Saturday, July 14, 2018

Better Together

Our sister church pastor from El Salvador is visiting us in the US.  As he describes it, we started with a group of five, and then it was a group of two, and in the end he is here on his own.  The visa game that the US Department of State plays with applicants for tourist visas (well, any visas) is not new.  The secret formula for success in securing visas for youth or adults, church leaders or lay-folk, is and has been frustratingly elusive.  Our friend and pastor has been in the position of being the lone representative for visits and celebrations in the United States numerous times.  He has a 10 year, multi-entry visa.  It is important to note that one of our invitees had a 10-year visa also, but only good for one entry so invalid for the most recent invitation. (Check that fine print on those 10-year visas!)

The motivation for this year's visit:  we are celebrating 20 years together as sister churches.  We are a triple team made up of a suburban and an urban church from the US and a Salvadoran church located outside of the capital city.  The celebration in the US has included 10 days of spending time with families and doing ministry as a team in the city and in the burbs.  The phrase we use all the time to describe ourselves is "Better Together."

We always try to find time in which we can hang out together in the community, soaking in some local culture and making space for meeting up with old friends and building new relationships.  This brings me to the focus of our story.  Meet Felipe.

The pastor and I walked up the steep hill, joining hundreds of neighbors for a free concert in one of our community parks.  We decided to walk among the crowd, winding our way along the switchback bike path up to the top of the hill, where local organizations had set up crafts for kids, food for sale and promotions for literacy.  "Is that a restroom?" the pastor asked, pointing to a building up ahead.  Yes, it was.  He just told me he didn't need a restroom, but...whatever.  He walked toward the building, making eye contact with a guy standing nearby. 

We share some introductions and tell a little bit of our stories.  Felipe is from Mexico.  His sister is married to a Salvadoran.  He knows lots of people from El Salvador.  His boss recently returned to El Salvador and left Felipe in charge of keeping the gardens and lawn beautiful.  Felipe takes care of the park.  We had a good laugh over a story:  One time Felipe was driving a truck in Mexico and was stopped by some Salvadoran guys.  They asked him if he had any pisto.  In El Salvador, pisto means money - like a little bit of money in your pocket.  Felipe said he was so confused.  Of course he did not have pisto, he had told the guys, because in Mexico pisto means alcohol.  There is no way he would drink and drive a truck. 

Felipe said it fascinates him to learn about the differences in language and in cultures.  Our conversation floated back and forth from Mexican Spanish, to Salvadoran Spanish, to English.  "It has been a pleasure - un placer - and a joy to get to know you," we said to one another.  I chatted with Felipe for a minute while the pastor continued on to the restroom.

As we walked toward the band stage, the pastor confessed he really did not need to use the restroom.  "I saw a man in the distance.  He looked small and dark like me.  I heard the sound of Spanish words in my ears, and I was drawn to it.  I was drawn to him.  I was curious."  As a frequent traveler, I can appreciate that feeling of being drawn to the sound of my mother tongue, of being curious about the stories of others who seem to share something in common with me.   When you are not traveling with friends, or have been prevented from traveling with friends, the need for a familiar connection might be a little stronger.

Sitting on the hill, enjoying the evening air, the sunset, and reggae music was relaxing and fun.  Friends found us - people we had met earlier in the week as well as people the pastor had met as church delegation members in El Salvador.   The ministry of hanging out, of showing up, of nice-to-meet-you reminds us that the world is big and small, and we really are better together.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Off the Beaten Path: Concepción de Ataco

If you are out in the western part of El Salvador, in the department of Auachapán, one of the best places to stop for a bite to eat, a bit of shopping and even an overnight stay is Concepción de Ataco, or as most people call it, simply Ataco.  Ataco is a pretty popular tourist destination, especially among Salvadorans!

Prior to the conquest by Spain, Ataco was inhabited by the Pipil people.  It's name originates from the Nahuat language and means "elevated place of springs."  We tend to visit Ataco in conjunction with a visit to nearby hot springs such as Los Termales de Santa Teresa.  Ataco is one of my favorite spots to take friends and delegations.

