Monday, May 23, 2011

Beyond the Walls

Our sister church community was formed when families were brought together in the convolution of lost and landless families and the Peace Accords and refugee resettlement and strangers who suddenly became neighbors. Families were given small plots of land which had been carved off of the corners of the surrounding plantations in response to a directive of the Peace Accords to implement land reform. To their designated lots of rocky earth moms and dads and teens and little ones dragged sheets of corrugated tin and plastic, or sticks with which to construct mud and stick walls. The top of the hill was claimed for the church, Heroes of the Faith Lutheran Church, and the pathways were given the names of martyrs and heroes.

Little by little, families worked to make their homes a bit more permanent, with adobe or cement. And little by little, friendships formed, relatives joined their family members and the community grew. The little community, which was originally described as an unnamed spot on the road to Tonacatepeque, became "Los Héroes." And although the community earned an official name, the people have yet to gain official deed to their lots. The absence of legal titles for the property has been a constant challenge...

No official school: then the fight for a teacher, for accreditation, for promised government resources. Today, there is a little school for children in pre-kindergarten through grade 6. The fight now: for a wall to protect the children from the busy road and the violence which often occurs there.

No police protections: then the fight for patrols outside of the community, for patrols on the soccer field. Little by little, the police came to provide protection and security for special events. Now the soldiers are there too, standing and watching from their posts at the top of the hill. Some of the soldiers chat with the neighbors. Some of the soldiers bang on doors during the night, looking for gang members. Some of the officers smile and make funny faces at the little kids. Some of the officers bang on doors during the day, flipping the mattresses, peering into the nooks and crannies of the tiny homes, looking for evidence of gang affiliation.

Los Héroes has grown up in an environment of growing violence throughout the country. As a community which began its life as an unlikely gathering of strangers on tiny plots of untitled land - a community in which building consensus has been nearly impossible - a community in which religious and political differences have often created divisions - a community situated in an unnamed spot on one of the most violence-prone roads in the country, Los Héroes has experienced intense growing pains. Gangs are active. Murders have happened. Young lives have been lost. And in response, walls have been built.

Walking the paths through the community once offered views of the countryside in the distance, and views of the front yards and homes along the paths. The countryside is still there; the yards are hidden. Most are enclosed, surrounded by metal or concrete block or barbed wire or old bed springs. The families have walled themselves in, seeking safety from the violence around them.

Walls built around families do not help to build community. Inside their little fortresses, families know this.

So, in the one place which has always represented community, the one place in which all are welcome, the one place where walls were built by the hands of grieving mothers and gang members together, in this one place, the church, people gather in community. Youth groups, Bible study groups, support groups, community development groups have been nurtured in this place. Families are being empowered to host group meetings in their homes, with some groups strategically designed so that people do not need to walk across gang boundaries which could place them in danger. From behind the walls and through the open gates, lively conversation and laughter and the energy of friends being together and building community bubble up and out.

Recently, a person who has functioned as a source of political and religious and geographic division in the community came to the top of the hill, to the Lutheran Church, seeking permission and training to start a Bible Study group and to work together with others in an effort to further unite the community. This person's petition was welcomed publicly and joy was expressed by all who were gathered in the church that while the visible walls may need to persist, the invisible walls continue to crumble.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A Special Gift from "Mi Papá"

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.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Off the Beaten Path: Kidnapped for Fun

One day, a few of the female leaders of the Salvadoran Lutheran Church and their one male accomplice kidnapped me and took me up the side of the volcano. I had been working pretty hard for a couple of weeks, and so had they, and it was so very hot in the city. The ladies had hatched a plan and easily convinced a certain friendly pastor to be their driver, and so one afternoon we found ourselves driving up the side of El Boqueron.

The air got cooler and cooler as we went up and up. We laughed and told stories and admired the scenery along the way. We turned off at Cafe Miranda. "Hey, I always wanted to go here!" I said.

It's true. I had been up to the park at the top of El Boqueron several times, and en route had passed by the signs for Cafe Miranda, rumored to be a beautiful place, but the signs always had said "closed." The kidnapping day was my lucky day!

We stepped out of the car into the cool and breezy air. In front of us lay a beautiful complex of white buildings and gardens. We walked through a courtyard and into a a large building, one of the original coffee plantation structures which has been converted into a coffee museum. The first room was the original kitchen where the food was prepared for all of the plantation workers. Two long rows of grinding stones stand where women once ground corn to make giant tortillas known as "chengas." In the center of the room is the large oven where comals or cooking griddles once held the tortillas. One end of the room has big pots used for cooking beans. Each day the workers would each typically receive a chenga with a scoop of beans and some salt. The other museum rooms contain artifacts from the oldest coffee plantation in El Salvador, including equipment from the early 1900's.

After poking around a bit and reading the signs (available in English), we went out onto the terrace to enjoy the afternoon breeze and the beautiful scenery. We ordered wonderful iced coffees (with bunches of whipped cream!) and an assortment of delicious appetizers. The fried yucca was amazing, as were the mini-pupusas. As the afternoon turned cooler, we ordered hot chocolate and talked about our dreams for the future of our churches. We lingered until the sun lowered in the sky and we became too chilly. On our way out, we noticed that the compound includes small cabins where guests can stay. Some day, this would be a lovely place for a small delegation to stay or for a little retreat. It had been a beautiful afternoon, the best "kidnap" I have ever had.