Friday, July 25, 2014

The "Dear Madrina Letters" Part 2

The following letters are not real, but the facts are real.  Names have been changed.  Several young people who have known me since they were little ones call me "Madrina" - it is a term of endearment which means "Godmother"
Dear Madrina,

I am wondering if you showed the doctors up north the photo that you took of my leg.  I am so ashamed of my skin.  I only wear jeans.  Let me know what the doctors say.

My big brother dropped out of school.  We need him to work to help support the family.  He is working at a mechanic shop.  Maybe you did not hear that my dad left for the United States.  I am worried about him because we have not heard from him for a long time.

My little sister and I continue with our studies.  Did you like the necklace I made for you?


Dear Yenny,

I do love the necklace that you made for me!  I wear it often and people ask me where I got it. I tell them that you made it for me.

The doctors here do not know what kind of infection you have on your leg.  It looks like it might be under the skin.  They say that you need to go to see a doctor in your town.  Can your mom take you there?

I remember the time my husband and kids and I stayed at your house.  You and your brother and sister were pretty little!  I remember your brother was taking recorder lessons at the church and he liked to play for us.  I will never forget how you all slept on the floor, using your clothes as a cushion so that we could sleep in your beds.  That was one of the kindest things anyone has ever done for us.

I am very worried about your dad.  Families at our church are praying for him.  


I hoped Yenny's dad was not lost.  He had tried to catch rides and walk to make his way to the United States twice before.  One time, he made it across the border and worked for a few months before returning home.  He has family in Virginia.  He asked me if Virginia is close to Canada - he was thinking of going to Canada.  I drew a map of North and Central America with the states and we talked about the long distances he would need to cover.  I thought maybe this would deter him, but no.  He wanted a good job so he could provide for his family.

Dear Madrina,

My dad came home.  He is in bad shape.  The coyote took his money and beat him up and left him in the desert to die.  I don't know how he made it home.  He can hardly move.  My mom said that the whole experience made his disease much worse.  He has Parkinson's disease.  What if he can't work?  Our uncle has a car repair shop in the north part of El Salvador and my brother went to work there.  At least he is away from the gangs.  Our street is bad.  We can't go outside after dark.  I need to go to a different school.  


Dear Yenny,

It was great to see you during my recent visit.  It seems like your new school is very full of students.  It must be difficult to concentrate when your classes meet in the common area.   It's nice that you have a place outside for gym class.  It was fun to be at school on the day when the government gave out shoes to the students!

After we left the community I was so surprised to see your brother standing by the road nearby.  We stopped when we recognized him and I had a chance to talk with him about his work and his girlfriend.  It was good that your relatives could help your dad set up the little shop by the side of the road to sell things for cars.  The pastor bought a steering wheel cover and your brother installed it, which made him pretty happy.  Your dad seemed a little more steady and able to speak a little more clearly.  Thanks be to God the local clinic has the medicine he needs.  

You are all growing up so quickly.  Stay safe and listen to your mom!


Maybe big brother is in the gang, and maybe not.  I couldn't tell.  Hopefully Yenny's dad makes enough money so he can pay the weekly "rent" which allows him to have is store alongside the road.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The "Dear Madrina" Letters

The following letter is not real, but the facts are real. Several young people who have known me since they were little ones call me "Madrina" - it is a term of endearment which means "Godmother"

Dear Madrina,

I hope this letter finds you well, surrounded by your loved ones.

My situation in El Salvador has become desperate.  As you know, I still have not found work in my profession, despite the fact that I graduated from the university a year and a half ago.  In fact, no one in my graduating class has found work in our profession.  I am trying to survive, but I cannot afford even the smallest things like a few clothes or a notebook for my son.

You asked what kind of work I have been doing to support us.  I buy small things and resell them on the buses that run near the community.  Yes, I know it is dangerous to hop on and off of the buses.  Yes, I know it is dangerous to carry the little quarters I earn on the bus because the gang members also come on board looking for money.  I don't really earn enough to support us like this, but I can buy two fish and some tortillas.  We like to eat fried fish, and it is one thing I can cook really well.