The "founding date" of the colonial town of Concepción of Ataco is considered to be January 15, 1543.  The full name of the city (upgraded from "town" in 1999) comes from the name of Concepción de Ataco's parish church, the Immaculate Conception of Mary.  The fiestas patronales honor the birth of Mary (traditionally December 8th) and have been celebrated for more than 200 years in Ataco with the custom of lighting thousands of farolitos (colorful little lanterns) to illuminate evening vespers.

Nestled in the Apaneca Mountains, Ataco has a cool and  lovely climate.  It is wise to carry both a sweater and a small umbrella (for rain or sun).  The city is safe and walkable.  Like most colonial cities, Ataco has a central square which features a lovely park, trees and a fountain.  The parish church, Inmaculada Concepción de Maria, faces the square.  It is typically easy to park near the church and to start your walking tour there.  The current structure was completed in 2003 following the demolition of the previous church which was destroyed in the 2001 earthquakes.  Respectfully go inside for a little time of reflection and to appreciate the beautiful interior.

Around the central square you will find plenty of shops, restaurants and cafes, as well as public restrooms (which will cost you a quarter).  The art and jewelry shop near the restrooms has some unique creations for a fair price, and it's worth spending a little time chatting with the owner.

The city is set up in a grid, so you can walk as far out and back as you like in any direction, always keeping track of where you are in relation to the parish church.  The main shopping areas are to the left (essentially south) as you exit the parish church.  Up on the hill in the distance you will see a white church (El Calvario).  You can use this church and the dome of the parish church to orient yourself.

Many of the streets are lined with outdoor shops.  Ataco is a great place to find beautiful textiles, as well as pottery and the usual artisanal crafts.  The indoor market is one block south of the parish church, and usually has a giant paper mache figure standing outside the main door.  Inside you will find a good variety of things.  The center courtyard is filled with antique looms.  The weavers will gladly teach you about their craft, and you can grab a cup of coffee and a pastry while seated among the weavings.

About's all around you!  The mountains surrounding Ataco are rich in coffee production.  Take some time to enjoy the local brew.  You can purchase coffee to take home with you at any of the outdoor or indoor stores.

Ataco has several excellent restaurants.  If you are looking for pupusas, I recommend Pupuseria Cielito Lindo (named for the big white cross and lookout which is above El Calvario).  The dining space is small and simple, and the pupusas and hot chocolate are delicious.  If you walk all the way to the southwest corner of town (about 4 long blocks west from the pupuseria), you will find the Giordano restaurant.  It's at the end of a dead end street, and maybe a little tricky to find the entrance but any driver or town person will be able to get you there.  This is a good place for a large group.  It features Italian pasta and pizza dishes with Salvadoran flair.  The tables are nestled into covered spaces within a gorgeous garden.  It is not ideal on very wet or humid days.

A bit of the garden at Restaurante Giordano

From the central square and parish church, if you head less than a half block north (right as you exit the church and on the right side of the street) you will find the Xochikalko Restaurant.  Beautiful in the day or evening, this place features traditional Salvadoran favorites.  At the corner of the next block, the Tayua Panaderia was one of my favorite places to get organic, hand-made pizza.  The last couple of times I have visited, this restaurant was sadly closed.

If you decide to stay in Ataco for the evening or a few days, I highly recommend the Boutique Hotel Degraciela.  This is not a place for delegations, but for a romantic getaway, a respite for a smaller group or a family treat, this place is fantastic.  The hotel was constructed in 1850 as the home for a coffee producer in the region.  The family is significant in the town's history, having donated funds for the construction of many buildings, including the church.  A few years ago, the family decided to open their home to the public by converting it into a small hotel.  The service, the food and the accommodations are exquisite. 

Entrance to Casa Degraciela
There are many corners of Ataco which I have yet to perhaps I will see you there sometime soon.  It is definitely worth the drive!

