This was one of those times when I was on my own, living in our sister church community, hanging out with friends and spending a little quality time with a few families who have become extensions of our own family.
The invitation came from our goddaughter's mom. Over the years we have shared many visits in her home. The hospitality is always generous, even if there is not much food to offer. This is a family that struggles...struggles with a dad who is challenged by alcohol, struggles with a mom who is mentally unstable, struggles with severe poverty, struggles with teen-motherhood for our goddaughter, struggles with violence and real threats. At the time of the dinner invitation, the household consisted of mom, our goddaughter and her 3 year old son, and a younger teenage sister.
My friend, Julia, walked me down the hill and through the narrow short-cut to my goddaughter's house. I have done this walk alone many times, but the stress-level was heightened in the community that night because of the vigil. Late in the evening, a vigil would be held in another home just down the path from my dinner destination. On that same date one year earlier, on a sunny afternoon, two teen boys were shot and killed by gang members as they stood outside of a little store in the community. Julia said she would return after dinner, in time to pick me up for the vigil.
We rattled the gate - a big piece of corrugated tin which almost completely blocks the tiny yard from view. The fire was smoldering under a pot on the outdoor grill - a humble contraption made from a rusty part of an old oil drum. Young chickens with their first real feathers wandered about the yard, entertaining the little guy. Outside the house, three plastic chairs encircled a small round table which was set with a red-checked cloth. We sat at the table, chatting and laughing at the chickens and the dog.
We took some photos of each other. Mom was thrilled to have her picture taken in her Barcelona soccer jersey. A man walked by carrying his guitar on his back. I recognized him from a few years back when he and his buddies played music at our friend's surprise birthday party. He remembered me too, and paused on his way to the vigil to play and sing for us.
As the sun set, we shared dinner. I was presented with a whole chicken, and a big pile of rice set on a pretty plastic plate. "Look inside," the mom told me. Inside the chicken were a couple of whole egg yolks. This was a very special way to prepare the chicken for an honored guest. My goddaughter told me that they had killed one of their young chickens that day. They chose the biggest one. She was really proud of that.
Mom brought out a big pile of tortillas, and a scooped up a bowl of broth from the po
t over the fire for each of the girls. One chicken foot sat in the middle of each bowl. We gave thanks for the food and for one another.
Then we ate. After eating some of my chicken, I asked if the girls would like to share with me. They eagerly said yes, so we divided up the chicken and some rice into their bowls. Mom said she didn't want to eat. She would not sit down with us, but instead, stood by the fire with her arms crossed in front of her and smiling with great satisfaction of having served up her finest dinner. Half-way through the meal, she brought each of us a steaming mug of weak coffee.
Dinner ended, and it was time to go to the vigil. Julia came and picked me up, and we walked a little further down the hill to pray and sing with families in mourning. We hugged and hugged at the gate. To this day, we still remind one another of this night - of the love, the stories, the time and the special food we shared together.
Although I have photos of us together at the table, I am unable to post them out of concern for the safety of the family.
We are frequently invited. Anyone who has the heart to travel can do so. We are invited for special events in the lives of the church and the people. We are invited to team up with leaders to work together in education, healthcare, public safety, employment opportunities.
We less frequently invite. This is not to say we don't wish to invite. We want our pastor, leaders and friends in El Salvador to participate in special events in the lives of the church and the people, and we want to team up with our friends to work together in ministry and in our home community.
Earlier this year we extended an invitation to our sister church pastor to visit us and to participate in several important events, including a big anniversary worship and pastor installation at church, and a family wedding. We thought about inviting other community leaders and church members from El Salvador, but we have never been able to get visa approval for anyone other than our sister church pastor, so we only invited him. His long-term visa had expired, so we helped him to assemble a very complete profile of his previous visits and his work in El Salvador. He was granted a renewal of his visa.
Then he waited. His passport with visa did not arrive, did not arrive. We made an inquiry at the US consulate (which cost us money) and were told that nothing could be done unless the passport had been delayed more than 30 days. We contacted friends in the embassy who learned that because our sister pastor has a common last name, the US was going to do a criminal check to make sure he had not committed crimes during his previous visits to the US. This could be a delay of "several months". Expedited process was requested.
In the meantime, the special events are passing by, and our sister pastor is not with us.
The visa process is frustrating. Good people with good intentions are invited by responsible citizens. Some visas are granted, and many are rejected. We continue to try to work with this process and talk with representatives about how to improve it.
Frustration over the visa process is one thing, yet once a visa is granted, it seems to me to be completely unjust to hold a foreign national's passport for up to several months, without communicating to that person that this is occurring, in order to conduct a criminal background check. I don't question the wisdom of conducting a criminal check (although, a pastor who presented a detailed account of every previous visit to the US seems an unlikely target for such a check), but I do question the "several month" time delay. In our sister pastor's case, he travels frequently outside of El Salvador, and the holding of his passport by the US for "several months" seems absolutely out of line.
We in the US are accustomed to flashing our US passport and quickly moving through visiting immigrant processes around the world. Some countries require us to have pre-positioned visas in our passports, which can take a week or two. This seems reasonable.
I want to ask anyone and everyone in our government who makes or implements our US visitor policies: How would you feel if another nation's government held your passport for 2 or 3 or 4 months while conducting a "check" on you? Would this be reasonable? Would this be just?
I do not believe we should continue to treat honorable visitors to our country as suspicious and potential criminals. I do not believe that we should intimidate visitors with lack of communication or by holding their passports. This is not right.
I do believe that I should be able to invite a beloved pastor and friends to a milestone event at my church or to my son's wedding.
My work in the US is as a volunteer coordinator for Lutheran Churches in my area who have relationships in El Salvador. I work closely with friends in the Salvadoran Lutheran Church and frequently spend time in El Salvador.