Friday, February 12, 2016

The River of Life and Corn and Rainbows and Women and Ashes

The women trickled into the yard through the chain link gate.  Some were a bit timid about picking up their brushes.  Some needed encouragement from their friends.  A few walked right up, grabbed their plastic plate palettes, picked up their brushes and said, "I want to paint."  The children needed no encouragement, but they would have to settle for crayons and coloring pages because this day was the painting day for the women. Younger and older, mothers and grandmothers were going to have a fun afternoon with a few squirts of paint, a splash of creativity, and a good amount of laughter.

We were not starting with a blank wall.  The mural had mostly been painted during the previous week's Family Wellness Fair.  Painting was one of more than 20 experiences at the fair.  The idea behind the mural was to provide the community with a relaxing and creative experience with the hope that something beautiful might emerge on the outside wall of the church. The principal images came together: water, a woman, a rainbow, faith and hope.  The original intent was to develop the mural as an adult project, but enthusiasm ran wild among the young ones, and by the end of the day flowers, butterflies, happy faces and funky little characters danced across the entire wall.

When the Wellness Fair ended, several of the church women who were busy helping at the fair had not yet had a chance to paint.  Since the pastor and the women gather every Wednesday for Bible Study, we made a plan for the following week to work together on some finishing touches.  On Ash Wednesday afternoon, the women trickled into the yard while the pastor prepared for worship.

We decided to paint a river throughout the mural.  As the paint hit the wall, the water flowed under the soil, through the corn, around the flowers, splashing up in blue and rainbow waves.  We painted for a couple of hours, then the sun sank down behind the big trees, and it was time for worship.

Not too many of the small Lutheran Churches in El Salvador have worship on Ash Wednesday, but in this community the women have asked their pastor to keep the tradition.  We sang several songs.  The women really sang with enthusiasm!  The sermon focus was "love your neighbor" and the pastor shared a little story:  I was just a little girl and I had a tortilla.  A visitor came, so I sneaked into the house to hide my tortilla.  My mother found me and said, "If you have something to give, you must give it."  She made me share it, and I always remember that lesson.  Jesus tells us to share our food, to give the drink of water, to visit those who are in prison.  Jesus tells us to love each other.  After another song, the pastor called each woman forward and traced a small ash cross on her forehead.  Then all the children lined up to receive their crosses.  We are made from the dust, and we will return to the dust.  Two of the children remained up front so that we could sing "Happy Birthday" to them.

After worship, we went outside to take a look at the mural.  "How beautiful that you put the river there!" said the pastor.  "This zone has so much water.  It flows from the springs in Quezaltepeque, under the ground in great aquifers, and we have the River San Antonio in Nejapa.  The water feeds the soil and feeds the corn."  Everyone nodded, and we felt a little bit proud that the pastor was so happy with the mural.  We decided to take a photo to remember the day, with ashen crosses on our foreheads and the river of life and rainbows flowing around us.

Author's note:  Permission was given by the community to post these photos.




Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Chicken Dance

The little altar table was set up in the center of the church.  It had a white embroidered cloth over it, a small clay bowl, a wooden cross and a candle.  The blue plastic chairs were arranged in a big circle around the altar.  Women from the community trickled in.  Adelmo brought his guitar.  A few children were playing outside the door.  The dogs wandered in and out.  It was hot.  One of the women left and came back in a couple of minutes with a big bottle of Coke and little packs of sweet bread. The women chatted about embroidery and the pastor reached into a white plastic Super Selectos bag and pulled out a slipper.  It was in-process of being crocheted with olive green yarn.  The ladies were a little sad that craft time would not happen this week.  Instead we were having a meeting.

It was a good meeting.  We ironed out many details of the Family Wellness Fair that would be happening in about ten days through the efforts of the Salvadoran Lutheran Church and our companion synod and sister churches.  Women volunteered to help with the kids' areas, to get things ready.  There was a big discussion about toilet paper.  We agreed the sister churches could buy that.