I recently returned from Guatemala.  I went there because some relatives told me there was work.  I left my son with a cousin.  I did find work for 3 weeks working heavy construction.  Are you surprised by that?  Hahaha, sometimes women can get jobs working construction.  You know I am strong.

No, my son did not go to school during this time.  He does not like to go to school.  He is only in first grade, but the gangs already bother him on his way to school.  They call my cell phone and ask for him.  They tell me he needs to be at a certain place at a certain time or they will hurt our family.  Maybe they want him for a lookout.  I don't know if he has carried things for them.  I cannot protect him in the community or on the way to school so he does not want to go to school.

Sometimes we are alone in the house and cannot go anywhere or do anything or eat anything.  When times are difficult and we are alone, we pray and pray.  We read the Bible together.  My son can read the Bible.  He reads really well for his age.

The rain is coming and I am more afraid than ever.  The hillside under my house is washing away.  I am afraid the house will cave in and we will be buried.  We cannot stay in the community.  For so many reasons we are not safe there.  You know my father is an alcoholic.  The only choice is for me to come to the United States.  I want to work to earn money and buy a house in the countryside where we can grow food and it is safe.  That is my dream.  I saved money to hire a coyote.  My son will stay with my cousin.  I think I can work for 3 years and then have enough.

You told me that you do not want me to travel north because it is dangerous.  I know the dangers.  I am street-smart.  You told me that you do not want to have to travel to Guatemala to identify my body and buy my coffin.  I understand what you are saying, but I will not change my mind.  This is the only hope for me and my son.  I am leaving for the United States tomorrow.

You said you will pray for me.  When I am outside under the stars I will know you are praying.  God will be with me.  I will not tell anyone that I know you and I will not carry your name with me.  I don't want you to get in trouble or to receive threats.  I memorized your phone number in case I need to call you from a detention center.

You will not hear from me for a long time.  But God will keep us together.  Your love for me is the only thing that will keep me going, along with the love of God.

May God bless you,
Your Amiga

Dear Amiga,

The three weeks when I heard nothing from you were very difficult.  My heart ached every day with worry.  I am glad to learn that you are safely back in El Salvador with your son.  You were very fortunate to have met people along the way who could travel with you and keep you safe.  I am sorry you lost your money to the coyote.  It sounds like you learned a great deal about yourself during the journey north.  We will continue to pray for your situation and ask God to provide you with work.  We will try to make more connections with our friends in El Salvador and help you with your resume.  We know God has great plans for your life.

May God bless you,
Your Madrina

Monday, July 7, 2014

The Journey North

Children hopping on trains.  Mothers carrying babies through the desert.  Thousands of dollars passing from families to coyotes (smugglers who guide migrants to or across borders).

Stories of the harrowing journey north, stories of abandonment by coyotes, stories of arrest by immigration police, stories of help received along the way, stories of successful border crossings, stories of appeals for sanctuary, stories of deportation.  These are not stories of the moment, attractive in their drama to mass media.  These are not stories to be twisted for political rants.

We see and hear the stories of thousands of Salvadoran children who left their homes or were sent from their homes by their parents.  They leave with a small bundle of clothes.  They carry no phones nor phone numbers so that drug thugs or gang members cannot track down their families and demand ransom.  They depend on the kindness of family and strangers in Guatemala to give them food and shelter.  They sneak across the border into Mexico.  They hop onto moving freight trains.  The girls fear being raped.  They move forward, hanging onto the dream that in the United States they will find work.  No matter how hungry they are or how many nights they sleep out in the cold, they are not deterred.  They know hunger, and a night in the cold can be safer than a night in a Salvadoran community held captive by gang violence.

These are the driving forces of the journey:  the desire for work and the desire to live free from violence.

In Mexico the children find their coyotes.  The families have wired the money ahead.  Many children and families do not make it beyond northern Mexico.  Their coyotes are nowhere to be found or are in jail.  Mexican police apprehend families and send them back.  The need for food and shelter drive the children to find work in Mexico. There are good people offering shelter and wicked people taking advantage all along the way.

Children take off their shoes and place them and whatever bundle they may still have onto their heads.  They cross the river. Children sneak through small breaks in the wall.  Children walk into the desert in rugged, unguarded areas. Adults do the same.

