Friday, September 22, 2017

Lunch Time Banter and Safety Tips

I love lunch hour in El Salvador.  Yes, lunch HOUR.

A group of us often gather in the conference room where the lunches are as varied as are the stories shared.  A couple of weeks ago we welcomed a new missionary to the office.  She had a little bit of an encounter on a bus earlier in the week, and so we started talking about the ways in which we navigate getting from place to place safely.  Here are a few gold nuggets from the conversation...

On the theme of the wisdom of carrying a bit of money in your pocket:
     One time I was on the bus, and a gang member got on and said, "Everyone has to pay $1.  We don't want to rob anyone so you are all in this together.  Everyone $1."  
     So we all got out our dollars.  This is why it's important to carry a little money in your pocket. You never want to have to dig around for a dollar if you need it.  The older lady next to me pulls out a 5 dollar bill.  I don't know if she didn't have a one or what.  So there were 2 collectors and their boss was watching from behind.  The collector came and took the $5 and didn't say a word.  The boss watched and waited and then said, "Hey (bad name), you give that grandma her change.  We said $1 each person and that means $1." 
     I have to confess that I had bought something earlier for a quarter, so I only had 75 cents in my pocket.  I had given the collector my coins and looked at him pleadingly and he took it.  When the boss was saying $1 means $1 I was sweating in my seat.  But nothing happened.

On the wisdom of separating your money into different locations:
     There was this time when I went to the bank to cash my pay check.  I put half the money in one secret spot and the other half in another spot in my backpack.  I started walking home.  For some reason I forgot to put money in my pocket.  Of course the one time I forgot to put money in my pocket this gang member confronted me and asked what I had in my bag.  I told him I didn't have anything but my work papers.  He wanted my backpack.  As I swung it around I unzipped a pocket and half my money was in there.  He grabbed the money and dropped my backpack.  I picked it up and was relieved to have at least half of my money.  
   There must have been a lady behind me carrying two big shopping bags.  I didn't actually see her because I was really trying to attend to the guy who was in front of me.  When that guy was gone I looked behind me.  There were the two big bags.  I looked around but didn't see anyone.  So I took the bags, one in each hand, and sat down on that little concrete wall by the shopping center.  I waited about 10 minutes but no one came for the bags.  So, I walked home with them.  My wife probably thought, "Oh, he went shopping and bought something great."  Well, in one bag was an iron, still in the box and with the receipt.  And in the other bag was a nice fan.  I put that fan up by my desk at home and it works great.  I guess God felt sorry for me so I ended up with the 2 big bags instead of my whole paycheck.

On the technique for walking down the street:
     I choose my clothes wisely if I am walking to work:  black skirt, sensible shoes, sometimes an embroidered blouse, and always a big cross.  "Buenos días," I say to each person I encounter and to every worker at the pupusa stands, the car repair shops, and pharmacies.  It's good to have friends who watch out for me along the route.  Most of them think I am a pastor, or even a nun, and that is just fine.  I can do this because I am older.  For younger women, the rule is no talking, no smiling, and just walk fast with determination.
   I have a burn phone - just a cheap flip phone that does not actually work.  I carry that in my hand, and my good phone is stashed in my bag.  I keep $5 in a pocket, just in case.  If I have to carry anything of value, I put it into an old plastic grocery bag with some older, slightly grubby folders.  Sometimes I put it under my lunch.

We had a little debate about how much money is needed in one's pocket.  Apparently lots of times, $1 is enough to buy off an assailant.  I will still go with $5.

Just about everybody has hidden a phone or money in a bag of fruit or tomatoes.  Well, except for the $5.  Or the $1.

I just worry that one time the pandillero (gang member) will be hungry and there my money will go, along with my fruit.

Off the Beaten Path: Museo de Ferrocarril

One of the core values we hold dear in our sister church relationship is the practice of doing tourist activities in El Salvador together.   Visiting historic sites, parks, natural wonders and museums gives us the chance to learn about El Salvador together.  It's true that wherever we live, we often have neither the time, the interest nor the resources we need to "be tourists" in our own backyards, and often visitors in El Salvador have been to many more places in the country than their Salvadoran friends have.

