Friday, December 31, 2010

Sparking in the New Year

"Stand further back!"

"We're fine, Mom."

"Don't light all of those at one time!"

"Alma did it!"

Fireworks from the stadium. Fireworks in the streets. Fireworks in the yard.
New Year's Eve in San Salvador . . .

maybe not every mother's dream . . .

but lots of fun for kids who like sparklers, whistlers, fountains and big BOOMS.

These photos were taken during our second New Year's Eve in El Salvador... some are mine and others were taken by a friend named Rich. Enjoy.


Thursday, December 30, 2010

A Happy New Year

Clink, clinkety, clink. BANG! POP-pop-pop-BANG!!!

The firecrackers hit the corrugated tin roof and before they could roll to the ground exploded with an awesome noise, plenty loud both inside the house and out.

Sleeping was not part of our itinerary for our first New Year's Eve in El Salvador.

Dancing was! Our own kids were down for the count with systems catching up with a week of local food, but my husband and I joined the rest of the families in the Casa Comunal for a lively New Year's Eve dance. One of my favorite images is of tall and lanky "J" who was in his awkward teen years dancing with a gorgeous young woman from the community who was decked out in a little off-the-shoulder yellow top, tight black pants and spike heels. Oh my -- J was having the night of his life. We danced like crazy, laughing and bringing the new year in with loud music and big sweaty smiles.

After the dance, we headed back to our host family homes to catch a little sleep before an early morning departure for the beach. That's when the fireworks began, and the celebration of the new year continued into the wee hours.

And in those wee hours, we got up and loaded ourselves, a group of about 75 cozy and sleepy people, onto a couple of old school bus for the 3 hour ride to the beach. In El Salvador, New Year's Day is Beach Day! The sand, the sun, the surf, and the food gave us a full day of celebratory fun!

The end of Beach Day on that Happy New Year Day brought a whole other adventure. You never know what the new year will bring.

When we arrived home that New Year on January 2nd, it was without our luggage. We still are not exactly sure why our suitcases spent an extra week in Mexico. Maybe it had something to do with a little discovery that J's mom made when she finally unpacked their suitcases. Without her knowledge, J had packed some of those awesomely fun Salvadoran fireworks into a suitcase, hoping to share a Salvadoran Happy New Year celebration back home in the snow.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

El Sombrero Azul

In my mind I see a big blue sky.

Yesterday a funeral was held at our church. A daughter of the congregation was killed in a tragic accident as she was traveling home for Christmas. Her mom, her dad, her sister, her brothers, her boyfriend, her friends, her Sunday School teachers...all are crying, all are grieving. And even though our sisters and brothers in El Salvador do not know this daughter of God personally, they are grieving too, because as family in Christ we are connected in prayer and joy and sadness.

As messages of Feliz Navidad and Merry Christmas passed between us, so did requests for prayer and words of comfort.

... my eyes turned toward the huge blue sky and the thoughts that came to mind were these: God is the creator of life, the creator of all that exists. In life at all times in some places it is night and in other places it is day, in some places new creatures are born and in other places other creatures die, in some places some people laugh and in other places other people cry. And God is always there and the blue color of the sky is always there, and God's time is always - it is in the coming of the Holy Spirit of Pentecost; it is the sacrifice and love of Jesus in the time before Easter; it is the obedience and promise in Mary’s belly; it is the understanding, love and waiting of Joseph in Advent.

The blue sky is always there. Above the clouds, above the rain, above the fog the blue sky is always there.

God is always there.

God's faithfulness imaged in the big blue sky . . . I am remembering Antonio. I am remembering Antonio's bandaged hand raised up against a huge blue sky. "Dale!" "Forward!" "Keep on keeping on!"

Antonio's trust in God and ability to reach for the sky despite the clouds of his illness have served as a reminder to many that God is faithful, that God's time is God's time, and that God intended for us to help each other to keep on keeping on.

Dale.

Author's note: The thoughts about the blue sky and God's presence were shared by Pastor Santiago. The photo of Antonio was taken just after he had raised his hand in the air. This gesture, with the word "dale," is a gesture of solidarity, of moving forward together, of defiance, of "let's go!" and is used during the singing of "El Sombrero Azul." The song refers to the big blue sky of El Salvador like a big blue sombrero.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Merry Christmas, Material Girls

The girls arrive with their hair in sweet-smelling curls and a little make-up on their lips and cheeks. Their moms are also lovely, with a little bit of anxiousness in their eyes and nervousness in their movements. The space is decorated with balloons and streamers and proud families take their seats in borrowed folding metal chairs. The ceremony begins with the national anthem, blaring out from enormous speakers.

The pastor gives a prayer and the master of ceremonies introduces various dignitaries...a local mayor, pastors, the sewing school teachers, and sometimes, guests from the United States.

Christmas vacation in our sister church community in El Salvador includes a highlight - celebrating graduation day at the sewing school.

The idea of a sewing school and cooperative was one that was birthed early on in our relationship. Over the years we have hauled and shipped machines, equipment, and fabric. We have supported the students with prayer and gifts of graph paper, pencils, tissue and scissors. We have been impressed with the students' design abilities and skill. We have been disappointed when the cooperative aspect of the venture struggled, but have faithfully supported the few or many students who earn official diplomas based on their number of years in the program. We have been measured for clothing, and given the gift of hand-made clothes. And a couple of times, we have shared in the joy of graduation day.