Children present themselves to border agents, thinking they are safe.  Children who are nearly dead are found by border agents.  A few children make it beyond the border and somehow end up with their people. Adults do the same.

Children and adults from El Salvador have the right to a hearing.  They are detained in an immigration detention center where conditions are described by the media as "deplorable" where children sleeping on floors.  The conditions are not acceptable, but the physical situation is not difficult for Salvadoran children who have spent their lives battling hunger, living in crowded conditions, sleeping on floors and surviving as prisoners in their homes due to violence in their communities.

Officials ask the children, "Why did you come to the United States?"
"I want to help my mom take care of my little brothers and sisters."
"I want to buy my mom a house."
"I want to get adopted."
"There are no opportunities at home."
"The gangs will kill me."
"I want to be with my mom (or dad) who lives here."

The detention centers are over-crowded.  Children with family members who have legal documents to live in the US are released to their families.  They most often do not report for their court dates.  Why?  Children and families who ask for asylum through the court system are typically denied.  Everyone lives in danger.  Everyone might be killed by the gangs.  Children who are not released remain in detention for a few months, have their hearing and are usually sent home.  Many will try to journey north again.  Some will be killed by the gangs they feared.  It's the same for adults.

People move.

Indigenous tribes once moved across the land bridge from Asia, then across the North American plains with the seasons, following sources of food, sustaining their families.  European families moved across the ocean in search of land, religious freedom, escape from hunger, respite from totalitarian regimes.  African peoples were moved, made captives by those who had moved before them.  War. Disaster. Education.  Work.  Dreams.  Within the US people are constantly moving.  Moving for work, moving to be with family, moving to start new lives.

From the fourth grade classroom to the White House, I think we need to ask some questions.  What is my story?  How have I moved across borders?  How have my people moved?  What movements would I make to sustain my own life or the life of my children?  Would I leave for the good of my family?  Would I send my child?  What has caused me or would cause me to make the decisions which so many Salvadoran children, youth, moms and dads are making?

Thank you Pastor Ben for your inspiration.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Off the Beaten Path: The Corn Grinder

Hello Readers...
Sorry it has been a little while since my last post.  As a local urban gardening coordinator and new grandma, I have had a few things taking me away from my writing.  Thanks for reading and commenting on some of my old stories during my haiatus!

La Molina.  Whether the curved base and rolling stone, or the electric grinding machine, or the even the building which houses the grinding machine, it most often seems to be called La Molina.

If you look in the dictionary or come from another Spanish speaking culture, you probably use el molino as the translation for "corn grinder."  I wonder about this, why in El Salvador the corn grinder took on the feminine article.  It seems appropriate and respectful of the hands of the women, who for centuries have passed hours rubbing or cutting kernels from the cob and more hours moving stone over stone to grind the kernels into masa to make tortillas or pupusas.

Corn is life, in El Salvador as in so many cultures of the Americas.  In the United States, people eat corn all the time without realizing it - much has been written about the presence of high fructose corn syrup and corn derivatives in processed foods.  In El Salvador, people in the countrysides and people in the cities alike have a closer connection to the golden grain that sustains them.  Preserving the livelihood of small corn farmers and preserving native varieties of corn from being swallowed up by multi-national agri-businesses is one of the advocacy issues on which the Salvadoran Lutheran Church and its partners focus, and much could be written about these issues.

Grains of corn are planted in small patches and large fields.  The maíz grows tall and produces new cobs of pale yellow grain.  The cobs of corn or elotes are ripe in August, typically.  They are picked and the cooked corn is eaten right off of the cob, or cut kernels are stirred into a sweet, milky corn beverage - atol de elote.  Most often, the kernels are cut from the cob and placed into plastic bowls.  Children often carry the bowls of corn to the grinding machines.  For twenty or twenty-five cents, the grinder will pour the kernels into the top of the grinder and carefully scoop the corn paste away from the blades.  The children carry their bowls filled with wet corn dough home where mothers and grandmothers make tortillas, pupusas  or tamales.

Women who make tortillas, pupusas or tamales to sell will often carry large metal tubs of corn on their heads, walking carefully so as not to lose any of the sticky masa (dough) as they navigate the pathways or streets back to their homes.  It's impressive.

