Thursday, November 12, 2015


From Encuentro IV - a gathering of international partners of the Salvadoran Lutheran Church in November, 2015...

The Miracle of the Loaves and the Fishes.

Most folks with a bit of biblical knowledge probably know the basic story:  5000 hungry men plus families listening to Jesus preaching and teaching.  All these people need to eat.  A boy offers up his 2 loaves of bread and his 5 fish.  Jesus tells his disciples to pass the bread and fish to everyone, and some kind of great multiplication miracle occurs.  Everyone is fed and there are 12 baskets full of leftovers.

The devotion for the day focused on this lesson.  Pastor Gloria wore a white sheet and played the part of Jesus.  Another pastor, like the boy, brought some bread.  Then as "Jesus" blessed the bread and started to share it, another person brought some snack foods, and then another brought some fruit.  The message from Pastor Gloria was simple:  We all have something to give, and when we all give something, God multiplies it into a miracle, and everyone is satisfied.

After the devotion, we moved into business.  Conversations about sustainability, financial transparency, and clear communications are challenging for every church.  Among folks with different cultural norms and different languages, the challenges in talking about church sustainability can be a little bit greater.  The Salvadoran Lutheran Church presented a long strategic plan.  At its center burned the light and hope for a church that can continue its mission of  speaking with a prophetic voice and working for justice and peace.  "I have a vision," said Pastor Vilma, "that one day my church will be self-sustaining.  We are a really poor church in a poor community, but we can do it.  We all have something to give.  We can do it."

After the meetings, our little group shared some time with our sister church pastor.  "The church is no different from a family," he said.  "The parents add up the costs for the month:  food, rent, medicine, transportation, etc. and then add up their sources of income.  Of course, the amount needed to live is much more than the amount which is coming in.  So, how does the family survive?  Arañando"  The pastor made a little wiggling motion with his fingers as he moved his hands up through the air.

Araña means spider, and the pastor's hand motions looked like the actions for "Itsy, Bitsy Spider" so I asked, "Like a spider?  Catching food like a spider?"

"Siiiiiii," said the pastor, "Arañando."   Spidering.

When a family has no more corn but the neighbor brings over some beans: spidering.  When the young person learns a new skill and starts a small little business to help the family:  spidering.  When someone needs a little medicine and a neighbor has some:  spidering.  Somehow with faith in God and the community working together, even though the costs to survive seem so much more than what can be earned, in the end there is enough, through faith and through spidering.

On a relaxing afternoon after the Encuentro had ended, we found ourselves wandering in a greenhouse on the side of a volcano.  "Look at these little spiders!" Their webs were fantastic and complex, and when opportunity struck, the spiders ran fast, worked fast and captured their food.

Maybe "spidering" isn't exactly the right translation for arañando (the dictionary translates it as "scratching"), but I think it captures the creative, dedicated and hard work that the Salvadoran families and the Salvadoran Lutheran Church do in order to survive.

Monday, October 19, 2015

The Lesson of the Bees

Just outside the door to the church, on the sheltered wall of a small portico, a small family of bees began to construct their nest - not on the stuccoed cement wall as one might expect, but on top of a poster which is securely taped to the wall.

If this happened outside of your church door or on the porch of your home, what would you do?  I probably would have spritzed the little mud daubs with a bit of vinegar (thus ruining the poster) or perhaps would have pulled the poster off of the wall to discourage the bees from building in that spot (thus ruining the poster).  After all, no one wishes to have bees buzzing about near a well-used entry way.  Right?

Daniel never considered impeding the work of the bees.  Instead, each Sunday morning before worship he snaps a few photos to capture the progress of the construction project.  As he has observed the progress, Daniel noticed something quite remarkable.

The poster on which the bees are building their home is the theme poster for the Salvadoran Lutheran Church for this year.  It depicts people coming together around a table, holding hands and overshadowed by the dove of peace.  The slogan, "Dialog leads to Reconciliation and Peace," describes the commitment of the church to work to transform hearts and communities filled with violence in to hearts and communities built on peace,  The bees chose the center of the dove's body on which to begin their work with mud and spit.  Bit by bit, their home has been growing, and as it has grown it has taken on the form of the dove's body.