After the anthem has been sung and the guests have been introduced, the fashion show begins. We will all remember that first graduation, as the students modeled their burgundy evening dresses to the blaring strains of Material Girl. Replayed several times, that was the theme song for the year and we just could not help laughing and wondering if the Salvadorans understood the humor in their song selection. That first celebration ended with Greasy's and Grubby's husbands dancing on stage with the models to a few tunes, including Material Girl.

A few years later, Greasy and Grubby were selected to judge the fashion show. There were categories of children's wear, folk dance costumes, casual clothes, women's suits. Grubby had dutifully worn her baby blue polyester skirt, which had been made for her a few years back, and neither felt qualified enough to be the judges. We two decided just to agree with the teachers' choices.

After the show there was a raffle. The prize was a big plastic bucket filled with all kinds of useful things for the kitchen. Grubby's husband, who was also appropriately attired in a pair of khaki pants which had been designed and made for him by the students a while back, was the winner! He had fun giving his gifts away to some of the women later in the day.

The graduates receive their diplomas, each one crossing the floor with Pomp and Circumstance and each escorted by a white-shirted husband, boyfriend or brother. Some of the graduates continue in the program for another year or two, moving from patterning and hand-sewing to machine sewing, or from women's clothing to men's pants or knitwear with the serger. Most of the graduates sew clothes at home for their families, some will make things to sell. Some students get jobs in maquilas (factories or sweat shops). The cooperative aspect of the school has struggled to be successful as its own business.

Men's pants are the specialty of the lead teacher and some of the students, and Grubby's husband, who wears his pants all the time in El Salvador and in the US, will testify to their good quality and fine design. In the past year, this specialty has served the school well, as it was awarded a government contract to make uniforms for the local school children. This has been a wonderful achievement and source of income for the students and the sewing school.

We will continue to support the school with suitcases full of donated fabric, with envelopes of donated needles, with prayers for a productive and successful new year, and with a hearty "Congratulations and Merry Christmas!" to the Material Girls and Guys in the sewing school!


Thursday, December 16, 2010

Rum Pum Pum Pum

We arrived with our families on Christmas Day. We gathered inside the little church, and it was already getting dark. The benches were set up around the perimeter of the walls so that all could see the children who were gathered in the center. Pastor Santiago took on the role of director, gently placing his hands onto kids' shoulders and guiding them into place. Then he bent over, face to faces, so he could give the children some final instructions before the pageant began.

The girls were dressed in their best white dresses, which first appeared at their baptisms or first communions. They carried shepherd staffs, which glittered with Christmas garland. They sang a few songs, and then invited one of our kids, a drummer, to join them for a special song. They handed him some sticks and a little home-made drum and invited him to sit with the others and give the beat.

"Come, they told me, pa rum pa pum pum. A newborn king to see, pa rum pa pum pum..."

This was adorable.

OK, maybe it was adorable to me, as the mother of the drummer.

This little memory really sticks with me because it was just so very thoughtful - to remember that one of the guests has a talent and to invite that guest to be a part of the pageant, the team, the group, the family.

Come.

Rum pa pum pum.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Holly Jolly Christmas

We were driving through a holiday lights display, laughing at the animated images of Santa in his workshop and the bears in the bakery. With the fresh blanket of snow all around us, the lights were especially pretty.

"When you were a little girl, did you celebrate Christmas with the story of Santa Claus?" I asked my friend from El Salvador. It was her second visit to the US - her first time in the snow.

"Yes," she said. "The parents told the children about Santa Claus, but really, the parents made little gifts for their children. We had Christmas trees. The big stores had trees and decorations and you could visit Santa. Now, with electricity in the communities, people put lights on their Christmas trees. Some houses in the community have lights, but not as much as this," she said, pointing out the car window.

The Christmas traditions in El Salvador are an eclectic mix of pilgrimages to find Jesus and pilgrimages to Metro Centro, of straw reindeer and mangers filled with straw, of golden trees made of tinsel and poinsettias which grow in the gardens along the streets. On one side of La Plaza Barrios people rush by a golden tree with sparkly wise men sponsored by Western Union; on the other side of the street people quietly kneel in the cathedral and offer prayers beside the wise men who bring sparkly gifts to baby Jesus.

One of my friends once had a job in a sweatshop, sewing white furry trim on to red velvet skirts, making "Christmas dresses for little girls in the United States, like Santa's helpers," she had told me.

Some of the Christmas decorations in El Salvador strike me as really funny - the snowman at the airport, the big hat at the mall, the parade of straw reindeer marching along the sidewalk. Others are very sweet - the tree at the guest house decorate with gold-painted tortillas, the little decorated pine tree in a coffee can at a friend's house.