This year marks a transition from running a Mission of Healing, which included educational charlas or discussions, spiritual healing, and reflexology, physical exams and pharmaceuticals to a Family Wellness Fair focused more fully on education.  Together, the Salvadoran and US healing team has been working toward this transition for several years.  As the medical system in El Salvador has improved for people in small communities, the need for direct care from our team has decreased.  The church is working with local clinics to bring people into the system which is available to them every day, not just one time each year.  Together, the Salvadoran and US team has created plans and resources for more than 20 educational charlas which include spiritual healing, stress management, reflexology, diabetes education, heart health, HIV and sex education, and prentatal/baby care.  We are working with the government, the Red Cross and other agencies.  This year, the fairs will take place in 4 communities on 4 different days.

The pastor in charge of health and wellness ministries for the Salvadoran Lutheran Church shared the positive words we had received from the local clinic earlier that day.  The physicians and their staff are extremely excited to have support with education and preventive medicine.  The women listened, and slowly warmed up to the new model.  The discussion about toilet paper happened as the women wrestled a little bit with the new format.  Sometimes, internal struggles come out in funny ways.

"How do you feel when you haven't bathed?" asked the health and wellness pastor.  "Do you feel less energetic, weighed down, not yourself?  How do you feel after you take a bath?"  She stood up.  She shook herself all over.  "You feel great, right?  You shake your feathers!"  All the women laughed and agreed.  "Preventive medicine is like that.  You learn something.  You go to the spiritual place.  You get a massage.  You will feel great.  You will want to shake your feathers."

She asked if anyone remembered the chicken dance.  Now, of course, everyone reading this in the US is thinking about that silly dance you end up doing at a wedding reception with a bad DJ.  That is not the "Dance of the Chicken" which the pastor had in mind.  A couple of people knew parts of it:  shake your wing, shake your leg, wiggle your bottom, lay an egg.

I did a little search on YouTube to try to find a video of this dance.  I did find a video, though it is slightly disturbing.  And, I will say, that if you search Baile del Pollo you will find many very strange videos.

But, in the end, with an agreement about who would buy the toilet paper, where the learning stations will be set, who will be helping out where, and how we will all be shaking our feathers after participating in the Family Wellness Fair, we are ready to go.


Thursday, January 21, 2016

Sunday Afternoon

Sunday afternoon.  It's time to relax after a long, hot morning in church.  My friend and I hang out at Pollo Campero to eat chicken and french fries and to talk about upcoming plans.  My friend says we should go check on his mom.  She is a little forgetful and worries about her kids even though they are all becoming grandparents themselves.  We arrive at the house, and we sit down in the living room for a little more rest and conversation.

My friend lives with his parents.  His dad is in his 80's.  He tells long stories, revealing newly remembered details with each telling.  His mom is 79.  She listens to the long stories and laughs.  She tells her stories too.  Today, like many days recently, she remembers her son Miguel.  He died when he was a baby.  They took him to the hospital, and he died.  She shows me three framed photos which sit on a little wooden shelf over the sofa.  In one photo, the family members are lined up and barely smiling.  She and her husband are surrounded by their five adult children.  Looking at this photo reminds her again of Miguel.  She seems to imagine what he would be like if he were grown up and in the photo.  The second photo is very old.  One of the men is her uncle.  The third photo is a close-up of her husband and me, both of us with big smiles.  I am surprised to see this photo so large and in a frame.  She gives me a squeeze.

The house is shaped like a big square, with bedrooms along the sides, a little front room and garage by the street, and a bathroom and kitchen at the back.  It is very basic and filled with probably 50 years of books, papers, pots. tools and everything that is too good to throw away.  The middle is open, so all the rooms look out on one another.  The living room is open on one side to the woodworking area of the garage.  We sit on a small stuffed sofa and chair.  The furniture is covered with white damask slip covers.  I have no idea how these stay clean.  As we relax, our focus is on the TV.  It's a pretty big TV, sitting on a home-made rough wood stand with a cloth over it and with the plug running up across the ceiling to the woodworking shop.

