Cover Story
Mr. and Mrs. Armado Obando and their children stand before their 12-by-20-foot home in Leon, Nicaragua.
Photo by Tim Glenn
Mr. and Mrs. Armado Obando and their children stand before their 12-by-20-foot home in Leon, Nicaragua.

Hope and help for the poor

Hope Award | Our ninth annual Hope Award coverage begins with a trip to poor areas of Central America

Issue: "Fighting fatalism," July 12, 2014

NICARAGUA, HONDURAS, EL SALVADOR, and GUATEMALA—This issue begins coverage of the elite nine in our ninth annual Hope Award for Effective Compassion contest. Every year since 2006 WORLD reporters have traveled the United States (and in the past three years, foreign countries as well) to research and write about Christian poverty-fighting programs that offer challenging, personal, and spiritual help. (To see the 77 profiles of past years’ contenders, go to 

Starting in our next issue, we plan to reveal this year’s domestic Final Four by running profiles of the winner and runner-up in each of our four regions: Midwest, Northeast, West, and South. This issue spotlights our International Region winner, the programs of Compassion International in Central America. We’re impressed with how Compassion fights fatalism (and its religious, social, and economic causes and results) through programs that help children while bulwarking local churches.

This article has two parts. We need context to comprehend the fight against fatalism, so I’ll first report on the 475-mile road trip my wife and I took along the Pan-American Highway, visiting Compassion child sponsorship sites along the way. Second, I’ll give examples from three specific Compassion programs.

Part one: Heading down the highway, looking for compassion  

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Tourist guides issue warnings: “Crime, including robbery and rape. … Dangerous. Use extreme caution.” CNN labels one city in Honduras the world’s most violent, and the UN calls El Salvador the world’s most violent nation. The U.S. State Department warns visitors to Central America to watch for kidnapping and extortion attempts, and not to travel after dark. 

That doesn’t sound like a region of the world where compassion would take hold, and it’s also an area largely ignored by the White House and American media. From the 1950s through the 1980s the United States and the Soviet Union waged proxy conflicts in these countries and more than 100,000 Central Americans died—but when the Cold War ended in 1989, hard life went on under the international radar, and neo-Marxism re-emerged. Former Sandinista strongman Daniel Ortega is once again Nicaragua’s president, this time with support from the Roman Catholic Church.

Names of neighborhoods in the capital, Managua, honor Sandinistas like Eduardo Contreras, who grabbed hostages at a Christmas party in 1974 and died in a 1976 shoot-out. The real rulers of Barrio Contreras, though, are gangs with colorful names like Eating Dead and Gargoyles. Amid that tough terrain sits the Vida y Esperanza (Life and Hope) Student Center, where nearly 400 Compassion-sponsored children learn about Jesus and how to cook, make clothes, use computers, and protect themselves from sexual abusers.  

One recent graduate of Compassion’s child development program, Luis Miguel Gutierrez, started attending church seven years ago and was surprised to find people who showed love without expecting anything in return. He had one sponsor over all the years, from Nevada: He keeps her picture in his wallet and says without her he would be lost in drugs. Now Luis is reading Rick Warren’s A Purpose-Driven Life, hopes to become a dentist, and says his father, who had five children with different women, has started going to a church’s small group meetings. 

We headed north on the Pan-American along a rugged Pacific coast dominated by a chain of volcanos, the Cordillera Los Maribios. Alongside banana trees, grazing cows, thatched roofs, and horses with their ribs showing, six Ortega billboards proclaimed “Christiana, Socialista, Solidaria” (Christianity, Socialism, Solidarity). At the entrance to Nicaragua’s second largest city, Leon, founded 489 years ago, a weather-worn billboard commemorates “Year 30 of the Sandinista Revolution, 1979-2009.” A lumpy, dirty road took us to Barrio Walter Ferretti, named after the former head of the Sandinista Police.  

The Compassion student center here is in a Baptist church behind a 12-foot fence topped by eight strands of barbed wire, and an 8-foot fence topped by 12 barbed strands. Half of the 430 children in this project are from Christian families, half are not. They all get gospel teaching and lunch: rice, beef mixed with potato, and juice on the day we were there. Most adults in this area lack paying work, and those who get jobs as vendors typically earn only $45 per month. This lunch is the only time these poor children get beef or chicken: Several children carried small plastic bags into which they placed little pieces to take home to younger brothers and sisters.  

Arlen Geronima Obando Salinas, 8, wore a cardboard heart proclaiming “Amo a Jesus” (I love Jesus). She invited us to visit her nearby home and guided us down a sloping, uneven path of dirt, rocks, and sandbags, with stagnant water and litter collecting in deep ruts. Here sat her 12-by-20-foot shanty with its dirt floor, its walls made of canvas, plastic, cardboard, and bits of wood and tin, and its torn black plastic roof held in place by rocks and a pair of sneakers. 

Listen to the sounds of Central America through the reporting of Susan Olasky on The World and Everything in It:

Read profiles of the other finalists and runners-up in the 2014 Hope Award for Effective Compassion competition.


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