Public (bathroom) witness
What do toilets have to do with mission? Let’s go to Santa Cruz, Bolivia and find out.
“People would preach the gospel to me and I didn’t want to hear it. So I know how you feel. You don’t want to listen to me either.”
The speaker is a Bolivian man called Richard. He’s addressing a crowd of young people from the El Arena neighbourhood, who have turned up for a free lunch he and his wife Jenny have cooked and served.
There was a time when Richard couldn’t even think about food: “Alcohol was my food.” His addiction to drugs and alcohol consumed him. He spent 15 years living on the streets, stealing from people so he could get high or drunk.
“There was this mission centre place where I would go sometimes, I just wanted to watch TV,” Richard recalls as he continues to speak to the locals. “People would try to share Jesus with me but I’d be like, nah.
“And then one day I listened, and it made sense.”
Some of the people gathered are paying more attention than others. But many of them have known Richard and Jenny, who also struggled for many years with addiction and homelessness, for a long time. They have seen them go from surviving on the streets to successful businesspeople.
What made the change? It’s a journey that’s involved turning to Jesus, becoming part of a church…and loos.
An intriguing idea
Jenny came to faith in Jesus after she started going to a baking course offered by an outreach centre in Santa Cruz. While learning to bake she heard about the Bread of Life, Jesus, and decided to follow him.
Both Richard and Jenny started going to a church called Fountain of Life. Richard began shining shoes in the local park area and Jenny opened a small shop. But as he got older, working on his knees became more difficult for Richard – so he went to his pastor with an idea.
The pastor got in touch with Andrew and Lisa Peart, CMS mission partners who are in Bolivia doing mission through microfinance.
What’s microfinance? This is a way people who might not qualify for a loan from a bank due to background or circumstance can borrow small sums of money, sometimes to start a business. Without going to a high-interest demanding loan shark.
Andrew agreed to meet with Richard. After hearing a bit of Richard and Jenny’s story, Andrew asked, “So what’s your idea?”
“I want to get a public bathroom.”
In Bolivia, bathrooms located throughout the city in markets, bus terminals and other bustling areas are all privately owned. People pay around 20p to use them. The Pearts and Richard and Jenny worked out the price of acquiring a toilet, the ongoing running costs and possible profit margins. Andrew explained: “You have to calculate the cost of cleaning supplies, the water bills… Richard and Jenny even calculated how much loo roll to dispense to each person. They worked out a lot of the fine details and then we started looking for a spot.”
It took a while but Richard eventually found a great location right across from where he had shined shoes for 20 years. Andrew and Lisa secured money for a year’s rental and there was a small ribbon cutting ceremony before the launch of the new business.
And then COVID-19 hit.
With the country mostly shut down, Richard and Jenny figured out other smart ways to earn income, such as selling small propane tanks and gas canisters or freezing water and selling ice. And they waited.
As the country opened up again, the bathroom business took off. Profits from the first loo were re-invested in obtaining more bathrooms in prime locations.
“God has provided for all of our needs,” said Jenny. “It has been a blessing to have stable money and truly we are thankful to God for this work that God has given us, for these bathrooms, for the sales that we have.”
Beyond the bathrooms
Prior to this endeavour, Richard and Jenny’s family were scattered about. But as business boomed, their sons, daughters, aunts and cousins were able to find work in this new family enterprise. It’s brought them all closer together.
In addition, Lisa said: “Richard and Jenny know lots of people who are desperate for work, and now they are able to provide jobs for others. There’s a local mother whose daughter is addicted to glue sniffing; by giving her a job, they can get her off the street and away from social influences that are enabling her addiction.
“Because Richard and Jenny come from the streets, they know lots of the young people and the substances they are abusing and they really want to reach out to people and help.”
Not just about money
With the proceeds from their business Richard and Jenny, with help from family members, have started hosting these monthly lunches in a local courtyard, like the one Richard is speaking at now. “Some people come just for the food and leave,” said Lisa. “And others will stay, sitting around, chatting. Some of them want prayer, most just want to be heard.”
Andrew and Lisa go along to the community lunches to help where they can, but it’s clear it’s Richard and Jenny’s endeavour. In a way this is symbolic of how the microfinance relationship works.
“It’s a partnership,” Andrew said. “We are working alongside them, partly enabling them, but they are bringing the ideas and doing the work and reaching out to others.
“In addition to business meetings, we also pray and read the Bible together and talk about our lives and faith. We aren’t just investing in businesses, we feel invested in people’s lives and in a way microfinance mission has brought us to edges we never would have been able to connect with otherwise.
“Through Richard and Jenny we’ve got to know people in a community that might have been closed off to us if we’d just gone around knocking on doors or something. And we’ve been able to see organic transformation brought about by local, amazing people.”
Jenny is clearly a kind of mother figure to many of the young people who come to the lunch, though it’s Richard who shares his story publicly. “I know these kids are down a dark hole. I know it. I have lived it. I’ve been in their shoes.”
Hopefully many others will follow in his footsteps.