by James Beaunaux
There are solutions, despite overwhelming social problems.
It is almost midnight. The streets of downtown Bogotá, Colombia, are deserted except for a multitude of military policemen. Automatic weapons at the ready, they guard every intersection of this capital city; the president of neighboring Venezuela is in town.
Five-year-old Wilson sits on the sidewalk, crying. His father will beat him again tonight if he returns home without 1,000 pesos ($1.50 U.S.). He shivers in the cold of the Andean night; he is barefoot and wears only a lightweight running suit. On the other side of the street, his sister, seven-year-old Daisy, is begging. Daisy needs money for shoes, and she can’t go home until she has 1,500 pesos.
For a growing number of children on city streets around the world, this scene is all too typical. It is not uncommon for urban missionaries working in child evangelism to encounter many in similar circumstances.
There must be a greater awareness of the plight of these children at risk. It is also necessary to understand the scope of the problem, especially in Latin America. We can then consider together some solutions to reaching these children.
It is difficult to picture the number of children living on the world’s streets, many unattached to any family at all. To put it in perspective, suppose every one of the 49.6 million residents of the 10 western states of the continental U.S. were a child on the streets. In reality, street children in the world number more than twice that amount. The standard reference figure quoted for street children around the world today, including those in the U.S., is 100 million.1
Almost one-third of the world’s population is under 15 years old. In Colombia, 36 percent, or 11 million, are under 15.2 More and more of these kids are finding their way to the streets, although the precise number is not known. Estimates of the number of street children in Bogotá swing wildly from a conservative 2,500 to a staggering 110,000 (United Nations Children’s Fund/UNICEF).
One reason for the disparity in the statistics is that street children are extremely mobile. A child or even a gang (parche, a “patch”) of kids may start out in the far south of Bogotá in the morning, be in the International District (Central Bogotá) in the early afternoon, and in Parque Lourdes (North Bogotá) by late afternoon. Another reason is that some children are “latch-key kids”; they live on the streets during the day, but return home at night.
Think of this problem—children at risk—in the light of the word of God: “It is not your heavenly Father’s will that one of these little ones should be lost” (Matt. 18:14).3 But children are being lost. That many children are abandoned and often dying on the streets is well documented; we will consider this later.
Four groups of “street children” are generally acknowledged in street evangelism:
1. Totally abandoned children. These are the gamin in Colombia, the garoto in Brazil, the pelon in Mexico. These children live in the streets without any familial relationships. They typically use drugs, preferring inhalants, principally shoemakers’ glue. These children don’t work.
2. Partially abandoned children. These children live in the streets but have partial, if sporadic, contact with their families. Drug usage is common, and typically, this child won’t work.
3. Street urchins/latch-key kids. They roam the streets but are careful to maintain contact with their families. They do not use drugs and they don’t work.
4. Working children. These children are in the streets while carrying out the responsibilities of their jobs. They may shine shoes, wash car windshields, sell candy and cigarettes. They live most of the time with their families. Drug usage isn’t common, since their job is their primary interest.
In Latin America, both boys and girls live on the streets. However, generally speaking, girls are more sheltered than boys. The boy/girl ratio of street children may be as high as nine to one.4 Girls, considered more “useful,” often are kept at home. Itis the boy who is cast off in the case of family need; he is considered stronger and less susceptible to a life of threat on the street. This may be a working out of machismo, the Latin concept of exaggerated masculine pride.
It has been reported that in Brazil “the overwhelming majority of the country’s estimated 200,000 street kids were not abandoned by their families; rather, they left home to escape abuse, poverty, or ordinary parental authority. They go back when they get desperate enough.”5 Yet the number of children living outside of a family setting or being abandoned (the unattached child) is increasing. Abandoned children on the world’s streets by the year 2000 are projected at 200 million.6
Indeed, in Latin America especially, children seem expendable. Imagine calling children desechables — “throwaway” or “disposable.” But that’s what they are known as on the streets of Bogotá. The term recently came into sharp focus for me when a young boy with whom I had been working was killed one night, his body casually thrown into a ditch.
In my own experience of working with street children, I know of other kids who have been killed either by the police, by drug gangs, by death squads put together by merchants who want to clean the streets of “dirty kids,” or even by other street people.
According to a report published recently in Brazil, at least 40 children are assassinated each month in Rio de Janeiro.6 And there is chilling new evidence that there are groups in the streets using children to help satisfy the world’s demand for body parts. The “fortunate” children who survive these on-the-spot surgeries awaken in the streets to find that they have lost a kidney, a testicle, or an eye during the night. Usually, however, such spontaneous surgery means death for children who experience the trauma.
It’s been said that statistics don’t lie, but neither do they manage to convey a solution to this problem. The data indicate that many agencies profess to be addressing the situation of children on the streets. However, UNICEF in Bogotá reports that many “social concern agencies are selling the misery of children for personal gain.”8 After all, pleas for the needs of children at risk bring in dollars. It is a good business, but in no case should children be exploited for publicity purposes.
The Colombian government does all it can with its limited resources. The national welfare agency (Instituto Colombiano Bienestar Familiar) looks for outside groups, both Christian and secular, with whom to partner. This is an attempt to bring more economic and human resources to aid the country’s children living at risk on the streets.
Yet governments and social agencies do not own this world problem. We all do. God’s word to us is replete with commands to watch out for orphans. These words to us are as fresh today as when they were first uttered. Read again some instructions in practical holiness:
“[the] fatherless, he finds in Thee his helper. Thou hast heard the lament of the humble, O Lord, … bringing justice to the orphan …” (Ps. 10:14, 17, 18).
“Mend your ways and your doings, deal fairly with one another, do not oppress … the orphan …” (Jer. 7:5, 6).
