Monday, February 28, 2011

A little something special between friends...

Yesterday I had the privilege of participating in our sister church's strategic planning meeting. About 25 church leaders gathered to create ministry plans for all of the different aspects of church life. The church leaders are divided into commissions: Diaconia (service - which includes helping with the worship service, cleaning the church and outreach); Women & Family; Men; Youth; and a new commission for Madres Jovenes. Each group developed objectives and strategies with a ten-year timeline into the future.

The goals set forth were realistic and impressive. What especially caught my interest were the men's goals. One of their areas of interest is community nutrition. They joked around a bit that their program needed to start immediately with the nutrition of the leader group (a call to eat lunch!), and then continued with plans for family gardens which could grow into a community movement to grow healthy food. This idea is especially fantastic since most families have no land. The idea is to grow tomato plants in little corners around the homes, to grow herbs and greens in pots, to make use of whatever soil and light and water they can. The men also had ideas for a community health center and a center for children under age 5 which would include a daycare.

After the commissions shared their ideas with the whole group, it finally was time for lunch. Earlier in the week the women had asked me what kind of food would be good. We thought for a while, and then I suggested pupusas. "Pupusas?" they asked...for lunch? Is that OK? Apparently pupusas are more of a supper thing, but I could eat them all day any day! The men were right to be calling for lunch because everyone was so hungry and the small of the hot, cheesy pupusas was calling to all of us.

When I was handed my plate of pupusas, I noticed that mine were a little bigger than those of everyone around me. When I broke into one, I realized that I had pupusas con queso y laroco!! This is my favorite kind of pupusa, and my friends Julia and Sonia had arranged this little surprise. There was no fanfare or anything, just a little smile when I looked over and they knew that I knew that a special effort had been made. This was the most touching moment of the day...friends organizing a little special secret. What a great way to end the month of amor and amistad!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Children Come First

We traveled just northeast of Usulatan and took a dusty drive up to the simple red brick church. The children of the community greeted us one by one with a well-practiced "hello, hello hello..." and a handshake. There were so many children! It was an amazingly warm welcome.

The leaders of the church shared stories about what they do and the history of the community. We asked and answered questions. It was a fun and friendly exchange. Then it was time for lunch. The people of the community had worked together to provide meat, rice, tortillas, salad and Salva Cola for everyone. Often during a first visit, the guests are seated first and eat together at a table while the hosts stand aside, waiting to eat last or to eat the leftovers. Yet in this place, the church leaders announced that at this church, children come first. This was awesome! Many in this particular group work in urban churches in which this is a core value: children come first!

The adults had plenty of time to chat and get to know each other while eighty or more children lined up and received their lunch. Then the adults received their food, with all of us mixed up in line like family. We finished lunch and shared some spontaneous songs in Spanish and English, and some very cute photo moments.

It was during this casual time near the end of our visit that I got to know the woman in the yellow dress. It actually was her little girl who had been quietly carrying around a plastic bowl, sitting beside us and giving an occasional hug who opened the door for conversation. I asked if the little one was the woman's daughter, and the woman made some vocal sounds and nodded her head, yes. I asked how old the little one was and the mom held up three fingers. Using her own form of sign language, Mom communicated that she was a single mom, living with her only child. Her house is right next to the church. The little girl was a good help around the house. She could already make tortillas and help with the laundry.

I don't know Mom's name. I don't know the little one's name -- this little one who is so quiet because she lives in a quiet home, where communication happens with hands and smiles and hugs.

As the closing prayer was about to begin, I watched as the little girl dumped her two small towels out of the plastic bowl she was holding. She dipped the bowl over the side of the chair, and put the towels back in. Carefully lifting one towel up and down, up and down, then ringing the pretend water from it, she picked up the other towel and did the same. All this time, she had been carrying her laundry. She was just as Mom had described her - a good little helper.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Praying for a Miracle

Today I woke up with a very strong feeling.

We ate breakfast and went to Resurrection church, the Bishop's church, for the Monday morning devotional. Pastors gathered and greetings were shared. The text for the day was the story of Jesus healing a boy who was possessed by a demon - a healing which was initiated by the strong faith of the boy's father.

