Thursday, November 29, 2018

Junk for Jesus

I am not sure who coined the phrase "Junk for Jesus," but it came into my lexicon a few years back.  Already, many of you are nodding and chuckling at the mention of this short phrase because without any explanation needed, folks who work in churches or organizations that solicit and welcome in-kind donations know exactly what "Junk for Jesus" is. 

For the good-hearted donors among you who would appreciate a definition of the phrase "Junk for Jesus," let me enlighten you:  "Junk for Jesus" is cast-off stuff, sometimes neatly tied into recycled plastic bags, often labeled, and happily placed into donation bins.  It is the stuff that is "too good" to throw out.  It is the stuff leftover from rummage sales (usually with price stickers still affixed).  It is clothing and shoes that children have worn well or which have been stashed for a few decades in an attic or a basement.  Junk for Jesus sometimes has sentimental value.

Sentiment is one reason why the receivers and sorters of kindly-made donations do not like to bring up the issue of Junk for Jesus.  No one wants to critique the quality or usefulness of someone's donated stuffed toys or grandmother's dresses.  No one wants to suggest that donors place inflated values on well-used or old items because of their own hardships.  No one wants to call someone's donation "junk."  Caring recipients want to honor gifts given with a spirit of love and sharing, even if those gifts quietly need to be thrown away.  No one wants to challenge donors who believe their donations are "good enough" for poor people. 

Yesterday, we spent a solid day sorting donated coats, hats, scarves and mittens at our home church.  The intended recipients are children in our US community who live in homes with limited financial resources.  It is COLD where we live, so these new and gently used winter things are a tremendous blessing.  We set up a "store" where each child can choose a jacket, try it on, find a good fit, and select matching accessories.  We have sizes from infant up to 3XL and serve children up to college age.  This year we have more than 400 new and gently used jackets.  About 2/3 of the hats are hand-knit.  We are grateful.

But, there was Junk for Jesus.  Hats covered in old hair.  Gloves with holes in the fingers.  Mittens caked in mud and grass.  Adult coats from the 1950's through 1990's that high school kids would only wear on a costume day.  Kids coats that are torn or have broken zippers or are covered in mud.  Clothing - lots of clothing - though we are clear that we do not give out clothing. We threw away a few things.  We spruced up the stuff we could.  We removed tags for ski hills and toboggan runs. 

One thing about Junk for Jesus is that it can make it hard for the recipient agency to stay in it's lane.  We give out coats to kids.  Can we take a few adult coats?  Yes, sure, there are adults who need them.  We received mountains of adult coats.  We try to be good stewards and to let nothing go to waste.  We set a couple of dates to offer coats to the adults in our community who need them.

One half of the adult coats we can't use for kids.  We did
receive lots of adult-size new and wonderful jackets for our
older kids.  This is just the stuff that is old, dirty, broken zippers, trench-style, etc.
When it comes to packing up a suitcase for El Salvador, or whatever international donation destination, the process is similar.  In our experience with the Mission of Healing Family Wellness Fairs, we put out a list of things we are collecting.  We gather funds to purchase many items in El Salvador, but we also want to provide an opportunity for US families to connect with this health education ministry in a concrete way.  Our solicitation list includes:  toothbrushes, bandages, nail clippers, wound care items, and undies and washcloths for Days for Girls washable feminine hygiene  kits.  Today's sorting party did not yield too much Junk for Jesus - just some old gauze and first aid tape and medical supplies, and only one rusty nail clipper.  We have been talking about healthy donating practices.  In the past we have sorted out used toothbrushes, half-tubes of toothpaste, long-ago expired medications, and used underwear.  Yes, used underwear is definitely Junk for Jesus.

When it comes donating in-kind gifts to our local churches, our sister churches or any charitable organization near or far, I think we put forth a few mutually helpful guidelines:
  • We should always treat one another respectfully and with dignity, no matter what our income level or where we live.
  • Honesty in giving and receiving is the best policy. 
  • If the recipient did not ask for it, the donor should not just donate it.
  • If the donor has a good idea for a donation, or has received a great blessing of a large quantity of something to donate, the donor and intended recipient should have a conversation to determine the best management of the donation or to decide if it should happen at all.
  • Donors should try to stay within the guidelines of solicited donations.
  • Let's be real:  If your kid won't wear it, neither will our kid.
  • If you would not hand it down to someone in your family, you should not hand it off to someone else.  Or, if you pondered throwing it away, that probably is the right choice.
  • If items are traveling in a suitcase to a far away land - are they worth the baggage fee ($50-$75)
  • Again, for international donations, what is the purpose of collecting and carrying the items and could purchase of the items in the destination country have a positive impact on its local economy?
  • Donors can REALLY help by sorting donations (or at least vacuuming the cat hair and dead bugs out of the boxes).  Going through random bags and boxes from basements and garages to pull out the useful and relevant donations, to organize and pack up the useful and irrelevant donations (to take to another donation site), and to properly recycle and dispose of the Junk for Jesus is quite time consuming.  
We know the joy of giving a special gift to someone we love.  We know the warmth in our own hearts when we receive special gifts.  We are often moved to give when we learn that there are suffering brothers and sisters, near or far away, in need of something which we can provide.  And when we need help, we can be confident in our relationships with one another to ask for help.  In a creation filled with abundance, God intended for us to live as people who share...but let's just hold back on sharing the Junk for Jesus.  OK?

