Thursday, November 30, 2017

It's More than a Scholarship Program

When Salvadoran pastors are asked what a sister church might bring to a companion relationship, one of the most often stated responses is:  A Scholarship Program. 

I am a teacher.  I believe that investments in education are valuable and life-changing.  In my work with the Salvadoran Lutheran Church, I am asked to help sort out scholarship program messes and challenges on a regular basis - both on the Salvadoran end and on the US end.  Setting up and sustaining a healthy scholarship program has its challenges.

Challenges aside, scholarship programs can dramatically change the lives of children and youth.  The best ones are holistic in nature and provide students and their families with all kinds of opportunities for learning, fellowship, community service, and spiritual growth along with the economic support for those who need it in order to be able to go to school.  The best ones help little ones and their families build the habit of good school attendance and commitment to education.  The best ones are tuned in to the culture of the community, operating with rules and practices which take into account the positive and negative impacts which financial support could bring to families living in gang-controlled areas. The best ones can be a vehicle for creating healthy and mutually supportive relationships between families in El Salvador and families in other parts of the world.

High school and university student representatives from Lutheran church communities across El Salvador recently gathered for an annual gathering of scholarship students.  It is an opportunity for students to share their experiences with one another, to encourage one another to keep on going when the going gets tough, and to celebrate the fruits which education is already bearing in their lives.  Just as this year-end gathering is taking place, pastors and leaders in El Salvador are busy putting together the final proposals for scholarship programs for the new scholastic year. 

The scholarship program which we share as sister churches is called Education for Life.  The focus and the requirements of the program have evolved over time, as the reality in our Salvadoran community has changed and as the reality in our US church has changed too.  When I received the program proposal, it came with an introduction, which I think is worthy of sharing...

May the Lord bless you and keep you, may the Lord give you the wisdom and strength to maintain and push forward the ministries that our churches are developing.  The dynamics and the times of the Lord many times do not coincide with our own, but when He sees us as tired and worried, He gives us a hand and strengthens our wills so that we do not discontinue the march, because life cannot keep us down.  We are the universal priesthood, with gifts and roles, everyone doing and building the Gospel and the law and doing the liturgical work each day from the time we get up until the time we return to our beds for the night.  We divulge the word of advice and breath, as Jesus said to Peter, “Feed my sheep.”  To the brothers, sisters and pastors, God has given another mission, which are the plans of God to strengthen our faith, our hope and love.  Jesus is always in front of us, close to each one, walking as always and for always.  His strengths are our strengths, our weaknesses are his weaknesses.  From a long distance, we pray for one another’s churches, however in spirit and heart we are united in the Spirit of Jesus Christ, who unites us and who loves us and guarantees our salvation and eternal life.

Brothers and sisters, in this way as an offering to the Lord we are presenting our plan for study for life for 2018.  With hope that we put in the Lord each day, and each year we are blessed with knowledge and maturity growing in our youth.  We want to announce that for the youth age 13 and older, during December we have initiated a technical Bible school, during the period of vacation, beginning with the last vacations of 2017 and starting up again with Holy Week vacations in 2018.  Of course, there will be other levels of participation both regional and national for our youth during the year.  (Translator’s explanation:  because of the situation of gang boundaries and student schedules, the regular youth group struggles to gather more than 12-15 students.  This new focus on Bible training during vacation times will have an expectation of 100% attendance and the team hopes for renewed energy among the youth.  This is in the spirit of what was shared when the small delegation from [the US] did focused activities with the youth in September 2017.)

May the Christmas birth of Jesus, born in our hearts and in our churches, bring peace, fellowship and sharing among brothers and sisters and families and bring a deeper spirit of will to make stronger the promises we have with Jesus in the year that comes, so that we will be always alert with oil in our lamps so that we do not miss out on the arrival of our Lord.


This was written by the diaconal pastor in our community and I translated it.  It was accompanied by the student list with their responsible adults, grades, school names, areas of study and amount of economic support, broken down by month.  (The economic support mostly covers bus transportation, and lunches for the university students.)  The last few pages of the document describe home visits the diaconal pastor has had with students and families who have been impacted by threats or violence, and some of whom have been forced to move.  A few students have graduated.  A few have decided not to study.  A few new students have entered the program.  Many of the students families and the sponsor families have been accompanying each other for the entirety of the educational journey, and beyond.  The prayers and letters of support that travel between these families and their linked families in the US are filled with the stories of life:  words of love, encouragement, comfort, hope and faith.  