“These are the words of the Lord: Deal justly and fairly … do not ill-treat or do violence to the … orphan …” (Jer. 22:3).
“The kind of religion (i.e. right living) which is without stain or fault in the sight of God our Father is this: to go to the help of orphans … in their distress and keep oneself untarnished by the world” (James 1:27).
Amidst all of this, there must be an answer to the problem of children at risk on the streets. It is clear that up to this point we are losing the battle.
The first step toward a solution is for the Christian world community to recognize that all of us can have a part. If only we would respond to the word of God, then we would reach out to these urchins, believing that, indeed, it is our responsibility to do so. Extending the love of Christ to these kids is themost important aspect of any solution.
Too, the national Christian church must decide to face the problem of the children on its own city streets; the church has been unusually reticent in this area. And yet the national church must be involved in designing a strategy to solve the problem.
Many missionaries go to the field with the idea of working themselves out of a job. I did. I felt that the deprived child living on the streets of Bogotá (and elsewhere in Latin America) was a national problem. I believed that after talking to churches about the problem, the leadership would race out to solve it.
The paradox comes when expatriate funding agencies insist that they will only fund programs through the local church —and the local church isn’t yet mature enough to assume its role.
In Colombia, the national church, with very few exceptions, is not ready to address social issues in the name of Jesus. “Helps” ministries are not recognized; the local congregations are not taught that they have a responsibility to the widows, the orphans, and other social outcasts.
The only program for deprived children in Bogotá entirely endorsed and funded by a local church is that of the Iglesia Casa Roca (Church on the Rock). In this unique ministry, both boys and girls are cared for at a ranch-like setting north of the city.
Other Christian/parachurch ministries do exist in Bogotá, however, including Futuro Juvenil, which focuses on orphans and tries to educate Colombians on adoption, a foreign idea in Colombia; Hogar Neuva Vida en Cristo (New Life in Christ Center), a program for ex-drug offenders; and La Bergerie, a French medical team which goes into the streets to tend to the physical needs of children.
The largest program for street children in Bogotá, with about 700 kids, is operated by Father Nicolo, a Roman Catholic. He does a good job of getting kids off the streets, but many run away because “the program is too strict.”
Although not a Christian ministry, perhaps the best-known program in Latin America is the “Children of the Andes.” Its director, Jaime Jara-millo, a man of genuine compassion, has received much media coverage for his rescue of children from the sewers of Bogotá.
The second most important solution to the problem of children at risk is preventative. The potential street child should have viable options available to him before he enters street life. One option is to enter an alternative program.
The Altamira Ranch, an alternative group home for kids through the age of adolescence, is one example of what can be offered to threatened children. In Colombia, Action International Ministries operates Altamira Ranch in Fusagasuga, a small farming town one hour southwest of Bogotá. As a “family substitute” for children at risk, this total-care facility offers positive familial expectations in an atmosphere of Christian love.
Youth With A Mission (YWAM) also works quite extensively in Bogotá with disadvantaged children. They have several safe houses in town, as well as a ranch program similar to Action’s for kids through age 12.
A third solution to the growing problem of children at risk is for mission agencies to re-evaluate their mission focus in light of this pressing need. In Colombia, several missions have begun the effort. In addition to the agencies noted above, the 700 Club recently organized a program for street children; Latin America Mission runs a street children ministry in Medellín, including a safe house for boys and a farm; and Compassion International underwrites the educational needs of children throughout Latin America. Other missions anticipate support in the future.
Agencies might consider including a children’s helps ministry within the evangelistic component of their labors. Then a priority would be to recruit urban missionaries to be involved in child evangelism, children’s group homes, and hiking/camping ministries.
Would-be urban missionaries need to be aware, however, that Satan is the principal adversary of those workingwith disadvantaged children on city streets around the world. Urban streets belong to the enemy. If there is one thing required more than any other in the church today, it is that we Christians provide a united front. The need is for a unified response by God’s people to form platoon groups to reconnoiter the enemy’s stronghold on the city streets of the world and then design a strategy for reaching the children on those streets.
Urban missionaries involved in child evangelism are soldiers in a vivid fight against superhuman forces of evil. God’s word describes this struggle in Ephesians 6. This confrontation takes place all the time on the streets in this dark world. We need more soldiers on the Lord’s side, standing in the gap in this battle.
Gonzalo Arango, in a meditation in his book, A Lament for Desquite, ponders a very relevant question: “I asked over his grave that was dug in the side of the mountain, ‘Isn’t there some way that Colombia, instead of killing her children, can make them worthy of living?’”9
To be used by the Lord Jesus in making street children “worthy of living” is exactly the focus of urban missionaries working with children at risk.
1. Graeme Irvine, “Abandoned Children: The Most Marginalized.” Together, World Vision, Oct.-Dec. 1991, p. 1.
2. Carol Kauffman, Target Earth. (University of the Nations, 1989), p. 22.
3. All Scripture is from the New English Bible, (Cambridge University Press, 1972).
4. B. Espinola, B. Glauser, R.M. Ortiz, S. de Carrizoca, “En La Calle, Menores Trabajadores de la Calle en Latin of America.” UNICEF – Serie Metodologica #3. 1991, p. 16.
5. Brook Larmer and Mac Margolis, “Dead End Kids.” Newsweek, May 25, 1992, p. 16.
6. Irvine, p. 1.
7. “Ninos Muertos.” Folha de São Paulo. From a study conducted by the Center for Studies on the Urban Poor, São Paulo, Brazil, September 6, 1992, p. 1.
8. This was an opinion given by the Director of UNICEF in Bogotá, Colombia, during a conversation in May, 1991.
9. Gonzalo Arango, Elegia A Desquite. (Cinep, 1990), p. 27.
EMQ, Vol. 29, No. 4, pp. 374-379. Copyright © 1993 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.