John W. Kennedy, associate news editor, recently traveled to Guyana, which relief experts fear might become another Haiti with chronic problems that could mushroom into crises.
The smells of poverty in Georgetown, Guyana, on the Atlantic coast of South America, waft 25 miles out of town to the international airport, where we arrive around midnight on a steamy Wednesday. The odor of sewage and rubbish is a constant companion on the bus ride from the airport into Georgetown.
Oddly enough, apparently not all businesses are failing to thrive in Guyana. The most modern-looking building visible on the route to Guyana's capital city is a large brewery.
Guyana's unfortunate claim to international notoriety came as a result of the horrific mass suicide-execution led by cultist Jim Jones in November 1978. In all, 911 died at the People's Temple's remote jungle site. Today, Guyana and its people are among the forgotten working poor of the world: not poor enough to draw the international news media as in Haiti, Bosnia, or Rwanda, and not resourceful enough to pull their country up by its own bootstraps.
Thirty years ago, civil war between blacks and East Indians put Guyana on the edge of economic collapse. Little has been accomplished to maintain the country's infrastructure since England granted the former colony independence in 1966.
For its first quarter-century, independent Guyana, the size of the state of Idaho, was governed according to Marxist economics, with disastrous results. In recent years, the transition to a free market has been rocky at best. Guyana rivals Haiti as the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. Public streets are piled high with garbage. The government does not have enough money to pay sanitation workers or to fix garbage trucks. Unemployment remains around 30 percent. Educated Guyanese frequently emigrate to more prosperous regions of the Americas.
As a nation, Guyana has all the classic problems of an underdeveloped former colony. Walking the littered streets of Georgetown, a bleak question keeps coming back: Has this entire nation somehow fallen through the cracks?
Many Guyanese seem strangely content to sit in their hot homes all day or to wander the pot-holed streets with nothing to do. The idleness stems not so much from indolence as from hopelessness.
One extended family—a dozen people—lives in adjoining shacks in a residential area. In one dwelling lives Lloyd James, a young black man, and his wife and their two girls, ages 12 and 8. Their one room contains a mattress on the floor and little else. No one has shoes.
James worked in a disco before business declined and he lost his job. "I keep checking, but nothing comes up," he says. The family raises chickens and pigs. Even the animals are gaunt.
Away from the cramped slums of Georgetown, poverty has a different face, but it is still poverty. Near Linden, 37-year-old Maureen Whyte lives in a one-room shack, which has a bed frame without a mattress. Her five children -along with countless houseflies—sleep on the floor.
FILLING THE GAP
Christians have been in Guyana, originally a Dutch possession, since the seventeenth century. During the rule by the Dutch and later the British, Protestant churches grew to become the leading religious group in the country. With independence in 1966 and a Marxist rule, most churches experienced a period of sharp confrontation with the country's government and its official atheism. Today nominalism continues to be a very real challenge to Guyanese evangelicals and to the missions community.
Self-sufficiency has become a clear goal of a small corps of missions workers in Guyana. Paulette Charles, for one, has a justifiable reputation for being a dynamo in her role as principal at a Georgetown school for children with multiple disabilities.
Charles's unshakable commitment to helping the needy does not end there. As a social-services volunteer at Saint Paul's Anglican Church, Charles is a toughlove watchdog in the community to make certain children better themselves in order to escape poverty's undertow. With books donated by parishioners, she has started a library in her home for neighborhood children. And she teaches 25 girls marketable skills, such as making jewelry boxes or crocheting hats.
While showing visitors through her Goedverwagting neighborhood east of the capital, Charles cannot keep from worrying about the destitute children around her. "Why aren't you in school?" she barks at one youngster. "Why aren't you doing your crafts?" she asks another.
Charles sees self-employment as an effective means of escape for many of the children. "If you ask for help, you must first show what you can do for yourself." The international relief agencies working in Guyana, such as Food for the Poor (FFP), based in south Florida, must play by government rules and stay away from any connection to political activity. These relief agencies and other nongovernmental organizations provide a critical margin of support in supplying hospital beds, school desks, and other resources because of the government's own strapped finances.
"We don't want to just be a handout operation," says Guyana FFP executive director Leon Davis. "We want to help people to make it on their own. It's the only chance these people have. Otherwise, they will be poor 100 years from now."
Half the country's 800,000 residents are Christians, yet, unlike the rest of South America—with the exception of neighboring Suriname—Catholics are not a majority. One-third of the population is Hindu, and one in ten is Muslim. From outward appearances, mosques and temples seem to be in much better repair than Christian churches, which often are in desperate need of new windows and a coat of paint.
A NEWFOUND UNITY
The faithful in Guyana exhibited tremendous unity earlier this year in stopping a bill that would have legalized abortion. Protestant denominations and Catholics united, as 10,000 marched in Georgetown to protest the proposed law. The March for Jesus in June also symbolized an unprecedented ecumenical effort, he says.
"There is no reason the church can't work together," says Maj. Sydney McKenzie, commander of the Salvation Army in Guyana. "We have much common ground on social problems."
As the government has retreated from responsibility, most churches have enacted social programs to try to meet clothing, medical, and food needs. Churches, particularly Catholic ones, had strong social services and educational programs before the government nationalized the country's health care and educational programs. Now, because the need is overwhelming, churches and parachurch organizations realize they cannot solve societal problems without cooperating.
Lucius Bruyning is in charge of church planting for Full Gospel Fellowship, a denomination with more than 80 congregations in Guyaria.
Bruyning, 45, says the charismatic churches in Guyana are growing because they are aggressively evangelistic and missionary-minded. "We preach a gospel that embraces a spiritual need as well as a social need," he says. "The church is not rich. There is very little we can do materially."
Bruyning drives around Georgetown in a car that has huge cracks in the windshield since the hood whipped back six years ago. The headlights flicker off whenever the car hits a pothole. "Most pastors have come from abject poverty," Bruyning says. "We have to rise above the hopelessness of poverty. People know that we can identify with them."
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