It's so much more than a scholarship program.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Come Visit El Salvador

As you fly into El Salvador's international airport, you can easily see why El Salvador is called land of volcanoes.  Located within the Ring of Fire which surrounds the Pacific basin, El Salvador is home to the Corridor of Apaneca - a line of 22 to 25 volcanoes (depending on how you count them).  From steep slopes to farms to villages to cities, the topography of the land shapes the life of the people.  One of the best places to explore the beauty and to understand the power of El Salvador's volcanoes is El Parque Nacional Los Volcanes (Volcano National Park).   Just an hour away from the capital city of San Salvador, Volcano National Park allows the visitor to access three volcanoes:  Izalco, Cerro Verde and the Santa Ana Volcano, or Ilamatepeq (Hill of the Old Woman).

Izalco Volcano from Cerro Verde
Izalco is the youngest of the three volcanoes, having formed in 1770 from a sulphur-spewing hole in the earth.  For many years it was known as the Lighthouse of the Pacific, because it's fiery smoke and lava could be seen for miles out into the sea.  The last eruption of Izalco was in 1966, when a large lava flow destroyed the area to the south of the volcano, including a swanky hotel that now serves as a site of modern ruins from which to take photos of the naked cinder cone.  It is possible to climb Izalco, but only if you are prepared for intense sun and heat.  It is a 3-4 hour experience, starting at Cerro Verde, hiking down through the forest and then up the cinder cone via a switch-back trail.  I have not personally done this.  I have enjoyed taking photos of the cinder cone from the old hotel and from the other two volcanoes in the park.

Izalco Volcano from the hotel ruins

Once a swanky hotel, a few vestiges of the 1966 interior
can still be seen through cracked windows

Cerro Verde from the trail to the summit of Ilamatepeq

Cerro Verde provides the jumping off point for all tourism in the park.  The entrance is well-marked and essentially is at the end of the road.  You can arrive by bus, or driver, or park your car in a parking lot.  There is a $1 fee to enter, and a $1 fee to park.  There are places to get hot chocolate, coffee, and a variety of foods along the back side of the parking lot.  There are also bathrooms and a playground for kids.  The guides and tourist police are located at the little house near the park entrance, and if you only plan to hike Cerro Verde they will escort you at any time.  If you plan to hike one of the other two volcanoes, the tour leaves at 11:00 AM.  You must carry sufficient water and food/lunch for your hike and there are additional fees for each segment of the hike.  The guides, tourist police and fee system are to ensure the safety of the hikers.

Another view of Izalco from Cerro Verde
The Cerro Verde hike is about 45 minutes on a well-walked trail through beautiful forest.  If you hike with the 11:00 am group, it is more difficult to see the birds and animals.  I suggest setting aside a day just to hike this portion of the trails.  It is not too difficult, and if you are very, very quiet you will see a huge variety of birds, butterflies, hummingbirds and maybe a few mammals.  The guides explain the history of the property and tell about the research which is taking place among the trees.  Be sure to stop at all of the lookout spots and take in the beautiful scenery of Lake Coatepeque.

Lake Coatepeque from the forest trail on Cerro Verde
Santa Ana Volcano as seen from Cerro Verde

 - Santa Ana is one of the most active volcanoes in El Salvador.  It last erupted on October 1, 2005 in a 1-hour explosion of ash, rocks (as big as cars), lava and a flood of boiling mud.  Back in 2005, we met with families who had been evacuated just prior to the explosion, and because of the ash and sulphur dioxide were unable to return to their homes.  Back then, I never would have imagined that I would climb to the top of this volcano, but on a very windy day last January, my husband and I did just that.

We had done the forest hike on a pervious visit, and I recommend doing that because the Santa Ana hike requires a large group of people to move very quickly through the forest in order to have time to make it to the summit and return before the weather gets too bad and before the last bus leaves from Cerro Verde.  It is critical to wear good shoes and to carry a minimum of 2 liters of water, snacks or lunch and warm clothing for the summit.  I did not have a walking stick, and I regretted it.  After essentially running through the forest, we gathered at a small tourist center where there are bathrooms and where we had to pay a small fee to continue up to the summit.  The climb is not difficult, but does involve rocky trails and a few places to climb up on hands and knees.  It was CRAZY windy on the day that we summited Ilamatepeq, so much so that I literally had to grab onto boulders whenever a big gust hit so that I would not be blown down the hill.  It was an amazing experience!

Looking toward Izalco from the Santa Ana trail

Looking toward the summit of Santa Ana Volcano
Looking down into the caldera - Lake Coatepeque
really is down there!
Coming down from the summit, the clouds began to clear

Climbing down Santa Ana volcano, with a view of
Cerro Verde and Izalco
Whether you enjoy hiking or resting on the beach, El Salvador has much to offer!  Come visit El Salvador!!

Check out today's companion story on El Salvador Perspectives.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Right to Water

"They shut off my water.  We have no water in the house."

Three generations of adults and children, including a newborn and a few others under age 2 live in the house -- maybe 19 or 20 people -- all with no water.  No water for drinking or cooking.  No water for bathing or washing clothes.  No water for sprinkling on the floor to hold down the dust or on the plants so they produce fruits.  No water.