(PS:  If you have recently donated to a ministry of which I am a part, and if you are wondering if your donations were Junk for Jesus...ummm...if you think they were, then maybe...)

(PPS:  To all the donors who make cool ministry stuff happen in my local setting and Salvadoran setting...thank you.)

Saturday, November 17, 2018


The sound of fireworks echoes through the cool night air.  It is late.  For some reason the stink of sewer gases is strong tonight.  We closed the windows but can still hear the pops and booms and barking dogs.

Several hours ago, we walked to the UCA (Central American University) to see the colorful carpets and walk in the annual pilgrimage in honor of the Jesuit martyrs.  Flocks of small green parrots accompanied us on the walk, migrating from their daytime roosts near where we live and their nests in the trees on campus.  Their calls were loud enough to compete with the noise of the city traffic.

We arrived on campus just in time to view the colorful sand and salt carpets before the sun set.  The themes are consistent from year to year, calling for peace, justice and love for one another and all of creation.  Following his recent canonization, Saint Oscar Romero was featured prominently this year, not only in the carpets, but throughout the reflections which were broadcast before and during the pilgrimage.

Oscar Romero, Saint of the Americas

The UCA has hosted many advocacy events in support of protecting
people's right to clean drinking water and the passage of a holistic
water protection law by the Salvadoran legislature.

The UCA radio station - worth listening to!

Oscar Romero and Rutilio Grande

As darkness enveloped the campus, we walked down the hill toward the university's soccer field.  We were given farolitos (small taper candles with cardboard lanterns).  The light was passed from pilgrim to pilgrim, despite the strong breeze.  As soon as a candle blew out, someone with a burning farolito came to the rescue to relight the flame.  

Tall palm branches decorated with bright tissue paper flowers led the procession.  Images of the faces of the martyrs were held high.

29th anniversary of the martyrdom of the Jesuits at the UCA
November 16, 1989

Pilgrims march with farolitos and images - in the center of this photo is an image of
Father Dean Brackley, a beloved teacher and friend, who came to the UCA
to replace the teachers who were slain in 1989.  Father Dean died a few years ago of cancer.

We walked until our candles burned themselves out, pausing for reflective times to sing and pray.  Footstep by footstep, the carpets became blurry.  A few families carried plastic bags with them, and children scooped a bit of the colored sand from each carpet into the bags, perhaps for home altars or to create little carpets of their own.

At the third station for reflection, this little girl entertained
herself and her dad by sliding down the hill.

As the pilgrimage ended, we decided to walk home with the idea of grabbing dinner along the way.  We walked all the way back up the hill, only to find that the upper entrance to the university was locked.  We wound our way through the center of campus, down to the lower gates and made a quick decision to go to Pizza Hut.

The only time we eat at Pizza Hut is when we are in a pinch or with a delegation of teenagers.  We walked speedily with sewer smells wafting up around us.  

We had to wait for a table.  This Pizza Hut has easily tripled in size since the last time we ate there.  A huge Christmas tree decorated with shiny red balls and 6-inch-wide red sequined ribbon stood behind the hostess stand.  Birthday songs, loud laughter, children crying and Christmas muzak added to the chaos of waiters pushing through the people waiting and making their way to the restrooms.  As we were guided to our table, we just looked at each other with mouths agape...who knew that Pizza Hut was such a popular place for family celebrations with 4 and 5 generations.  (What are all these little kids and really old people doing out so late?  I was really quite amazed.)

Take note:  the piña colada frozen (no alcohol) and chipotle bomb pizza were delicious.

The plan for getting home from Pizza Hut was to call an Uber.  We watched the fireworks over Salvador del Mundo while we waited for our ride.  It cost us $1.96 to get home.  Best. Deal. Ever.