"The Holy Spirit is here," says Daniel.  "The bees feel a sense of protection in this place, and so do we.  This is something mysterious.  Something like a small miracle."

We watched the bees flying to and from the nest as they did their work, building their home.  Bees were created to be bees, to pollinate, to build homes, to reproduce, to defend themselves if threatened.  These bees were respected, not feared.  For Daniel, and for the community, these bees are a sign from God, that dialog and respect for life will bring peace.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Columbus Day - Our Destiny Changed Forever

Today is Columbus Day ... in El Salvador.

Bishop Gomez concluded today's weekly devotion, and he said this:  "Gracias a Dios por este dia - el 12 de octubre, el dia de Cristobal Colon."

Thanks be to God for Columbus Day.  This statement was a little bit unexpected.  Back in the United States, Christopher Columbus has fallen out of fashion, or at least slipped off of the pedestal on which he stood back when I was a kid learning history.

"On this day," the Bishop continued, "the destiny of our country was changed...forever.  People ask, 'Why is our country so violent?'  Some say that the Indians were violent.  Some say that the Spaniards were violent.  The reality is that some people are violent.  It is an illness.  Something is wrong in the minds of people who commit terrible acts of violence.  To kill, one must be ill, and to chop up a body and dishonor another human by scattering the parts after killing - that act can only be carried out by someone who is horribly ill."

Bishop Gomez, fellow bishops and leaders of several Christian denominations in El Salvador are working together to call for dialog with the gangs.  "No to violence, yes to life!" will be the chant at a risky and historic march later this month.  Bishop Gomez - with the planning for a peace march with gang members on his mind, with the details of a grisly murder causing his heart to ache, with his own indigenous heritage filling his soul and with Columbus Day written on his calendar - pulled all of his thoughts together in a unique reflection:  Columbus Day - the day on which "the destiny of our country, our destiny was changed forever."

The Bishop pondered a moment and smiled.  He asked if people had friends or knew people who were called "China." Kids used to call him that.  He said one time someone saw his photo and saw his name, Medardo Gomez Soto and thought he was from Japan, and the person was convinced that "Soto" was misspelled and should have been "Sato."  Everyone laughed.  It's true, we all know Salvadorans who have the nickname "China" because of their Asian features.

"Thanks be to God," the Bishop continued, "for the ancestors who crossed the bridge to this continent and mixed with the indigenous groups who were already here.  Thanks be to God that we still have some connections with our indigenous peoples.  Dark skin, white skin, we are all mixed.  The Spirit of love is in us all, producing miracles."  The point:  we would not be who we are if we were not all mixed together.  We would not experience the love we have if we were not all mixed together.  God is in the mixing.

"We give thanks for October 12th, and we also feel the pain of those who were killed because they did not speak Spanish and of those who were killed because they would not convert to Christianity." We should also be mindful of the massacres of indigenous people which were carried out in the 20th century as oppressive governments sought to eliminate cultures and beliefs which they did not understand or were simply labeled as "different."

Bishop Gomez pointed out that many churches do not recognize or lift up the ancient religions of the indigenous peoples of El Salvador, but that in the Salvadoran Lutheran Church, these ancient beliefs and traditions are honored and enhance spiritual growth and the connection people have with the Creator and creation.

May God bless the mix.  May peace win over violence.  May we all be enriched with the wisdom of the ancestors as we seek to live in love and harmony in God's creation.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Accompaniment and Mountains

Grief.  Anger.  Frustration.

These are not the words we would choose to have enter our sister church relationships, yet there they are, in the midst of our US sister church meetings and conversations.

Grief, anger and frustration.  You might expect a writing about violence.  Invasions.  Gun shots.  Blood flowing across tile floors and dirt paths.  Promising lives of girls and boys and now even old men senselessly lost.  Certainly grief, anger, and frustration are rightly expressed in the current context of violence in El Salvador.

But gang violence is not the subject of today's writing.  Today I write about a beloved pastor who died.  She died.  We don't even like to say it out loud:  she died.  As a bunch of brothers and sisters from a bunch of sister churches who knew and love this pastor and her family, we do not want to accept the reality that she died.

