Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Christmas Wishes from El Salvador

Oh how the times have changed!

The phone started ringing and the text messages started blinging a few days before Christmas.  They popped up on my phone as calls from Florida or South Carolina or Oregon so I was never sure if I should answer "hello" or "hola." 

Merry Christmas...may God bless you with a prosperous New Year...may God bless you and your family...we love you...greetings and hugs to the loved ones who surround you...we feel close to you, it doesn't seem like you are in the United States but that we are neighbors...may Baby Jesus enter anew into your hearts...

We exchanged these heartfelt greetings and talked a little bit about what we are doing, what meetings are going on at our churches, the weather.  When I mentioned the 10 inches of snow in the yard, the brisk winter breeze, the piles of coats and boots near the doors, the 4 pm sunset, my friends on the other end found these things difficult to imagine.  A cold December night in Los Heroes includes temperatures in the 60's and then mothers pull fleece hats onto their children's heads and bundle their babies in multiple blankets.

When I spoke with Estella before Christmas, we agreed to send each other special blessings on la Nochebuena (Christmas Eve).  I sent Estella a text with warm wishes and big hugs for her family.  A few minutes later the phone rang.  "I had saldo (money on her phone)," she said, "so I decided to call you!  Merry Christmas!  "  We chatted for a few minutes.  "We are getting ready to go to church,"  I said.  

"We had church on Sunday for the fourth Sunday of Advent," she said.  I took that to mean that there would be no Christmas Eve worship.  Maybe is not safe for the pastor or the people to come out in the evening.  "It was beautiful, but a little sad.  You know that your goddaughter's mother passed away."

"Yes."  Our goddaughter had sent an urgent message a few days earlier:  Godmother, it's me.  I'm really sad and I need to talk with you from work.  My mom is in agony.  Call me.  We talked.  Her mom had been suffering for a long, long time.  Cancer, then surgery, then chemo, and the cancer persisted.  We talked as her mom was dying.  We talked again before the funeral.  "I don't have any words," I said.  "We can just cry," she said.    

Sadness and joy.  Mourning and celebration.  In Los Heroes, in our home community, in Bethlehem, this is life.  Estella and I honored the mother who is now with Jesus, whose birth we were celebrating on Christmas Eve.  "What are you doing now?" I asked.

"Ohhhhhhh, making little pancitas (little breads)," said Estella cheerfully.  It would be fun to share Christmas treats, or at least recipes with each other.  I wondered how Estella baked her little breads.  I had never seen an oven at her home.

This is the first year in which Christmas connections have come by phone and text.  A few who have internet access or can go to a cybercafe send greetings and photos via email or Facebook.  Amid the photos of families standing near pretty Christmas trees and sweet cartoon drawings of the nativity, one Facebook photo from Pastor Gloria caught my eye.  The children in the photo are holding signs which say, "We don't want children burned this Christmas."  This was from a pre-Christmas workshop for parents and children, admonishing both to use care and supervision during  Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve celebrations.  Children all over El Salvador light fireworks during the holidays, and every year there are many sad stories of children who suffer with burns and the loss of fingers.  This campaign seems like a very good addition to Christmas preparations...and New Year's preparations too!

Friday, December 21, 2012

Portrait of a Pastor

During a recent car ride, I had the opportunity to chat with one of the pastors of the Salvadoran Lutheran Church.  He has told me some stories in the past, so I asked him if he would tell me a little bit about his life.  I took a few notes during the bumpy ride, and that night I wrote everything I could remember in my journal.  Here is his story...

I was born and raised in Tonaca.  When the cooperatives were there, I worked with them and then was an FMLN soldier.  After the war, I was there and remember when the people came to Los Héroes*.  I was a witness to that.  They didn’t know me as a pastor, but as an FMLN leader.  So, when I became a pastor I couldn’t serve there among my own people.  So I worked at Opico and Quezaltepeque, and later helped to start a mission at Nueva Esperanza in Chalate.  I have always worked with cooperatives and like that style of project.  I came to Cara Sucia after Hurricane Mitch when the Lutheran World Federation set up the radio station and emergency building.

During the war, I almost died three times.  The FMLN advanced, taking the communities around Guazapa.  The military responded.  I was in Apopa and a bomb fell on the place like a house where I was.  The bomb went into a hole and exploded upwards, so that everything which surrounded me was blown upwards into the sky.  My group expected me to be blown up, but I had been near a window.  Maybe that saved me or maybe it was because the explosion went upwards.  I came out of the house.  I remember checking to make sure all of my body parts were there.

