Tuesday, June 28, 2011

I Can't Believe I am Packing Beanie Babies

The title says it all.

I can't believe I am packing Beanie Babies.

So, if you have read the story about the Beanie Baby Disaster, you will certainly wonder why I would again consider packing a suitcase full of Beanie Babies for children in El Salvador.


the Youth Center in Guazapa has a very good program called, "Toys Not Arms." About five years ago, my friend Greasy and I were present for the first anniversary celebration of the Youth Center. Recently, the pastor wrote to me remembering this special connection, and she humbly asked if we could send some toys for an upcoming month of anti-violence activities. The Toys Not Arms program will be a part of the overall program, and the anti-violence sculpture will be expanded and renewed.

Over the years, I have seen evidence that the Toys Not Arms program has been present in various communities as part of greater anti-violence initiatives. These initiatives seem to make a difference when the church, the schools, the local government, the local police and other non-profit agencies work together to provide after-school and weekend activities and classes for children and youth.

Now, of course I happen to think that if kids are going to trade in toy guns (or guns and weapons of any kind which they find or acquire), little cuddly and cute stuffed animals are the perfect anti-weapon gift to give in return. When the church where I work in the US received bags and bags of little stuffed animals as a donation, it was a huge blessing! There were more than enough to share, and so, with God's sense of humor guiding the way, I find myself stuffing 100 Beanie Babies into an old tweed suitcase for their journey to Guazapa. A friend also was able to get a big supply of yo-yo's and donations of crayons...also good anti-weapon gifts for children youth who are learning to say NO to violence.

This time, there will be no Beanie Baby Disaster. This time, children and youth will receive a small gift of peace and play as they turn away from toys which promote violence.

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Beanie Baby Disaster

We were going to El Salvador to stay in our sister church community for the first time, and we had some ideas.

The plan:
1) Three of us as the healing team would work with the local health department to run a small clinic in the church for a few hours each day for 3 days.
2) Four of us as the teaching team would run a Vacation Bible School event during those same hours in the school.

The VBS plan was made jointly through email. We worked on the details - taking our home church's summer VBS theme, translating some basic lessons and songs into Spanish, developing some art projects, planning special treats and collecting a few surprises for the children. We packed our suitcases with the supplies we needed and off we went.

The school teachers were more than generous in opening up their classroom to us and giving us a couple of prime time hours to work with the kids. It didn't take us long to realize that our lesson plans were not clicking with the kids. Translating into Spanish our North-American-culturally-relevant VBS lessons with the theme "God's Plan for You" did not quite get us into a culturally relevant zone with the Salvadoran kids. The Bible speaks for itself, so at least the scripture verses were OK. Our art project went much more smoothly, so everyone got to take a little extra time creating their little "self-portraits" from felt.

Snack time was excellent. It was the first time for the most of the kids in our sister community to taste peanut butter...yes, we had packed peanut butter and jelly and crackers in our suitcases. It was a fine dining experience as the big kids waited on the little kids with little plates of saltines slathered with PB & J.

On day number two we ditched the translated thematic songs and focused on the stuff that was working. The kids made time capsules and talked a little bit about what their dreams for the future were. We pulled out our "limited-Spanish-Go-To" songs like "Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes" and "El es El Rey" which were a big hit. More PB & J. Good times.

On day number three, which began as another good day, we had planned a surprise. We ceremoniously unfurled the banner with all of the little felt people placed in the arco iris (if you didn't click on that art project link earlier, do it now). The kids were so surprised to see "themselves" amidst all the kids from the north in a beautiful rainbow. This was good a good gift for the community.

The next surprise was the distribution of a gift to each student. This event is now known as: "The Beanie Baby Disaster."

Our intentions were good. We had more than 100 animals and there were about 80 kids in the one-room school. We opened the suitcase and a near riot ensued. The teachers calmed the pandemonium, telling the kids to take their seats, while stuffing their own little peluches into their desk drawers and purses. We were able, with the help of the teachers, to give each child a new little friend to cuddle. And then school was let out for the day. We quickly shoved the suitcase under the desk, a few little animals still hidden away inside.