I still had that strong feeling. I shared with our sister church pastor that I had awakened with the idea that we should go to the children's hospital, Benjamin Bloom, to check on the little boy from our sister community who was there. "We should go," he said.

We navigated our way to Bloom through a labyrinth of traffic and vendors. As I looked around at the creepy clown with red pants and balloon animals, the pick-up with an old tarp thrown over it as a display space for a big pile of stuffed animals, and the guy thrusting sandals toward us for $6 a pair, I could not imagine being a parent with a sick child having to navigate through the noise and craziness.

As we were nearing the hospital, from somewhere across the street Maria emerged, as if by magic. She quietly walked toward us with no look of surprise, as if she had been expecting to meet us here all along. Her son, Douglas Isaac, is in the hospital. His little four year old lungs are struggling to fight tuberculosis. He is breathing with the help of a respirator.

Maria walked us to the gate. The guard would not let us in until 1:00 pm when visitors can enter. Even then we will need special permission.

Maria gets up early, sends her older children to school and takes several buses each day to get to the hospital by 12:25 pm so that she can get in line to visit her son in the critical care unit.

We came back at 1:00 pm and the guard remembered us and let us in. Maria walked us up the stairs to the second floor and we all sat down in a waiting area. Maria knows the protocol and has made some friends among the other parents who perform this daily ritual. We waited our turn to go through the door, and then stood in the next line to get into the critical care unit. The guard gave a stern speech about only mothers and fathers being allowed to visit, and only if they have cards to get in.

I visited this area of the hospital once before with a group of medical professionals from the US who were in El Salvador for a Mission of Healing. The sick children are located in beds behind a glass wall. As visiting dignitaries we were allowed to come in and to view the children through the glass. All of the children were crying for their moms. They were hooked up to various types of equipment, much of it more than 20 years old. The doctors were kind and caring and doing their best with the resources they had.

I kept thinking about my own experiences as a mom with a sick child in a US hospital. It seems so wrong to restrict visits. It seems like the children who are so sick should have a mommy or daddy close by. It seems like parents who are so worried should have more access to their children. Yet, the care and safety of the children comes first and in a country with lots of dirt and lots of germs, maybe the restrictions have to be enforced.

Maria went in. After a while she peeked out and said that the doctor would let someone else in, in place of her husband. Prayers from the hallway united with prayers from the US and prayers from the pastor. I think it would be a good time for God to make a miracle at the request of a mother in great pain but with greater faith. Hugging and crying, Maria quietly testified to the power of God.

Tonight, maybe there will be a miracle. Or tonight, maybe a little boy will go to live with Jesus.

Addition to this story...
That night, the miracle was that Isaac lived. He lived long enough for his mom and dad and the doctors to try all that could be tried, and for his parents to be at peace with the reality that human healers could do no more. A few days ago, we received this message:

When you were in our country, you accompanied us in various areas, many of joy and others of sadness....and so God gave you the opportunity to be with Maria, visiting in the Hospital Bloom the little Isaac from the community...a 4 year old angel who built a chain of unity and strength....Thanks, friend, for dedicating a time for him. Today the little angel is already in heaven; he was called by the creator and his funeral was yesterday.

When Pastor Santiago had gone in to visit Isaac, he said that he couldn't help himself and he started to cry. When Isaac saw the pastor cry, little tears trickled down his cheeks too. This was the only way Isaac could communicate...his body just simply saying
"we are sad."

"He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away."
Rev. 21

With eyes of faith, we can see Isaac now, breathing well, with no tears in his eyes, sitting beside his brother Jesus, and looking forward to the time when he can again be with his parents and his pastor and say "we are happy."

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Just Another Day...

I wake up to a great ruckus of rooster crows and dogs barking. The near-full moon has confused the creatures of the community into chattering back and forth all night long, but the additional action of a pre-dawn departure of the man of the house has put them over the top. Julia has to get up too, having forgotten to wash her husband's uniform until late in the previous day and still needing to put the iron to it. The loud screech of the chain-link gate, the grinding of the ancient pick-up engine and the final slam of the metal house door wake up the kitten and the five-year old, who also add to the pre-dawn chatter.