In our sistering situation, taking excursions together is especially important because our community is divided by boundaries.  Sections are controlled by different gang groups, and families are not able to cross boundaries from one sector to another.  It is very difficult to plan any kind of event in the church or in the community in which everyone can participate, but with careful organization, field trips are something most of us can do together.

The engineer invited me to take a close-up
A great new attraction for school-age kids, youth and adults is the Museo de Ferrocarril (Railroad Museum).  The museum is made up of a collection of buildings located in San Salvador on Avenida Peralta, between between the Terminal de Oriente and the backside of the Tiendona market.  Plan ahead because you can only enter the parking area via a right turn.  Drive slowly and watch for the railway murals on the exterior wall just before the entrance.  The cost is $1 per person for the museum, and $1 per person to ride the train.  Pay for both right away at the entrance kiosk, along with the $1 bus parking fee.  Foreigners are charged $3 to enter, but if you spend a lot of time in El Salvador and guide groups, you might be able to negotiate a deal.  I called the day before (2259-4100) to let them know we were coming, and I was able to get everyone in for the Salvadoran price.  It's also good to ask at what time the train rides depart so you can plan your visit accordingly.

The guide shows off the ingenious two-
directional seating for first class
The guides are well-trained and will share a lot of historic information with your group!  Signs are posted in Spanish and in English at most of the displays.  Sometimes the tour groups get pretty big, so ask if you can have your own guide.

The museum resides at the old train station
The round house
We started our recent visit with the train ride.  Some of the grandparents in our group remembered the railway system as it existed prior to the civil war.  Some remembered the short run which FENADESAL (Ferrocarriles Nacional de El Salvador) reinstated between Apopa and San Salvador from 2007-2012.  I think it would be very fun to view the photos which the young people took during the visit.  There were, of course, lots of selfies with engines in the background.  One boy took pictures of every mechanical gadget on display.  Some of the kids recorded what the guide was saying.  Many of the mothers encouraged their children to take lots of pictures to use for future school projects.  Everyone really had fun.  The tour is interactive and the guide was really good at making it fun for the little ones.
The presidential car

View down the route the track for the train ride
A positive side note:  the young guides at this museum serve as excellent role models for students who may be studying tourism and history with aspirations of seeking employment in the developing tourism industry in El Salvador.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Plan B: A Beautiful and Impactful Day

There are some days that just do not go as planned.  Tuesday was one of those days.

The day started out as expected.  I met up with our pastor and he drove us out to the community.  As we chugged along the main road alongside the community, we periodically stuck our heads and hands out the windows to wave and greet friends who were passing by.  We ground our way up the rocky hill and parked next to the church.

The training meeting was already in session.  Pastors and leaders from the northern region were reflecting on a passage from scripture and sharing personal stories of God's presence in the midst of health crises.  Through sobs and tears, one pastor recounted the recent times in which her husband was gravely ill and God intervened.  Her husband's faith astounds her.

The tables were set end to end and covered with colorful cloths.  A candle burned in the center.  Vases of pink silk flowers were surrounded by open Bibles, notebooks, water bottles and purses.  The twenty or so persons seated in white plastic chairs are being trained as health promoters in the Lutheran Church.  They attend half-day training sessions once per month.  On this day they were beginning a unit on nutrition and healthy eating.

The teaching pastor is the coordinator for health ministries for the Lutheran Church.  She suggested we sing a song to recover our energy after sharing and receiving the testimonies.  She started with a melody which was not the one which actually goes with the song she chose, so the singing was a little rough as people graciously followed her.  Then it was time for the snack:  tamales!  Each person could have one tamal with beans and one plain, served with cream and a cup of coffee.  These tamales were super delicious, made by one of the moms in the church.

