Topeka When Topeka native Brett Durbin visited Honduras on a mission trip in 2008, he did so with the idea of finding a place for college students at the church where he worked “to plug into.”
As it turned out, it was Durbin, 30, and his wife, Jaelle, 31, who ended up getting plugged into a new ministry — perhaps the only one of its kind — that targets people who live in gigantic trash dumps around the world.
The ministry, called Trash Mountain Project, was incorporated in 2009 and has received substantial support from several local churches, including Topeka Bible Church, Fellowship Bible Church and Journey Church.
Already, Trash Mountain Project has made inroads into serving people at dumps in Honduras, Cambodia and the Dominican Republic.
Durbin recently debuted a short documentary titled “DR” at Topeka Bible Church, 1101 S.W. Mulvane. The film, which lasts about 12 minutes, shows the work of Trash Mountain Project in the Dominican Republic and offers a glimpse at the horrid living conditions experienced by thousands of children and adults.
When Durbin made his first trip to Tegucigalpa, Honduras, he was college minister at First Baptist Church at the Mall, a large congregation in Lakeland, Fla.
Durbin said he wasn’t prepared for what he saw at the Honduras dump site — or the profound effect it would have on himself and his wife, who also is a Topeka native and Washburn Rural High School graduate. Both are graduates of Washburn University.
“It absolutely stole our hearts,” Durbin said. “After a lot of prayer, Jaelle and I both knew this was the direction we were supposed to go.”
Within six months of the Honduras trip, Durbin left his position as college pastor at the Lakeland church and launched Trash Mountain Project, which has become a stand-alone ministry and of which he is executive director.
Durbin said it is difficult to fathom the extent of the dumps, which contain “60 years of garbage.” Many of the poorest residents of Third World countries live, work, and die in and around the dumps, he said. Small lean-tos and shantytowns spring up around the massive dumps, which can cover an area as large as 50 city blocks.
Michael Barrett, a friend in Lakeland who runs a video production facility, accompanied Durbin on trips to Honduras, Cambodia and Dominican Republic to document the sites and the squalid living conditions. Daniel Woods produced the new “DR” documentary that premieres tonight.
Disease, child prostitution, human trafficking and organized crime are rampant at the sites, with homicide a way of life, he said.
Going to the garbage sites can be risky, and Durbin said he and a team of four others narrowly missed being killed by a gang on a couple of recent trips to one of the dump locations.
Government officials have been cordial if not distant in allowing Durbin and his team to film the various dump sites.
In the Dominican Republic, he said, he and his team were given clearance by the government to shoot a documentary. The time gave the government a chance to clean up certain aspects of the dump. But when Durbin and his team went back to the same site three months later, the problems the government said didn’t exist were clearly evident, such as disposal of medical waste and children working at the dumps.
Durbin said a reporter for The New York Times once described a giant dump in Cambodia as being as near to hell as any place on Earth.
“I would agree,” Durbin said.
When Durbin was back in Topeka visiting relatives and friends around Christmas 2009, he had coffee with the Rev. Jim Congdon, pastor of Topeka Bible Church. Congdon told Durbin he wanted to find out more about Trash Mountain Project.
As they visited, Congdon told Durbin this was a project that Topeka Bible Church needed to be involved in. About the same time, the Rev. Joe Hishmeh, of Fellowship Bible Church, also committed his congregation to supporting Trash Mountain Project.
The support has gone far beyond monetary donations and has entailed groups from both of the Topeka congregations, as well as Journey Church, making repeated trips to the Dominican Republic, where the Trash Mountain Project is currently focusing its efforts.
Work in the Dominican Republic to date has included teams of doctors, dentists and nurses making visits to treat people in the areas. Other work has involved building homes; constructing classrooms for children; launching a nutritional program; and building a kitchen, with plans for a new technical school, medical-dental clinic and AquaPod systems within the next year.
Discipleship programs also are in place to encourage residents to grow in the Christian faith.
Durbin said the Trash Mountain Project is striving to help people at the dumps leave that environment and become self-sufficient through sustainable jobs that will pay them a living wage.
Trash Mountain Project also is raising up indigenous leadership to carry out the ongoing work of serving those who live at the dumps. In that way, Durbin said, the organization is helping give people hope, that their lives can change for the better.
The Topeka churches are making about six joint trips to Santiago, Dominican Republic, this year.
Durbin said the movement has “exploded” in the Topeka congregations. As a result, he and his wife have decided to move their family back to Topeka in the coming months to expand the ministry well beyond its Florida base.
Other congregations on board to date with the Trash Mountain Project have come from Florida, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Ohio. Durbin said he hoped “30 churches from Topeka” and more from around the country would see the need and become partners with Trash Mountain Project.
Though other ministries have worked with trash dump populations in the poorest nations of the world, none that Durbin can find specialize only in this area. For that reason, he said, Topeka is fast becoming a major player on the world stage in this growing ministry.
The Trash Mountain Project, Durbin said, is about far more than giving those who live in the dumps a cup of water, a plate of food, clothes to wear or medicine.
The ultimate goal, he said, is to show people Christ’s love, and to offer them the hope of a better life.
“We believe in action,” he said. “That’s all there is to it. Over time, hopefully, we build a strong enough relationship with people that they’ll wonder why we’re there and why we’re doing this.”
Such relationships help pave the way for those who serve to share their faith in Christ with people at the dumps.
“Jesus taught us to live his commands and not just talk about them,” Durbin said. “We share the Gospel with through action and words.”
Congdon said Topeka Bible Church was thrilled to be working in conjunction with Fellowship Bible Church with Trash Mountain Project, and he encouraged other local congregations to consider becoming involved.
Hishmeh said Trash Mountain Project has enabled Fellowship Bible Church members to help poverty-stricken people around the world.
“The partnership we have with Trash Mountain Project is phenomenal,” Hishmeh said. “They have connected us to a tremendous need in the Third World and facilitated us to make a huge difference in the lives of children and their families.
“People from our congregation will take at least four trips this year to the Dominican Republic to experience first-hand the life-giving blessing of the Gospel being lived out through truth, grace and generosity.“