Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Friendship and Love

A new friend request came via Facebook. At first, I did not recognize the name, so I ignored the request. Some weeks later, when I was looking through a trip journal and some photos, I had an "ah-ha" moment and put name to face and thought how kind it was of this new friend to remember me. I hit "accept" and had a new Facebook friend in El Salvador -- one of my first.

My friend is very thoughtful. I receive lots of little email encouragements from her and, not just the standard ones which get forwarded on between large lists of e-friends, but personally crafted messages filled with references to the few times we have been together. We share little bits of news with each other about family and friends. When her sister had a baby, I sent a soft yellow blanket.

During this year's holistic healing event, my friend came for a medical check-up, and she brought her mom and brother for check-ups too. Her mom needed a special medicine which we did not have but which were able to purchase for her at a nearby pharmacy. For the next few days, every time my friend's path crossed mine (which happened now and then because she works in the Salvadoran Lutheran Church offices), she made a special effort to thank me and the team because the medicine was working and everyone in her family was doing well...

El Dia de Amor y Amistad - Valentine's Day - fell at the end of the healing event this year. Early in the morning my friend found me and gave me a gold office envelope with my name written on it. She giggled and apologized for the wrapping job. Inside was a cute wooden turtle for my desk at home.

The night before, the church office staff and Lutheran guest house staff and family members and the few of us who were still there as guests all put our names into a hat to draw for amigos secretos - secret friends. There was a little bit of name-trading so that we North Americans did not end up with one another, and in the end, of course, I had the name of my special friend. I put a few surprises into a pretty pink and red bag.

We sat down to a mid-afternoon treat at a big long table on the porch of the guest house. We had coffee and delicious pasteles (little deep-friend meat pies) with curtido. Under the table and behind backs were hidden bags and packages with little presents for our amigos secretos. The person who chose my name gave me an adorable homemade blouse and some seed earrings. She was so happy that I liked the shirt! Then it was my turn to share a gift with my secret friend - who was so surprised and thrilled to know that I had chosen her name and that we were not only amigas, but amigas secretas.

When we had been out in our sister church community in past years, we celebrated Valentine's Day with secret friends and a party. I had no idea that this was a tradition which is celebrated throughout El Salvador. Anyone who is present in the community, whether the community is made up of family, friends, office workers or a congregation, during the week of Valentine's Day is welcome to share in the fun. It's a great way for kids and adults, old friends and new friends to have simple fun together, not only to be linked together on one day, but perhaps for years -- because amigos secretos share much more than friendship, they share love.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Off the Beaten Path: Unexpected Surprises

A couple of free hours...what to do...the guide book says there is a Natural History Museum not too far away...let's go!

We found our way through a mostly residential neighborhood to a tucked-away park. The book said we would have to walk through the park to get to the museum, so we went to the park entrance, paid our 20 cents each, and we were off on our latest adventure.

Immediately we were faced with a decision: the high road, or the low road. We took the high road and when a middle path appeared, we chose that one. Surprise number one: the cool shaded paths paralleled one another on the side of a steep hill, so the choice of path was inconsequential because a look down the hill from any one of them offered a view into a stadium with a bike track. A cycling team was practicing, the coaches setting the pace and calling out instructions. It was so unexpected and an opportunity for us to wonder if El Salvador has an Olympic cycling team.

After watching the cyclists for a while, we continued on our path, and soon encountered surprise number two: slides! We wandered from one playground to another, each space filled with colorful equipment for kids and surrounded by beautiful flowers and greenery, but nothing was as impressive as the slides. Using the hilly terrain, the slides were built in sets of two or three, so that each person has his or her own "channel." They are constructed of molded concrete and finished with a slippery metal surface so that the sliders are tempted to "hit the breaks" by running their shoes along the sides of the channels. These slides beckoned for some fun, and with no kids in sight, we just had to answer the call. Three women, wearing their "we're going to church later clothes", climbed the stairs and swooshed down a big straight slide. "Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!" they cried! "Let's do it again!"

Further into the park we found the most excellent, super long curvy slide. This required climbing stairs and a ladder, one person climbing up a little higher into a small tower and then sliding out from there to meet up with the other slider. Since I was the little one, the tower climb was all mine. Coming out from way up high required a bit of extra dare-devilness, and it was all worth it!

After we had sufficiently entertained the gardeners, we brushed off our dusty backsides, we continued on our way, crossing bridges and crouching in tunnels until we finally arrived at...the museum! Yes, at the far end of this magnificent children's park you will really find surprise number three: the Natural History Museum.