Lights out. Back to sleep. The house is still hot from yesterday's sun, the metal roof and block walls retain the heat even though the night air is chilly. It would be so much better if we could open a window, but it is just not safe enough.

I often lay awake for long periods of time when sleeping out in our sister community. Not this morning. By the time we wake again, it is past time to get going. We put on clean clothes. Julia's grandson wiggles his feet into clean white socks and the blue shorts and checked shirt that all of the kindergarten children wear. Julia gets breakfast while the little guy bites on his shoelaces to try to release a stubborn knot. He lets me help him get the knot out and then we hunt for the shoe brush so he can shine his shoes. This happens every day; the shoes need to last for a year and the dusty terrain is hard on them.

We sit down for breakfast. We pray the kindergarten prayer, listening to our expert singer and following his motions. The song ends..."We give thanks for this food and ask God to bless it and to bless those who do not have any food. God bless Mommy and Daddy and my brother. Amen. Buen provecho."

Today's breakfast is a sweet cake made from plantains. Lucia brought it over last night as a special gift in honor of my presence in the community. The cake is sweet and moist with a sugary plantain topping. Julia pours warm water into powdered milk and her grandson brings his clean bottle from the pila - a little plastic bottle that at one time had juice in it. A piece of cake goes into the sandwich box, the milk goes into the bottle, the lunch box is snapped shut and we are ready to go. We unlock the gate, sneak out so the dogs don't escape, relock the gate and walk down the hill to the school.

Normally, three little ones walk together with their grandmas, but today we are late because we overslept. Arriving late is not a big deal in the little school, at least for the kindergartners. The older kids are out for gym class and are learning to jump rope. I see one green jump rope with sparkly handles. The other ropes are made from random pieces of twine and rope of different shapes and sizes tied together.

Moms and Grandmas take turns cooking at the school. Each day the government provides 5 pounds of rice for 80 children. The parents are supposed to take turns bringing other items. Yesterday's pile included 5 tiny potatoes, 1 package of chicken flavor, 1 onion and a couple of tiny tomatoes. This was not going to feed 80 children. Julia and the other grandma-cook for the day talked it over and decided they needed to buy some carrots and other things to make a rice soup. This is typical of the grandmas, who have very little for their own families but somehow find a way to share with others. I headed off for some morning visits. They told me later that the soup was very good.

The mornings pass quickly and soon the little ones are ready to walk home. They gather at the concrete picnic table on the school grounds to eat their "refreshments" from their little lunch boxes. (This is after they have eaten the school food.) Then they walk home.

Julia's grandson has his afternoon routine. He pushes a big desk out into the yard and carefully takes papers out from the drawer. "La oficina esta abierta." The office is open. He carefully takes up his crayons and works to complete workbook pages from a homemade book left over from 4-year old kindergarten. He is very serious.

At about 3 pm, it is time to eat again. Something simple - an egg or some beans or a tortilla. Then, after the heat of the day diminishes a bit, the kids come out to play in the open space near the church. Eight or ten soldiers lean up against the little fence outside of the church, smiling at the kids, chatting on their cell phones, holding their weapons across their chests. It is safe to play while the soldiers are watching. The community is once again in a time of increased gang activity. As the sun goes down, everyone heads for home. A few couples pass by. Women come home from selling door to door or in the market. A few women who have factory jobs come home carrying their purses, $5.30 richer after 8 hours of work.

We sit out on the edge of the concrete steps outside of the gate. Julia says it is time to go in. The nearly full moon rises just enough so I can see it over the top of the dirt pile behind the church. The little guy cannot see it, so I take him by the hand and walk to the top of the dirt hill. I crouch down and whisper that the moon is made of green cheese. We laugh and enjoy a few moments whispering back and forth about the moon, the soldiers grin and then it is time to go inside and close the doors for the night.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Music in his Heart

Don Francisco lives upstairs. Someone carried him up. Francisco cannot walk. Francisco cannot see. Francisco is 89 years old.