Home-made ornaments next to shiny ones from the store. A real tree in a pot next to the plastic one with the LED lights. The story of Baby Jesus and the story of Santa Claus. Gifts of faith and presence. Gifts of special things and presents. Across miles and language and culture, we have a lot in common.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Looking for Jesus

All around the world, Christians are setting out decorations and preparing to celebrate the coming of Christ as a baby. Each culture, each community, each family has its own special traditions.

On my fifth birthday a little friend gave me a cardboard nativity set. Every year, on the first weekend in December, I carefully take it from its box and set it up. In this house, it has always gone on the kitchen counter. I unfold the base, insert the stable pieces, put the roof on, insert the background. Each vertical piece has little slots that slip into little semi-circles that fold up from the base. The pieces have to go in order...the animals, the shepherds, the wise men, the adoring child. After everything else is in place, I take up the last piece...Mary is dressed in a soft blue and Joseph in red stands behind her, and in her lap is a chubby baby Jesus. I look at this piece for some moments, and think about what it was like to be Mary. Maybe this is something every girl, every woman thinks about, what it would have been like to have to go door to door, at night, looking for a place to have a baby and then to be Jesus' Mommy.

As worship ended, the sky grew dark. We picked up our lanterns - made with strips of balsa wood, cardboard, colored cellophane, and candles - and went searching for a place where Jesus could be born. The crowd was large with many children, and the children who were accompanied by their pastor led the procession. We stopped at the first place, and read a poem asking if there was room for Mary and Joseph to stay. No. We asked at the second place if there was room to stay. No. Finally at the third place, there was room and there we found Mary and Joseph and Baby Jesus.

There, in Quezaltepeque, we celebrated the New Year by going door to door, just as Mary and Joseph did, in the tradition of las posadas.

After the journey through the neighborhood, we gathered in the half-finished church, seated helter-skelter in plastic chairs under the stars, for a celebration dinner. The women of the community had labored all day long to make enough tamales to feed the crowd. Chicken is a treat in this poor community, and no part was wasted as a couple of our kids found out as they bit into a beak, a bone, a foot. The neighborhood dogs enjoyed those extra little bits of surprise.

After dinner, a clown came out to entertain the kids. This was no ordinary clown, this was a clown with a political agenda and a ranting style. This clown was just plain scary. As the clown handed out treats to the kids, we gathered up our kids and shared good-bye hugs all around.

As I set up my cardboard nativity, I sometimes wonder what traditions my kids will remember or preserve from their childhood. Maybe a posada journey from house to house, maybe beautiful faces lit by candlelight, maybe a holiday tamale, maybe a laugh about a beak or a foot, maybe a story about an exuberant clown, and surely the feeling of big Christmas hugs on a starry night in Quezaltepeque.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Tales of Greasy and Grubby: Yes, they are waiting...

Waking up on time was not a problem. The rain pounding on the tin roof during the long hours of the night was followed by the roosters crowing and the all-dog alert, so that before the sun came up, we were already finished with any attempt of sleeping. We slithered out of our sleep sacks and peeked into our shoes (hoping a random mouse, cockroach or scorpion had not settled inside for the night) before we slipped them on and headed for the latrine.

That old latrine experience was always an adventure. Weaving in and under the plants, the short little distance to the potty seemed longer than it really was, especially in the dark. The outhouse was just wide and deep enough for the cement seat and a skinny person. The 2-foot step down into the outhouse carried a moment of mystery...would it be squishy full of mud? would the cockroaches scurry up the walls? Greasy had a harder time of it, being so tall that she could not really stand up without bumping her head on who knows what. It was best not to pull the cardboard door across the opening, but to let your best friend stand guard and hold the flashlight while you gingerly lifted the cover off of the pot.

After a tag-team latrine adventure, we slipped back into the house and got dressed and organized ourselves for the new day. We were scheduled to teach in the community school that morning, sharing a mini-VBS experience with the elementary school kids. School started at 8 am, and we were starting to get a little anxious about the time as the early morning wore on. Back then, Greasy spoke a little Spanish, and Grubby did not, and neither wanted to be rude about asking Julia to hurry up the breakfast process. Finally, Greasy said, "We'd better go."

We gathered our stuff, making the move to politely leave. Julia looked at us and said that we couldn't leave without breakfast. "They are waiting for us at the school," Greasy explained.

"Yes," said Julia calmly. "They are waiting."

The tone of voice in that matter-of-fact statement, "yes, they are waiting" really struck us. They will wait. They will start when you get there. You can't teach unless you take care of yourself first. Quit worrying about the clock.

We sat down and ate breakfast. Yes, they were waiting.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A Banquet Parable

Our first visit...

We arrived in sister church community in the late afternoon. Seven of us had broken off from the synod delegation to spend time with people we knew through story and the occasional email. A celebration awaited us, but news of a family in mourning had been shared with our sister pastor. We walked down an unfamiliar dirt path, down a hill to a home where many people had gathered. The crowd parted so that we strangers could enter the home. It was very dark inside, and as our eyes adjusted to the candlelight we could see the family members weeping at the loss of their daughter. Maybe she was ten years old. Our sister pastor did not really know the family, but in moments of trouble and grief, there is community and solidarity and faith.