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Protesting 201: Energy

We were crouching in the street, in the rain.  Wait... wait... wait... the student leader told us, then...RUN!!  As everyone ran, I thought, "Ooh, I need to share this idea with Pastor Steve."* 

Strategies for keeping the energy alive during a long protest march or during a series of social action events over a period of time is a challenge.  Environmental groups, human rights groups, and churches in El Salvador have been fighting for a law to protect El Salvador's water resources from the clutches of polluters and money grabbers for 12 long years.  There have been small victories along the way, but every time the political parties which favor the interests of wealth and business increase the number of seats they have in the legislature, new threats arise.  It is incredibly disheartening.

This is why it is critical for community organizers to invite, welcome, educate and encourage young leaders with new energy and new ideas into their social justice movements and organizations.

The student group from the UCA (University of Central America) numbered in the hundreds.  Somehow, our little team of middle-aged Lutherans ended up walking among them.  So, when it was time to crouch, we did our best.  We waited... waited... and RAN!  Well, actually, we slipped off to the side of the road to take some photos, because we realized this marching technique was effective in getting the attention of the press as well as making the march fun for the students.  Every so often, despite the pouring down rain, the drummers slowed their beat, the students and everyone with them crouched, and they waited while a big gap opened up in the line of thousands. Then they ran screaming about water until they caught up with the line. 

photo credit: Tim Muth

Did I mention drums?  Effective.  Batacuda rhythms draw attention, and make the march feel more like a dance.

For a while we walked behind a pick-up truck which held giant speakers and a young woman with a microphone.  She led the chants.  Chanting is also effective at drawing media attention and keeping the marchers focused.  If you have marched in the US and been a part of the back and forth of "Tell me what democracy looks like ... THIS is what democracy looks like" you know what I am talking about.  In the water march, chants of "Alerta! Alerta!" were followed by calls for protection of water from privatization.  El pueblo unido jamás será vencido.  The people united will never be defeated.

No to privatization for the present and the
future of my life.   photo credit: Tim Muth

To see photos and videos of generations of citizens in El Salvador fighting for their rights to potable water, visit the El Salvador Water Forum Facebook Page (Foro del Agua is a consortium of groups including churches which is working together to protect and preserve El Salvador's water resources.)

*Pastor Steve, you're welcome.  To everyone who knows Pastor Steve:  Wear proper footwear.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Protesting 101

My phone rang.

"Grimmy," chirped my 4-year-old grandson, "we went protesting today."

Our daughter had organized her two children, ages 2 and 4, and led a protest of 3 on a busy street corner in her city.  It was quickly organized, so not surprising no one else showed up.  The kids made posters.  The kids told me they decorated their posters with "lots of people."

"I'm protesting with my mom so other kids can stay with theirs!!!"
"End Family Separation!"

"Wanna know my favorite part, Grimmy?  The beeping and the waving, and there were people giving us thumbs up."

"What were you protesting?"  I asked.

"Mr. Sessions and President Trump don't know how to share.  And that is not nice," the little guy stated with authority.

Our daughter tweeted out a series of suggestions about how to talk with preschoolers about what is happening with the separation of families at the US southern border.  Use age-appropriate language and concepts, and gather books from the library to stimulate conversation and questions.  A family favorite is A is for Activist by Innosanto Nagara.

Our grandchildren are experienced little protesters.  I don't remember ever taking my own children out to protest.  I don't remember my parents ever taking me or my siblings out to protest; protesting was something "other" people did.  That was in the 1960's.  I was a little kid and completely uninformed about civil rights movements or protesting about redlining in my community. 

During the last 23 years of being in relationship with the people of El Salvador, I have learned a lot about my own ignorance and my own lack of political action domestically and internationally.  As an adult, I protested for the first time in El Salvador.  I advocated with local government in El Salvador.  I participated in marches, civil actions and protests in El Salvador.  Why?  Because I was asked to accompany and to advocate alongside brothers and sisters in the Salvadoran Lutheran Church.

Being in relationship with a church that works intentionally, publicly and politically on behalf of struggling people has inspired much of the work that I now do in the US.  Working to protect our city's water resources, walking with Black Lives Matter and justice coalitions to change unjust law enforcement practices, and marching with migrants calling for protection for Dreamers are walks that for me began in El Salvador.  Many of my friends who also connected in solidarity with the people of El Salvador or other places around the globe describe a similar personal journey of evolution in their domestic work through international experiences. 

