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 piƱatas, 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!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Tales of Greasy and Grubby and a Bus named Beto

I was cleaning out my purse yesterday, and there in the depths was a slightly dingy, rubbery plastic, yellow school bus key ring.

Once upon a time there was a Bus named Beto. Beto began his life as a school bus - one of those cute short ones that carries kids to kindergarten or on field trips. One day, some church ladies named Greasy and Grubby had an idea to buy Beto. Greasy did all the work, and went to where Beto lived and picked him up and helped her husband to drive Beto to a friend's business. Beto spent a little while preparing for his mission - to carry supplies to El Salvador as part of a caravan of hope in response to the 2001 earthquakes. The caravan was organized by a Salvadoran pastor who was serving in the US as a missionary.

Greasy and Grubby organized some friends and they gave Beto some loving paint-touches: a map of his anticipated route through the US, Mexico, Guatemala and into El Salvador, a new name on the side, the symbol of the Lutheran Church up top and the image of the hand of God guiding the way. Beto was loaded with tarps and tools and mattresses and other items which had been collected as symbols of solidarity and love from far away friends. Beto went on his way, driven by a guy named Bob from Greasy and Grubby's church. Beto the Bus was named for Bob. As Beto the bus was driven off by Beto the friend, Greasy had a little memory tucked away in her pocket - a rubbery key ring in the form of a yellow bus.

Beto the Bus made it to El Salavador, and began a new career carrying Salvadorans and gringos on adventures all around the cities and the countryside. After a long while Beto got tired. He went through repairs now and then, and finally was given up to a life in a parking lot. After a couple of years stuck in park, a young man with some mechanical skills asked if he could have the bus to see if it could be resurrected. And, although Greasy and Grubby have not seen Beto in person, they have seen that its old parking spot is empty and have heard that Beto serves as a youth group vehicle in that young man's church community.

I attached the yellow key ring to my car keys. Maybe it will bring a long life to my vehicle.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Aduana Adventure

Sometimes, you start with a little idea and then it gets bigger and then you find yourself trying to get into the Presidential House in San Salvador for the President's signature and making jokes about iguanas.

First there was a book drive. For his Eagle scout project my kid decided to build a library in our sister church community - not a library of bricks and mortar (although that still is in the dream file) but a library of books. So, lots of solicitation and book fairs and drives later, the scouts packed up over 1000 Spanish books, each with it's own plastic bag (rainy season protection), organized by level and neatly stowed in labeled boxes.

Early on, the question arose: how do the books get to El Salvador?

The answer: a shipping container! Great idea. A generous donor supplied the container. But 1000 books filled only a pallet and a half. So the questions arose: what else was needed? what could we send?

The answer: micro-business support. We gathered stuff for sewing cooperatives and wood-working shops - from machines and power tools to tons (literally) of fabric and hand tools. Along the way we received desks for schools, wheel chairs, and a couple of row boats to help out with water farms.

Obviously you cannot store all this stuff in a church. We needed a warehouse. And a generous donor provided that too, along with pallets and loading equipment and shrink wrap.

It was quite an adventure in inventorying and learning about shipping and packing. A couple of funny memories stand out like one of my kids hollering out, "Palletize me, Captain!" to his brother as he drove the forklift over to a pallet. Or carefully packing up my mom's cabinet sewing machine, and my grandma's, among many other beloved, sturdy machines. Or the random monarch butterfly that landed on my friend's sleeve while we were in the warehouse, exhausted from packing, and the feeling we had that it was "a good sign." Or the wise helper who thought to bring plywood to secure at the rear of the load inside the truck doors to accommodate for load shift. In the end, we all signed that plywood and shut the truck doors. The driver asked us if we had a seal. We didn't even know what that was, so I followed the truck down the highway to a stop where he purchased the seal and we secured it together. Then I waved good-bye to a year and a half of work.

During the next couple of weeks, thoughts of that load of books and hope crept into our minds as we went about our busy lives. Now it's in Mississippi. Now it's on a boat. Now it's in Guatemala. We called it, "The Container of Hope."

We got word when it was in Customs. And there it sat. Customs is the place where patience is tested.

Ultimately, I got onto a plane with my husband, my kid and a friend and we went to San Salvador and right to customs -- Las Aduanas. We couldn't get in, but they did let our advocates from El Salvador go in to verify that the container was there and that the seal had not been broken. The four of us who were left outside of the aduanas had a lot of empty time. This is how the jokes about iguanas happened...aduanas...iguanas...you can see the kid humor in this.

Apparently we then needed the President's signature. So, we went from the iguanas to the Presidential House, and did not meet with success, even though, my kid was wearing his scout uniform and looking pitiful.

Well, a trip to El Salvador is always wonderful and we got to spend time with our friends and watch softball and soccer games in our sister community, hoping for a positive word from the officials. We returned home, very unhappy with the iguanas.

The day after we left, our advocates went to the Presidential House, proclaiming that they had turned away a Boy Scout in his uniform (indicating that this was a travesty!), and they obtained the elusive signature. The Container of Hope was released and lots of happy communities rejoiced in their gifts of hope.

Since that time, we have seen clothing and curtains made from recognizable fabric all over El Salvador. We have gone to new communities and seen a familiar table saw hard at work. We have been to our community school library and had kids tell us about the books they have read. And, just this summer, I was near a shrimp farming pond and there it was - a rowboat! It still had the state license numbers on it, so there was no doubt where it came from. It was used as a rescue vehicle for families after tropical storm Agatha, and it was ready for use to gather the harvest of shrimp.

Over the years, my son has been compared to the boy who shared his lunch - the one from the story of the loaves and the fishes. He is embarrassed by this comparison. He says he just had a little idea about building a library in his sister church community. A little idea? Yes, but he and his idea were blessed with the support of other youth and adults who were willing to get on board with it and make it work.

There are different kinds of miracles, I think. Sometimes, God asks us to roll up our sleeves and get busy. He gives us the strength and the ingenuity and the patience and the humor to do whatever work needs to get done. It is a blessing to be in the work. It is a double blessing to see those loaves and fishes multiplying so long after that work was done. I think that is a miracle.

(and we take back all those bad things we said about the iguanas.)