Tita was always a rebel. Now, with God in charge, she’s a rebel with a cause. She’s dedicated her life to serving the children of Central America’s largest slum.
Tita Evertsz’s life had hit rock bottom. She’d run away from home in Guatemala age 17 – ‘to smoke dope and live as a hippy’, as she put it. Now she was living in the United States as an illegal immigrant.
She was desperate to run away again, from an abusive husband. And she was pregnant with his third child.
‘I went to the Hispanic store and bought a candle,’ she remembers. ‘I went back home, lit the candle and said to God, "God, please help me!" God told me, "Tita, you chose this life."
‘I told God, "If you don't change me, I'm going to die like I am right now." I know that was the day of my salvation.’
The turning point
Tita suddenly found that she had the courage to leave her husband, who had become both violent and controlling.
She ran away for a second time, this time back to Guatemala and her father, who’d long been her spiritual inspiration.
'When I read the Bible, it felt like Jesus coming in through the window and sitting with me in my bed.’
‘It was amazing: the guy from Immigration asked me for my papers and I just turned and opened my purse, pretending that I was searching for my papers. I prayed and said to myself, “I'm going to tell him that I'm running away from abuse.” When I turned and I was about to tell him, he was gone.’
When she got to the Guatemalan border, her father was waiting, ready to drive her home.
If that sounds like a cue to describe how Tita and her children settled to a quiet life, it isn’t. She had always been a bit of a rebel and that wasn’t about to change…
‘I wasn’t attending any church, but I was reading the Bible in my house. It felt like Jesus coming in through the window and sitting with me in my bed.’
‘When I was reading the Bible, it was so alive. I understood his heart for people in all kinds of need.’
Stepping into the shadows
She started volunteering at a community hospital for burns victims. It was here that she met Samuel,* who was in intensive care. ‘When I talked to him about Jesus' love, tears would roll down his face.’
Samuel lived in the infamous La Limonada slums of Guatemala City. They’re home to over 60,000 people, and are the largest urban slums in Latin America, outside of Brazil.
‘I started meeting thieves, drug dealers and prostitutes. I said: “I come from this life too, and I know the way out.” How could I not share that?’
And so, once he had been released, Tita started visiting him and his family in La Limonada – against all the advice of her elders. And it wasn’t just his location that troubled people: Samuel was a gang leader.
‘I started meeting thieves, drug dealers and prostitutes, and I started sharing the gospel day and night. I could see myself in them. I said: “I come from this life too, and I know the way out.” How could I not share that?’
Tita could be seen on the streets of La Limonada, pushing her child around in a stroller. She carried a pot of rice and beans, ready to share it with the people she met.
‘Nice Christians’ from outside never went near the slums. However Tita was still a rebel and these were ‘her people’. It was tough though…
‘I was holding Bible studies every evening. One of the guys that came had burned his wife and his daughter. I went to visit them and saw their wounds. I put a cushion in my mouth and screamed to God: “Please let me know what I should do, because when they grow up, it's too late for them to change.”’
God answered her scream of prayer immediately. Tita was to help children like this to escape the cycle of poverty, drug abuse, violence and death – she was to offer them the chance of a better life.
Tita opened her first school in 1994. At the time there were no schools in La Limonada. ‘They didn't give value to education at all,’ she says. ‘At the beginning, when we were offering to pay for children to attend high school, we still had to beg the parents, "Please allow us to pay for your child to come to school." Now we have a waiting list and 190 teens receiving scholarships.’
'I’m privileged to go to all these neighbourhoods and I'm friends with all the gang members that fight each other.’
There are now four schools in the district, with a fifth one being built. Education in these schools is much more than reading, writing and arithmetic; it needs to be. ‘Around 80 per cent of our children have been abused. We have psychologists in the schools because of that. We want the children to face the problem and deal with it.’
Wind beneath their wings
And it soon became clear that if the children were to grow up prepared for a better future, their home life needed to change too. ‘We have a parenting school, because I feel like working with children is like an aeroplane with one wing. Working with parents is having the other wing.’
‘We also have medical care and home visits. There’s also a rescue programme for gang members. We haven't forgotten them, but our goal is prevention.’
One of the most remarkable parts of the story is that Tita was able to criss cross La Limonada, often with her children in tow.
‘This community is divided into ten different neighborhoods. Each one has its own gang. I walk to the border to one neighbourhood and the people say, "Okay, Sister Tita, bye! See you tomorrow." I’m privileged to go to all these neighbourhoods with no problem and I'm friends with all the gang members that fight each other.’
As for Samuel, the gang leader who set off the whole adventure: he’s now a pastor.
*Name changed to protect identity.
Tita is a graduate from Tearfund's Inspired Individuals programme. The Inspired Individuals programme exists to identify, develop and connect new leaders who are aspiring to live like Jesus and whose dreams have the potential to transform some of the most needy places and people in our world.
Dear Lord, thank you for how you rescued Tita from the darkness of her early life. And thank you for her remarkable calling to the people of La Limonada. Please bless the work of her schools – use them to raise up young men and women, who will transform life in the slums in years to come.
In Jesus’ name we pray,