The family was watching a movie when we arrived, and we continue to watch.  I recognize the movie, "Wee Willie Winkie" featuring Shirley Temple.  Shirley's dubbed Spanish voice is horrendous.  The family is engrossed as the little girl soldier hides under the bed during a battle scene.  I tell them it is an old film, from sometime like 1940 (actually 1937) and it was filmed in the US.  The family has no idea about this.  They never heard of Shirley Temple (not too surprising), but I am surprised that they do not realize it is an old movie nor that it is dubbed.  I tell them that Shirley grew up to be an ambassador and worked at the United Nations.  We watch as a beloved soldier dies and Shirley sings (not dubbed) by his bedside.  In the end, Shirley is responsible for peace negotiations and a happy ending.  "See Mama," says my friend, "see what a little girl can do."  He pats her hand and she smiles.

Well-rested, we have an errand to run.  We stop at a house not too far away.  We have a little coffee and cookie break.  Then my friend moves the stove out of the kitchen and we figure out how to get it into the back of his vehicle.  This is part of a triple stove exchange.  The stove in the car one is the middle-aged one, which was replaced by a new one, and which will replace an older one.  The older stove will go to my friend's house to replace a really old stove.  That is a gift for his mom, but she is not too sure about it, so my guess is that the really old stove might hang out in the woodworking shop for a while.

My friend drives me home.  The stove is in the back of the car, and the sun is about to set on another Sunday afternoon.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Little Kings and Queens

On January 6th, the Day of the Magi Kings, celebrations are held across Latin America.  In El Salvador, these celebrations primarily happen in the Roman Catholic Church.  In the Lutheran Church, the day of Epiphany is celebrated on the Sunday after January 6th.

Pastor Santiago presented the plan for el domingo de los reyes magos (Magi Kings Sunday) to Sonia, Jocelyn and Evelyn on Friday.  He received a little scolding from Sonia because two days did not seem like enough time to get actors and costumes and everything organized for an Epiphany pageant, especially when a group of youth and adults from the US would be visiting.

If you read Spanish, you can read the plan in detail.  It calls for actors including God, Jesus, 3 Kings, Herod, and children as pastors.  Props include a star, gifts, water, candles and cut-outs of doves on sticks.  The general idea was for the child kings to follow the star, to look for the child Jesus, to present the gifts, and then, in the midst of a conversation about baptism, the child pastors would baptize the child Jesus.  At that point the doves would fly up and hover over Jesus.  Then all the children would light their little candles - in the same way that candles were lit at their own baptisms.

A bunch of little kids, holding lit candles, with cardboard doves on sticks seemed like a recipe for disaster.  Nevertheless, each team member took charge of an aspect of the plan.

Two days later...it was Sunday.  We arrived at the church to find little girls in fancy dresses.  Every girl and young lady received a "crown" made from white, fancy elastic with a little blue bow sewn to the front.  Clearly Sonia had initiated a bit of late-night sewing.  (And at this point, it is appropriate to give a shout out to the generous women of the sister churches in the US who donate their extra craft and sewing supplies to be used for events such as this!)  Children trickled in - all dressed up in their fancy attire.  A helper arrived with crowns, made from bulletin board border, and these were placed on the heads of men and boys alike.

Soon it was time to sing, and all the little kings and queens with their crowns lined up at the door to follow the star.  The search for Jesus was accompanied by the Donkey Song, and the entourage arrived at the Christmas tree.  The gifts were presented and Pastor Santiago talked about Jesus' baptism.  Of course, in the biblical narrative we read that Jesus was an adult when he was baptized, so this was a symbolic baptism led by the guest pastor. He was given the precious baptism pitcher, a long-treasured gift from the community's sister church.  The children and the pastor baptized Jesus.  Then the doves fluttered up as the little kings and queens waved their sticks.  The star was placed upon the Christmas tree, and the doves landed in its branches.

The worship ended with each child receiving a gift bag with sweets, and of course, in their generosity, the children handed lollipops and chicle (gum) to their grown-up friends.  Youth and children paired up to paint white primer on the outside of the new Sunday School space.  All those little girls in fancy dresses, wearing their white crowns with little blue bows, grabbed brushes and painted with enthusiasm.  After washing up, the pizza bakery provided pizza for all.

The day did not go exactly as planned.  Yet it was a perfect day for the little kings and queens and all who visited.  Happy Epiphany!

video

Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Holy Comforter

"I talked to my mom and she is in the middle of something very difficult."

"What happened?"  I asked.