Corn is dried for use after the harvest is over.  Corn is often left to dry in the fields,  The stalks are broken and bent over so the rain will run off of the ears of corn and it will not rot.  Bean plants climb the corn stalks.  When the beans are harvested, then so is the dried corn.  The cobs are placed into big net bags.  Families with a large harvest will rub the corn from the cobs and gather it on a big tarp.  It is laid out in the sun to dry completely.  Sometimes the kernels are put out along the side of the roads, drying and slightly roasting on the hot pavement.  This corn is often mixed with sorghum to feed chickens.

Rubbing the kernels off of a dry corn cob is not easy.  It requires a calloused thumb.  The dry corn is carried to the molina in the same way that the wet corn is carried.  The grinder receives the dry kernels and expels the maseca or corn flour.  It is difficult to replicate the flavor and texture of Salvadoran pupusas  in the US.  The corn flour is somehow different.

It is good to spend a little time, walking with the Salvadoran children or women, walking the path to the corn grinding house, hearing the loud hum of the grinder, and smelling the fresh scent of wet, ground corn.  In some ways the corn grinder seems to be at the heart of the community.


Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Pavement, Black Plastic Bags, and an Inspirational Field of Tomatoes

I volunteer at an urban church which is committed to gardening.  We garden on a re-purposed vacant lot.  We grow trees on a group of city lots that are not suitable for construction.  We garden in aquariums in a 3rd floor classroom.  We garden in a newly constructed greenhouse.  We grow disciples, and we grow food.

One of the hats I wear is a woven straw hat that my god-daughter bought for me on a super sunny day in El Salvador.  One of the figurative hats I wear is Urban Greenhouse Project Coordinator.  I did not go to school to be a gardener or a botanist or a horticulturist.  I learned to raise a vegetable garden from my dad.  I started learning about urban gardening strategies from friends in El Salvador.

One of the challenges which El Salvador faces is high population density and lack of access to affordable, healthy foods in urban and suburban areas. People who live in the countryside with limited economic resources can manage to survive by gathering and growing fruits and vegetables. Mangoes and limes from backyard trees, leaves from a chipilín bush, and corn and beans from a small milpa (garden field) can sustain a family.  This is not so easy for a family with little or no land.  People with small spaces are pretty resourceful and grow tomatoes in old coffee cans, herbs in small plastic containers and fruit trees in any corner of dirt they can find.  Yet the yield from a few plants in containers typically cannot sustain a family.

At the Salvadoran Lutheran University, students are learning to grow high yield crops in very small spaces with and without traditional soil.  One of the most inspirational sites at the university is the tomato field. The field rests on a big slab of old concrete pavement.  "There was no way we could dig up all this old pavement," the director told us, "so we decided to garden on top of it."   The tall, tree-like plants grow in 2-gallon black plastic bags which have been filled with compost.

Students studying organic agronomy have primary responsibility for overseeing the care of the gardens, yet every student at the university, no matter what his or her field of study, has a share in caring for these plants and all of the other food and flower-producing gardens on the campus.  The plants are watered daily, fertilized with a nutrient-rich fermented compost tea, and treated for pests with a spritz of onion and garlic cocktail.  The harvest provides not only enough tomatoes for the university cafeteria, but also surplus produce to sell at the market.  This earns a profit to help support the university and its gardening programs.  The director told us that the tomato plants had been living in the bags and producing tomatoes for 2 years.  The students learn to save seeds and to sprout new crops from the existing crops, so when these plants finally die, new ones will be ready to replace them.

 The university does a lot of work with small plot gardens, in which students experiment with companion crops grown in plastic crates, plastic bags and all kinds of old containers.  The idea is to create gardens on pavement, on porches, and in small corners of space which really produce food without using chemicals or pesticides. Providing the plants with food (compost) and clean water is critical.  One next step will be to figure out how urban families can create their own compost or have access to a community-based composting project.

