Paintings from the city dump

Kevin Hughes
Thursday, August 15, 2013

ImageThe smell was horrendous. At close to 100 degrees and humid, the odor of the garbage was magnified and impossible to ignore. As we drove out the causeway through the swamp on the outskirts of Manila we saw a convoy of trash trucks dumping garbage into the swamp as dump trucks and bull dozers created new dry land on top of the garbage in other areas.

For years the sprawling city of Manila in the Philippines has dumped its garbage into this swampy landfill. When the trash is piled up high enough above the water level in an area, they back fill the area with dirt and smash it flat and let people start building a new community on top of it.

Mount Vernon First Church of the Nazarene from Ohio went on a Work & Witness trip to the Philippines to work on the new library building at Asia Pacific Nazarene Theological Seminary in Manila. However there was another one-day project to pour a concrete basketball court in a community called Arenda that became the most memorable and life-changing event of the trip for me.

Arenda is a community built on top of the city dump, in the swamp outside of Manila. When we made it to Arenda we saw street after street of simple homes made of about any imaginable material and bumpy dirt streets with every kind of garbage sticking up through the dirt.

The local residents and especially the teens had helped form up the basketball court and had already tied all the rebar and placed it on top of the gravel bed inside the forms. All we had to do was help pour and level the concrete before the blazing sun made it set up. With all the people who came out to help, there were plenty of opportunities to take turns cooling off in the shade.

ImageIn the midday sun the only shade was right up against the houses around the work site. When we stood up against the houses we were literally standing in trenches one- to two-foot deep into garbage. These trenches where dug to handle the runoff water during the monsoon season. The trenches were like an archaeological dig but much smellier. The layers of compacted trash were right in front of our noses, exposed to the open air and fermenting in the heat for everyone to enjoy.

A little old lady with a radiant toothless smile came to me and asked if I wanted to go meet Edwin the artist. I heard about this artist from the Arenda Church of the Nazarene and I was excited and curious to meet a man who could create beautiful art in the city dump. The little lady took me in one arm and my friend Tim in the other and we walked up the street.

We dodged the tires and wires and other junk protruding through the dirt street as we made our way past makeshift houses and shops. We saw people everywhere going about their normal daily business, and children playing with toys they had made out of junk. Finally we came to a street corner. On one side of the street was a new cinderblock Arenda Church of the Nazarene built by a Work & Witness team from Grove City, Ohio. On the other side of the street the little lady brought us to a small home with a sheet of plywood for a door and a blue tarp for about half of a roof. She knocked on the door and Edwin opened it almost immediately.

The first thing I noticed about Edwin was his big smile. He was a small man, crippled from birth. He appeared to be in his mid-thirties. He lived with his daughter in this little humble home. He invited us in. We stepped into his kitchen and stood there on his dirt floor admiring paintings wrapped in heavy plastic all the way around the room. We quizzed him about his inspiration for the paintings. He described each painting and where he found the inspiration for it. But what I remember most is when he told us what he had promised God he would do with the profit from the sale of each painting. He pointed at one and said, “That one will pay for a new phone for my pastor.” Then he pointed to another picture and said, “This one over here will pay for the new fan we need in our church.” Then he stepped to the next painting and said, “This one here will buy supplies to provide for my daughter to go to school.” And stepping over to yet another piece of art he explained that he had dedicated this piece to paying for the roof repairs to replace the blue tarp over his daughter’s room before the monsoon season. He went on and on this way all the way around the kitchen. I noticed that no painting was dedicated to paying for something just for him. He was a gifted artist painting beautiful works of art in a garbage dump and he was only looking at what he could do for others.

After my visit, many others from our group stopped in to shop at Edwin’s house and together I think we cleaned his kitchen out of all the paintings and drawings that were ready to sell. Missionaries had given members of our group advance notice about Edwin’s need for art supplies. So, not only did Edwin sell all his available art work that day, but he also restocked his art supplies so he could create more beautiful works of art.

ImageI have paintings by Edwin Villanueva hanging in my home today. His works are some of my most prized possessions, not just because they are beautiful pieces of art, not just because they come from overseas, but because they remind me of the inspiration Edwin was and is to me. When I am discouraged or want to throw myself a pity party or make excuses about why I should be allowed to give in to being selfish or give up on doing something grand, I can remember Edwin. He has every reason to make excuses, to be selfish, to be mad at God, and to squander his God-given talents. Edwin is crippled and a single parent. He lives in a makeshift hut, in the dump, in a swamp, in a developing country, and he struggles to make ends meet in a way very few people can truly understand. Even so, this gifted artist makes paintings that transcend his surroundings and his lot in life, and does it with a smile on his face, a song in his heart, and a passion to serve others for the Lord.

As I pass Edwin’s paintings every day, I am reminded of his testimony and challenged by his example. If Edwin can use his God-given talents to create something beautiful in the dump, in a swamp, in a developing country, I have no excuse here in suburban America for not using my God-given talents and blessings to serve God and to try to create something beautiful, too.

Philippians 4:11-13 (NIV):I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.

-- Dr. Kevin Hughes, is associate dean of Jetter School of Business at Mount Vernon Nazarene University (MVNU), as well as professor of management. He has traveled on 12 Work & Witness trips, and accompanied MVNU students and faculty to Africa Nazarene University in Kenya.