Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Valley of the Angel

This very morning, church leaders, water protection advocates, citizens and journalists are gathering in the Valley of the Angel.  This is the valley to the north of San Salvador, to the south of Apopa, and from which, on a clear day, one can see the surrounding circle of volcanoes, from El BoquerĂ³n (San Salvador), to the hills of Nejapa, to the ancient volcano of Guazapa, to the hills of Chalatenango, to the twin peaks of San Vicente.  At one time, this was forest.  Long ago, people recognized that this large inland plain with rich water resources was suitable for agriculture.  For a long, long time, sugar cane has grown in the valley.

With the construction of the San Salvador bypass, the valley opened up to traffic, especially truck traffic.  Small roadside stands popped up, as did gas stations.  A large customs depot for land transport and unsightly truck corral followed.  Nearby businesses, especially the famous Coca Cola, began extracting huge quantities of water from the aquifer.  Industrial waste dumps into the river valley.

A new proposal calls for the construction of about 8000 new residential units in the valley.  The effort is bordered at the north by a Roman Catholic Church construction project at a relatively newly installed shrine to the Virgin of Fatima.  At the southern end, the Elim Church is also engaging in the construction of a sizable compound.

I am not an expert on any of this.  What I know is that the Salvadoran Lutheran Church and many other faith leaders and humanitarian organization leaders who I know and trust are fighting to limit this project.  Our sister church pastor in El Salvador is a member of the Water Forum and works day and night as a community organizer, waking people up to the reality of contamination and misuse of water in El Salvador.  El Salvador has LOTS of water.  ALL of the surface water is contaminated.  The aquifers, which contain potable water, are being depleted so rapidly, that within just a few years, El Salvador will have a water crisis. 

Here are a few photos of the Valley of the Angel which I took between January and March of 2019.  Today, a human chain is blocking the construction equipment which has begun work in the valley.  Today, neighbors and leaders are taking a stand.  The project surely will go forward.  The hope is that it can be done in a way which responsibly manages waste water, responsibly uses and replenishes the aquifer, and maintains a measure of green space, perhaps replenishing a bit of the forest which once stood in this beautiful valley.

Top soil blows from a harvested field blows in the wind.  Sugar
cane grows in a field near the road.

The San Salvador volcano looks down over the Valley of the Angel.

Years of growing cane in this valley have depleted nutrients from the soil
and have left the soil and groundwater contaminated with chemicals.

A sugar cane refinery puffs out smoke on the left.  A diesel power plant
puts out smoke on the right.  It seems like solar power would be
an excellent choice for developments in this sunny valley.

Cane is planted, grown and harvested 3 times before it is cleared
and replanted. 

On a clear day, the views in this valley are extraordinary.  The green
space in this photo is destined to become a residential development.
Without the trees, the heat index in this valley will soar.

The Valley of the Angel welcomes the sunrise.

It is not difficult to see why the valley was sought out as a place
to grow crops.  In ancient times, I imagine the valley was filled
with corn.  Sugar cane is a cash crop.

During March 2019, construction began at the site of the shrine
to the Virgin of Fatima.

On Sundays, when traffic is less and there are fewer construction vehicles
producing dust, it is easier to take photos.

This is the site of the future Catholic Church, which will
include a large parking lot.

Water trucks are sometimes brought in to sprinkle the dry soil
to prevent large clouds of dust from consuming the roadway.   The
small structure in the center is the shrine to the Virgin of Fatima.