This story began with the protest musings of a 4-year-old.  As I was pondering what else to include in the story, I did not really plan for it to take a path into my personal protest journey.  But it did.  And among my musings, a couple of forgotten protest stories from my early years bounced back into my head.  Sometimes, in the midst of the serious, I think it is good to embrace a bit of humor...

My mom is going to read this little tale and probably not remember it as funny.  We grew up with a garden, and typically had lots of delicious fresh or home-frozen vegetables on our table.  However, one winter week, Mom decided to use up the older canned goods from the basement pantry.  She created a couple of meals featuring the yuckiest canned vegetables from the backs of the shelves.  Saturday arrived.  I snuck into the basement pantry and pulled the last yucky cans of asparagus off the shelves and hid them.  Then I secretly organized my younger brothers and sister.  We made posters and taped them to sticks, calling for a boycott of canned asparagus.  We marched around the kitchen table, chanting and holding up the posters, seriously refusing to eat canned asparagus.  We were unsuccessful.  We had to sit at the table and eat canned asparagus.  Truth:  I still cannot eat any kind of cooked asparagus to this day.

A later protest was successful.  One day in high school some friends found fingernails and a hair in their food.  It was disgusting.  It was also not the first time someone found hair in the cafeteria food.  I organized a brown bag lunch protest and we boycotted the cafeteria food.  Gloves and hair nets were introduced.  Victory!

My mom is a little worried about her great-grandchildren protesting.  I get that.  Protesting can have its risks, and as parents and grandparents we work tirelessly to keep our little ones safe.  And that is the point of the protests which families are making right now.  Little ones are not being kept safe.  Little ones are crying for their parents. 

We are marching with our Mommy so that other little ones can stay with theirs.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Water and Protests and Life

"Water:  it's the name of the game."

Eleven years ago, as we walked along the Jordan River, as we looked across irrigated fields from the Golan Heights, as we made our way to the Dead Sea, our guide repeatedly stated:  "Water, it's the name of the game."

Creation cannot survive without water.  The earth is the Blue Planet.  We understand the reality of Conservation of Matter:  we have the water we have. 

El Salvador is a petri dish for water issues.  Almost ALL of the surface water is contaminated.  Blame lack of environmental protection laws.  Blame foreign businesses.  Blame big agriculture.  Although the country has a long rainy season, the rains do not have the chance to soak into the aquifers in order to replenish deeper, cleaner water sources.  Blame big agriculture.  Blame urbanization and pavement. 

Within this context, the current legislature is working to set up a law that would allow water to be privatized.  If you want to study the details about the proposed law and the long struggle which Salvadorans have had in trying to protect their right to protect and access this precious, life-giving resource, you can check out this story from El Salvador Perspectives.  You can also check out a few of the water stories from this blog:
The Right to Water
There's No Water
Ecological March
Precious Water
Notebook Thoughts

Salvadorans know, by their history, what happens when private businesses control water.  The Salvadoran public is well-practiced in protesting, marching, demonstrating and petitioning political leaders in attempts to clean and protect El Salvador's water.  Churches take this work seriously.  Bishops, clergy and congregants are at the forefront of organizing these events and in speaking with the media. 

Will the long-ringing voice of the people and cries of future generations be heard over the enticing siren of financial profits for those in power? 

How will El Salvador's experience inform the peoples of other nations, of those of us with sister church relationships in El Salvador, as we fight to protect water resources in our own communities?

As international partners - as citizens of the world we need to pay attention, to accompany, to walk in solidarity with our brothers and sisters who are working to clean and protect El Salvador's water, so that what grows in the petri dish will work in favor of health and life.
Water does not have an owner.  If water is for everyone, the struggle is everyone's.

Thousands of protesters gather on June 16, 2018 for a march
against privatization of water.