The smell of the candles, the cadence of prayers of the rosary, the sweaty heat of many bodies inside the adobe house, the confusion of not knowing how to behave at a vigil for a little girl in a country we had just met cement this memory into our beings. Our first moments in our sister church community were moments spent in being together. Just being together.

When it felt right, we quietly left. We walked up the dark path toward the light at the top of the hill. The light shone out from the half-walls of a small shed-like building, made of corrugated tin and bamboo slats - the church. We were ushered inside, where a big table almost filled the entire space. The church benches were lined up along the walls, and there was just enough room for us to squeeze past and find seats. After the seven of us were seated, the spaces at the table filled in with men, women and kids from the community. The food was placed in the center of the table. It was incredibly hot, tight with people who were strangers trying to learn about each other despite the barrier of language.

We seemed to be waiting for something and noticed two empty chairs at the head of the table, right at the front of the church, under the cross. We thought we were waiting for the pastor and his wife. We waited.

And we waited.

And then Julia walked in, walking arm in arm with a blind man on her left and his blind wife on her right, weaving carefully around all of the crowded benches as the women, the men and the children made way, to the head of the table. The guests of honor had arrived, and the meal began.


Monday, November 22, 2010

Joy in the Neighborhood

Today I saw this picture, and it brought tears to my eyes.

Yesterday was a great day in our sister church community. The congregation gathered to celebrate the baptism of Luisito, Vanesa's baby brother. Luisito is a miracle baby. He was born more than a month too soon, and was so very little. At two months old, he was still smaller than most newborns, and he seemed not to respond to much. But yesterday, at almost age 1 and thriving, he was baptized, and this photo was taken at the party.

Luisito's story is enough to bring tears, but it was the sight of happy kids with that piñata that got to me. There is another photo from yesterday which tells the story of the piñata - a photo of my friend Julia who recently started a new business making piñatas. In that photo, Julia stands amidst her creations, smiling with a big, huge, happy smile.

This is the smile I remember from before the murder.

More than a year ago, Julia's son was murdered. Dragged out of
his home in the hours before dawn and shot in the street, he was a victim of gang violence and mistaken identity.

This home.

This street.

Today's tears are not grieving tears. Today's tears are tears of thanksgiving that life survives death, that smiles are not gone forever, that God is good. It is good to see a street resurrected by children's laughter. It is good to see my friend Julia's smile resurrected in the work of her piñatas. It is good to see joy in the neighborhood.

Thanks to Tim, of Tim's El Salvador Blog, for sharing these photos with me.


Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Tortillas for Thanksgiving

Soon it will be time once again to bake the squash bread, the sweet potato biscuits, the apple pie, and to stuff the turkey. It will be time to fill the house with a big crowd of people, to say grace together, and to enjoy the bounty of the harvest. Cooking on Thanksgiving is something I always do...even when in El Salvador.

Last year, we were in El Salvador for Thanksgiving. We were staying at the guest house for the Lutheran church, along with a couple of other North Americans who were serving as missionaries in El Salvador. Our little group decided to make Thanksgiving dinner. We were graciously given full access to the kitchen, and after a trip to Super Selectos, we cooked for those who usually cook for us.

It wasn't fancy. Pulled chicken in creamy gravy. Mashed potatoes. Dinner rolls. Fresh salad. Fruit salad. We couldn't find onion rings or green beans, so we opted for cooked broccoli, cauliflower and carrots. We gathered to say grace together, in one big circle in Spanish and in English. We gave thanks for family far away and family close by, for friends, for the good bean harvest, for the food. Then a long line formed, and we served platefuls of food. We used every plastic plate, bowl and cup in the house, and there was just enough for all to be fed. At some point tortillas appeared on the table. I guess it just wouldn't be Thanksgiving in El Salvador without tortillas.

It was really fun to have such a large gathering - to meet the extended family and share stories about Thanksgiving traditions in our US families. Our Salvadoran friends were very gracious, but truthfully, I don't think mashed potatoes are going to be a new Salvadoran favorite.

This year, along side the pumpkin pie and mashed potatoes on the dining table, I think my family will find a stack of warm tortillas, wrapped in a striped cotton towel. What a fun new tradition to add to our Thanksgiving celebration!

Friday, November 12, 2010

Getting Ready for the New Day

When my kids were little they really enjoyed reading Richard Scarry's Best Word Book Ever, and some of the favorite pages showed Little Bear "getting ready for the new day." We all have our routines for getting ready for the new day, and my routine still includes announcing to my dog, "Mommy's going upstairs to get ready for the new day."

I am girly girl. Fifteen years of Boy Scout camping and eleven years of globe-trotting and hanging out in El Salvador have not changed my routine, and getting ready for the new day in El Salvador has brought plenty of children in our sister church community plenty of entertainment.

I wake up to the sounds of roosters and dogs and calls of "paaaan franceeeeés." I tippy toe to the door, which, with its metal latch is not easy to open quietly, and catch a breath of cool fresh air. After a little visit to the latrine, I sneak back into the house and grab my towel and shampoo. Although I am a girly girl, I am also Grubby, so I don't wash my hair every day, but I do try to shower. Wearing my flip flops, I step onto the two cement blocks next to the water barrel. It's best to shower in my jammies, because no matter how early I get up, there is a little line of boys standing along the front wire fence, peaking and giggling. One plastic bowlful of water over the head. Shampoo. Scrub. Soap up. Then a few buckets over the head to rinse off. This takes a bit of bravery, because no matter how hot you are during the night, the water feels a little beyond refreshingly cold.