The commute time from north of Apopa into the city of San Salvador
on a week day is about 2 hours.  8000 new residences
will add an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 cars to this traffic route during
morning and evening rush hours.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

We Are Family

News of the plane crash in Ethiopia reached El Salvador quickly.  Within 24 hours of the crash, the Salvadoran Lutheran Church organized a memorial service to honor the lives of those who perished and to pray for their families.  The memorial was particularly dedicated to Pastor Norma Tendis, a husband, father, and Lutheran pastor who served the Lutheran Church of St. Ruprecht and Einode in Austria and worked as a consultant to to the Economy of Life program of the World Council of Churches.  Pastor Tendis was en route to Nairobi for the United Nations Assembly on the Environment when he and 156 others were killed in the crash.  The memorial service in El Salvador was attended by more than 50 people, including Salvadoran leaders with ACT (Action by Churches Together),  the Lutheran World Federation, local faith leaders in the Salvadoran ecumenical family and visiting members of the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America).

The Salvadoran Lutheran Church is dedicated to advocacy and action in favor of protecting the environment, locally and globally.  Church members, especially those who work in the area of care for creation, were especially saddened by the loss of so many fellow advocates.  In singing, praying, honoring and remembering, this little Lutheran denomination in a little country dropped everything and stood in solidarity with grieving families across the globe.  The Salvadoran Lutheran Church, which is itself accompanied by many Lutheran Churches (especially from the United States), has a lot to teach the global church about accompanying one another in difficult times.

In the wake of tragedies, in times of disaster, in joyful celebrations and in times of positive change, the Salvadoran Lutheran Church stands in solidarity with the global Lutheran family.  At national and local levels, the church does a respectable job of educating its members about global issues and encouraging local actions of solidarity and activism.  This week, in recognition of the World Day of Water, the church marched alongside people of varied faith traditions and environmental organizations, pleading with authorities to protect El Salvador's water systems from being privatized.  The World Water Day march was just one of several marches within the past week, seeking responsible environmental legislation by the Salvadoran government.

Whether fighting to protect families' rights to clean, potable water or acting to defend the human rights of women in a misogynist society, the Salvadoran Lutheran Church works to build a just community.

Tomorrow, our local Salvadoran Lutheran Church will celebrate its 23rd anniversary as a congregation and as a community.  The celebration will be intertwined with the celebration of Women's Month (the whole month of March), the World Day of Prayer, and International Women's Day.  The whole day is being planned by women from the community.

Earlier this month we had a glimpse of what will take place tomorrow.  Women pastors and lay-leaders from the north and central regions of the El Salvador gathered at the Bishop's church in San Salvador to celebrate, using resources developed by the World Day of Prayer International Committee - an ecumenical group of Christian women dedicated to prayer and action with the goal of increasing peace and justice in the world. This year is dedicated to the nation of Slovenia.  Worship leaders were encouraged to learn and share a bit of the history, artwork, stories and testimonies of faith from Slovenian women. 

The Bishop's church was adorned with Salvadoran flags and Slovenian flags.  Women in attendance received purple ribbons and flowers.  During worship, Salvadoran women read the testimonies of four Slovenian women, and then one Salvadoran woman shared her own moving testimony.  Finding common threads of life experience, God's patience and perseverance, and God's amazing grace among Slovenian and Salvadoran women help to build relationships across the globe, and help women who are going through difficult times to know they are not alone.

When the little ones were all invited up to the front to sing, they were cheered on by all of the mothers, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers in the congregation.  No one is too old to have fun singing "El Amor de Dios es Maravilloso":  The love of God is wonderful.  The love of God is so big.  Nothing is above, below or outside of God's love.

The biblical text for the day was Luke 14:15-24 which is the parable of The Great Banquet.  This year's theme, "Come, everything is ready," is a call both to come and to invite.  The artwork for this year's event was created by Slovenian artist Rezka Arnus and features images of Slovenian women, a banquet set with traditional food and grapes, and marginalized children who received the invitation and have come to the banquet.  There is enough food and enough love for all.

I walk through my life as a Lutheran.  Sometimes when we are in our comfortable Lutheran Churches, we settle into schedules, routines, traditions, and we forget that we are part of a global Lutheran family.  We can forget that we are linked together in God's big story and that we grow in knowledge, faith, hope and love when we are connected to one another.  When we walk together, when we stand in solidarity with each other, when we need one another, and when we help each other, we are sharing God's big family banquet together.  We are family.  We are family.