University students - note the image of the water bottle lined with cash

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Attempts at Salvadoran Cooking: Refresco de Marañon

When I am in El Salvador, I try to cook with local ingredients and try my hand at whipping up a bit of local fare.  During the Easter holidays, we received a gift of small marañones - cashew apples.  Of course the prized part of the marañon is the seed that hangs down below the fruit.  Some people have told me that the fruit is good for much more than animal feed, but I have seen plenty of marañones stuck on popsicle sticks and put into the freezer as a treat for children, and I also have heard that some people make a refresco or fresh fruit drink from the fruit.  With the gift of a small plastic bag full of small marañones sitting in my kitchen, I decided to do a bit of research and make something with them.  I settled on a refresco.

The first step was to remove the seeds from the apples.  I naively thought I could dry the seeds and maybe roast them.  After all, cashews are delicious.  However, with a little research I learned that inside the little green outer skin there is a very toxin similar to poison oak.  To remove the cashew nut from the outer shell, the green seeds need to be heat processed.  The toxin is very flammable, so either this happens in a big flaming fiesta (not suitable for a city dweller) or can be creatively done by burying the seeds in sand inside an old pot and heating up the whole thing (keeping that sand and pot ONLY for this use).  Well, I gave my seeds to friend who lives out in the country.  Maybe she will plant them or process them. 

The next step was to sort the apples, wash them, get rid of the rotten parts, and chop them up.  They smell a little funky, though they do look like apples.  The raw fruit, like so many fruits in El Salvador, does not really have a flavor comparable to something with which we are familiar in the land of apples, pears and berries (where I live when in the US).  It is is sort of like a not-very-sweet pear.

 My next step was to add some water.  I think another fruit juice could be added instead, such as pineapple, but I wanted to see what the refresco would taste like all on its own.  I did not have a blender (I know, my Salvadoran kitchen definitely needs a blender), but I do have an immersion blender, so I used that.  It took a bit to grind up the fruit.  I added water to get the right texture.  It was a little pulpy (ok, chewy) and I think a real blender could have improved that aspect.  Also, let's be real, this color is not very appetizing.  I added a little sugar and kept it simple.  Cinnamon would be a good addition.

I put the refresco in a jar in the fridge.  It was much better the second day.  It was also a pretty good base for a Flor de Fuego cocktail.

All in all, it was a good first attempt at creating something with marañones.  With some orange and pineapple and ginger, or with some cinnamon and coconut, I think this drink has some serious potential.

Happy cooking!

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Holy Week in El Salvador: Gifts

This is the fourth in a series of stories which describe our experiences in El Salvador during Holy Week...

Our beloved friends in El Salvador give us gifts.  All the time.

Salvadorans are genuinely generous people.  When we ask delegation members about their experiences, this is consistently the first statement we hear.   We - our family and our church - have experienced radical hospitality from the very first visits we made eighteen years ago.  We have slept in beds while our hosts have slept on the floor.  We have eaten whatever food families can share; sometimes receiving the gift of a family's last chicken.  Precious quarters have purchased cold soda for us on hot afternoons.  Our kids received well-loved and precious toys.  We have been presented with treasured baby photos, cups from the cupboard, homemade cards full of glitter, preserved food and hand-embroidered cloths.

After so many years of visits and now time living in El Salvador, we are called casi-salvadoreños (almost Salvadoran), and we continue to be shown radical hospitality.  As we spend quiet time in a hammock, or share a meal under a hot tin roof, we also witness a communal generosity that is not really spoken about.  It is quiet, under the radar.  When a family's water is shut off, a neighbor runs a hose from her spigot and fills the pila.  When the tree is full of mangoes, everyone on the block enjoys green mango with chili.  When a little one has a birthday, everyone manages to find some little gift for the party.  Sometimes there is nothing to share, and occasionally people feel like they will be criticized for not sharing, but mostly, among the tightly packed houses in one little pasaje, people are generous with one another.

During Holy Week we were in our Salvadoran church community a little more often than usual, and throughout the week we received gifts:  unexpected gifts, gifts humbly and quietly given, gifts given with love.  So along with the waving of palms, the washing of feet and the testimony of the women, the Holy Week story is not complete without the story of a few gifts shared and received.