Dry off. Go inside. Get dressed quietly. Then it is back out to the yard with my hand mirror to fix my hair and do my make-up. The sun provides the best light for this process, and the little boys all join me in the yard to watch. They like to smell the mousse and watch me tip upside down to scrunch up my curly hair. They are no doubt thinking, "wow, this lady is really white!" as I slather on the sun screen. They watch closely as the eye shadow and mascara go on. Then we hang out for a while, chatting about school or the dogs or the ducks.

Later in the morning, I put a clip or some sort of adornment in my hair and bust out the hair spray. Once, Brian gasped and said, "Que gran parfuuuuuuuum!" (What a humungous bottle of perfume!) I laughed and said it was for my hair. He wanted some too, so I gave his head a squirt. It does smell good!

By the time my hair is dry and gorgeous (not), my make-up is already sweaty and sun-screened arms and legs are gritty. No matter. I feel pretty, have provided early morning entertainment, and am ready for whatever fun and adventure the new day brings.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Off the Beaten Path: Tonaca

Our sister church community is located in the municipality of Tonacatepeque, so every now and then we are able to spend a little time in the center of this small city. The locals call it Tonaca, and it is a lovely and quiet town with a bit of colonial personality. The town square is home to a park which features big old trees, benches for resting, a gazebo made from concrete designed to look like a giant tree trunk, scattered small statues of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and a fountain which features a young boy taking an eternal pee.  It is this fountain near the corner entrance to the park that gives visitors a clue to the rich and unique folk history of this little part of El Salvador.

The people of Tonaca are known as jicameros, and jicama is plentiful in the stalls of the local market (which are set up in the mornings along one side of the town square). Ask any of the women in the market or the old men resting in the park about the fountain, and you might get to hear the legend of Cipitio - a little boy who was born as a result of an affair between a goddess and the shining morning star. Cipitio and the goddess were cursed by the goddess' husband, and poor Cipitio was doomed to live as a 10-year old boy forever, with his feet pointing backwards.

The cultural house in Tonaca is a great spot to visit, and the workers there are eager to share the traditions of the town. The stories are full of twists and turns and fantastic characters. The tradition of story-telling is strong among the jicameros, though it is not easy to follow the plots which are shared with grand gestures, crazy voices, riddles and songs. Most of the stories involve scary characters and late night antics. Some of the characters and tales are brought to life each year on November 1st with the celebration of the calabiuza. (I like to call it the celebration of the day of the pumpkin heads.) The cultural house has a collection of giant puppets, masks, hand-puppets used in the celebration and photos of the after-dark procession of floats and characters through the streets of Tonaca.  The huge paper mache heads are worn on top of a person's shoulders, and a little gray panel on the front of the puppet's stomach helps the person underneath to see where he or she is going.

The cultural house is a great place to study or purchase books.  I picked up a book of local legends, and my hope is to understand them a bit better so that I can write a little more about it next year.

Tim's El Salvador blog shared news of this year's celebration.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Little Capes, Big Difference

Earlier this summer we visited a community called Guadalupe. It is a community of people who live each day with eyes toward the sky, looking for the dark clouds that bring rain, and with ears toward the volcano, listening for the rumble that could mean rock slide.

There is a warning system. When the siren blares, often in the night, the moms and dads gather their children and run for the safety of a nearby field - safe from the rocks but not from the rain. The leaders in the community had described the evacuation process, humbly asking us to help with "capitas." In the telling, it was hard for us to figure out exactly what was being asked of us because it seemed like maybe they needed wagons or strollers in which to pile the kids so they could run faster.

As we debriefed on our experience in Guadalupe, we double-checked our dictionary and realized that what they were asking for was "little capes" -- rain ponchos for the children! We took up a small offering among us to help with the capitas.

Yesterday I received an email from Pastora Guadalupe - the Lutheran Church pastor who is provided psycho-social care to the children, youth and adults in Comunidad Guadalupe. She wrote:
Also, I share with you the gratitude that the community leaders in the municipality of San Vicente express. They received the help and it was possible to purchase the little capes for the boys and girls who are evacuated during the intense rains in these communities.



Monday, November 1, 2010

Performers in the Streets

I was reminded by fellow blogger, Tim, of something which we often encounter when driving through the busy intersections in San Salvador -- street performers. I always have mixed feelings when we witness these quick performances. The performers are usually male, often appear to be young teens, and their abilities and showmanship are many times quite amazing! Yet it is sad to me that the young ones are not in school, and it is worrisome to me when they dart out at the change of the stoplight, sometimes late at night, hoping to entertain and hoping to receive a bit of compensation in appreciation of their performances.

I can envision jugglers with bowling pins, boys maneuvering balls on pairs of sticks, a few clowns, and lately, musicians. So, I went on a mission, looking for photos of performers among the many thousands of photos in my "Everything El Salvador" folder . . . and I could only find ONE photo. Of course, I might have some from the pre-digital era, but it really surprised me to only find one in my computer search.

