The back of my brown legs stuck to the squishy seat. The air was heavy, ominous perhaps. I was with a collective of Christian college students from across the United States, studying in Central America. We had no idea what we would encounter on this field trip of sorts.
Before we could see anything, a putrid smell wafted through the windows to our noses. As our group’s big yellow school bus labored through the gate, I saw mountains upon mountains of garbage. The sun’s rays skipped across pieces of shiny metal and swirling colors found among piles of paper and glass.
Over the next several hours, our group came face to face with the most extreme poverty most of us had ever witnessed. More than 11,000 people lived and worked in that garbage dump in the heart of Guatemala City. We were told 6,500 of them were children. Many of these brothers and sisters made in the image of God were scavengers, who spent their days scouring the garbage for food and anything they might recycle or sell to survive.
The wheels of our bus crunched over gravel then came to a stop in front of the Potter’s House, a place of refuge right in the center of the garbage piles. We met men, women, and children who had hearts to turn trash into treasure. We heard about the vision of one woman who had built a non-profit that would bring respect and dignity to those who were treated as little better than the trash where they found their existence. Young people were getting their education and pursuing a relationship with Jesus Christ as a result of her dream. As a young college student, my heart was deeply moved by their stories.
As we drove away that day, many of my classmates started taking pictures through the windows of our bus. I understood they wanted to remember this place, but it felt somehow strange to take photographs. I grabbed my own camera, and my lens focused on a little girl digging through the garbage. Right then my heart surged with fiery emotion. I hurled my camera to the back of the bus. I was filled with something I had never experienced before — a righteous anger that this little girl was forced to survive that way.
I slumped into my seat and sobbed.
How could little girls grow up in such filth? Why were these people living in such poverty while we lived in such luxury in the country I called home? What could I possibly do to help?
The injustice I witnessed that day is seared in my heart forever. Two decades later, I still think about how that trip to the garbage dump in Guatemala was the beginning of God cultivating in me a heart of mercy and compassion.
You don’t have to travel to another country to grow a heart of mercy. That was simply where God began to do His deepest work in me. He can stir compassion in us in our own neighborhoods, churches, cities, and even in our own homes.
But before we can offer up the gift of mercy to others, we need to come to an understanding of God’s heart and His great mercy toward us.
If you go on a treasure hunt through the Bible, you will discover from the pages of Genesis through Revelation that God has a heart of mercy. Biblical mercy differs slightly from our English dictionary definitions of mercy, which often talk about giving people what they do not merit or deserve. God’s mercy is a blend of compassion, kindness, and faithfulness as beautiful and colorful as a handwoven Guatemalan tapestry.
Through Jesus Christ, God displayed both mercy and justice. He sent His son to die on the cross as a substitute for you and me. He met us in our depravity with compassion, and His mercy continues to preserve us through the gifts of forgiveness and salvation.
And as recipients of His mercy, we are called to emulate His mercy.
One way is by having a heart like God’s for the vulnerable. Jesus showed kindness to a woman at a well who had been through five husbands, a paralytic who had been disabled for thirty-eight years, and even a tax collector who was hated by the community. God also cares deeply about that girl in the garbage dump, the young widowed mother raising children alone, and the man suffering from mental illness. He has compassion for the family in Ukraine hiding from the horrors of war.
Mercy is an invitation to align our hearts with the heart of God and to dignify those around us. It doesn’t require a large bank account or hours of time. Sometimes mercy can be extended through giving up your seat on the bus, inviting a rebellious child into your arms, defending someone who is being shamed, or delivering a meal to a neighbor.
As the Bible reminds us, “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36).