The workshop continued with a focus on the plant of the month:  carambola (starfruit).  One woman has a carambola tree, so she was in charge of bringing in the seeds.  (Each month a different volunteer brings in leaves, sticks, roots, fruits or seeds of a different nutritional or medicinal plant.  This is the second year of training, so the group has gathered a good amount of knowledge about the plants which they can grow in their own communities to improve their health.)  Each of us received 3 seeds and 3 black seedling bags so that we can grow a tree for ourselves, a tree for our church and a tree to give away.

We did some reading and sharing about nutrition and the importance of breakfast.  We created a little artwork of sample meals and snacks based on foods that are good for us, balanced and available.  One by one we presented our menus, the majority with the caveat:  "If I have money, I would eat..." Everyone eats beans for breakfast and beans for dinner.

The workshop ended with lunch.  The reason I had accompanied the pastor to the workshop was because I had been invited to an event for the afternoon.  The only way I could get to the event was if he orchestrated something, which he did.  He would drive us to the nearby community which is a controlled area, but we are known there so it is not a problem to enter.  Two men of confidence would meet us and guide us into the neighboring community.  There, one would take me into the school for the event - a corn fiesta.  A girl I have known since she was a baby was competing in her beautiful princess dress made entirely from elements of corn plants.  The men of confidence would then accompany the pastor back out to a meeting.  After his meeting, the pastor would be guided back to the school so we could meet up and be guided out again.

Plan in place, Pastor went out to the car.  It would not start.  What followed was an adventure of lifting the car over a big rock, rolling the car down a steep hill, taking parts out of the car, and pondering a plan B.  Big raindrops started to fall.  I pulled out my umbrella; onlookers ran for cover.  The neighborhood mechanic helped roll the car, now with a new battery, down another hill still with no luck.  "Sister," he called out over the now pounding rain, "Go into my house!"  I went inside as a woman gathered up the chickens.  A giant bold of lightning struck next to the house with heart-pounding thunder.  "Holy ****," I said, under my breath.  The thunder was crazy.  The pastor and mechanic ducked in for shelter.  We had no choice but to wait out the storm which was now dumping buckets of rain onto the tin roof.  It was so loud that we had to shout to talk with each other.

The Box
We talked for an hour.  The men said that the storm popped up because the heat just kept increasing with no place to go.  I nodded.  It seriously had been hotter than hades all morning.  The mechanic had lived in the US for a number of years, studying as a nursing assistant and then working in healthcare.  He either was deported or came back to El Salvador years ago.  He got up and pulled out an old wooden box.  He slid the cover open to show us the contents:  an old roll of gauze, a bottle of peroxide and a disheveled stack of yellowing papers.  "When I came back from the US, the health ministry made me a first responder," he said.  He thoughtfully thumbed through the papers.  "These are the medical records from the years of the chargas plague."  He had all the records from the original families that settled in the community back in 1996 after the war.  Chargas (a parasite disease that affects the eyes of unborn babies) had left its mark on the community.  I suggested the mechanic-first responder help us out at the Mission of Healing in February.  Apparently he is also an expert in natural medicine.  Who knew?  I reached into my bag and pulled out my first aid kit.  I pulled out some bandages and gauze sponges.  Our friend carefully placed them into his wooden box, slid the lid closed and placed the box in its place, right by the door.  It's hard to be a first responder without any bandages.

"Look," said the mechanic.  "There is no problem.  The sister can sleep on the sofa and the pastor can have the hammock.  You can stay the night."  A little later, the rain let up.

A friend of the mechanic showed up.  His white car was parked nearby.  He could be our taxi driver and take us to the other community so that at least the pastor could get to his meeting.  The government official had been delayed by the rain too.  We all climbed through the mud and into the car.  It was a little tin can with stinky exhaust, a bad transmission and a back seat that I just barely fit into (along with the mechanic).  We drove at breakneck speed so we would not lose our momentum in the lakes that now covered the road.  At one point we sped across a little river and bumped so hard that we almost hit our heads on the ceiling.  "Water took out the road," said the driver.  The mechanic and I looked at each other.  No kidding.

"What do we own you?" we asked the driver.  He said we did not owe a thing.