It is not too difficult to see that the knowledge and practice which is being developed at the Lutheran University in El Salvador is applicable in any urban setting.  Wherever we live in the world, I think we need to be more in touch with what we are eating and where it grown or produced.  Growing our own food, purchasing and sharing locally grown food within our communities, and using non-chemical means to feed and protect our plants are actions which help us to care for God's creation in a responsible way.  Sharing the knowledge of how to grow food in an urban setting is a way in which we can care for one another, to love our neighbor.  And seriously, putting a couple of seeds into a bag of compost, nurturing that plant and seeing it produce real food that you can eat -- that is awesomely fun!

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Journey to Sustainability

No one goes into pastoral ministry to make their fortune.  Well, at least in Lutheran world.  In our ELCA congregational budgets personnel costs eat up the biggest slice of the offering pie, and congregations believe it is good and fair to compensate their pastors for all of the Gospel and community work they do.  Of course not every congregation is able to fully provide for a full time pastor, so congregations often find themselves working together, sharing a pastor, applying for grants or asking other churches for support.

Those of us in companion relationships with the Salvadoran Lutheran Church have been long aware of the precarious situations in which pastors of the church live.  As a poor church dedicated to serving in poor communities often where no other denominations are present, the Salvadoran Lutheran Church struggles with sustainability.  Pastors work in multi-point parishes and are extremely dedicated to the work they do.  Most of their work is done without pay.  Some survive because they do additional work for the national church.  Most pool together the wages of various family members to pay rent, buy food, and pay for the bus fare to get to their churches.

In the time of the 1980-1992 civil war, the Salvadoran Lutheran Church cared for refugees, organized agricultural communities and advocated for justice.  It was a persecuted church.  Now, a generation later, the church continues its commitment to work for justice for those who suffer due to poverty just as it begins to reach out to people of means and the emerging middle class.  This is not easy.  The church is working to rely less on international support.  This is not easy.  The church is figuring out how pastors can be "tent-makers" - that is, working second jobs while continuing to be dedicated to ministry.  This is not easy.  As all of this struggle toward sustainability is taking place, the sister churches and companions from the US and other countries accompany their brother and sister pastors in the Salvadoran Lutheran Church.

We recently received word that pastors are in need of emergency food aid.  We can imagine how difficult it is for pastors to admit that they need this help and to ask for it.  How would you or your congregation feel if your pastor told you that she could not feed her family?  that he was losing weight because he had no food?  that her debt from purchasing food and shelter over the last year was overwhelming and she was about to lose her home?

25 pounds of beans.  20 pounds of rice.  20 pounds of sugar.  5 pounds of coffee.  5 bottles of oil. 5 packages of pasta. 5 tins of sardines.  5 pounds of protein supplement.  2 packages of cookies.  2 boxes of matches.  4 pounds of corn flour.  1/2 carton of eggs.

This is the request for a 2 month kit for a pastor and his or her family of 5.

The Greater Milwaukee Synod is responding to this request, and will gather funds at our synod assembly in 2 weeks.  As we walk with the Salvadoran Lutheran Church in all of its struggles and they walk with us in all of ours, we cannot refuse a humble request for food.

At the same time, we accompany the Salvadoran Lutheran Church in its journey toward sustainability through good financial practice, through sustainable agricultural, education and employment projects, and through the support of the Salvadoran Lutheran Church Pastors Endowment Fund.  This fund has been growing for about 9 years at a slow pace through congregational gifts, individual gifts and more than $4000 in dimes and quarters from Salvadoran Lutheran Church members.  The fund has about $500,000 invested.  With $2,000,000 invested, the fund would generate enough interest to pay each pastor a basic salary so that pastors would not be hungry and would not fear becoming homeless.

This is not the usual type of story I write about in my blog, but I know that those who read this blog may have the spirit of compassion which could move them to help out - either with gifts in support of the emergency food project or the endowment fund, and with powerful gifts of prayer for the Salvadoran Lutheran Church in its walk toward sustainability.  Information about the endowment fund is available on Facebook and on the Partners with El Salvador web site.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Stories of the Cross

I often wear a cross, and I usually put a little thought into which one I choose to wear on a certain day or for a certain event.  Today is Good Friday.  Today is the day of the cross.  Today I chose to wear the one I wear most often - a simple brown wooden cross on a black string.  Papa Santiago made it and gave it to me a very long time ago.  

I keep my crosses from El Salvador in a box.  Today, before I put the box away, I pulled out a handful of larger crosses.  I put them into my bag and brought them along to family camp.  Family camp is how my home church honors Good Friday.

