When you first see Huerto Los Olivos, the community center in Barranquilla, it looks a bit like a fortress. Huge red metal doors punctuate concrete walls. You enter, much like the parable, through the narrow gate. Inside, there’s a buzz of activity, with children running and playing on the playground equipment or hopping among the few scraggly trees, and all ages clustered in groups here and there. A pavilion,which is used by the church plant on Sundays, snuggles against one wall, and cement block one room classroom buildings dot the other side.
Farther outside the walls, rural Colombians seek refuge around the major cities, trying to avoid the violence and corruption of drug cartels and paramilitary groups, who routinely force villagers to give up their children to the groups. Some children who are given up are as young as 11 years old. In January, FARC, a Marxist rebel group that has fought against the Colombian government for 50 years, ended a month-long ceasefire, despite continuing peace talks with the government.
But the fortress in Barranquilla doesn’t cloister people from the outside world. Instead, Huerto Los Olivos welcomes the neighborhood in and equips them to go and reach out to the surrounding community. The classrooms are used for before and after school programs for 300 children who might otherwise be left to wander the streets while their parents work. The Tenth short-term teams also use the classroom buildings to conduct medical clinics and children’s activities when they visit each summer.
The community center has been designated as a Compassion International site, so it funnels much-needed aid and education to impoverished families in the neighborhood.
Junior and his brothers lived behind the center in a makeshift shelter, from where he was able to see all the church activities. At age 14, he started participating in Los Olivos’ social assistance, where he received nutritious food, and took part in the motivational training and soccer matches before Sunday school. He finished his high school diploma and studied computer science. Now 22 years old, he serves as the systems specialist for the center, and teaches sports and Christian principles to the boys who are now being ministered to by the program.
But even as Huerto Los Olivos helps the needy, it also needs help. The classroom buildings need repair and long-overdue maintenance, such as the installation of gutters and sidewalks. The construction work would allow the vital work in Barranquilla to continue and reach out to more youngsters like Junior, shielding them from the keen arrows of poverty and violence, and allowing them to put on the armor of God.
“The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous man runs into it and is safe.” – Proverbs 18:10