We walked into the community center, damp and apologizing, and slid right into the content of the meeting.  The youth and young adults of the community have organized a group for themselves and are working to get legal standing.  Dance groups, rap, hip hop, folk music, visual arts, skate-boarding, singing, drama  and a drum corps are flourishing and some have won national awards.  The group wants to start a community radio station to help promote their activities, and also to make money through advertising for local businesses.  The experience of running a radio station, complete with news reports and educational programming would help build the resumes of young adults.  We met for 2 1/2 hours, much of the time learning about the process from a deputy in the National Assembly.  One young man is about to graduate from the university as an engineer.  He has all kinds of ideas of how to promote the study of math, science and technology in the community.

One of the biggest challenges for these young people is where they live.  When you live in or come from a controlled community, no matter what your level of education or your talents, there are suspicions about you.  These young people have a vision for a future which is different.  The pastor is their connection to the resources beyond their borders.  He loves them, encourages them, accompanies them and brings a measure of protection to their efforts.

One of the younger boys in the group left for a bit.  He came back and passed out plastic bags and straws to everyone in the circle.  "I'm sorry I could not find cups," he quietly said to me.  "Do you drink soda?"  I was the only female in the room.  He poured warm Coke into my bag and then filled each one around the circle.  He offered me a cookie, and then served the others. It was a beautiful gesture of hospitality.

Thanks to my patient husband, who had his own agenda for the day, we were able to get a ride back to the city.  The pastor's car stayed safely with the mechanic.  The corn fiesta probably happened, and hopefully someone took photos.  We were not struck by lightning.  We had conversations with people which otherwise would not have happened.  As we dropped the pastor off at his house, he said, "It was a very beautiful and impactful day."

Yes, yes it was.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Tales of the Grandfather: Our Own Forests

The Grandfather quietly slipped into a pew a few rows back.  I glanced over my shoulder and gave a little wave.  He slipped the baseball cap off of his head, grinned, and waved back.  We refocused on singing.

A little while later the devotional ended, and I made my way over to the Grandfather.  "Hola, Papá!" 

"Hola mi hija," he said.  We shared a good strong hug.

A small conversation circle lamented the suffering which the world is currently experiencing at the hands of Mother Nature.  The Grandfather said...

Each one of us must take care of our own forest.  Do you understand what I mean?  People grab and grab and grab for themselves (he gestures like he is grabbing fruit from trees and stuffing it into his mouth and his pockets).  All of the little trees around them are skinny and drying up, while they have this big thing around the middle (a fat belly).  Pastors are afraid to say these harsh words, because many of them are busy getting fat.   These are the words which need to be said.  We must take care of our own forests.  When we care for the trees around us, literally and figuratively, our faith is growing.  One tree alone breaks in the storm, but the forest of trees is strong.

One hundred years ago, these words were preached.  I walk and preach them now.  I have almost one hundred years.  One hundred years from now, these words will be there.  People will remember them.  I walk among the trees and I preach.  We must take care of our own forests.  This is the legacy of faith.  This is eternal life.  

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Earthquakes and the Story of the Ugly Baby

We were sitting around the table last night, sharing a lovely pupusa dinner with some friends and their family.  It had been a pretty long day.  Each of us had gotten up early for various appointments after suffering from a  lack of sleep the previous night.  A large 8.1 earthquake centered off of the coast of Chiapas, Mexico, shook Central America all along the fault line. At just before 11 PM, San Salvador's buildings rattled and creaked for more than one full minute.  It was an odd sensation, with a few seconds of shaking and then a prolonged sensation of swaying in a boat over the waves.  MARN (Ministerio de Ambiente y Recursos Naturales - Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources) was quick on social media to identify the source of the quake, and those of us online at the time posted "Did you feel that?" and "aguado" (like water) and  "everyone's OK," recognizing that in Mexico, not everyone would be OK. 

El Salvador has a recent history of being impacted by big earthquakes about every 15 years.  The last big earthquakes took place in January 13, 2001 and on February 13, 2001.  Salvadorans live with the expectation that the next tremor will bring "the big one."