Then came the solicitations: "Give me one for my sister." "Give me one for my cousin." "My mommy would really like one, give me one for my mommy." The tones of voice were pleading. We stood firm, "No." Eventually everyone went home. I think we took the few extras to the pastor, so he could give them to children who were sick or in special need of a cuddly friend.

We learned some very valuable lessons from The Beanie Baby Disaster:
1. Surprises are best shared beforehand with the leaders to make sure they are a good idea.
2. Never open a suitcase full of stuff in the midst of a crowd.
3. Think before packing a suitcase full of stuff.
4. Seek to share gifts which build up community, rather than tear it down.

It has been eleven years since that first shared VBS. The rainbow banner still hangs in the church. The Beanie Babies are long gone.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Special Ones

For those of us who hang out at Lutheran Churches, and lots of other churches too, summer brings VBS (translation: Vacation Bible School). This year our home church in the US started the summer off with a one day VBS designed for special needs children and their families. It was a beautiful event, run by volunteers from age 14 through 74, some with expertise in working with special needs children, and all with a heart for this new ministry. We heard over and over from the parents, "This is such a great experience; there are very few opportunities like this."

It was great. Great for parents to have a little personal time outside under the trees or chatting with one another. Great for each child to be accompanied by his or her own new teacher friend for special time in music, art, recreation and games. Great for everyone to gather together for a Bible story. Great to be in a safe place where love was oozing out all over the place.

I have been thinking about what the parents said: "great" and "very few opportunities like this." And I have been thinking about another great experience in a place where there are very few opportunities. I've been thinking about a special little boy.

William lives in El Salvador. He has cognitive delays, and in El Salvador the public schools do not have places for children like William. I met William in a little kindergarten, which had been started by a caring woman who, like the VBS volunteers, has created a place where love oozes out all over the place. She said that children like William usually cannot go to school, and usually end up in the street begging in order to survive. She gave William a place. She gave William a dedicated teacher friend. She gave William an opportunity.

William graduated from kindergarten. I'm not sure where he is now. I hope he has a safe place to be. I hope he has a teacher who loves him. I hope his parents have found an opportunity for him, because, just like all children, William is special.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

First Fruits

A long while back, one of us told a story. Every now and then, one of us retells the story...

A little group of visitors had come to our sister church community - a first visit. While they were at the church, a farmer named Luis came carrying a bag of beans: beans which he had planted, tended and picked, beans which were the first fruits from his field. Luis presented the beans, the offering which he brought to the church, as a gift to the visitors. This was a gift of hospitality, a gift of gratitude, a gift of first fruits.

This is one of those little stories which has become a part of our sister church history - the collection of tales and adventures we pass along from one visitor to another, from one who visits in person to another who visit in stories.

A long while back, a Sunday School lesson emerged from the telling of the gift of first fruits, and a simple art project was designed to help children and families to share the story at home. Every now and then the story is retold. Every now and then, another family hangs a little plaque with beans on the wall in their kitchen. Every now and then, we remember that our sister church relationship began with an act of generosity and a gift of first fruits.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011


We arrived in the evening. It was dark. It was raining.

The main cobblestone road in the center of the small community was all dug up. For the community, this was good, a result of a sewer project which would carry away the dirty water and latrine waste to an appropriate treatment place. For the late-night walkers - not so good.

We navigated our way along the trench, stepping on rocks, tip-toeing across slippery boards which covered unknown depths. We had our backpacks slung over our shoulders, our umbrellas or flashlights gripped in our hands. We looked like a colorful line waddling ducklings, following our swiftly walking leaders.

I was following Nancy at the back of the pack. I am short. Nancy is really short. We came to a narrow board which traversed a big hole. The board did not look sturdy, so our Salvadoran guides (who had ushered the rest of the line safely into the house and who were now standing beside the hole) told Nancy to jump. There was no way little Nancy could jump over that hole. I am not really sure how she made it across, some swift combination of leaping and tip-toeing on the board and Salvadorans grabbing her elbows resulted in success.

