By GLENDA CAUDLE
Special Features Editor
Give him a few minutes. Aben Claros will take you on a tour of his country: Honduras.
Specifically, he will tell you about its capital city, Tegucigalpa, where he was born and grew up and where he lives and works today.
He can tell you about the beauty of the Central American nation, bounded by both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and boasting breathtaking beaches and mountains and lush jungle greenery. He might even conduct a listening tour that takes in the finer points of Tegucigalpa and explain the benefits of city living for young people just starting out in the world of business and industry. As a university trained civil engineer, specializing in quality control, he will be speaking from experience.
When he has finished, you may well want to visit and allow the friendly, well-educated, engaging young man the opportunity to actually show you the neighborhoods he knows so well.
Some residents of this area already have. Dr. Mike Calfee, Union City orthopedic surgeon, is one of them. He and his family have been hosts to Aben for the past two weeks and the adventure of learning about life in another country continues for them all.
But before you apply for your passport and pack your bag, you should know that the neighborhoods Aben can’t wait to show you in his country are not the ones featured on glossy tourism brochures. They are not the middle class and upscale places Aben looks as though he could fit in comfortably. They are not places where his good manners and engaging appearance are the norm.
They are, in fact, rather dumpy.
And that is exactly where your tour will begin — The Dump on the edge of Tegucigalpa. A place where sky-darkening clouds of hungry buzzards and wandering, bony, emaciated cows and sometimes bad-tempered, scrawny dogs without owners nose through a city’s garbage in hopes of sustaining life. They share the territory with 500 other scavengers: 500 human beings who depend on what they glean from the stinking, dangerous heaps of refuse to get them through another day.
Aben, you see, fits in here, as well. Not by chance, but by choice. Not by hard luck, but by heart.
Once a week, he comes to The Dump with bottles of water and paper plates of some kind of nourishing food for the body. When they see him, the families — usually about 100 of them — who have been sifting through the mountains of rotting and filthy trash organize themselves, with men in one line, women in another and children in the third, to receive the things he offers that will help them make it through the day. There is no fresh water source at The Dump, so the bottled water is a blessing. And when the last drop of liquid is gone, the garbage gleaners can add the plastic bottle to the collection they have been making at the site, in hopes of redeeming their recyclable haul for small payment.
There is no colorful fast food set-up on the perimeter of the dump, so some families subsist in large part on food someone else has thrown on the heap. Except for the days when Aben comes.
“We prepare for 250 people and there is never enough. We usually offer something like spaghetti, rice, chicken with rice, rice and beans, or ground beef with potatoes and rice and tortillas — always tortillas. Those things are easy to fix and they are nourishing and filling,” Aben explains.
The meals are prepared in the kitchen of a school across town called The Rock. Cooking begins between 6:30 and 7 and by 10:30 the food is packed and loaded for the trip that will take from 30 minutes to an hour through city traffic.
Sometimes Aben brings five or six or seven other residents of Tegucigalpa with him to pass out food. But sometimes he brings as many as 20 helpers, and most of these are from somewhere beyond the borders of Honduras.
Last year, Calfee, a member of Union City First United Methodist Church, was one of those “foreign” volunteers, along with several other residents of this area who traveled to Honduras with a mission team from Union City Second Baptist Church. In a few more days, Calfee will be returning.
Anyone could go to The Dump and hand out water and food. Hardly anyone does. Aben goes because — in spite of the fact that he was ignorant such a place even existed until 11 years ago — he has a stake there now. Along with food and water than can be consumed to satisfy physical appetites, he also offers a devotional and sometimes a program or skit or music with a spiritual message to nurture the spirit, as well. It is a connection directed by his faith and strengthened by the opportunity to feed souls headed into eternity as well as bodies rooted to the most inhospitable of places on earth.
How it began
Aben, 31, was raised in a nominally Catholic home in a better part of Tegucigalpa than The Dump. He sometimes accompanied a friend whose mother insisted on regular church attendance, just tagging along to keep his buddy company but with no real interest in religion, he explains with a grin.
His bond with his own mother was a strong one, however, and it was her grave disappointment in his high school grades that touched something deep within him.
“When I was 15, I was a poor student. My older sister had been so good in school. I loved my mom and I felt so bad when she told me how upset she was to find out my grades. I cried in my room that day and I questioned my purpose in life. That day, I prayed and asked God to change me and make me a different person. Then I went to my mom and told her I wanted to change high schools and go to a Catholic high school with high standards and discipline. That was the first miracle. My older sister graduated from there. You needed really good grades to get in and mine were horrible. But my mom tried for me anyway, and they took me without even looking at my grades because of my sister’s reputation. God started working on my life and the best Mother’s Day gift I ever gave my mom was my good grades. When she went to school to get them the next time, a professor praised me. I cried again when I found that out,” he says.