Saturday, March 9, 2019


If you are on social media, the acronym SMH is no doubt familiar to you:  Shake My Head.  It is appropriate to place SMH on a post or in a comment to indicate that the subject matter of the post (be it the situation, the behavior, the conversation) is ridiculous, foolish, and perhaps there are no fit words other than "Huh?" or "Why? (with attitude)" to describe one's reaction to the topic at hand.  I think SMH might also be well used as an acronym for Scratch My Head, at moments when one's reaction is just one of confused curiosity.  Sometimes in El Salvador, I just shake my head (SMH) or maybe SMC (sacudo mi cabeza).

SMH #1:  Women Riding Side-Saddle on Motorcycles which are Careening down a Busy Street
OK, so mounting a motor-cycle while wearing a pencil skirt is definitely not a modest moment for a cyclist's mom or grandmother, but seriously, riding sideways cannot be safe!  Weaving in and out of traffic with Grandma barely hanging on to the driver with one arm while she clutches her bag of market goods with the other arm seems unwisely risky!  As demonstrated in the photo. at least Grandma usually is wearing sensible shoes.  Young female passengers decked out in short skirts, skinny jeans, crop tops and high heels hang on with white knuckles, especially if a child is sandwiched between the adult passengers. Well, at least in El Salvador, they are required to wear helmets.
Do you see her?  SMH
SMH #2:  Cheese-A-What?
Look at the billboard in the photo.  Think about it for a minute. 

Cheese.  SMH
Queso is cheese.  Taco Bell serves quesadilla - which in Mexico or the United States is an appetizer or main dish based on cheese melted between tortillas.  In El Salvador, quesadilla is not this.  It is a  dessert:  a lovely confection with the consistency of pound cake, made with corn masa, oil, grated cheese and topped with sesame seeds.  A warm slice of quesadilla with a cup of coffee is a perfect mid-morning or mid-afternoon snack.  So, in El Salvador, Taco Bell had the choice to advertise its "Quesadilla Mexicana" (long and potentially confusing) or to find a new name all together.  Hence, a new word enters the Salvadoran lexicon:  the Cheesadilla.

SMH #3:  Wiper
On the Calle de Oro at the roundabout with the turn-off to Nejapa, traffic often slows, which makes it an ideal location to sell pineapples, quesadilla (the cake kind), plants for your flower garden, and big bags of something called "wiper."  Clear bags of used clothing (like those in the photo) are commonly sold for $5, which can give a resale entrepreneur the opportunity to sell items individually and make a little profit (especially if the bag contains a name brand item or two).  As I looked at these bags along the road, I thought, "Surely that is not what these bags are, and why are they called wiper?"

Wiper. SMH
When faced with a mystery like this, I usually ask my trusty Salvadoran pastor.  We were driving along one day in Apopa and came upon a bunch of bags with a wiper sign.  "Why are those called wiper?" I asked.

The explanation is simple.  The bags are filled with ends of roles of fabrics from local maquilas (sewing factories or sweat shops) and someone had the idea that this fabric would be good for making towels for wiping down cars at car washes or to make the little towels that are sold by informal vendors on street corners.  So, maybe about a year ago, bags appeared along the side of the road with signs reading "Wiper $5." That is a good explanation, except that WIPE is not a word in Spanish!  I explained the word wipe is a verb in English, and the pastor had no idea about this.  "When I use the word wiper in English, I am talking about those things on the windshield that go back and forth in the rain," I continued.  He told me those are called limpiaparabrisas.  Well that word just trips off the tongue.

Lesson:  English words creeping into Salvadoran Spanish may not be exactly what you expect.

SMH #4: You've come a long way, Martin!

