On the edge – 3800 metres up
Bolivia, in the heart of South America, is a land of contrasts: geographically, with its mountains, valleys and tropical jungles; ethnically, with Aymaras, Quechuas, Creollos and others; politically, with a left-wing government popular in the western Andes and a right-wing opposition pushing for autonomy in the east; and religiously, with a dominant Catholic Church, but also an increasing number of evangelicals of all shades.
There is resurgence too in traditional religions and beliefs, and fervent activity from cults like the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses. There are economic extremes, with just a few people possessing great wealth and many poor eking out a living any way they can.
Many of these contrasts are seen in La Paz, the seat of Bolivia’s government (but not the capital, as many Westerners assume). In one of the city’s areas – Alpacoma – high up on the hillside and looking down on the city, this is particularly true.
Alpacoma is a poor area without running water or sewage facilities for its houses. Its population receives water weekly by rota from standpipes. Rubbish trucks pass through to the city dump behind Alpacoma, but there is no rubbish collection in Alpacoma itself. The community gets rid of its rubbish any way it can.
Many earn their living making bricks. But the clay substratum, which is the raw material for bricks, makes it an unstable area. In the rainy season, mud slides are a constant problem.
The views from Alpacoma are spectacular, with majestic Mount Ilimani dominating the scene. But as one looks down on the city of La Paz and sees the affluent tower blocks in the prosperous parts of the city, it is easy to forget that the majority of the children playing behind us are living in very small houses, sometimes with a family of eight or more in the same room.
Living in a place like Alpacoma brings one into contact with many of the social problems associated with marginalised communities. Many, if not most, of its inhabitants are immigrants from rural areas. The majority are Aymara speakers from the Altiplano and Yungas regions of La Paz, but a significant minority are Quechua speakers from the department of Potosi.
Teenagers mill around the local playing area, turning to drink and sex for entertainment. Children often wander alone in the streets, since both parents work long hours, six or even seven days a week. Or perhaps they are escaping parents who get drunk on pay day as they, in turn, try to escape the monotony of their lives.
Girls are sometimes surrogate mothers to younger children while parents are back in rural areas sowing and harvesting crops. They often have their own children when they are 17 or 18 years old. In trying to escape their own miserable homes, they end up in worse situations. Often they do not complete their schooling, and by the age of 21 they may have as many as three children from violent and perhaps unfaithful partners.
How is the church to reach out in such a situation? The Alpacoma Christian Church opened its doors nearly five years ago. A ladies’ meeting and other outreach opportunities preceded this event.
Gospel ministry is central and the need for true conversions great, but words alone can be so empty. The church must reach out to the needs of the community in holistic mission. For example, special days like Mother’s Day bring real opportunities to present the gospel and give people a reason to celebrate amid the hardships of life.
A small income-generation project has been started among the women of the community. Children’s work is undertaken and efforts are made to strengthen contacts with families in order to identify and address the needs and struggles of the community.
Outreach work amongst teens is growing but the enemy of souls has been active and has tried to disrupt God’s work in various ways. Opportunities have opened for Bible studies with some families.
There is no doctor in the area and the church has been requested to start a surgery, but currently there are no resources to fund such a venture. There are many other needs but there are few committed people here to help meet them.
As yet, there has been no real gospel breakthrough amongst the adult population, especially among the men. But God has promised that his Word would not return to him void. The Alpacoma Christian Church holds on to that promise. We believe that one day in this land of contrasts, the church of Jesus Christ will take root and through the gospel transform this neglected community on the edge of La Paz.