Miel de Azucar
Just like in any Lutheran Church, the families in Los Héroes have "their" spots in which to sit for worship.  Rows of three new green plastic resin chairs are set up on each side of the center aisle. We sit in the second row on the right.  Every week, there are a mom, a son and a daughter with some cognitive challenges who sit in front of us.  The daughter lights up the room with her smile, and always wants to compare our styles of skirt for the day.  On Palm Sunday, Mom and daughter handed us an object that was wound up well in a black plastic bag.  "Miel de azucar," Mom whispered.  Boiled cane syrup made from the family's own plot of sugar cane.  When we opened up the bag later, we found the syrup stored in a tecomate (a hollowed-out gourd).  This stuff is wonderful on fried plantains or for making granola. 

This was not the only gift we received on Palm Sunday.  Another family had made jacotes en miel - small stone fruits that are sort of like a cross between an apple and a plum, stewed in cane syrup. 

Pirate Eggs
Midweek, we invited a family over for pizza and a movie.  The kids brought pirate eggs!  "Don't worry about breaking them," we were told, "because they are hard!"  Happy Easter, matey! 

Bean Soup
After worship on Holy Thursday, we ended up hanging out to work on the mural on the outside of the church's preschool/Sunday School space.  Concerned for our well-being, Sonia told us we would be eating lunch at her house.  When the sun became too intense for work, we walked down the hill.  We sat in a tiny space, at a tiny table, on bright pink chairs and ate bean soup with egg.  Sonia told us that her kids will not eat bean soup made by anyone else because they like it the way she makes it.  It's all about the rice.  She is picky about how the rice is put in.  Simple and few ingredients, and oh so delicious.  Sonia made it special because she knows I love her bean soup.

Marañon fruit with the seeds attached
Cashew seeds removed from the fruit
Don Neto came up the hill as we were getting ready to leave the community on Holy Thursday.  "Do you like marañones?"  These are the fruits which produce cashew seeds.  He ran home to grab a bag-full which he had harvested from the small trees beside his home.  He smiled so broadly that his eyes crinkled as he handed me the bag. Neto had even had taken time to wash the fruits.  The bag oozed sticky juice onto my hands and skirt during the car ride home.  I cleaned the fruits quickly, cutting off a bit of mold here and there.   I made my way outside with a little bee, drunk on the sticky juice.  I had to look online for a video to figure out what to do with the fruits and seeds, and I ended up making a refresco (smoothy) with the fruit.  (The recipe will be featured in a future blog post.  True confessions - that refresco was a bit chewy but tasted pretty good.  It tasted even better with a shot of Flor del Fuego.)

Green Mangos, Tamales and Torrejas
Neto's son insisted on sharing more fruit with us on Easter Sunday.  The mangos he gave us were tiny and green.  Pastor Santiago shook his head thinking those mangos would never soften up.  We left them on the kitchen counter for a week.  We peeled them, sliced them, added lime and chili, and they were delicious!

The mother from the row in front of us gave us another bundled-up, black plastic bag.  It was warm and heavy - tamales!  And another mother, the same one who had made the jacotes en miel presented us with a container filled with warm torrejas - which is similar to French toast, made with vanilla bread soaked in cane syrup.  These foods are Salvadoran special-occasion foods.  These are gifts given to beloved family and honored guests.  We feel like both.

Fun Foam and Glitter

Salvadoran youth are immensely creative in their use of fun foam.  On Easter Sunday, our son and his wife were given a very extra special fun foam gift - a glittery pink candle.  It was presented to the two of them with great ceremony.  Our son is well known in the community from stories of his visits when he was much younger.  His wife was meeting the community for the very first time.  The two of them were very touched by this simple sparkly gift.  We spent some time during the sermon reflecting on the stories of the past and looking for connections among young adults who were very young children when our sister church relationship began. 

Thank you, Los Héroes, for a very special Holy Week.  Thank you for the gifts, the fun and the love.

Other stories in this series:

Holy Week in El Salvador:  Easter Sunday
Holy Week in El Salvador:  Good Friday
Holy Week in El Salvador:  Holy Thursday
Holy Week in El Salvador:  Palm Sunday