She was a mother with three children.  She died.
She was a creative, lively, leading, successful pastor.  She died.
She seemed healthy when we last saw her.  She died.
We prayed and prayed and believed she would live.  She died.
She was in charge of a bunch of stuff we have going on.  She died.
Her husband needed her love, her income, her part in the parenting team.  She died.
We tried to help with her medical care.  She died.
We thought God would save her.  She died.

It seems unjust when a young person dies, when a mother dies, or when a person dies because the medical care may have been substandard (at least, compared to what we are accustomed to).  Our feelings of anger and frustration at this seemingly unjust death are expressed in statements like, "She wouldn't have died if she had been in the US," which, of course, we cannot know to be true.  Our sense of injustice causes us to ask questions, to try to figure out what could have been done differently or what we could have done differently.  Our sense of injustice causes us to work for change, and that generally is a good thing.  Yet, especially for those of us who live in the United States with some degree of wealth and privilege, our sense of injustice can turn us into The Great Fixers.

As sister churches, I do not believe that we are called to be The Great Fixers, especially of the Salvadoran critical care health system.  As I ponder what our call might be, I am reminded of a song:

Lord, you don't have to move that mountain, but give me the strength to climb,
And Lord, don't take away my stumbling block, but lead me all around.

How do we accompany, how do we help as we move on in life as program organizers and sister churches after the death of our friend and pastor?  It feels like our Salvadoran brothers and sisters have so many mountains, so many stumbling blocks.  The reality is we cannot fix something which is not ours to fix, we cannot move the mountains, but maybe we can hold some hands as we walk around and push and pull our way up together.  Maybe we can help.

First, I think we have to remember that all people have the right to make their own decisions about their own care and to keep their conditions private.  Think about your own self and what you share with people and when you ask for advice and from whom.  We can help by listening.  We can help by praying and literally being together and holding hands.  We can help by remembering we only have a small view of the whole.  We can help when we are asked to help.

Second, it is important to understand that the Salvadoran healthcare system's strength lies in its well-care system.  The system does not serve well for people with complex diagnoses, or who need advanced procedures. That is the reality in El Salvador. So how can we help?
  • We can help by learning more about the Salvadoran Healthcare systems, listening to providers and visiting clinics near our sister churches.
  • We can help by encouraging our friends in El Salvador to get regular check-ups and to talk OPENLY with their doctors about any concerns.  Prevention and early intervention are the keystone of their system. Doctors do not seem to ask as many questions as US doctors the patient needs to come forth with all information.
  • We can help by working with local and church leaders to make sure that every Salvadoran knows how to access the care system and knows their rights
  • We can help by working with local church leaders and local clinics to set up public/private/church connections so that when difficult situations arise and patients or doctors do not have answers, teams can come together in a timely fashion to help
  • We can help by encouraging and increasing education in every aspect.  This has increasingly been the work of the Mission of Healing Family Wellness Fair.  Education examples include:
    • Teaching people about medications and their uses.  Salvadoran pharmacies do not watch out for drug interactions - patients are wise to ask about that.  Many people stop taking medications when they "feel better" because they do not understand that chronic medications may need to be taken for life
    • Teaching families about danger signs - Salvadoran physicians consistently tell us that by the time people come into the hospital or the clinic the situation is grave and too late to save the person's life
    • Sponsoring studies for Salvadoran medical professionals to specialize in areas lacking specialists
    • Working with Salvadoran clinics or hospitals to create a colleague relationship between US professionals and Salvadoran professionals, which could include learning exchanges and perhaps create a "second opinion" network among physicians 
As sister churches, as people who are grieving, angry and frustrated by one woman's death come too soon amidst a host of violent and unjust deaths come too soon, we are searching for the right path, the helpful path of accompaniment around and over the mountains.  May God grant us strength and wisdom so that we may walk together in faith, comfort and the promise that joy will come around the other side of the mountain.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Images of Romero

Wearing Romero T-Shirts and selling bracelets
During the May 23rd beatification ceremony, we captured a few photos which illustrate the creative entrepreneurship of Salvadoran fans of Monseñor Oscar Romero.
The stylish Romero cloth bag - very popular with the clergy crowd

Romero balloon, especially fun to float over a nearby Romero statue

I am guessing Romero himself would wonder about these 

St. Romero of the Americas

Nuns looking good in Romero caps

A variety of Romero head gear

Posters large and small

Romero Umbrellas!