Each year, it seems, that the number of pilgrims with farolitos at the UCA decreases.  Perhaps the oldest generation of those who remember is passing.  Perhaps it is difficult for communities to travel home from the UCA at night.  There were notably few international participants this year.  The students, however, continue to learn the history, create the carpets, and share the stories.  Student guides now provide tours of the rose garden and the Romero Center, where they tell, in detail, the history of what happened in this place.  

Loud music penetrates our concrete walls.  It's late.  

San Salvador has been alive tonight.  The Christmas tree was illuminated in the plaza of Salvador del Mundo, while pilgrims walked at the UCA, and families gathered in celebration for birthdays and graduations and just because it's Saturday.  Fireworks are popping, dogs are barking, sewers are wafting, reggaeton is bumping, birthday flames are blown out with applause, and farolitos fade into the night with a prayer.

Good night, San Salvador.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

We Wish You a Merry Souls Day

About two weeks ago, I walked into Dollar City to pick up some paint for a church project.  It was All Souls Day - the day on which Salvadoran families remember their beloved ones who have died.  I was caught off guard by the sound of organ music filling the air.  Within a moment, I turned to my husband and asked, "Is that Christmas music?"

Creepy Halloween appendages give way to boxes of
blue, red and silver ornaments in Aisle 1 at Dollar
City on All Souls Day
Beyond the orange, black and purple remnants of Halloween in Aisle 1, Dollar City had been converted to Christmas Town.  Salvadorans do have a love of Christmas chachkies - especially snowmen.  I asked a pastor friend today if El Salvador has a different tradition than Santa Claus (we happened to be grocery shopping together and paused to check out a row of Christmas stuff).  "Oh no," he said, "we have always had the tradition of the Santa of the United States.  It wouldn't make sense to have a different one."  He looked at me quizzically as I explained a couple of different European traditions.  Then I asked about all the snowmen.  "We just really like them," he said.

Red and green snowmen at the grocery store
Back at Dollar City, I scanned the line of people checking out in front and behind us at Dollar City.  A co-worker told me that All Souls Day is a good day for bargains on Christmas decorations.  She also told me that her family has never had a Christmas tree.  "We just don't do that at our house," she said. 

During the first week of November, the giant letters at Metro Centro transitioned before our eyes  from "La Palma Style" in honor of the recent passing of artist Fernando Llort, to candy canes and Santa Claus.  Lights wind around trunks of palm trees and hang from apartment balconies in the capital city and inside small homes in the countryside. 

Santa O at Metro Centro

Reindeer and Palm Trees
The most creative decorations we have seen in the past two weeks are located in the gardens at Vivero Café el Arco, a coffee and lunch place not too far from the La Laguna Botanical Gardens in San Salvador.  All of the decorations there, Christmas and otherwise, are created from recycled materials.  I gathered quite a collection of photos at the cafe and am hoping to recreate a few of these decorations as children's projects in our church's urban gardens back in the States.  Café el Arco is not only a great place for afternoon coffee and small meetings; it has a wide variety of plants for sale at a good price.

This Christmas tree is made from recycled water bottles which were
painted red on the inside

Nativity created from recycled bottles and cans
Animal snouts from 2 liter soda bottles.  The fur is created by cutting plastic
bottles into strips.

We popped into the UCA (University of Central America) bookstore this week where we discovered a Christmas promotion of a different kind.  Bibles were stacked to form a small Christmas tree, inviting patrons to give the gift of a Bible for Christmas.  (By the way, the UCA bookstore is a great spot to pick up English, Bilingual and Spanish books for children and adults.)

Bible Christmas tree at the UCA
To see a few pics from previous Christmas collections, check out 

Saturday, November 3, 2018

All Saints on a Plane

Most flights to El Salvador include announcements spoken in Spanish.  This one did not.

Most flights to El Salvador do not involve much turbulence.  This one did.

When the seatbelt sign is illuminated, the instruction is to remain seated.  This seems obvious to passengers who fly frequently.  However, if you are an old guy and you really need something from your bag in the overhead compartment and you do not understand the instruction given only in English, even though the airplane is about to take off, you might pop up out of your seat, pop open that overhead door and start digging around.  "Sir," the attendant barked over the intercom, "You must be seated!"  A kindly seat-neighbor pulled the elderly man down into his seat.  The attendant ran down the aisle and closed the compartment door.  We took off.  The guy next to me shook his head.

"This is your captain speaking.  We expect a smooth ride into San Salvador."