"Lisseth, she's our neighbor, her child died.  I think he was five years old.  And my mom said Lisseth was not in her right mind and wanted to sell her 2-month old baby to pay for the funeral for her son, but the community would not allow that to happen.  My mom is managing this by herself.  She's managing it," Kati said.

Kati was visiting the US with her pastor and a couple of other youth from the community.  I could see the stress of the situation on Kati's face.

A few weeks later, I was with Kati's mom in El Salvador.  "How's Lisseth?" I asked.

"She's coping. It is not easy.  But I need to tell you what happened.  It was very mysterious.  The little boy was not feeling too well, so he went for a check-up.  He has always had a heart problem and walked around with an apparatus in his heart.  He got a special little vest so that the lightning bolts would not affect the function of the apparatus.  I saw him running around outside after that and he seemed fine.  Then one day a little later, he didn't look too good.  It seemed like he was having trouble breathing.  So his mom took him to the doctor and they said he needed something fixed with the apparatus.  They put him under general anesthesia, and maybe that was a bad idea because of his breathing.  No one ever imagined that he would not wake up.  His mother expected him to wake up, and he never did.

"So we had to get the church ready to have a vigil there, and it was the last day of Vacation Bible School.  All the children were there, and we didn't send them home.  There were 25 boys and girls.  We had the program and the children all received bags with the things they had made during the week and also their small Christmas gifts.  And we placed the little coffin on the altar and the children were there.

"I remembered that time when you were here and we had to bury Sylvia's baby, and we did it.  It gave me the capacity to take charge of this vigil. At the moment when we placed the little coffin on the altar, a dove flew inside the church and it perched up above the altar.  It was very mysterious.

I tell you, there was not a sad moment during the vigil.  The children sang.  All the children sang.  And they talked about their little friend and they never left him.  And up until the very moment of taking the body to be interred, the dove never moved from its place above the coffin.

It was very mysterious.  Some people think maybe that spot in the church is a place where doves like to sit, but no.  I tell you that it was something more than that."

The Holy Comforter.

The events occurred as written, but the names have been changed.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Reflections on a Day in the Car

They were playing soccer.  For a time it wasn't possible for the young men to play soccer on the neighborhood field.  Too dangerous.  On Christmas Day with a current situation that was a little bit safer, the guys headed out to the field for some fun and competition.  In a tense moment as two players headed for the ball, they crashed into each other.  One ended up on the bottom, and one landed on the top.  This is how our friend broke his leg.

He is 25 years old and has a pretty good job working for a small company.  He has a wife and a little girl who is afraid of the big white cast on her daddy's leg.  He lives with his mom and a huge family of sisters, two husbands of sisters, and a few little nieces.  Because his job is in the formal economic sector, our friend is fortunate to have healthcare benefits.  He is able to miss work for two months while his leg is in a cast, and he will not lose his job.  In addition, he qualifies for sick pay.

Because government offices were closed for the time between Christmas and New Year celebrations, our friend's process to receive payments was delayed.  This has been a hardship on the little family. Today, this young man on crutches needed to walk through a labyrinth, and he needed a little help.

The young man's mom, the pastor and I had been doing some early morning work together.  At 11 AM we swung by the community to pick him up.  His sisters and a neighbor had helped him navigate his way uphill, on a rutty dirt path, avoiding rocks, until he made it to the side of the road.  The helpers waited with him until we arrived.  We loaded him into the pastor's car, stashed the crutches between the seats and were on our way to his place of employment.

Normally, he leaves the house before 5 AM and rides 3 buses to arrive to work by 8 AM.  By car, it is about a 40 minute drive, putting our arrival time during the boss's lunch hour.  So, we decided to grab some lunch too.  At 1 PM we arrived at the business.  Mom followed her son up a a long flight of concrete stairs.  She carried the manila folder of forms while he slowly hopped up the steps using the crutches.  This was the first time he had left the house since being weighed down with a cast.  His leg hurt.

Time passed.  Finally with documents signed and stamped, our next stop was the health department's central office.  This is located in the city center, a couple of bus rides away from the employer.  We made it over there pretty quickly, but with skinny streets and no place to park and only a minute to hover, it was tricky navigation for a guy on crutches.  A wait, a signature, a stamp, and a few awkward curbs, holes and street vendor-blocked sidewalks later, our friend and his mom were back in the car with the precious manila folder.  "Don't lose that card," Mom says.  In the folder is a little card that is good for one month.  I am not really sure how the card is used to get payments, but I realize that the one month validation means this process will need to be repeated in order to qualify for a second month of sick pay.