La Casa Esperanza is the homeless shelter which is run by the Salvadoran Lutheran Church. It is not an overnight shelter, but a place where many men, some women and young children come for a hot meal, access to bathing and laundry sinks, comfort, pastoral care, medicine, and work. There is a before and after school program for young children to help them with reading and basic skills. The woodworking shop is a place where men and women can learn, can work and do create lovely crosses and other artesenias which are sold to help support the shelter. Many of the clients are alcoholics, drug addicts and people who are living with AIDS. When the doors close for the evening, sleeping places are found in the doorways of nearby banks.

Don Francisco has no one to take care of him. He, and a few others, have been given permanent shelter by the mama of the house, Trinidad. Trini has a heart of rescue.

We remembered don Francisco from a year ago. He was disoriented and his room was bathed in urine. He is challenged by incontinence and the resources to care for him are few. As we four women climbed the stairs, we prepared ourselves to be sad. The light in the simple room was turned on for us. Francisco sat on his simple bed, surrounded by four bright orange walls and nothing more than a simple hand-made cross hanging over his bed. The walls were bright and so was don Francisco. He sat upright in his bed, and we greeted him with strong voices. I put my hand on his shoulder so that he knew that we were close. He talked a little bit about his health with our doctoras.

The Spirit moved us to sing. We sang out "Alabare" and after a few moments don Francisco was singing right along with us. His voice was strong and loud and soon he was harmonizing. His face shone like the sun with a grand smile and tears dripped from don Francisco's eyes. After a round of applause for the song, don Francisco told us that he was a musician. He had played guitar and sang and he wanted to sing for us. He sang a beautiful song of faith, one which had a bit of spirit to it so that in between the stanzas he was moved to provide the "bum, bum, bum, bum" rhythm. He shared a love song. We shared a round in English.

We left behind some things to help make don Francisco a little more healthy and a little more comfortable. We took away the gift of joyful hearts and the image of a man living in a little room, on a little bed with a lot of faith and music in his heart.

When access is available, I will be adding a video of don Francisco singing for us...

Monday, February 7, 2011

He's Here!!

Halfway through the afternoon, D's voice rang out, "Linda, he's here! Jorge Miguelito is here!"

In the midst of a hectic and hot and dusty and busy day of healing, a moment of joy burst forth. Jorge Miguelito, a little guy who we had first seen 3 years ago during the Mission of Healing, was here!

I grabbed my camera and explained, "con permiso, I need to see a little boy" to the nurse and patient team beside me. I ran into the next space and there was the family, including little Miguelito.

Jorge Miguelito's mom said the surgery to form his upper palate had gone well. With those big brown eyes and shy smile, he captured everyone's heart. God had answered our prayers -- our curiosity about Miguelito was satisfied and we got to give him a squeeze and a kiss for luck for another healthy year and a good outcome for his next surgery.

God bless you, little Miguelito!

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Mi Favorita

It has been a long day. At this moment we are sitting out on the porch, catching up on email, enjoying the cool of the evening.

We had escaped the blizzard by departing from the north a day early, spent extra time in Houston, learned that an ice storm was about to hit Houston, made it out of Houston, had to turn around after flying an hour southward due to a mechanical issue which did not allow us to control the ice or the air pressure, boarded our second plane for the day out of Houston and made it out just before the airport closed.

After a adventure and lesson in patience in the aduanas (customs) office, we drove to our destination, and here we are. We were warmly greeted by our friends, and Alma, who is the best cook perhaps in all of San Salvador, asked us what time we wold like to eat dinner. She usually asks us what we would like to have to eat, and tonight I told her to surprise us. Alma laughed and said, "Of course, I have a surprise for you."

At 7 pm Alma greeted us on the porch with a big platter of piping hot relleno de guisquil - thick slices of green squash-like vegetable with cheese, dipped in egg and fried, and covered with a delicious red sauce. This was a grand gift - a gift of hospitality and love. Alma remembered that this dish is my favorite, and she made it special for our first night here. She was all smiles. "You know that I know what you like best," she said, as I gave her a big hug and showered her with thank-yous.

This was a family welcome - a welcome filled with love and special care. It was a beautiful and warm way to end a long and tiring day.