It is a small building, with just a handful of rooms which tell the story of the rocks and fossil finds in El Salvador. Luckily one member of our group happened to be an archeology/anthropology expert, and so we had an excellent tour. The skeletal fossils of enormous mammals is quite impressive, even if the display and preservation methods are not.

We lingered in the museum for a while and then wandered out to surprise number four: a well-labeled garden filled with medicinal plants. Our primary purpose that week was not necessarily to go sliding in our church clothes, but to coordinate a holistic Mission of Healing, and the plant garden was a treasure trove of information for a project which we are working on with one of the Salvadoran healers. We enjoyed the garden for as long as we could, and then walked back toward the park entrance. We said good-bye to the gardeners and greeted a few families who were arriving at the park for their own couple of hours of fun. As we passed by the bike track, we noticed that the team had gone and children were out on the track to practice their biking skills.

It was a morning full of surprises, and a couple of life lessons:
1. Guide books are helpful.
2. Holistic healing should always include an activity which calls forth a shout of "Wheeeeeeeeeee!!!!"

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Tales of Greasy and Grubby: La Puerta Automática

Of course by now it is clear that Greasy and Grubby are the best of friends, and that Julia, who has been often separated from Greasy and Grubby by barriers of language and distance, is precious to them both and they to her.

This friendship is a mystery. A miracle. A gift from God. It is rooted in hugs, and laughter, and tears and stories and the stuff of life that three women whisper about in a hot and tiny room late into the night.

One of the all-time favorite stories that these three share is the story of "La Puerta Automática" - "The Automatic Door."

Grubby had a video camera. It was back when video cameras were big and clunky, and making a movie was a seriously public spectacle because there was no chance of filming anything surreptitiously. "Can we make a movie about your house?" Greasy boldly asked. "We can use it to teach the children in Sunday School about a typical house in El Salvador." It was also a good way to fill some time on a sweaty afternoon when the conversation was lagging due to Grubby's complete lack of Spanish skills and Greasy's mental exhaustion from cleaning the rust off of her high school Spanish...

Grubby turns on the camera. Julia begins to show us her home: the living room with the old hunk of foam on a metal frame for a sofa and metal chairs, some with crimson pads and some with boards for seats; the bedroom with bunk beds stacked with papers and twin beds made from cardboard on metal wires with pads on top where Greasy and Grubby slept. In front of the camera, Julia is a natural, her inner Vanna White emerging as she gestures grandly toward this and that while giving detailed descriptions. As she emerges from the bedroom, Julia pulls the big hunk of cardboard which separates the bedroom from the living room across the opening between the furniture and proudly introduces her "puerta automática." We stifle giggles behind the camera, as does Julia while she describes the deluxe features of the puerta automática in fine info-mercial style.

Suddenly Julia remembers something she has to show us in the bedroom -- the ventana automática! This is the automatic window shutter which is made from a large square board which is held up by a hunk of telephone pole, wedged between the twin beds at a 45 degree angle to the wall. That very morning, Greasy and Grubby had been startled by a dinner-plate-size scorpion which had crawled out from behind the ventana automática as it was being opened.

After demonstrating the closing and opening of the window, Julia clasps her hands and thanks the audience. A voice off camera (her husband) jokingly says, "What about the china cabinet?"

Julia leads the camera over to behind the house door and moves it aside to reveal the kitchen. The old 1950's style table is held up by an odd wooden leg and covered with plastic buckets, pots and a propane burner. The china cabinet is a wire and plastic rack which is filled with a colorful assortment of china and plastic dishes. Now, the tour is complete.

Grubby turned off the camera. Everyone started laughing with Julia about the puerta
automática. This was Julia's way of really breaking the ice, of letting down her guard and poking a little fun at her own situation, of sharing with us her wit and her spunk.

All these years later, if one of us pops a board onto an overturned bucket to make a seat, we brilliantly announce, "la silla
automática" and think back to the first time in which we appreciated God's gift of humor and friendship together.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Just Click: Fifteen Minutes in Juayua

Sometimes a gracious delegation will let me tag along for a ride. This is a great way for me to get to where I need to be with a little extra fun and friendship along the way. In this way, I recently took an unexpected ride along the Ruta de las Flores. After the rainy months, this scenic drive between Sonsonate and Santa Ana is lined with flowers of all kinds, but this excursion was mysteriously (to me, anyway) planned during the dry time. The group was pretty tired of riding in the bus but remained in good humor, entertaining themselves with card games, music, jokes and conversation. Me, I got out my camera, cracked the bus window and started clicking away...we stopped for fifteen minutes in Juayua, which gave me a chance to click off a few photos from outside the bus. No flowers during this visit, but still plenty of interesting sites to catch my fancy.