Add caption
This simply strikes me as funny.  The Salvadoran Lutheran Church really claims its Lutheran identity both theologically and historically.  For example, the anniversary of the Reformation is celebrated each year with a week of festivities, and year-round, images of the Luther Rose (Luther's theological coat of arms) are proudly worn on t-shirts, polo shirts, clergy stoles, necklaces...well, you get it.  The photo depicts a statue of Martin Luther which has been around for a long while.  As you can see, Luther currently stands on top of a sizable speaker in the Bishop's church.  I think the guy who nailed 95 protest statements to a church door would embrace the idea of standing on top of a big *** speaker in El Salvador (though he doesn't appear very happy about it.)

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Rain in the Dry Season

For centuries, El Salvador has had fairly predictable dry seasons and wet seasons.  January, February and March are typically dry, hot and dusty.  A little rain falls in April, and then in May the wet season begins.  From May through November, El Salvador receives almost daily afternoon thunderstorms, which often last through the night.  Tropical storms and hurricanes from the Gulf of Mexico often bring days of torrential rains, as do the less frequent hurricanes from the Pacific.  Flooding and landslides are annual threats for much of the country.

Of course, altitude, presence of trees and proximity to the coast create slightly different climate zones within El Salvador.  Changes in global weather patterns due to the warming of our planet impact the weather in El Salvador too, and the historic dates of when to plant crops are a little less reliable. However, more or less, the seasons come and go as expected:  you either carry a rain umbrella every day and fight the humidity, or you carry a sun umbrella every day and fight the dust.  Visitors who come at the same time every year pretty much know what to expect.

For those who are a little more in touch with nature, for those who arise at 3:30 in the morning and spend time in the fields, for those who carry in their spirits the stories of generations about the winds and the rains and the clouds, the rhythm of El Salvador's weather is a bit more complex.

It is February.  It is dry.  Fires burned on the hills of Nejapa.  Dust devils danced along the road to Panchimalco.  And one day, clouds appeared over the volcano.  And then there were no stars in the night sky.  It was the time of the full moon - the snow moon, but for most of the night, the moon was covered in clouds.  One afternoon there was a brief rain storm.  The next afternoon it rained and rained, well into the madrugada (the wee hours of the morning).

"It''s raining!" I posted on social media.  Wow-faced emojis from North Americans followed, with comments like "what!" and "really?"

I remembered a bit of rain from last year.  I remembered hearing something about rain during Lent - around the time of Ash Wednesday - and how it brings the flowers for Easter.

Back on social media, "Es la lluvia de los jocotes," commented a Salvadoran friend.  "Yes, it's the rain of the jocotes," said another.  The rain of the jocotes is an annual event during the dry season.

To be clear, it's still dry.  The sky is blue, the temperature is hot, the wind is blowing and dust is back in the air.  The rain has passed, it seems.  So, why does this rain happen and why is it called the rain of the jocotes?

To begin, the jocote harvest lasts for a few weeks from mid-February into early March.  Jocotes are a slightly sour fruit, about the size of a small plum, with a fairly large pit inside.  They vary a lot in color and size, and are native to Mexico and Central America.  Since the prior to the Spanish conquest, farmers have planted jocote trees as perimeter fences, to prevent erosion and, of course, to enjoy the harvest of fruit.  Jocotes are rich in vitamins, calcium, iron and anti-oxidants.  Like most native fruits, they need to be consumed within a day of picking them, or they will spoil.  In El Salvador, families often preserve the fruit by making jocotes en miel - made by cooking the jocotes with panela - a hardened block of sugar syrup.

Jocotes range in size from giant cherry tomato to small plum.

So the rain of the jocotes happens at the time of the jocote harvest.  As a weather phenomenon, as reported by El Salvador's environmental ministry this year, moist air came in from the Caribbean, crossed Central America, and brought rain to El Salvador.

"God does it.  Every year.  It has to be from God, because there is no other way to explain it."  This is what a friend told me when I asked her about the rains of the jocotes...

