Exploring the Angel: why I wrote this book

This is a story about hope and optimism, bravery and idealism, and finding light in the darkest of places. It’s about seeing and empathizing, and overcoming the convenient urge to look away from suffering and forget it exists. It’s about one woman who refuses to avert her gaze and refuses to believe that the poor are disposable. This is a story about the lives she changes, and the people she inspires to walk alongside her and carry on her mission, even after she’s gone. It’s about a privileged American who leaves her wealth behind and chooses a life of service. The legend of Hanley Denning, the “angel of the garbage dump” in Guatemala City, depicts her as a saint—and yet she was also human. Like each one of us, she was complex. She could be stubborn, and manic in devotion to her cause. She was difficult to emulate. She inspired thousands.

Many of us idealistic citizens from the global north travel to places like Guatemala to seek adventure, learn the local language, and try out humanitarian work. Most of us eventually return home to our comfortable lives. But Hanley, who hailed from a prominent family in Maine, saw the garbage dump in the final days of her initial stay in Guatemala. She saw people competing with vultures for food. She saw children playing amidst the rot and despair. The experience changed her. It prompted her to, as Mother Teresa said, “find her own Calcutta.” Hanley chose not to come home. She stayed and launched Safe Passage, or Camino Seguro in Spanish—a nonprofit that for more than two decades has worked to break the cycle of poverty through education, healthcare, nutrition and social services for the families of the garbage dump. Long after her death, the stone she cast continues to ripple.

What was it about Hanley that prompted her to forsake the comfort of home and light a torch of hope in one of the darkest, most dangerous urban environments in the western hemisphere? How did the characters Hanley met along the way influence her and spur her to action? What was the unfulfilled need that she carried, and did she satisfy it in the end? What can we learn from such a selfless individual—albeit one as human and flawed as each of us—as the global pandemic loosens its grip, and we feel the call to action once again from the forgotten corners of the world? Those questions inspired me to research and write this book about Hanley Denning.

Readers should note a few things: I chose the book’s title Angel of the Garbage Dump because that’s what the people of the Guatemala City garbage dump called Hanley, particularly following her tragic death. To them she was el angel del basurero. Though the words suggest a hint of white saviorism, I chose this title because it accurately reflects the emotions and words of the “guajeros”—the garbage pickers, themselves. Readers should also note that I use the names “Safe Passage” and “Camino Seguro” interchangeably. Hanley’s project touched thousands of people, both Guatemalans and expats alike. As such, I didn’t attempt to include every character in this book.

As you take this journey with me, I hope you’ll come away inspired by her life, and moved to action when you see injustice and inequality. Daily headlines warn us that we live in an age of painful polarization, but even as we shout about our differences, let’s not ignore the common call to service and working to build a better world. As Hanley’s friend and confidant, Paul Sutherland, said, “Anyone in this room could be Gandhi, or Mandela, or Hanley Denning. We all have those attributes.”

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