"I have a debt.  Finally they shut off the water.  I don't know in what way I will ever be able to pay this debt.  Everything fell apart all at once.  I don't know how we will resolve this situation."

The water system in the community is owned and operated by ANDA, the public water utility in El Salvador.  Water is metered and bills are sent out on a monthly basis.  Most people go to local banks to pay their water bills in person. 

The debt is more than $400.  The water source is a spigot at the corner of the tiny lot.  The family fills a 50-gallon drum and uses water one small bucketful at a time.  Even with multiple families living under one roof, it seems impossible that a household with a pit toilet and with no sink and no shower could use that much water. 

This water story began with a bill of $75 or $80.  (An average bill might be more in the neighborhood of $2 to $5 in a month.) The homeowner, a single mother and matriarch of the clan, filed complaints that the numbers on the bill did not match the numbers on the meter.  She filed a complaint in person which produced the response:  pay your bill.  Someone came out to the house twice and verified that the numbers on the meter and the bill do not match, but said the bills had to be correct.  Interest piled up.  Interest has been charged on interest.  The homeowner was told she cannot even file another complaint until she pays the minimum amount, about $100.

How does this happen?

A big agency like ANDA apparently has sub-contracts with a company of meter-readers.  Because they are sub-contracted, the meter-readers do not actually report to ANDA, and, according to my source (who is not the homeowner), they are often lazy.  They go out to work and do not bother to actually read the meters.  They read a few and then punch in the same numbers for every house on the street.  In the case of a community like the one in which the family in this story lives, the reputation of the community as "dangerous" is enough to convince meter-readers not to go there at all.  They either make up numbers or charge for the same amount of water each month based on some previous bill. 

To file a complaint requires taking off from work, traveling by bus, standing in line and being humiliated by a person at a big desk (again, according to my source).  This takes half a day.

The matriarch, her children and her grandchildren are currently borrowing water from a neighbor.  Back in the old days, they might have gotten water from a nearby river or a community well*, but the river is highly contaminated (because the gray-water system in the community was never completed) and the community wells were capped by ANDA when the municipal system went in. 

If the situation is resolved, and water is restored to the home, on the first day of each month the family will take a cell phone photo of the meter.  They will keep their own, clear evidence of the numbers. 

How will the situation be resolved?  The plan is to raise enough money to pay the minimum balance and restore water to the home.  Then a complaint will be filed again.  Apparently ANDA intermittently offers interest forgiveness days, which will mean standing in a long line at the bank, but might definitely be worth the hours-long wait.

The human right to water and sanitation. On 28 July 2010, through Resolution 64/292, the United Nations General Assembly explicitly recognized the human right to water and sanitation and acknowledged that clean drinking water and sanitation are essential to the realisation of all human rights.     (UNDESA)

*This link will take you to a story about the history of the water system in this community.  At the time that the municipal system was installed, the community was engaged in a heated debate about the right for people to have free access to water. In the end, meters were installed so that people would pay a fair and affordable price for the water they consume. 

To find other stories in this blog about water, try putting agua or water in the search box or click on the water in the list of labels.

Taken during a water march in San Salvador in June 2016

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Salt and Light

On November 16, 1989, six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter were brutally shot to death by an assassination squad of the Salvadoran military.  Each year, on or around that date, a vigil of remembrance is held at the UCA (University of Central America in San Salvador).  Early in the morning, student groups from several universities, religious groups and social organizations send small teams of artists to the streets of the UCA campus where they begin to create colorful alfombras (carpets).  Using tinted salt and following paper sketches, the teams work their magic.  Each carpet is different.  Each carpet shares a message of faith, hope, love, reconciliation or peace.  By 4:00 PM most of the carpets are complete, and visitors begin to tiptoe around the edges, pondering the messages, taking photos, and admiring the beauty created in memory of an evil, ugly event.  As the sun goes down, the colors of the carpets fade to gray.  Later in the evening, candles will once again gently bring the colors of the carpets to life as pilgrims walk upon them.  The colors streak then blend until the designs are lost under the feet of pilgrims.  Despite the brevity of their existence, the images of light and hope shine brightly, like candles, like a mother and a daughter, like teachers, like priests, like those who cry out for justice, like those who work for good, like saints. 

These photos were taken prior to the vigil at the UCA
in November, 2016.  The roses in this carpet are remeniscent
of the roses which grow in the garden, where the bodies
of the Jesuits were found.

You are the salt of the earth.
You are the light of the world.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Days of Saints and The Dead

Claim your saintly identity with each step on your path.

The Grandfather whispered these words in my ear during the passing of the peace.  The Grandfather was reiterating the message of the Bishop's sermon - what we believe is what the Apostle Paul writes in his letters:  sainthood comes in baptism.  We belong to God's kingdom now, and we live full, fruitful lives when we live in God's way right now.  Some day we will be laid out dead in a church and people will remember us, but we don't wait until that moment to claim our sainthood. 