His life was being altered in other ways, as well.
“I became bold in church. I began going to Bible study and was in church-related activities five days a week. I got in all kinds of discipleship and Bible study programs. I had Christian friends and my life began to change. In college, I began working with street kids. I saw such horrible things and I asked God why He let these things happen. My own heart was breaking, so I could not understand how God could let it be. He answered Me and told me, ‘Two thousand years ago, I died for you. Now it is for you to take your cross and follow me.’ So I became a volunteer. After college graduation, I worked for a few years as an engineer, but you can’t run and hide from God forever. God wouldn’t leave me alone. Sometimes just because you are good at something, you think you are on the right path, but that may not be true. I finally quit my job and accepted the challenge to reach the poor, the prostitutes, the ones no one else cares about. I got involved with Youth for Christ and that is truly my dream job, because it is God’s will for my life.”
In addition to the feeding of bodies and souls that claims Aben’s heart at The Dump, there are other areas of ministry to which he devotes many hours each week.
The public education system in his city is remarkably open to allowing Youth for Christ programs on its campuses. Aben typically makes contact with the principal of a school, describes the 11⁄2 hour service he wants to hold and tries to set up a time. Often the administrator agrees right away; if not, Aben may seek to make inroads with a teacher at the school or with students there who can bring their interest to the principal and, perhaps, change a mind.
A typical high school Youth for Christ service involves getting the attention of the students with exhibitions of break dancing put on by a team of youthful volunteers, a dramatic presentation with a message, a time of testimony, a period of worship and then a “calling” or preaching time. Students who want to know more or who need to talk to someone about a decision with eternal consequences they have made, or are thinking of making, are provided with a form that allows them to provide contact information for the Youth for Christ team.
Aben then assigns students who have expressed some spiritual need to members of his group and they make contact and help the students find church homes across the city where they will be welcomed and can grow in their faith.
During the evening hours, Aben and his faithful band head for downtown Tegucigalpa, where they fall in with the youthful street people who first captured the young college student’s attention a few years ago.
They bring clothing and food for the street kids, teen prostitutes and drug dealers who call the area home. And they share good news, one-on-one.
Back to school
It began when a young man who was once an indifferent student noticed a child who should have been in school, but was not.
Aben was helping lay a concrete floor to replace the dirt and mud base of a slum house in his home city. After a few days, he realized he was seeing a little girl — the granddaughter in the family — observing the work on a regular basis. He finally questioned her about avoiding her studies, only to learn that the child had never attended school. The next day, more school-less children showed up at the home.
Something had to be done.
That was 21⁄2 years ago. Today, across town from The Dump but in another needy neighborhood, children of all ages attend classes according to their knowledge level, rather than their ages, at a school called The Rock. The Youth for Christ partnership with a congregation that has the same name made it all possible. Classes are held at the church, with volunteer teachers from the congregation, and children are also provided one meal a day. Among the teachers are dedicated instructors who frequently stay beyond the typical school day and work with others in the community who come for a chance to learn.
The school year for children from 4-18 years old, with grades from pre-kindergarten through sixth, runs from February through November and last year’s graduation exercises were a momentous occasion for students and their families, as well as the church and the Youth for Christ volunteers. Many of those students, who have been educated from first through sixth grade in three years with a home school program, will go on to trade schools or to public high schools, Aben says.
When he presents programs about his work, as he did recently at Union City First United Methodist Church, he points with a wide grin to a photo of a young girl reading a Bible and it is clear he rejoices that she can know the Word of God for herself, thanks to The Rock.
In the future
Aben will be welcoming friends from Union City Second Baptist back to The Dump in January and a trip sponsored by Union City First United Methodist is in the planning stages for next summer.
In addition to explaining his work and the needs of the people in Honduras to congregations in this area, Aben is spending time with area students as well and was at Obion County Central High School this morning for a program.
He wants people to know he’s delighted to introduce them to the country he loves, but he doesn’t want them to be surprised if he “dumps” them somewhere on the tour. It’s just what his heart tells him to do.
Aben Claros may be contacted at email@example.com. His blogspot is yfcaben.blogspot.com and visits may be made to www.yfci.org.
To support his ministry, go to www.yfci.org, click on “donate” at the top of the page and follow the steps listed. On the designation box, select “Other” and write Aben Claros on the box below.
Those who wish to donate by check are asked to send it to YFCI, P.O. Box 4555, Englewood, CO 80155 and to add either of the following designations on the memo line: Honduras fund number 528.02 or Aben Claros.
Published in The Messenger 11.2.12