This afternoon we were sitting outside.  I laid the crosses out on the picnic table in the warm sunshine.  "What are these?" someone asked.  "Crosses from El Salvador," I said, "and each one has a special story."  

 The Cross of Healing - the green cross with the blue flower emerging from the center was designed to mimic the logo for the 2003 ELCA Churchwide Assembly:  For the Healing of the World.  The cross was designed by a young Salvadoran man who was struggling to find his identity - as an artist, as a user, as a woodworker, as unemployed, as visually impaired, as tempted by gangs, as a man of faith.  In the making of two thousand small green crosses, the young man was somehow touched by God.  He had turned away from God.  God used the cross to bring him back.  His life was still messy, but he felt the presence of God.  "There is a mystery in this cross that we can't explain," his pastor said.  

The Youth Group Cross - our sister church pastor had come to visit.  Standing in my kitchen he handed me a chunky wood cross with a heart cut from the center.  "The youth have their ideas," he said, smiling and shrugging a bit.  The young man who made the Cross of Healing was helping the youth group to design a cross of their own. This was a prototype.  "I love(heart) Jesus."  Above the heart was a little drawing of Archbishop Romero.  

The Earthquake Cross - at the start of 2001 El Salvador was struck by two severe earthquakes.  In the wake of the destruction, Pastor Santiago Papa had scavenged through the piles of debris and gathered wood.  He created altar crosses from larger pieces.  From the small bits he fashioned cross necklaces.  The cross resting on the picnic table had long ago loaned its string to its sister cross - a small wooden cross, also an Earthquake Cross - which I am wearing around my neck.  The Earthquake Crosses are resurrection crosses - wood once broken and splintered fashioned into something new and beautiful. 

The Jesus Cross - "I was just playing around and experimenting with different things I could do with rope," said Pastor Joel.  The figure of Jesus was fashioned from bits of thin rope, twisted to create a body and woven to create clothes stiffened and affixed with glue to a simple wooden cross.  Jesus is, depicted as a campesino, a Salvadoran farmer.  The love which went into creating this cross was apparent on Joel's face as he handed it to me.  To create the figure of Jesus, to place him on the cross - I imagine this is a profound experience.  Joel does not get paid for doing the work of a pastor.  He supports himself by making small crafts to sell.  He is passionate about both professions.

The Pink Cross - Pastor Joel and his family also made the pink crosses.  One year, following the Mission of Healing, each worker received one of these crosses.  The flames of the Spirit, hearts of love, dove of peace, forgiveness in the cross and Jesus at the center represent the stations of the Spiritual Healing area we used during the mission.  Pastor Joel accompanies people in prayer, pausing only to play his flauta recorder.  When I look at this cross, I see Joel's arm around an older lady, his head bent praying with a teenage boy and I hear his music floating in the air.  This cross reminds me of what it means to love your neighbor.

The Cross on the Green String - this is the newest cross in the box.  Papa Santiago made it.  He put one around the neck of each member of the delegation which came to celebrate the fifteenth anniversary of our sister church relationship.  We were at his home, with his whole family for a special lunch, sitting around a couple of tables which were surrounded by his woodworking equipment.  He carefully cuts each cross by hand, sands it, stains it and chooses a string for it.  "Green is my favorite color," I whispered in his ear as he put the cross over my head.  "Mine too," winked and smiled.  He is a retired pastor who cannot stay retired.  He makes crosses.  He gives crosses away.  He just started a new mission church.  

Tonight we gathered in worship to remember why the cross holds special meaning for us and followers of Jesus.

This is the kind of life you’ve been invited into, the kind of life Christ lived. He suffered everything that came his way so you would know that it could be done, and also know how to do it, step-by-step.
He never did one thing wrong,
Not once said anything amiss.
They called him every name in the book and he said nothing back. He suffered in silence, content to let God set things right. He used his servant body to carry our sins to the Cross so we could be rid of sin, free to live the right way. His wounds became your healing. You were lost sheep with no idea who you were or where you were going. Now you’re named and kept for good by the Shepherd of your souls.
1 Peter 2:21-25 - The Message