Today we celebrated All Saints Day in the Salvadoran Lutheran Church.  Today we remembered our loved ones, the saints who have gone beyond this short life into the long life of eternity.  Today we honored the saints who lived inspirational lives of faith and who, like the Lutheran pastors Francisco and Jesusita, lost their lives because of their Godly work. 

Día de los Muertos celebration with Aztec dancers (USA)
Depending on our religious traditions and our cultures, we celebrate All Saints Day in different ways.  In the US, we might know the history of All Hallow's Eve (Halloween) and All Hallows Day (or All Saints Day).  If we come from a Roman Catholic background, we might also know about All Souls Day.  In many places such as in my home city in the US, churches and community groups are working together to build stronger intercultural relationships, so that celebrating el Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) brings local indigenous culture together with cultures of native peoples from throughout the Americas together with Christian celebrations.  In general, we can say that many US Christians recognize the days of the saints as a time of year in which to honor and remember the lives of loved ones who have died and to specially recognize and hold up those great role models of faith who inspire and guide us.

In El Salvador, the celebrations surrounding All Saints Day are much more widely practiced than in the United States.  Families dedicate time inside and outside of church to honor their deceased loved ones and spend time together.

From El Diaro de Hoy
In Tonacatepeque, the saints days festivities begin with the Fiesta de la CalabiuzaThis year, the festival was held on November 1st.  The festival celebrates the local legends and mysteries which have been handed down through generations of campesinos.  (If you click on the "legends" label to your right, you can find various stories which I have transcribed and translated over the years.)  Due to a flight delay, we missed out on this year's festival, but a quick visit to the town's Facebook page took me to some good photos, videos and news reports of this year's events.  Apparently the town used more than 500 pumpkins to make the traditional "pumpkin in honey" treat that everyone eats after the parade.

Plastic garlands on a couple of our altars from our US
Day of the Dead celebration - I learned how to make
these a few years ago from some women in Tonacatepeque.
November 1st is All Saints Day.  Historically this was a day in the Roman Catholic Church celebrated in honor of those who had been declared saints by the church.  Now this celebration has mostly been relegated to a Sunday celebration. 

In El Salvador, November 2nd is the Día de los Muertos or Día de los Difuntos (Day of the Dead or Deceased).  Traditionally, this was a day on which families prayed for their loved ones who had died but were not yet in the presence of God, and for some this remains a strong tradition.  November 2nd is an official government holiday.  Offices and schools are closed.  Because this year Día de los Muertos fell on a Thursday, we observed that schools were also not in session on Friday, November 3rd.  The Days of the Dead bring families to the cemeteries, where they clean and decorate the tombs of their loved ones.  Many of the families use plastic flowers, pinwheels and plastic garlands as grave decorations which will last until Christmas.  Sometimes a family will bring food and music (perhaps a mariachi group) into the graveyard and share a sort of picnic beside their loved ones. 

As cultures from North, Central and South America increasingly intersect, traditions evolve and grow.  We are certainly richer, I think, when we can share each other's stories, histories and traditions.  It is important not to make assumptions, such as equating the Fiesta de la Calabiuza with Halloween (which comes from an Anglo-Saxon tradition, and not Central America), nor to draw broad generalizations about any culture.

A photo taken today in the US at a
Lutheran Church (credit to Pastor Eric)
As the names of deceased loved ones were read during worship at the Lutheran Church today, candles were placed on the floor in the shape of a cross.  The Bishop reminded us that if we feel like crying, we should cry.  If we feel like laughing, we should laugh.  We are saints and we are not perfect, and we have each other.  And while we surely should never abandon the graves of our loved ones, we are wise to spend the days of the dead with the saints who are still walking in this life. 

These are the days of the saints and of the dead.  So begins November, the month of the martyrs.  In El Salvador, November is a month of remembering and giving thanks for those who have taught us how to claim our sainthood as we take each step on our path in this short life on earth.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Antifaz Fun

The word for mask in Spanish is máscara.  This word is rooted in Arabic and relates to the idea of something false or hidden.  I recently learned that máscara is the word used for a mask that covers the entire face, and is made of plastic or paper maché.  There is a second Spanish word for mask, which is antifaz.  This word literally means "in front of the face" and is used for the kind of mask that covers the eyes.  Your favorite superhero or masquerade ball attendee might wear an antifaz.

You can find inexpensive antifaz masks at many craft stores or online for a very reasonable price, and if you happen to travel to El Salvador at Halloween, you might like to consider decorating these masks with little ones or adults.  Depending on the type of paper, you may need to use permanent markers.  Adults surely would enjoy adding sequins and feathers, so don't forget to pack the tacky glue.