New definition of "holy water"?

Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Vision

I wasn't asleep.  Maybe it was the medications, I don't know.  But early in the morning I had a vision. I was lying here in my bed.  There were two angels standing just behind me, over my head.  I knew they were my guardian angels.  They were so close.  I could feel their wings just touching my shoulders.  I couldn't feel their hands, but somehow their hands were below me.  I was lifted up, like I was floating, with a white blanket, floating up out of my bed.

Pastor Norma knew that God was with her.  She shared this vision with us, knowing she would be healed, expecting to be raised up out of her bed, grateful for the comfort of God's angels.

We believed she would rise up.  We believed she would walk.  We believed she would mother her children,  accompany her husband, shepherd her congregation, and laugh with her friends.  We prayed for a miracle, and we expected one.

We do not doubt that today, as Norma's body is committed to the earth, she has experienced the prayed-for miracle.  She is healed. She has risen up out of her bed.

We wanted the guardian angels to guide Pastor Norma back into health in this world.  We wanted the vision to be a sign that the mother, wife, pastor and friend would be with us, here, now, in this time.

I believe the vision was a gift.  For Norma.  For us.

Yesterday a friend said, "God is weeping with us."  Today we weep for the loss of the mother, the wife, the pastor and the friend who will no longer walk with us for a time.   God is weeping with us.

Adios, querida Norma, hermana y amiga.  Nos vemos en los tiempos de Dios.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Más Cuentos del Abuelo - More Tales from The Grandfather

We reached the outskirts of Suchitoto and turned up the road to Cinquera.  Cinquera was our destination:  a tiny town which suffered great loss and destruction at the start of the war and which was resettled by surviving families ten years later.

"Have you ever been to Cinquera?" I asked The Grandfather.  Beautiful views of Lake Suchitlán passed by outside of our vehicle's window.  Maybe some of our delegation members took photos.  I listened to The Grandfather.

"Oh...yes," he paused, "I came up here in 1991 or '92 accompanying a group of [Salvadoran] families coming from Honduras who were re-populating their lands after seven years of exile.  They traveled from the refuge in Honduras to San Salvador, and then came to the shore of Lake Suchitlán.  We lived in this forest for 10 days because we had to transport the people to their community by boat.  We only had small wooden boats, and it took 10 days to move the people.  The most difficult part of the experience was that the children born in Honduras during the exile, some who were seven years old, did not know their own country, their own culture, their own land.  This was the time when I was doing work with the Lutheran Church."

"Is there a Lutheran Church near here?" I asked.

"No. At one time there was a hacienda near Cinquera which the Lutheran Synod was going to purchase.  It was land which the church planned to use as a resettlement area for refugees coming back from Honduras.  When I arrived at the land I saw that it was surrounded by many, many families living in little houses of cartón (cardboard).  How could we move people onto this land when it rightly belonged to the people who already lived there and who needed it more?  They were the real owners of the land, so I said we could not buy it.

"Before we could bring the people back to their land I helped to clear it.  I looked for mines.  I removed the abandoned ordinates - live and dead ones.  I coordinated with the mayor's office and the local priest.  This was the work we had to do. This was a time in which my work for the Lutheran Church touched the whole northern region, from Chaltenango to Nejapa. All this time in the work of moving the people I was accompanied by two nuns.  They said, 'Eat, Pastor, you need to eat!' but I did not eat during that time because the work was so hard and the people did not eat."

We arrived in Cinquera.  The Grandfather got out of the small bus and walked slowly along the town square.  "What change -- what a difference," he said quietly.  His eyes moved slowly from building to building, and he moved along the street as if he were moving through time.  "There was nothing here when I left.  Nothing here."