January 14 2010 by Norman Jameson, BR Editor

    The universal language of hugs overcame regional differences in words when youth from First Baptist Church, Smithfield, embraced children living on the edges of the municipal dump in Guatemala City.

    During spring break last year youth minister Tommy Cook took a group to help in the Tabitha Ministry, which provides day care for children whose mothers scour the stifling stench of the municipal dump, scratching for anything to eat, wear or resell.

    These children are too young to scavenge or they would be kicking around the piles of refuse themselves. With such a difficult existence, where a rising sun boils the seven square miles of festering garbage; and its setting extinguishes the opportunity to scour for more sustenance, children are at risk every hour. The dump sprouted in a deep valley within the city. Waste of all kinds is dumped there without regard to hazard, including medical waste. People have died beneath garbage slides.

    Into this setting a Guatemalan Christian woman named Carol Bercian started the Tabitha Ministry to help the children and families. Women who cannot scavenge enough from the garbage piles to live often turn to prostitution. Drugs dull the pain but leave the adults incapable of providing for their children.

    Cook was looking to establish a long-term relationship for ministry…not just swoop into a different place each year with fresh scrubbed, eager but naïve teenagers. So he intends to establish that relationship between his comfortable, middle class teens and some of the most desperately poor people in the world. Estuardo Bercian and his wife, Cindy, volunteer at Tabitha, which was established by Estuardo’s sister in a small rented house.

    It is now in a larger house they intend eventually to buy. Children in daycare there receive two meals and a snack each day.

    Additionally, mothers learn practical job skills that may liberate them from the dump or prostitution. Jerusalem Church in Guatemala City helps to support the ministry. Piney Grove Baptist Church in Fuquay-Varina also has helped. Another goal is to establish a church in Tabitha.

    Initially, children coming to Tabitha Center did not know or understand hugs or the love of strangers. When a worker or volunteer approached them with open arms and a smile, the children thought they were about to be hit.

    BR photo by Norman Jameson

    Youth from First Baptist Church (FBC), Smithfield, reunited over Christmas with two leaders of a ministry to children and families in Guatemala where the youth ministered last year and to where they are returning over spring break. They are, from left: Mallory Barnes, Elizabeth Ashley, Cindy Bercian from Tabitha Project in Guatemala, Fronia Knott, FBC Youth Minister Tommy Cook, and Estuardo Bercian from Tabitha Project in Guatemala. They are displaying several artisan items made by participants in Tabitha that the Bercians brought with them to sell to support the work.


    Smithfield youth conducted a Vacation Bible School for Tabitha children last spring and will do the same in April. The church also funded renovations in a private home that needed a wall repaired to keep out rats that had been getting in and biting the toes of children.

    They delivered bags of food that would last about three days for a family; told Bible stories through a translator and played lots of games. The children loved bubbles.

    At one home in the dump when they delivered food to a mother with two children, one of the children pulled a piece of candy out of a drawer for each of the girls.

    “I still have my candy,” said Elizabeth Ashley. “They gave us a gift for coming to help them.  It stuck with me that we need to be more giving here.”

    “It didn’t matter that we didn’t know Spanish,” said Mallory Barnes. “They were so excited to have people there helping them and playing with them language was not an issue.”

    “We spoke the language of love,” said Cook, who for wedding gifts when he married Robin last year asked for help for Tabitha.

    He said their wedding gift is a bathroom for the Tabitha Center.

    Fronia Knott, herself adopted from Guatemala as an infant, was overwhelmed to see what she had been rescued from. She said all the children liked hugs and she remembered one who crawled onto her lap and slept the whole way back from a zoo visit.

    Smithfield kids felt like strangers all of “three minutes” Fronia said.

    Guatemala is the first country south of Mexico in Central America. Guatemala City has a population of 12 million, half of whom are Christian, according to the Bercians.

    The government is unstable and thievery is common.

    The youth felt safe while there because of Estuardo’s constant attention. For safety, it is also important to know where to take groups and to be gone by five p.m. when the men who live in the area return from their labors and when drug sellers and thieves follow them.

    Carol, Tabitha’s director, would stretch the Smithfield girls as she took them around to meet families. She asked the girls to lead Bible study and to pray with the ladies, many of whom asked for prayer that husbands who had abandoned them would find God.

    Contributed photo

    Robin and Tommy Cook make hand prints with children that say, “God created me.” Tommy is youth minister at First Baptist Church, Smithfield.


    “Who am I to give these women advice?” said Mallory, a senior. “The part I focused on was that you are a child of God. We’re all children of God. We’re all beautiful in God’s eyes. We don’t need another human being to validate us.”

    The girls were especially impressed that the abandoned wives didn’t necessarily ask for prayer that their husbands would return and love them again, but that they would find God.

    “I’ve never heard anyone here pray that way,” said Elizabeth. “We think, ‘OK let’s find somebody different now.’ The kids were always happy, no matter their circumstances. That’s one thing that really touched my life.”

    “We think as Americans we’re supposed to teach, that we are it,” Froni said. “You go down there and realize you are absolutely nothing compared to these women and they teach you so much. It’s so humbling. They are so grateful. God is the reason they get up in the morning.”

    Do American teenagers parachuting into a foreign world for a week of hugs, Bible lessons and food distribution make a difference to families dragging one step at a time through life in a dump? The Bercians said the teenagers make a difference “because of the love they give to the children.” 

    Cook will take a group of 14 back to Tabitha in April to share more of that love.
    1/14/2010 11:18:00 AM by Norman Jameson, BR Editor | with 4 comments




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