The process was complete at 2:40 PM.  I cannot imagine what our friend would have done without the help of his mom, and without transportation from his pastor.  There is no way he could have ridden the public bus and walked from the bus stops to his destinations.

Perhaps the afternoon quest for sick pay would not have seemed so ridiculous to me had I not spent the morning in a similar endeavor.  The early morning work which the pastor, the mom and I had undertaken was the delivery of letters to various organizations  from which we are seeking participation in an upcoming family wellness fair, which is being coordinated through the Lutheran Church.  The pastor had written letters to the Red Cross, the local health clinic director, the regional health director and the local mayor.  Each original letter needed to be hand-delivered, and both the original and a copy required stamps and signatures from the recipient (or a representative).  We kept the copies; the originals stayed in the various offices we visited.  We received lovely welcomes, we had great conversations, and we also waited outside office doors for significant chunks of time.

There is no question that the personal conversations were fruitful.  We also shared surprise hugs and greetings with a few friends in the clinic waiting areas. Yet, this process of securing copies, delivering documents, waiting, stamping and signing is just so cumbersome for someone who is accustomed to online forms, email, texts and phone calls.

So, the majority of this day was spent riding around in a car and hanging out in waiting rooms.  Certainly something could be learned from this experience.  Here are my reflections:  I think there could be less traffic in San Salvador if people did not have to do all of their paper-passing, signing, and stamping in person.  I think perpetual waiting is frustrating and makes it difficult to get anything done on time.  I think sick people who need sick pay would benefit from a more efficient system.  I think pastors who drop everything to drive here and there to help out a young man with a broken leg are awesome.  I think car conversations and chance meetings in waiting rooms are precious.  I think it's wonderful that government agencies and humanitarian organizations are so eager to learn about the work of the Lutheran Church and to partner with the church and local communities to improve the well-being of the people.  I think there is value in meeting with people face-to-face and working to build relationships as we prepare to work together.






Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Los Reyes Magos - The Magi Kings

The television was tuned into the local news, which was hard to hear above the lunch noise in the small cafeteria and the sounds of the traffic on the street below.  Every now and then a story would catch the interest of someone in our little group.  What caught my attention was the sound of bells jingling.  Not exactly "Jingle Bells" the song, but jingling bells that one might associate with the arrival of Santa Claus.  I turned to see the TV screen lit up with a bright blue background, snowflakes falling onto glittery ornaments and gifts, and the words "Happy Day of the Three Magi Kings."

Today is Epiphany.

Epiphany marks the visit which the astrologers or magi made the the home of the child Jesus.  "I have been studying the origin of Epiphany," Pastor Santiago said.  "The star was a sign that healing would come.  The magi sought a great healer."

I looked around and noticed packages of green tinsel (still attached at the top to their red cardboard holders) dancing from the rafters as the breeze came through the open air dining space.  Small plastic Christmas wreaths were nailed to the posts and red felt bows were taped to the walls.  For those who follow the Gregorian calendar, Epiphany is the Twelfth Day of Christmas.

"In some communities, you can see men dressed up as the kings and walking around," Sonia shared after I asked about Epiphany traditions in El Salvador.

"Really?" said the pastor.  It seemed like he considered this tradition to be outdated.

"Yes," Sonia continued.  "At the children's hospital on this day the kings visit and give gifts to all the children.  We will celebrate the Day of the Kings this Sunday with all of the children at church."  Sonia's face lit up with anticipation.  Sonia can hardly keep a secret.

As the sun went down this evening, the Christmas lights in our neighborhood came to life.  There have been lights glowing throughout the city during this time after Christmas.  The Christmas tree at Salvador del Mundo plaza and the street lights in Escalon almost make it seem like daytime below the night sky.  Yet tonight, it seems like every display is lit.  The fireworks are popping and sizzling for one last time.  Tonight El Salvador celebrates the light which can overcome the darkness and the hope that peace will conquer violence as the new year unfolds.