Another time I was on Troncal del Norte (the main highway which goes north from San Salvador).  This was the "happening place" for a lot of war action.  There was a big electrical storm as we walked down the highway.  Two transformers, which were located above me one on either side of the road, were hit by lightning.  I quickly ducked into a little ball with my backside in the air and waited for the sparks and power lines, pieces of metal and rays of electricity to fall on me.  I was expecting to die. The fire and debris fell all around me, and my group expected me to be charred to a crisp.  Everything around me was burnt, but the little spot where I crouched was not burned.  I went back to this spot much later and could still see the burn marks.  Maybe you can still see them.  I wondered why God caused me to live. This was the second time I was saved.

There was a third time.  These times made me think about God and this is why I became a pastor.  I didn't really think about God before this.  On November 11 in the late afternoon I put on my dark clothes and we moved forward.**  There were a lot of us.  Well, we need to honor the veterans.  There were so many who were with me. There is no recognition for those who were injured during the war or who need help.

Well, I grew up in Tonaca.  I can tell you about the legends there.  Of course I already told you about Cipitillo and the Siguanaba.  These are true stories.  When I was a little boy, one time my father was walking home at midnight.  There was a place where three huge trees stood together and there was a large canopy.  You can go see these trees - do you know where they are?  My father came to this spot and suddenly there appeared a big huge animal and he realized it was a burro.  It was scary with red eyes.  My father was paralyzed with fear.  The giant burro flapped its big ears at him and sort of slapped his face with them.  My father ran home.  I woke up when he came in the house and he was really trembling with fear.

Did I tell you about the the headless priest?  He comes out at night and stands in the middle of the road.  You walk past him and then he follows you.  You can feel the cold behind you because he is following.  People run in the dark because of this.  Many people have felt the cold of the headless priest.

Well, there are many stories...this is a little bit about my life.

*Los Héroes was settled in 1996 by 150 families who were displaced during the war.  The Salvadoran Lutheran Church helped the families to settle and established a congregation - the only church in the community at the time.  In the past 17 years the community has more than tripled in size.

**This was the final offensive which the FMLN mounted in 1989.  I had read about the final offensive but it did not click when the pastor was talking with me about November 11th that he was speaking about this event.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Jesus to the Rescue

A long while back we had a Vacation Bible School program entitled "Jesus to the Rescue" at our church.  There was a catchy theme song with simple words, "Jesus to the rescue, Jesus to the rescue, Jesus to the rescue...R-E-S; C-U-E; Jesus wants; You and me; Grab your gear; Get on board; Serving others; Led by the Lord..."

My kids still remember this song, and clearly I do too.  Every now and then it pops into our heads, especially if we have had a little rescue-experience which was unexpected or unusually fortunate.

We were taking the circuitous route through San Salvador, attempting to avoid the heavy Friday traffic.  There were about 15 of us in the small bus, and we were pretty tired after a long week of strategic planning meetings, presentations and dynamic conversations about sustainability.  As we maneuvered onto a busy street, we suddenly heard a thunk-thunk-thunk.  We opened a window and peered out at our wheels below.  Sure enough, the right front tire was flat down to the rim.  The driver pulled over, and radioed his boss.  "This could take a while,"  we thought.

"Hey, maybe there is a tire place nearby," someone wondered.  Just then the driver rolled ahead slowly and started to pull into a driveway on our right - a tire repair shop!  We couldn't believe our luck!  There in the midst of traffic extravaganza, we had a flat, but we also had a quick rescue.  We hopped out of the bus, stood around for a few minutes while the tire-guy popped off the old tire and replaced it with the spare, and we were off on our way again in no time at all.

Well, maybe this wasn't exactly a "Jesus to the Rescue" in a big miraculous or eternal life kind of way, but for us at that moment, it was just the little rescue we needed.  We hopped back onto the bus with all our gear and continued on our way, energized by our little rescue moment.  Thank you, Jesus, for all the big and small rescues you put into our lives.

Sunday, December 2, 2012


When we were kids,  my friends and I would play lots of games like tag, hide and seek and kick-the-can.  Sometimes we would set up complicated rules with teams and a designated "no-man's land" which was to prevent us from sneaking behind the other team's goal.  Usually the objective was to make it to home base or "safety" before getting tagged or found or pelted by snowballs.

There are two gangs in our sister church community.  MS (Mara Salvatrucha) plays tag on the walls with big blue spray-painted letters, claiming the pathways near the school and the soccer field as its territory.  M-18 is less obvious with the paint, but more obvious with their presence, owning the paths with such intimidation that community leaders have not been able to maintain the pathways and waste water and erosion have converted the concrete stairways into slippery, sludgy, smelly hazards.  Families who live in the MS section can't walk over to the 18 section.  Kids who live in the 18 section have body-guard moms who walk them to and from school each day, across the border.  There have been murders in both halves of the community, although the 18 side has suffered more with "hits" being carried out on young people who have lived in the neighborhood since they were toddlers.

