Raised from the rubbish heap
By Christy Mast and Randy Davis | Bolivia in South America
Liliana regained consciousness alongside a dumpster, her beaten body discarded just like the bag of potato peels and greasy restaurant leftovers alongside her. Her life had been spared, but her livelihood was stolen. No more shoe shine box. No more merchandise to sell. No more hope. How would she provide for her five children and alcoholic husband?
Liliana is part of the shoe shiner community in La Paz, Bolivia - a group typically isolated and trapped in poverty. With nowhere else to turn, she finally accepted an invitation SIM workers Randy and Dani Davis had been faithfully extending week after week to attend a women’s lunch. Randy and Dani were able to replace her stolen shoe shining tools and other items to get her back on her feet. Liliana became a regular at the Tuesday lunch. Not only that, she also decided to attend a camp run by Randy and Dani especially for the shoe shiner community.
One hundred men, women and children travelled to “The Bridge,” a rustic jungle camp founded by SIM, located about three hours away from La Paz. While about thirty volunteers provided good food and led activities, campers enjoyed fun team building challenges, games, swimming and crafts. Each morning, an engaging Bolivian pastor spoke to the adults about the theme, “the gospel of grace,” while children enjoyed a programme designed just for them. One camper remarked that this was her first time out of the city just to enjoy a vacation area. Many others felt the same.
Liliana brought four of her children with her to camp, including a teenage daughter who could be found happily cheering for her team during relay games. Music sparked the interest of her son, who wanted to learn to play some of the songs. Through a persistent and loving relationship, Randy and Dani were able to connect with Liliana and her family through a stormy season and share the gospel in both word and deed.
On the last day at camp, the men gathered for a football game. Many of these men were guys that Randy had connected with more than a decade prior through coaching basketball and leading backpacking trips. Most of these men grew up without a father or had a poor father figure. Now the majority have children, and Randy encouraged them about the importance of fathers taking the lead in breaking the cycle of generational sin and struggles. The men went away with the idea that they needed to get connected and shouldn’t remain isolated from one another. Randy challenged each of them to join the weekly small group Bible study and begin attending a local church after returning from camp.
Connecting at family camp was relatively easy, but it is more of a challenge back home. These shoe shiner families are linked by their work in downtown La Paz, but most of them live in the peripheral areas of the city. None of them are neighbours, which makes it difficult to get together. The group meets once a week in someone’s home or downtown, but often it is without their wives and children. Shoe shiners cannot afford cars, and bus transportation gets expensive when whole families are travelling together. Time, money, and energy are focused primarily on survival, so opportunities to gather together and pursue spiritual growth in community are valuable and rare.
The wonderful week at camp almost never was; just a month before, funding ran out and Randy and Dani felt forced to cancel. He and Dani were broken-hearted by this prospect as they headed to the planning meeting where they shared the sad news. But then the volunteers stepped up and raised funds and put their own money into camp, and a significant donation came from a Christian-run Bolivian bank. The shoe shiners also organised and cooked meals (staying up all night to do so!) to raise money so the camp could go on. These efforts show progress toward SIM’s goal of moving Bolivian believers toward a self-sustaining ministry. Currently, four Bolivian churches from various denominations are involved with the shoe shiner ministry. They are located all over the city and make their facilities available for the group, as well as providing volunteers.
Randy and Dani are praying that believers and seekers among the shoe shiners will each join a local church and get involved there. They also hope to purchase a van which can be used to provide transportation so that whole families can attend various events. They realise that rising up out of poverty is a journey to be made in community, requiring sincere and resilient relationships. But these relationships are messy and time-consuming, and success is difficult to come by.
They have spent years and waded through many struggles with some people and are still waiting to see results. But progress is being made, as evidenced by the families who attended camp, the women at every Tuesday lunch, and the 30 or so believers who regularly attend a small group. Discipleship is required. So, with patience and humility, Randy, Dani, and the partner churches in La Paz intentionally form friendships with shoe shiners, like Liliana and her family, to help them escape the cycle of poverty and experience the grace of God.
•For Lucero and Sammy, two Bolivian SIM interns who are leading small groups for shoe shiners in La Paz.
•For provision for transportation so that shoe shiner families can attend central gatherings together.
•For wisdom in making decisions about establishing a ministry center in the city.