An Orchestra of Garbage
May 23, 2023
by Autumn Dawn Galbreath, MD, MBA
In a recent sermon, I learned about a fascinating organization called the Recycled Orchestra of Cateura. A children’s orchestra outside of Asuncion, Paraguay, the Recycled Orchestra plays on garbage. Literally. Their story, which was chronicled in a 2015 award-winning documentary called Landfill Harmonic, in brief: Two musicians went to the area a decade ago to teach music to children in the slums, but there was no money for instruments for their students. After pursuing other avenues, these innovative musicians began working with locals to make instruments for the kids. Since the area of Cateura is a landfill, the most available substrate was garbage. The group picks through the landfill, finding the most suitable trash for the instrument they need. Then the trash is reinvented as that instrument by several truly inspiring locals. For example, one young man makes beautiful music on a cello fashioned out of an oil can and several cooking tools. Violins are made from the flattened metal of old tin cans, and a drumhead is made from discarded x-ray film. The founder and director comments that “the world sends us garbage; we send back music.” Of course, being human, the organization ultimately had its share of drama and politics, but that doesn’t decrease my awe at what they have been able to accomplish simply by introducing kids in difficult circumstances to the joy of music.
(You can watch the trailer here, or the full documentary is for rent on Amazon Prime.)
In the weeks since I learned about it, I haven’t been able to get the Recycled Orchestra out of my mind. There is so much food for thought in their story! Of the many things I have pondered, I have repeatedly returned to this: the Recycled Orchestra brings beauty from ashes.
Life is often much less than we wish for. Dreams shatter. Marriages stagnate. Children wander. Careers falter. Health fails. For so many reasons, the life we live doesn’t match the life we planned. For some, this is disappointing. For some, devastating. But all of us will have times in our lives that fall short of our hopes and dreams. It can feel as if we are living in the landfill of another life. As if the life we wanted has rotted around us and now we live in the stench of unfulfilled desires. I imagine that the kids growing up in Cateura haven’t even had much opportunity to hope or dream, given the harsh realities of their surroundings. They literally live in the garbage of other lives—lives they can’t even imagine. And yet, despite the refuse they see and smell every day, they have found an opportunity to rise above their surroundings and create a new life for themselves. As instruments are fashioned out of garbage, actual physical beauty takes shape and gives them new opportunities despite their unchanged circumstances.
In our lives, God becomes the instrument-maker, fashioning beauty out of the refuse around us. That refuse is likely less literal than that of the Cateura landfill, but it makes for a painful dwelling place, nonetheless. As God recycles it, making it beautiful, He gives us a gift that probably does not change the refuse around us, but that changes our experience of the refuse. He gives us joy and song in the midst of pain and trial. And, like the Recycled Orchestra, He uses us to touch the lives of others around us.
It’s rare that a landfill is cleared away completely. In the same way, it’s unlikely the pain and disappointment in our lives will be eliminated. However, we should expect that God will use the pain to create a new thing in us and through us. This expectation creates a brand-new experience of the refuse, because we know we are not destined to sit in its stench forever. We know God will bring beauty in the midst of it.
As Jesus quoted the ancient words of Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion—to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor. They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations” (Isaiah 61:1-4, NIV).