered an inner-city slum in Lima, Peru.
What they found shocked them.
Lean-to shacks and cracked adobe homes lined a narrow, dirt path in the small community of Rosario de Fatima. There was no water system; the 350 residents used large buckets to collect their sewage. The buckets sat in the sun, covered with pieces of cardboard or empty egg cartons. Once they were full they were emptied into a large hole at the neighborhood's entrance.
Beside the hole was a large sink -- the only place in the community with running water -- where the residents washed their clothes.
Edith Caballa, the neighborhood president and lifelong resident there, said living without running water was nearly unbearable, especially in a community so small and crowded as Rosario de Fatima.
But today the community's unsanitary conditions are mostly a memory.
"We had no water system. We brought buckets with our waste and just poured it in the hole. Then we would wash out the buckets and use them to bring water back to our home for drinking and cooking," Caballa recounted. "That was every single day. And there were so many of us and so much waste, there were fights and people insulting each other. It was very hard."
The Robertses, as International Mission Board missionaries to inner-city Lima, have shared the Gospel and started Bible studies throughout the city. Connections they made in one of their Bible studies brought them to Rosario de Fatima where they hoped to begin another outreach. But they quickly realized the dire water situation provided an opportunity to be Jesus' heart, hands and voice to the community.
"I'd never seen anything quite like that," Gina Roberts said. "I've been places where they didn't have bathrooms, like in rural areas. But in the city there are no trees, no place to dig a hole, no rocks to hide behind. People living there had no sense of dignity.... [T]hings were just totally exposed to everybody. There was a lot of sickness because of it. Our hearts were totally broken by this place."
Thousands of Peruvians in downtown Lima live in quintas like Rosario de Fatima -- individual slums that range from small neighborhoods to large apartment buildings. Sometimes as many as 900 people live in a community without a single bathroom.
"They live very close together," Gina said, "and that breeds social problems as a result."
With financial help from Southern Baptists, the Robertses arranged for a water system to be installed throughout the community. The $15,000 project took nearly two years to complete. Every family was then responsible for installing a bathroom in their home.
Today, about half of the houses have bathrooms. Some residents still use outdoor disposal systems but each family has a private area that can be cleaned using the water that is piped just outside every home.
During the water project, the Robertses started a Bible study in the community. About 20 people meet to learn God's Word every other Friday night. Although the Robertses still attend, Peruvian believers from the community now lead the study.
"It's sometimes hard," Quentin reflected, "but you have to find that balance between demonstrating God's love in people's physical needs and, then, meeting more than just those needs. Jesus fed the hungry, but there has to be a spiritual component."
Caballa said since the water system was installed, many community members are more open to hearing the Gospel from missionaries who cared enough to help. She attends the Bible study and encourages others to join.
"I was very far away from the Lord for a long time before the [missionaries] helped us," she said. "I didn't have the kind of Bible study that I have now. Little by little, I have been growing in the Word through these studies.
"The neighborhood is still a little bit rough around the edges," she added. "We have a lot of work to do. But now it has a great advantage because it has the water system. It was very tough for us. But now, thanks to the [Robertses], things have changed. We have the Bible study, and we have water.
"Thank God those days are over."
Emily Pearson is an IMB writer living in the Americas.