Upon reflection, I think that there are a couple of reasons for this. It's hard to take in a performance if you are too busy snapping photos of it. I am also often stuck inside a bus with the inability to pay the performer, and I really don't think it is right to take a photo of a performance without offering some kind of compensation (and I do pay performers if I can). I'm not sure if local authorities try to restrict performers, particularly children. I once visited a center in Managua which worked with families to encourage kids to stay in school by setting up classes in the morning, extra help in the afternoon, and safe supervision of street performances during rush hours. In an economy which lacks jobs, especially for those without sufficient education, performing in the street is, maybe somewhat sadly, one way in which to put basic foods on the table.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Pilgrimage to the Chamulapa

It was my friend's turn to have a vision . . .
A river. No walls. God's church. All are welcome.

Sometimes the mystery of God's work is not revealed until we look back. Our first group visit to our sister church community in El Salvador had included a midweek medical clinic and worship with the celebration of baptism. Our next visit was a celebration of Christmas with more baptisms. Our next visit included home visits which brought the community into the church for a night worship in the rain. As we we were planning for the next visit, God gave us the thought of uniting a mission of healing with the spiritual healing of baptism at a worship to which all were invited and all would feel welcomed.

I saw us at the river - at the Chamulapa.

When we talked with our sister church pastor, he agreed that the Chamulapa was the perfect place for a service of baptism. Those who were afraid to come into the Lutheran Church, because of their Roman Catholic roots or the church's humble structure or for whatever reason, would feel comfortable worshiping at the Chamulapa - a river fed by a spring, the original water source for the community, and the local "vacation spot" for picnics and swimming during the rainy season.

We planned. We designed a Sunday School lesson using the story of the Baptism of Jesus. The children would color a picture of a dove on the front of an invitation to come to the river. Each child would make a baptism necklace with pretty blue beads and a yellow foam seashell bearing the child's name on one side and "child of God" on the other. The kids in our home Sunday School did the lesson prior to our trip, creating invitations for us to take with us to hand out around the community. Our 7th and 8th graders created two baptism pitchers, one for our home church and one for our sister church, each with a dove and water design, similar to the cards.

Our friends in El Salvador planned. Parents met with the pastor and prepared for the baptism of their children. Teens met with the pastor to prepare for baptism, first communion and confirmation.

The special Sunday arrived and we started the morning with Sunday School and the Baptism of Jesus lesson. We gathered for lunch and sat around the big table to prepare baptismal certificates for those who were to be baptized that afternoon. A teenage boy came in and asked if he could talk with the pastor. The young man said that he had a friend who also wished to be baptized and confirmed that afternoon. The pastor said he would like to talk with the friend. The boy ran off and returned with his buddy. After a bit of conversation and "quizzing" it was clear that the friend could recite the Small Catechism and talk about the meanings. Apparently, after each confirmation lesson with the pastor, the first boy met with his friend to share the lesson with him. We added one more certificate to our stack, marveling at the spirit of enthusiasm within these two boys and wondering how we might handle a similar situation on confirmation day in our church at home.

At 2 pm we gathered in front of the church to begin the walk to the river. Women carried umbrellas and little ones; men carried jugs of water. In my backpack sat the carefully wrapped pitcher. Everyone wore necklaces with pretty blue beads and yellow foam seashells with "child of God" on one side and a name on the other. As we walked, we sang, and the crowd grew as we passed through the community, walked past the radish fields, walked the dusty path up the hills and down, climbed through the break in the barbed wire fence, crossed through the dry scratchy corn, and finally climbed down the banks to the river.

It was the dry season, so the river was just a trickle. No matter. We gathered at the river and began to worship. We sang, we shared scripture and a message. Then, one by one, children and youth came forward either in the arms of their baptismal sponsors or with their sponsors at their sides. The baptismal pitcher was filled with clean water and each one was baptized in the name of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. The clean water was caught in a plastic bowl, and in the end, was poured onto the ground to join the muddy trickle of the river.

I can still remember the heat of the long walk. I can still hear the crunching of the dry corn stalks. I can still laugh at the picture of one of our goddaughters squeezing through the barbed wire in her white dress with little veil in hand. I can still hear the voices of our pastors with North American accents carefully proclaiming the Word in Spanish. I can still see the smiling faces of those two teenage boys with baptism water dripping down their foreheads. I can still feel the cool water flowing over our toes, my friend and I standing side by side in the river, holding hands and savoring the moment as the crowd climbed the banks and began the walk home.

Much later, when we saw the film footage from that day, we realized just how big the crowd was. God's church without walls did have room for all.

Since that day, we have continued the Mission of Healing, seeking to arrive with hearts and minds open to the healing power of the Holy Spirit, always beginning the mission with worship, and welcoming new children to the family through the sacrament of baptism.

One of my all time favorite El Salvador photos was taken on that day when we walked to the river. It is of my friend, standing beside the Chamulapa in her favorite blue dress, with a yellow foam seashell hanging around her neck, oblivious to the crowd with a teary vision in her eyes --
I see us at the river.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Day of the Child

During October, Salvadoran communities celebrate the Day of the child. Officially, the celebration date is October 1st, but it seems like the whole month of October is an opportunity for schools and churches and communities to have special fiestas, field trips, and educational events which lift up the well-being of children.