Around the table, family members shared stories from 1986, when a devastating quake hit the country.  The adults in the room were young and remember buildings collapsing.  In 2001, the double quake and all of the aftershocks sent people running outside.  People were so frightened of being buried that they slept outside.  Everyone slept outside.  Carlos shared a funny story about his co-worker, who was not Salvadoran, who slept outside but underneath a coconut tree.  They tried to tell him it was not a good idea, but he insisted, until the coconuts fell down.

Carlos' wife asked if we had heard about the bebé fea (ugly baby).  All of the Salvadorans around the table knew the story of the ugly baby.  No one knows if the story is true.  A short time after the earthquake of January 13, 2001, a baby was born.  After the birth the baby was quickly wrapped up.  When the nurse unwrapped the baby and saw its face, she gasped and exclaimed, "Oh, what an ugly baby!"  In a deep voice like a grown man the baby said, "The most ugly thing will be on the 13th of February."  The ugly baby predicted the second quake.  Truth or urban legend?  In El Salvador, sometimes one cannot say.

I doubt an ugly baby will predict the next quake.  What is sure is that El Salvador, like other countries located near the slipping points of the earth's tectonic plates, will experience quakes.  For residents and visitors alike, it is important to be prepared.  Know where the safest location is inside or outside your structure.  At home or in your hotel, keep a bag (or your backpack) ready with the following: your legal documents, cash, 2 bottles of water, snack bars, and a small first aid kit.  We also keep a crank radio, small candles and matches, a permanent marker, a tarp and duck tape in our grab bag.

As our sister pastor has taught us, The elements of creation were created to do what they do.  We do not need to fear creation, but respect it.  The earth's crust moves.  We know this and should do our best to prepare for the next quake.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Leave the Door Open

I leave the office door open.  The office is a narrow room with a slightly hidden door off of a dark outdoor corridor.  No one really thinks to knock if the door is closed, even though I have taped a foam heart on the door that says "welcome" in three languages.  It's a surprisingly quiet space.  It receives the afternoon sun, which gives it a stuffy, oven-like quality that lasts into the next morning.  The slatted windows let in just enough car exhaust and kicked up dust from the parking area to give everything in the office a slightly gray patina.

I leave the office door open.  An open door invites people in.  An open door says that the person inside has time for you.

People wonder what I do in El Salvador.  I sometimes wonder about that too.  Today was my second day back in the office.  I start each day by wiping off the desks and lighting a candle.  This could be viewed as a spiritual practice.  The candle is big and smells of citronella, so honestly it is more of a practice in mosquito abatement.  I keep a cardboard container on the desk (it was a gift) filled with pencils or candy or some little treat.  A long time ago a graceful woman at my home church taught me the value of creating welcome and having treats even in the smallest and most humble of offices.

A familiar face peered into my doorway.  "Come in!" I chimed.  After a little hug and a few seconds, I could tell my friend wanted to talk.  "Sit down," I offered.  She took the green plastic chair.  I sat down in the wiggly aluminum one next to her.  I have known this pastor for a very long time.  She was a solid companion to the Bishop and an educator in the Lutheran Church during the war years.  She has had her ups and downs and miracles and horrors with her health.  She is smart and makes her points in meetings with authority and wisdom.  Today, as she has done from time to time, she just stopped by to talk.

Two hours passed.  There were a few tears.  There were a few hugs.  And while listening intently, I  jotted down a few words in my calendar book.  A few hours later, I am left with a little collection of her words and my reflections from our morning together...

The ideas of building peace and reconciliation amidst our current reality, the goals of the IPAZ (Pastoral Initiative for Peace) are good, but at this time advocacy has become a huge challenge.  The culture of violence is pervasive.  For a time we had the truce [between the gangs] and in my opinion that was good because it created a spirit of hope among gang members that change was possible.  We believe that people can change, right?  But now with the police or security forces taking youth and beating them or killing them in whatever community they live in...where is the truth? What do we do as the church when the societal authorities which are supposed to seek the truth are perpetuating violence?  There is no truth...