Every year, before Holy Week, God sends the rains of the jocotes.  God does this to wake up the chicharras [chicharras are members of the cicada family].  Soon we will hear the song of the chicharras.  It is so beautiful to walk among the coffee trees and listen to the chicharras singing...no they don't do any damage to the trees.  I have never seen them eat even a leaf.  I don't even know if they eat.  God wakes them up, they sing, and then they die.  During Holy Week, they sing and then they are dead.  And the next year, God wakes them up again.  God's power does this each year make us think about God.  God does this to remind us.  During Holy Week, imagine!  It is from God; it could not be from any other source than God.

Near our sister church community during the season of Lent, the chicharra choir sings a grand opera that echoes through the hills.  It is LOUD.  Interesting fact:  chicharras actually do not eat leaves.  Their straw-like mouths drink sap from roots and stems and tree trunks.  Apparently chicharras especially like sugar cane stalks, and since most of the cane is harvested before March, maybe they are enjoying the gleanings of the fields.  That seems like something God would think of.

And so the rains of the jocotes sprinkle a bit of water onto a very dry earth.  Flowers emerge on brown tree branches, dust devils continue to dance, chicharras sing and then go back to sleep, we celebrate Easter, and the seasonal rains begin.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Just Click: The Art of Defying Physics

Just a few physics-defying photos from January and February, 2019...

Even after almost twenty years, crazy quantities of stuff piled into
pick-up trucks still captures my attention.  Plastic resin chairs are THE
staple seating option found everywhere from offices to churches to
schools to clinics to homes.  They now come in lots of fun colors.
Prior to the election, we observed large quantities of chairs in
Nayib Bukele blue (celeste).
Anybody sleepy? This colorful creation is pretty cleverly balanced, though I am
 not sure how it would do on a really windy day!  Lots of churches have a
 small stash of colchones or mattresses for delegations and youth groups that
 spend the night.  These are also pretty typical of mattresses found in many homes.
Objects in motion tend to stay in motion.  Doesn't it seem like maybe
the two people waiting at the bus stop should take evasive action?
Sugar cane and garbage (in this case, recycling) are two of the most commonly
hauled products on this particular road..  This is just a little cane truck, maybe
 from one of the small plots of cane north of San Salvador.

Check out the two jugglers on unicycles, first spotted at night.  See the head
above the car on the left.  Follow the flying bowling pins down to the guy
on the cycle between the cars on the right.
Here you can see one of the cyclists during the day.

When we drive along, we tend to shout out stuff, partly as an
awareness thing, and partly to be funny.  My husband nonchalantly said
"Furniture."  He thought I should take a picture.

So I took a picture.  Yup, it was furniture alright.  Impressive.
Look for the umbrella.  Can you see the spinning ball on the spindle
at the top of the umbrella?  The umbrella is balanced on the street
performer's forehead and he is juggling.  Especially when I take photos,
I try to pay the performers - except if they are fire-breathers.
That should not be encouraged, in my opinion. 

Caught the same performer hours later.  As he took a bow, the ball dropped
off the spindle, proving to my impressed husband that it was
legitimately balanced and spinning.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Observations from the 2019 Presidential Election

It was an honor to serve as an international observer for the 2019 presidential election in El Salvador, as part of a national and international team coordinated by FECLAI - the organization of historic protestant churches in Central America.  More than 2000 international observers volunteered to serve in the recent election.  They came from across the globe, from churches, from non-governmental organizations and from embassies (including the US Embassy in El Salvador).  Observers are trained and credentialed.  Observers are awarded access to all phases of the election process, and are present in voting centers across the country on election day.  

Observing is about presence.  Observers do not intervene or correct.  Observers do watch, take notes, photograph and file formal reports.

The election process in El Salvador is transparent and very different from that in the United States.  It is "old school" and it works.  A year ago, I wrote a variety of stories about the details of the election process, including:
The Voting Experience
Cardboard and Tape
Crayons and Paper

On February 3, 2019, Nayib Bukele was elected to be the next president of El Salvador.  You can find a variety of analytical stories about Bukele's victory and what it means for the political parties in El Salvador at the blog site El Salvador Perspectives.