This week, I have been receiving emails from some of the Lutheran Church sister communities. Each message has been a positive expression of the cooperation which is taking place between the federal government, local officials, heath workers, youth groups, and the church. Kids are having fun and staying safe, receiving check-ups, eating cake, laughing with clowns, playing with toys, breaking piñatas, singing, dancing, watching puppet shows, eating cookies and jello and working with teachers to learn more about the rights of children.

One of my favorite Day of the Child memories was a visit Greasy and I had with our sister church school. The kindergarten, first and second grade students dressed in traditional costumes and shared
folk dances. The little boys had mustaches and whiskers drawn onto their faces, and proudly wore their straw hats. The girls wore their hair in braids and had beautiful full circle skirts decorated with rick-rack. One lucky little one had the honor of being the bull during the dancing of El Torito Pinto. The school moms were gathered in the back of the school, and after the dancing, they brought out tamales for all to share.

It is a beautiful thing, to celebrate the wonder, the play and the lives of children.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Day of the Grandma Queens

We were gathering up our things and getting ready to leave La Palma, when one of our group shouted out, "Look, a parade!"

We were treated to the parade of the Grandmother Queens. People crowded along the main street through town to watch a line of decorated pick-up trucks, each one carrying a special Grandma Queen. We waved and clapped as the Grandmothers and their entourages passed by: The Queen of the Sewing, The Queen of the House, The Queen of Nursing, The Queen of the kitchen, and The Queen of ... well, we weren't sure, but she had a truck filled with white balloons. Each queen proudly wore a sash and waved her queenly wave.

As we watched the regal and beautiful grandmothers pass by, my friend and I were reminded of a special afternoon spent with a lovely Grandma Queen in our sister community. Now we understood a little better the honor and beauty of the Day of the Grandma Queens.

After the parade, our Salvadoran pastor gave his mother a beautiful bouquet of calla lilies - a flower which he identified as special to honor mothers and grandmothers.

After the parade passed by, we all stood for a moment, thinking about our moms and our grandmas, and wishing, just a little bit, that every grandma could have a moment in which to be a queen.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Medicine Run

My photos are organized into folders. Layers and layers of folders. Under "Everything El Salvador" is a long list of photos by year and by month, and then by place or event. In this labyrinth there is one folder which holds just 3 photos. It is entitled, "The Medicine Run." The photos do not really tell the whole story - a story which perfectly illustrates the kind of crazy, "how did I end up here?" kind of experiences in which I often find myself when I am in El Salvador.

We had been staying in our sister church community for some days, running our sixth Mission of Healing. This had become an annual event during which we teamed up with local health care workers to examine several hundred women and children and men, to provide care for acute infections, and to provide families with basic medications to relieve pain, reduce fever and promote good health. Reiki healing, shoulder massage, hugs and prayer were a big part of the healing experience. Because basic medications and vitamins are very expensive in El Salvador, we typically carried these items with us, always praying that we would have enough.

This one time, we ran out. We had to go on a Medicine Run.

Our Salvadoran pastor's brother said he knew of a place. So, my friend Beto and I climbed into a really tired pick-up truck, and headed out in search of more medicine. Now, Beto and I had been living in pretty basic conditions, and were basically, pretty dirty. Our guide, not phased at all by our less than sweet-smelliness, drove us straight to the source of Salvadoran medicine - Lopez Laboratories. Why not? Let's just go to where they make the medicine! "Do you know someone here?" we asked our guide. "No." We were on our own.

Well, we somehow got through the gate. Our friend went to park while Beto and I were ushered into a very nice waiting room, and then invited into a very fancy office. The owner of Lopez Laboratories offered us cold beverages and presented us with a full catalog of all of the medicines available. We told him our story, about our work with the Lutheran Church. He was incredibly kind, told us his family story and offered to sell us medications at a very reduced cost. So, just like that, my US congregation was set up as a vendor and we were able to get some basic medicines for children at about the same price as what we would pay in the US - except for vitamins. Vitamins were extremely costly - about $8 for a one-week supply of adult vitamins! No vitamins were available for children. We were escorted to the warehouse, and our purchases were boxed up for us to take with us. We were each presented with a sample-pack in a red-zippered bag. On our way out, I snapped 3 quick photos.

I am not a pharmacist or a doctor. My role in the Mission of Healing experience is coordination, and now that I speak OK Spanish, translation. I am not an expert on the pharmaceutical industry in El Salvador, in the US or anywhere else. Nor am I clued into the ramifications that DR-CAFTA or other trade agreements have on the availability of medications in El Salvador. What I know is what I experience, and that is that medicine and vitamins in El Salvador are very expensive and limited in availability. Basic medications, vitamins, toothpaste, and skin creams are beyond the purchasing power of most of my friends in El Salvador. One time I went with a friend to the market to purchase acetaminophen. She bought 2 tablets for a quarter. This is the typical way in which my Salvadoran friends purchase medicine.