Then it was my turn. As I attempted to copy Nancy's move, something not so graceful occurred and ... thanks to the Salvadorans, I did not fall into the hole.

This does not seem like much of a story. But the retelling of the Great Rescue, "...as Linda was about to fall into a deep, deep hole, we grabbed her under the arms (picture great dramatic action) and picked her up like a little doll (more dramatic action) and saved her life, ¡Dios mío!" provided entertainment for the remainder of the evening.

And not just for the remainder of the evening. This story is repeated every time we meet, not only in the small community in which the great rescue occurred, but throughout the greater San Salvador area. In fact, friends from the US and El Salvador who visit the community come to me to say that they have heard the tale of The Great Rescue when two women saved my life by lifting me up when I was falling into a big, deep hole.

Yes, I have become legendary.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Something to Think About

My trash gets picked up once a week. This is a luxury.

My family is pretty intense when it comes to trash. We reuse every piece of paper with a little blank space. We recycle every scrap of cardboard packaging and mail. We compost all of my organic kitchen waste. We use non-recyclables for art projects or other purposes. We free-cycle. Still, we put out a little bag of trash each week, and it is taken away, and we do not have to think much about it after that.

We hang out at a local church that tries to implement good trash practices too. It's a little more difficult in an urban environment, especially when recyclables do not get picked up regularly. But scrap metal is a source of income, and free-cycling is very easy with so many neighbors. The multiple bags of trash get picked up once a week, and this is a luxury.

In our sister church community in El Salvador, the luxury of trash collection and disposal does not exist. The people there do not have legal title to their land so community services have been difficult to secure. Trash is everywhere.

Some families try to compost, but with tiny plots around their homes and just a few plants which grow in the hard-pack dirt or in random containers, there is no soil to mix with the scraps and no desire to attract more insects or rodents. Some families recycle food scraps by feeding them to their dogs, cats, chickens and ducks. Stray dogs, in fact, are an asset to the community, cleaning up the edible trash from the pathways.

Some families have little buckets for garbage. They burn whatever will burn in their cooking fires, including lightweight plastic wrappers, which melt with pungent aromas under the tamale pots. The trash left behind is taken to the edges of the community and dumped onto the hillside next to the highway or dumped on the flat land at the bottom of the hill near what is known as "the dirty river." The dirty river is not really a river, but the accumulation of used water from laundry and bathing which runs through the little yards, watering the trees and satisfying the ducks, down the edges of the pathways to the bottom of the hill. There it rests as a murky creek of white foam and algae mixed with junk food wrappers and old shoes.

Where do you put the trash when there is no place to put the trash?

One time, we had this idea to do a project with the youth in our sister community. Modeled after a kids' gardening and work program which helps to keep the city blocks around our local church clean, we launched a clean-up campaign in our Salvadoran community. We gave out gloves. We gave out buckets. We accompanied them on trash patrol. We did our best to at least get the trash into some designated areas. After several hours of work, the kids broke for a snack. The snack wrappers ended up on the ground. Old habits are hard to break, and when hours of cleaning don't seem to make a huge difference, well, what's the point?

Since that not-so-successful project day, the youth and the adults have been learning more about gardening in tiny spaces and more about the responsibility God places on people to care for his creation.

The community was able to get the government to install some trash bins along the highway. They are always beyond overflowing, and the neighborhood cows and horses still munch away at big nasty piles of trash which surround the bins, but the idea of placing trash in a designated place has taken hold. The pathways are a little less trashy. The youth are thinking about doing a clean-up project at the dirty river.

Back home, we have the luxury of watching our little bag of trash disappear every Monday. What if we had to deal with that little bag, and the next week's bag, and the spring cleaning bags, and the odd big stuff we pay to get rid of...what if all that trash had to stay in our yard and in our neighborhood. It's something to think about.