On February 3, 2019, I spent the day with a young Salvadoran law student, observing the voting process at 3 schools in the metropolitan San Salvador region.  We noted every minute detail of the election process and from our perspective noted that the process was fair and transparent.  Over the course of the day, we developed short-term friendships with all of the other actors in the voting process, from police officers to party observers to other national and international observers at our sites.  Everyone was very professional and helpful. 

It's hard to capture (or even remember) such a long day of small moments, but hopefully I can share a few photos on a couple of themes that will give you a sense of what El Salvador Election Day 2019 was like for a sampling of voters and observers.

Many families have the tradition of voting together.  Two and three generations of family members meet up at the voting site (if they all live within the boundaries of that site), celebrating their right and responsibility to vote.  Little children learn about the process from their parents, some with more interest than others, with the lucky ones getting a chance to help mom or dad put the ballot into the ballot box.  One little boy tried to peek at his mom's ballot while she voted.  "No, no," she chided, "It's a secret ballot.  It is not permitted for you to look."  She then sent a nod and a wink my way as if to say, "See, I know the rules."

No secret ballot for this daddy.

Mom's little helper
Accessibility is a tricky thing in El Salvador.  If you can navigate the crumbly sidewalks and open holes outside of the polling site, you have a good chance of finding the inside situation fairly navigable.

We heard that many sites had wheel chairs and helpers.  In this site,
political party youth were ready to lend a hand.

We were told that last year people complained that the ramp was too steep.
This year they built this new ramp.  The school is on two levels, so surely
the students will benefit as well as the voters.
Party Information Centers and Voting Lists
Located a prescribed distance away from the voting site entrances, political parties set up information centers or tents.  The primary function of these centers is to assist the voter in finding the number of his or her assigned voting table within the voting site.  This information is available online, but many Salvadorans either have no online access or understanding of that system and have to find their table numbers by searching through the long voter lists which are posted outside of the voting sites.  Each voting table has 600 assigned voters listed alphabetically.  If, for example, there are 10 voting tables at a site, that means hunting through 10 lists of 600 to find your name.  Traditionally, the service of providing information has been augmented at the information tents with a bit of political bling to help ramp up enthusiasm for the political parties.

Check out the contrast between the FMLN and the Nuevas Ideas information
tents.  FMLN always has a good ground game with food, beverages, music and
assistance.  The Bukele team did not set up until after the election started and
the tent was essentially empty most of the day.  Ground game was simply
 not as important for Bukele's demographic.
Voter list challenges:  Reading the lists to find voter tables is not an easy task
with tiny print in the bright sun.
No pupusas or coffee here - just bumping music and computers.  ARENA's info tent.

At this spot, Bukele's team deposited a load of juice, and it was sort of
"help yourself"
And for a little glimpse into the flags, swag and old school hymns of the FMLN party tents:

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Just Click: The Night before the Election

At 5 AM, ballots will be delivered to polls in sealed boxes.  Citizen poll workers, political party election watchers, and national and international election observers will begin their work as El Salvador conducts a presidential election.  Here are some final pre-election images from around the capital city...

Local mayors across the country promote their political parties
on billboards and overpasses

Official campaigns ended the previous weekend.  A caravan
of buses decked out with FMLN propaganda headed into San Salvador

Candidate forum for international election observers -
the FMLN ticket

VP Candidate for GANA - Nuevas Ideas

Voting centers popped up on Thursday.  The centers are run by the
political parties and are located near to the polling places.

Each party typically has a center at each polling site for the purpose
of assisting voters in finding where they are registered to vote.

Party flags are permitted.  Party flags with an X through them are not.
The X signifies "vote this way."

Observer:  Ecumenical Electoral Observation / churches in mission