On the day of The Medicine Run, we made a second stop at the largest pharmacy in the central city. Under armed guard and with presentation of our passports we were able to purchase antibiotics over the counter at a reasonable cost, and so were able to treat the remainder of our patients with acute infections. Sometimes, we get lucky.

The Salvadoran President has made statements about the need for increased availability of medications and accessibility to medications for the poor. I am so very thankful for the generous Salvadoran and North American healers who give of their time and resources in order to realize Missions of Healing. Yet, it seems to me that meeting the pharmaceutical needs of women, men and children in El Salvador through systemic change would be so much better than relying on random experiences like a The Medicine Run or just getting lucky.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Blog Action Day: No Hay Agua (There's No Water)

No hay agua.
No hay agua.
The phrase echos through one house, then another. There's no water.

Our sister community was born in 1996 as a resettlement community of in-country war refugees. Back then, the water came from "the dirty river" - a stream of mostly run-off water that gathered at the bottom of the hill. Or, women could walk an hour to a spring-fed river - a lovely gushing water source during the rainy season, and a trickle through a dry ditch during the dry season. A great place to play and bathe and scrub laundry on the rocks along the stream.

The first well was dug at the bottom of the hill near the dirty river. Women dipped their buckets into the well, filled their plastic jugs and carried water up the hill. The installation of a windlass was a good improvement. The installation of an electric pump was even better.

A few more years passed, the community grew, and water sources were placed in the pathways. It didn't take long for the development of a plastic hose protocol. Families hooked hoses up to the street-side spigots according to a self-made schedule, filling their big metal drums and pilas every other day or so. Hoses lined the edges of every pathway, lying in the murky, sudsy run-off water that drained from each home along the way. Leaks were fixed by tying old rags over the holes, and as water seeped out, bacteria seeped in.

Every now and then the call would ring out, "No hay agua." This usually meant that the electricity was out or the pump was broken, and it was back to hauling water up by hand from the well at the bottom of the hill for a day or so.

Recently, the municipality ran water lines to each home in the community. The source is no longer the shallow well at the bottom of the hill near the dirty river. The source is the deep underground spring, which feeds the clean river where the women gathered water and did their laundry years ago. This source serves not only our sister community, but 2 or 3 other nearby communities as well. Each home has a small concrete access box with a cover at the street. Inside the box is the spigot for the water. The underground lines should help to keep the water cleaner than the old system of hoses in the ditches.

Not too long after the new system was in place, there was a big storm and a mudslide took out the main tank at the spring. "No hay agua." The street sources had been capped, so it was back to hauling water up the hill from the old well. The repairs took a couple of weeks.

Back when the hose-protocol was in place, there was some conversation in the community about families who wasted water or used more than their fair share. There was even a bit of talk about the installation of meters, which was generally seen as a violation of people's basic right to access water. Now that the municipal system is in place, meters will probably not be far behind. Now easier to access, the water is also easier to waste.

I cannot hear the phrase, "No hay agua," without remembering a funny no-water moment with my best friend. It has been a Greasy and Grubby adventure sleeping at the beach, and we were even more greasy and grubby than usual. We found out on short notice that we were invited to a meeting with some church and community leaders in San Salvador, so we asked for 20 minutes to freshen up. Greasy popped into the shower first, and after applying the shampoo...you guessed it...no hay agua. We pooled our meager water bottle drippings to wash out the suds, and off we went to our meeting ... Soapy and Grubby.

The water in San Salvador is often shut off on a regular basis, at least in some neighborhoods. A friend once told me that the most important feature of an apartment is its water reliability and the size of the pila or storage tank for water as a backup when no hay agua.

Usually, no hay agua is a temporary condition, and the water returns. Yet as more and more demands are placed on our water systems, and less and less care is taken to preserve and recycle water well, no hay agua, will not be the announcement of a nuisance, but the call of desperation.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Off the Beaten Path: Fire and Water

"Let's go check out some fun places."

I love it when I have some free time and my friends in El Salvador have some free time and they offer to take me to the fun spots. This is really excellent for someone who leads delegations on a regular basis, and this is how I found out about the sports complex in Nejapa.

We drove through the town and got a little history lesson about the tradition of boys throwing fireballs at each other: "Las Bolas De Fuego" every 31st of August. The historical story is that the local volcano erupted more than 300 years ago and forced the villagers of the old Nejapa village to flee and resettle at its current location. The community remembers this event by watching boys throw balls (balled-up rags soaked in a flammable liquid) at each other. There is also a legend about a saint fighting the devil with fireballs...

On the far side of town the cobbled road dumps you into the complex. After paying a small fee for parking, we walked around a large and lovely pool, set against the backdrop of beautiful hillsides. There are soccer fields, play areas, a kid pool and a place to get food. One of the highlights, which my guides were eager to show me, was the little zoo. It featured that rare and mysterious creature from the north - the raccoon.

When we brought a bunch of college kids and families for a Christmas visit later that year, we put the Nejapa pools on our itinerary. The young people and older folks alike had a great time cooling off, having contests in the water, playing a pick-up game of soccer with some local kids and chilling out with our Salvadoran friends. It was a wonderful day!