There are youth who served time in prison.  They have nowhere to live.  Where can they go with tattoos on their faces?  They are the ones, as we say, who "found Jesus" or Jesus found them, right? While they were in prison.  So we started a bakery project and they bake breads.  They live in the church because they have no place to go.  They work at the bakery and they live at the church...

One man was a member of MS.  He was sent to maximum security prison and then was released.  He came to us and told us of the conditions there.  All he had was one toothbrush.  He was there for six months.  No soap, no toothpaste, nothing.  No family members are allowed to visit or bring things.  Everyone washes only with water.  Brushes teeth only with water.  No hair cuts.  No shaving.  No laundry.  They are supposed to get 2 hours of sun each day but there is no room.  There is not enough air.  Men are sick, very sick with lung infections.  Some have AIDS and even cancer but no one is treated.  It is inhumane.  As the church we plead for these men - we know they are not good people, but they are humans - and then we are accused of being aligned with the gangs.  When the man was released, the guards started beating him right outside the prison gate.  His sister was there to pick him up, and had she not been there, the guards would have killed him...

When there is no hope, no belief that people can change, then the culture of violence grows.  When there is no opportunity for education or employment, when narco-trafficking consumes a community, the culture of violence grows and the victims are the little ones, the most vulnerable in society - the little store, the little business, the people on the bus.  There was a little store run by a family.  The gang demanded a rent of $25 per week, that is $100 per month for a little store.  One time the gang sent the boy to collect the rent and the man paid as usual.  But the boy was always high on drugs.  He did not turn the money in to his boss.  The boss sent another collector but the store owner could not pay and he explained that the collector had already come.  The first collector denied receiving any money.  The gang member pulled out his gun and shot up the store.  He killed a person who was there buying something.  The man was shot and taken to the hospital and thankfully did not die.  The gang shot people, and for what?  

Gang live is an alternative lifestyle.  When there is no economic development, when there is no hope, where there is no societal movement toward reconciliation and the belief that change is possible, it is the only alternative, chosen or chosen for you...

I leave the office door open.  I help a little with communications and prepare for upcoming workshops.  Youth, Migration, Gangs, Inter-culturality, Education, Partherships - these are themes that weave themselves through the work of my day.  I sit at a desk with ants in the drawers.  The incredibly loud fan blocks out the sound of afternoon thunder.  I leave the office door open because a friend, a co-worker might want to talk.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

They Are the Youth

They dance.
They have friends.
They stay up late doing homework.
They text.
They work when they can.
They go to high school nearby.
They do spoken word.
They live with their parents.
They ride the bus for 3 hours to study at a university.
They are active in their churches.
They are artists.
They care for babies.
They have babies.
They stay up late doing homework.
They play the drums.
They play cell phone games.
They play soccer games.
They have friends.
They have friends who have died.
They have friends who have been killed.
They love their community.
They come home before dark.
They are afraid of their community.
There are rules in their community.
They are organized.
They are organizing in the community.
They have gifts.
They have talents.
They have goals.
They have dreams.
They love their community.
They want to live in their community.
They want to live.

The rainy season had not quite taken hold, but the afternoon skies were gray and threatening.  The young people were not deterred.  They had organized a street fair - a showcase of the abilities and talents and determination of the community's youth.  Cultural performance groups from choreographed athletic dance, to Batacuda (drumming), to hip hop, to spoken word, to ballad singing, to spray-paint art, to Andean folk music, to a rock band each performed for a very large crowd of parents, children, friends and community members.  The event was a first fruit of a newly self-organized youth organization.  This mighty little group of youth leaders made a statement, and they made it loud:  They have the right to dream and the right to go after the lives they want for themselves.  Their identity is not determined by where they live nor by the forces of violence which surround them.   They don't want to hide.  They want to live out loud.

They are the present.
They are the hope.
They are the community.
They are the energy.
They are the love.
They are the future.
They are the youth.

Little ones practicing their moves during a dance performance

Activities for the younger children


Opportunities for local vendors - I really admire this
entrepreneur's creativity