Not.  We skipped along the tops of the clouds, bump, bump, bumping our way along.  It was a full flight.  A two-year-old cutie kept running up and down the aisle making new friends, zooming her cars and frustrating the attendants.  Her mom finally got her to take a nap.  Grandmas and kids walked up or down the aisle to use the restrooms.  "The seatbelt sign is illuminated.  Please take your seats."

"How hard would it be to learn how to say that in Spanish?" I asked (in Spanish) to the guy next to me.  He chuckled and shook his head.

This All Saints Day flight held multiple generations of families traveling to El Salvador for El Día de Difuntos - All Souls Day - when families gather to remember their beloveds who have passed away.  All Souls Day is an official holiday in El Salvador.  Government offices, schools and many businesses are closed.  All Souls Day is honored in El Salvador with traditions that are similar to the Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico, minus the decorated skulls and sugar treats.  Salvadoran families bring brooms and buckets, paint and brushes, and beautiful plastic, silk or cut flowers to the cemeteries.  Families clean leaves and debris away from the graves, wash or paint the headstones and tombs, and decorate the sites with colorful flowers.  Sometimes families eat traditional foods sold on the streets near the cemetery, and sometimes hired mariachis play music.  No matter how the family is able to celebrate, family togetherness is the focus.

The turbulence let up a bit.  "The captain has turned off the seatbelt sign.  Now would be a good time to use the restroom," the attendant announced.  Passengers are instructed not to line up in the galley area.  Of course, they do it anyway.  A few of us stood in front of an empty seat near the rear of the plane.  I turned to the mom and daughter behind me.  "Is that the bathroom?" the mom asked.

"Sí (yes)," I said.  "Do you need to go urgently?" I asked the girl.  She looked to be about 10 years old.  She nodded strongly.  "Go ahead," I said to the mom.

"Are you sure?" the mom asked.

"Yes, I understand.  I am a grandmother," I smiled at the pair.

"Can I go in there with her?" the mom asked. "It is her first time.  I just want to protect her, you know."  I told her the space was tight, but she could go in if she wanted to.

When the bathroom became free, the mom peeked inside and showed her daughter all of the things she needed to do.  She held the door closed with her foot from the outside.  "We are going to visit the mother of my husband.  It has been 9 years since I have seen her."  I asked about where her family in El Salvador lived, and she told me.  It is a 3 hour ride from the airport.  "My husband has not seen his mother in 29 years.  He was just a boy when he left.  Can you imagine?  Mother will start shaking when she sees him and we will have to hold her up like this."  She grabbed the imaginary shoulders of her mother-in-law in front of her.

The little girl emerged from the bathroom.  There was toilet paper on the floor and the mother was worried about me going into a dirty bathroom.  "It's OK," I said, "It was there before your daughter went in."  Soon, I thought, this little girl will be meeting her grandmother for the first time. "Safe travels on the road," I said with a smile.

As the plane got closer to El Salvador, we took a big bump and the roller coaster ride began.  The seatbelt light flashed on and no announcement was needed to get everybody into their seats.  The attendants scrambled to make sure everyone, including the 2 year old cutie were safely secured.  We took a big drop and there was a collective gasp, maybe a little bit more like a stifled scream.  A man in front of us spoke loudly to his family, "Es el Día de los Santos - It is All Saints Day, and God just reminded us of what is most important.  We must have faith in all moments.  Did God get your attention?"  This was an announcement the passengers understood.  Murmurs of "Sí, si" were accompanied by nodding heads.

We landed.  The passengers cheered and applauded.

Welcome to San Salvador.  If this is your home, welcome home.  And happy All Saints Day.

Here are a few other stories I have written about Days of Dead, Saints and Souls...
Days of Saints and The Dead
Making a Living on the Day of the Dead
A Fiesta to Remember in Tonaca

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Saint Romero of the Americas

In honor of the canonization of Archbishop Oscar Romero as a recognized Saint in the Roman Catholic faith, I would like to share a few photos from my collection.  Romero's words, actions and faith inspire Christians and advocates of social justice across boundaries of country, culture and denomination. 

Our very first visit with our Lutheran sister church in El Salvador.  Note the
poster of Archbishop Romero on the front wall.  The community is named
Heroes in the Faith.  The first street in the community is named for Monseñor Romero.

A simple painting of Romero in a community named for Rutilio Grande
Lutheran women from a small rural community visiting Romero's home

Rutilio Grande poster, Fernando Llort boxes,
"Flat Martin" (Martin Luther) in a handmade clay
cup commemorating the 500th anniversary of the
Reformation, and a Romero candle.