Monday, April 4, 2011

A Man Named Antonio

There are some stories which are meant to be told. Told not often, not casually, but told when the time is right.

The time seems right to tell this story. This is the story of Antonio.

Antonio was brought to us by his family. He arrived in a wheelchair, bandages around one ankle and foot, an IV-port still in his arm, evidence to support the family's concern that he left the hospital without permission.

The Mission of Healing team was set up that year in the Salvadoran Lutheran Church clinic - a very basic operation in a large, war-worn building. Bus-loads of patients were brought in from outlying communities to pass through our system of holistic care. Antonio had heard about the mission from Lutheran neighbors in El Paisnal, and he had faith that we could do something for him which the hospital doctors could not.

The triage nurses took Antonio's vitals and history. He worked in construction and was a strong man. He had been on a job and injured his foot. He was in his fifties. He suffered from diabetes. The pharmacy never had any insulin. His foot injury became infected. The doctors said they had to cut it off. He refused. He could not work to support his family without a foot. Could we help?

One of the nurses lovingly began to unwrap Antonio's foot. The smell of rotting flesh seeped into the air. "Breathe through your mouth, not your nose," she thought to herself, as she fought against the urge to gag. As the foot was revealed, the gangrene exposed, the nurse gently called over to our nurse practitioner "la Doctora." La Doctora studied Antonio's foot, explaining the gravity of the infection to Antonio and his family, and quietly sent someone to go and get a pastor.

The nurse gently cleaned the wound, explaining to Antonio's wife that she could cleanse the foot with boiled water and should change the dressing to keep it as clean as possible. She bundled up a bag of clean dressings, offering the best she could for a hopeless situation.

Pastor Santiago had been working in the spiritual healing center up on the second floor. He came downstairs to triage and was shocked to see his old friend Antonio, seated in a wheel chair, in danger of losing not only his foot, but his life. "Would you like to go to the spiritual center to pray?" the pastor asked.

"Yes," said Antonio. Antonio was wheeled over to the bottom of the stairs. Four men grasped the four corners of his chair and carefully lifted Antonio up to the second floor so he could be taken to the healing cross for a time of prayer. On the first floor there was a moment of recognition that the Gospel was coming to life before our eyes.

Then some people
 came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, "Son, your sins are forgiven." Mark 2
The cross of healing was a plain wooden cross, painted white. People were invited to write on the cross, to place their burdens, their sins, their pains, their needs for healing in body, mind, spirit and relationships into God's hands through the cross of Jesus. Antonio and Pastor Santiago prayed, and at some moment, Antonio placed his life into God's hands, "I am ready to be in your kingdom, where my body will be whole," he said.  He placed his words, his burden, his body onto the cross. Then he went home with his family.

It was late morning when Antonio came to us. In a strange juxtaposition of experiences the healing team found itself eating lunch at a nearby Pizza Hut. We sat there, looking at pizza, numb. We should pray for Antonio. What should we pray for Antonio? Healing? Amputation? A quick and peaceful death? Antonio had turned his life over to God. We had to do that too. Our prayers for Antonio were simple and constant. At Pizza Hut, throughout the afternoon and the final days of the mission, on the plane and back in our homes, "Antonio." We just prayed "Antonio," lifting his name up into the air for God to catch and to do whatever it is God would do.

A few weeks after our return home, an email arrived. I called my friend* - or she called me - but as soon as the email hit the Inbox we were on the phone with each other, crying, laughing, celebrating...

The email was from Pastor Santiago, who had received word from the Lutheran pastor in El Paisnal, that on the previous Sunday Antonio had walked to church and walked into church proclaiming that God had made a miracle! He was healed! He had placed his life into God's hands and he was healed!

This was a story which had to be told. We had invited the Sunday School children in our church to pray for Antonio from the time we had returned home.  Children made bracelets with beads on them - one prayer bead for each special person in their lives and one prayer bead for Antonio.  We acted out the story of Jesus healing the paralyzed man and shared the story of Antonio, hoping to grow in the children the strong belief that in God all things are possible and miracles really happen.

A few months later, I was invited to El Paisnal to visit with Antonio. He had heard about the children in our Sunday School who were praying for him, and he wanted me to make a video testimony for them so that they could see with their own eyes that God really does make miracles happen. By this time, the diabetes was impacting Antonio's eyesight, but that did not diminish his spirit for the work that God had given him - to testify to the healing power of God who is the Great Physician. You can watch the video online.

