By Michael Ashcraft —
He slept on the streets with only cardboard boxes for a cushion — and he slept well “as if it were the best hotel in the world,” Daniel Paz says.
This was the life. Rebellious, he had left home when he was 14, and now the 20 or so street kids who inhabited the Plaza Mariachi in Guatemala City were his comrades of the wild, “happy” life of no rules, no one to tell him what to do, or what not to do.
The phenomenon of street children is widespread in Latin America, and governmental agencies have been largely ineffective in their efforts to rescue and re-incorporate into society the millions of minors who make their beds on cement. A large-scale effort in Brazil that institutionalized half a million street kids in 1985 failed, according to Wikipedia.
The key for Daniel, who spent 15 years on the streets, was Christ, and his story speaks to the church’s need to be the answer.
While his friends inhaled wood alcohol and shoe glue, Daniel kept the party life low key – mostly drinking beer and smoking. This was God moving in his life because the cheaper drugs they consumed burned brain cells.
Daniel had accepted Christ once when he saw Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” in a church in his neighborhood when he was 12.
“Before that, I had never heard anything about Christ,” he says. “I knew nothing about the devil, about sin, about the world. I knew nothing about salvation.”
Unfortunately, Daniel didn’t keep attending services beyond two months. Rebelliousness won out – for a while.
After turning his back on his emerging faith, Daniel made his home in the streets. Most of the time, he made money selling plastic roses to romantic couples in restaurants and bars. A lot of his clients were the guys who fell for bar girls, who moonlighted as prostitutes.
Daniel was affable and flirted with these girls. They liked Daniel and would turn their charms on patrons: “Aw! Buy me a roooose” they would whine romantically. If the patron liked the girl, he would pay for it and give it to her.
For a brief period, Daniel fell into robbery. He and four street kids would strike at night surrounding any person who was walking home alone. They never used a weapon but would intimidate and demand the victim hand over wallet and cell phone.
“We never carried a weapon because we knew that if the police stopped us, they would detain us,” he says. “The times we did get stopped, we would just say we weren’t doing anything bad. Since they didn’t find a weapon, they would let us go.”
Deep inside his heart, Daniel knew that what he was doing was wrong, and so after only a few months, he quit the robberies. He was fortunate – he never had to use violence, and the victims never tried to defend themselves.
When Daniel was 25, he and some friends traveled to Port San Jose to enjoy the Pacific Coast beach during Easter Week, a popular get-away for people from the Capitol City.
His turnaround was fairly anticlimactic considering the depths of sin to which he had fallen. Unexpectedly, Daniel came back to Christ because of the influence of a photographer.
In Port San Jose, he wanted to get a picture of himself but didn’t have a camera. Because of widespread poverty, few Guatemalans could afford cameras then. So professional photographers would offer their services in the street, especially on holidays. For 20 quetzales (Guatemala money), Daniel could pick up the photo the next day.
This photographer was a Christian and, prompted by the Holy Spirit, he began to talk to Daniel about Christ.
“By then I was depressed and bored with sin and my chaotic life,” Daniel says. “He told me that God wanted me to seek Him, that I turn myself over completely to God, that He was going to bless me hugely. The happiness that comes from sin is all a fantasy. I really needed God.”
The message resonated in Daniel’s heart and he surrendered anew to Jesus as his Savior and Lord.
Upon returning to the Capitol City, Daniel looked up the church where he had first accepted Christ. He moved back in with his mother, who was recovering from an injury and needed some care.
A drop out from the 2nd grade, Daniel took night classes and completed the 4th grade. That’s where he met Maria. In his pre-Christian days, he had been a profligate womanizer, but when he saw Maria he was drawn to her in a different way. Here was someone with whom he wanted to spend the rest of his life.
Today, Daniel and Maria are married and have two children, Dany, 5, and Sheily, 2. She’s pregnant.
The vast majority of street kids in Latin American countries wind up dead. Typically, they are either runaways or kicked out by a step-father. They abuse the cheapest and deadliest drugs. They rob people and fight rivals. Sometimes they work and sometimes they do menial jobs.
Daniel escaped from 15 years of this dangerous lifestyle. And God drew him home through the words of a concerned street vendor, the photographer.
Today, he’s a respected member of a church in downtown Guatemala City who’s still working on imperfections in his character.
He and his wife sell the same plastic roses, which he buys at Q15 a dozen and sells individually for Q15 each. With his wide innocent grin, he still is the opportunist, offering his wares to young couples. He no longer sells in bars, but romance remains the motivating factor.
And he’s growing in the Lord.
“Since I’ve started in Christ, I’ve felt the changes,” he says. “I still have need of God.”