Can you identify these 4 men?
Palm Sunday 2018 at our Lutheran Church in El Salvador - Don't kill
Prophet of the people, Mons. Oscar Arnulfo Romero
The history wall at the park of the Monument to Truth and Reconciliation.
Archbishop Oscar Romero is centered among those who set the course
of history in El Salvador.
In 2015, we attended the beatification ceremony for Oscar Romero and you might like to revisit that story today.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Tales of The Grandfather: God Sends Angels

It was during the war.  The Grandfather had been detained several times by the military, but thankfully he had always been released.  The military conducted their operations in the zone, and The Grandfather conducted his operations as well.  His work was the work of the church - to accompany the people and defend their human rights.

One day, The Grandfather went to a small town to check on his people.  A military squad had arrived early, while it was still dark.  The soldiers conducted their "operation" of knocking on doors, pulling people out of their homes, rummaging through people's belongings, tossing belongings into the street, and supposedly looking for weapons.  It was "pure harassment," according to The Grandfather. 

When The Grandfather arrived, soldiers detained him at the edge of town.  The Grandfather tried to convince the soldiers that he had a right to be with the people because he was their pastor.  The soldiers refused to let him pass.  Suddenly a man on a horse appeared as if out of nowhere.  He was riding fast up the road toward the town.  The soldiers shot their weapons up into the air and rushed out to stop the rider.  The horse reared back nearly tossing the rider to the ground.  "Why are you riding so fast?" yelled the soldiers.  "You cannot ride like that on this road." 

The soldiers told the rider to get down so they could check his papers.  In the meantime, The Grandfather spoke to the rider.  "When you get back on your horse, don't do what they say.  Don't go slowly. Ride as fast as you can down that side road beyond the far edge of town.  Over the next hill there is an assembly of United Nations trucks.  Tell the people of the United Nations exactly this:  'The Lutheran pastor sent me.  The Lutheran pastor has urgent need of your presence in the next town over.'  Do you understand?" asked The Grandfather.  The horse rider said he understood.

When the soldiers came back, they told the rider he was free to go.  The Grandfather was told to stay where he was.  The rider rode off on the road to the far side of town. 

The soldiers asked The Grandfather, "What were you talking to him [the horseman] about?"

"Oh," chuckled The Grandfather, "He is an old friend - a farmer from the region up the hill.  I haven't seen him for a long time.  We were just catching up on things."  The soldiers continued their operation of harassment, while The Grandfather was kept outside of town.

Not more than one hour later, a convoy of United Nations vehicles pulled into town from the far side.  The military ceased its operation and left.  "We received word that a Lutheran pastor needs our help," said the leader of the United Nations brigade. 

"That's me," said The Grandfather. 

The rider had disappeared as quickly as he had appeared.  No one ever learned who he was or from where he came. 

"God always sends angels when we need them," says The Grandfather, "Eh?"  The Grandfather smiles and slaps my arm.  I smile and agree. 

If you say, “The Lord is my refuge,”
    and you make the Most High your dwelling,
no harm will overtake you,
    no disaster will come near your tent.
For he will command his angels concerning you
    to guard you in all your ways;
they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.
Psalm 91

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Just Click: Flags of September Give Way to Winds of October

There were many sights this past month that did not get captured for posterity.  The reality is that sometimes it is a little too dangerous to pull out a phone to snap a pic.  More often, however, it simply seems too rude to take a photo.  I frequently identify something as odd or funny or extraordinary because it is culturally different from things I identify as "normal" in my native country.  And, there are plenty of times when something stands out as photo-worthy to me and my Salvadoran friends as we travel the roads together...

These little chicken trucks have suddenly appeared on the streets of San Salvador.  The box part is built on the back of one of those 3-wheel taxis.  When itturns a corner it looks like it will just topple over.
The bridge on the longitudinal highway is still under construction, a year
after a flash flood wiped it out.  So, that means...

You have to drive on a dirt path through the river, unless it's raining.  Then you just can't go this way.

Speaking of rain, check out the motorcycle in the middle of this city street
during a typical September downpour.
Aces Hardware and a US Interstate logo advertising what I think is a specialty bakery featuring puddings and other treats.  Borrowing USlogos is not uncommon.
Rice drying on the road.  It is still in its husk.

Once dry, the rice is swept up and put into bags.

The rice is loaded on a truck and taken to the mill where the husks are removed.
There are so many odd things tied to the tops of cars and trucks...
Happy Civic Month!  The torogoz is El Salvador's national bird.
Last patriotic parade...until next September! (Yes, the main road to the north was closed again!)