For my friend and I, the experience of Antonio's miracle brought back memories of another Antonio. These two men named Antonio have made their marks on our lives, serving for us and for all who will listen, as living testimonies to the healing power of God and the ways in which God works to bring us together to work, love, pray and witness.

*In many of my blog stories, my friend and I are referred to as Greasy and Grubby.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Before we were secret friends...

So, there is a bit of a back story about my amiga secreta.

About three years before the big secret friend party, there was a birthday party. And before the birthday party, there was time spent in Josefina's home.

My first stay at Josefina's home was during a Greasy and Grubby adventure. Back a few years, when Greasy and I were called by God to be a part of a spiritual movement in our sister community, when we showed up in El Salvador with the faith and promise that God would provide, Josefina and her four-generation family provided. They provided us with their beds, their food, their candlelight, their late-night conversation and their love -- all in a warm, tiny, dirt-floored, mouse-friendly home.

One night there were a birthday cake and mariachis and a surprise party for Josefina's daughter. After a short time of Greasy and Grubby playing with the mariachis, it was time to listen, and Josefina pulled me onto her lap and held on tight. This was my spot for the rest of the night.

So when the time for secret friend week came along, I chose Josefina. But really, as Greasy reminded me yesterday, Josefina chose me.

Amiga Secreta

Today is the one year anniversary of Linda's El Salvador Blog. When I settled in to write this anniversary post, it didn't take me long to decide on a story to share.

This is the story of my first secret friend.

It was the week before Valentine's Day. We were all staying in our sister church community for the annual Mission of Healing. We were a small group back then - a few nurses, a nurse practitioner, a lay pharmacist and a couple of people to teach the kids about healthy teeth. At the start of the week during Sunday worship we were all invited to put our names into a little hat. Then each person drew out a name. My turn came around and I pulled out a tiny slip of paper with a name on it, the name of my amiga secreta, Josefina. What a special surprise! I loved Josefina, really, like a grandma, and she loved me back with those big long hugs and face squeezes that only grandmas can get away with.

Because we did not know anything about this community tradition of secret friends ahead of time, we rummaged through our suitcases to find anything we could to make valentine cards or create little gifts for our friends. Luckily I always travel with bits of colored paper, tape, markers and a scented candle or two, so that each day I was able to sneak over to Josefina's house and stick a small surprise insider her door when she wasn't looking -- always signed "from your amiga secreta."

Each of our group had a secret friend, and each of us was a secret friend to someone else. So every now and then a mysterious little note would appear on top of my backpack or on my pillow, from my amigo secreto (this was a clue that the friend who chose me was a boy).

All of the secret amigos and amigas waited with great anticipation for the Big Reveal, when everyone would learn the identity of his or her secret friend and we would all have a great big Valentine's Day party together. When evening of the Dia de Amor y Amistad (the Day of Love and Friendship, or Valentine's Day) arrived, my name was called by the the boy who had chosen me, Edwin! We hugged and his mom gave me a gift bag with 4 glasses of various designs, a snow globe with a purple flower inside and a brightly colored sugar bowl with a little bunny on the lid. I still use that sugar bowl at Easter time and I drink from the glasses whenever I stay at the Lutheran guest house.

Then it was my turn to call my amiga secreta, "Josefina!" I think I had prepared a little gift bag with my photo album and flashlight inside. I don't really remember. What I do remember is that she shuffled over in her little slippers, with her face smiling brightly, and she grabbed my face and gave me a big kiss. She pulled me down onto the bench beside her and would not let go for the rest of the night.

Each year, when we happened to be in our sister community for el Dia de Amistad y Amor, I figured out a way to end up with Josefina as my amiga secreta. Throughout the year, whenever we saw one another after a little time apart, we would smile and hug each other saying, "Aaaahhh, mi amiga secreta."

Last year, Josefina was very sick. On Valentine's Day we visited her home, where she lay in her bed with an infection which was slowly moving from a blackened foot through her body. I sat down by her bed and took her hand and whispered, "It's your amiga secreta." She smiled. We sang and prayed and hugged for the last time. A few weeks later, Josefina went to live with Jesus.

Some day it will be my time to go and live with Jesus. I imagine the welcoming committee will include my dad, my grandmas and grandpas, and a little lady who will be holding out her arms and greeting me with, "Aaaahhhh, mi amiga secreta!" and a big squeeze.