At some point, we became family. Not just "sister church family" or "brothers and sisters in Christ" family, but family that is rooted in genuine love and care for each other.
My sister church pastor and I are the same age. We think alike. We joke around. We are serious. When my dad died, I grieved in El Salvador and he was with me. When my best friend told me she was moving away, she did it when the three of us were together so we could hold each other up. He has lived in my home, and I have lived in his. His mom and dad love me like a daughter. His sisters and brothers love me like a sister. We hang out. We help each other with chores. We chat over the internet. We celebrate special days together, when we can.
I had been in El Salvador for a month, partly with delegations, partly on my own, working and spending time in our sister community. In between this and that, I spent time relaxing and sharing meals at my Salvadoran family's house. On my last day, Papá insisted that I stop by for something special. He brought out a plastic bag, and carefully unwrapped a little wooden church. I recognized it right away - it was his church, Springs in the Desert. He laughed and said he had not planned very well, having had to stay up all night to finish this special gift. He showed me the windows, the little crosses on top, the blue-green paint which exactly matches the paint on the real church.
Then, with a grin, Papá twisted the cross at the top of the little church, turning and turning until it was removed. Still grinning, he pulled a screwdriver out of his pocket and turned a small screw in the roof of the church, and said, "Look, it's a secret," as the roof came off. "You can put your treasures in here."
His son gazed his dad with a proud smile. "My dad is always inventing things," he said, with a chuckle. "Do you know this is a very special gift for you? He made it so you can remember his church even when you are not here." Mamá stood to the side, smiling and slightly shaking her head.
Papá is retired, after serving a good many years as the pastor at Springs in the Desert. He and his wife have touched the lives of many young pastors over the years, including Bishop Gómez, serving as role models of faith and dedication during difficult times. Three of their children are pastors and the multitude of grandchildren are active youth leaders in the church.
I have Papá a big hugging thank you. He carefully put the roof back onto the church, and wrapped it back up in its plastic bag. Then it was time for me to go. We shared big bear hugs all around and said our good-byes.
The little church traveled back to the US in my suitcase. It has a place of honor in a room where I keep all of the gifts which are given in love and friendship, little bits of El Salvador to help me remember friends and family when we are far away from one another.