The church sits in the middle, on the border between the gang territories.  When soldiers station themselves in the community, they gather around the church, and an observer might describe the church's hilltop location as "no-man's land" - a place without spray-painted tags and guarded by occasional sentinels with big automatic guns.  Despite appearances, it doesn't take too long to figure out that this church is not a "no-man's land" kind of church.  This church is a busy church.  This church is an every-day-of-the-week church.  This church does not say, "gang members, stay away!"  This church does not do ministry with one group or another.  This church says, "We are the home base.  We are the safety."

The people know the story of how the pastor led the 1996 pilgrimage of 150 displaced families to these little plots of land, and how together they claimed the top of the hill with a simple iron cross.  They built a simple structure of bamboo and corrugated tin, like their homes, which served as the first school, the first clinic, the first community center, the first place to welcome strangers from the North.  Division in the community came with the people:  religion, politics, war wounds, and eventually the gangs.  The people know the story of how the community worked together despite differences to advocate for a school, electricity, a community center, water.

Eventually the time came to build a new church building, and the people know the story of how the pastor and church leaders first built up the community by establishing Bible study groups in different sectors, training youth leaders to lead youth group meetings in neighborhood sectors, allowing people to gather for study and fellowship and support without the need to walk across gang boundaries.  The people know the story of how the pastor and Bible study leaders invited MS gang members to help build the church on some days, and 18 members on other days.

When the church building was finished and people began to come for worship, for Sunday School, for Women's Group, for Men's Group, and for Youth meetings, the people came from this side and that side of the neighborhood.  The pastor sometimes received threats.  He couldn't safely walk to do house visits, but he invited the people to come to the church.  He received phone calls seeking extortion money.  "You know me," he responded, "You were with me in Sunday School.  We played soccer.  You know I have no money.  The only thing you can extort from me is love."

On a Sunday morning in November, a gang member stood at the podium to read the scripture lesson from a paper on which he had written the words in large letters.  Beside him stood a non-gang member, standing in solidarity with his friend and giving him courage to read because his friend suffers with terrible eye problems.  Other gang members sat in white plastic chairs and listened.

On a Sunday noon in November, we sat at a table made from a large piece of wood placed across saw horses.  This table stands up to its history as the original altar, the Sunday School table, the medical exam table and often our dinner table.  We ate lunch.  We talked with the community President about the deterioration in the M-18 streets and the need to restore the area.  The pastor said he received a message that someone in the M-18 area wanted to talk with him.  He said he didn't believe it was a malicious request and asked us to accompany him.

On a Sunday afternoon in November, we were walking down the path and a woman invited us to her home.  She went down the way and gathered up three teen boys.  We met with the boys in her back yard.  One of their friends had told the mom that one of them had wanted to talk with the pastor.  Maybe these boys were at risk of joining the gang.  Maybe these boys were dabbling in gang activities.  Maybe one or more of these boys were already in.

The boys were shy.  The pastor asked the mom to explain how we had ended up in her back yard together.  "My son is almost the age of these boys.  I am worried for him, as I am worried for every boy on my street.  These are my neighbors.  God put it on my heart to be an intermediary, to open my home as a place where they could come and you could come."

The pastor spoke gently with the boys.  "What are your dreams for the future?" It was quiet for a long time.  "I want to grow up, to have work, to get married, to care for my family."
Maybe they had come to the church long ago, when they were little.  One said, "I remember that it was my job to move a big table into the church - a big table that we used for Sunday School."

"We still need you to come and move the table.  Come to the church whenever you want to talk or need a friend.  It's your home base.  It's your safety."

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Violence and Peace

The streets were closed surrounding the plaza in front of the Cathedral.  Traffic was clogged at the crossroads of stoplights and barricades.  We waited to the tunes of horns honking and buses revving up their engines.  Our driver identified us - a small group of North Americans in solidarity with the Salvadoran Lutheran Church - and the police let us through.  We parked right next to the cathedral.  "What luck!" we thought.

As we emerged from the micro we could see the crowd quickly gathering.  It was beautiful - a sea of white shirts under a bright blue sky, each person wearing a gentle outline of a dove with an olive branch and the words, "Pastoral Initiative for Life and Peace."  We hardly had time to take in the scene when Pastora Gloria assigned us in pairs to her volunteers who firmly grabbed us by the arms and whisked us to our row of white plastic chairs under the shade of a canopy.  "The front row...what luck!" we thought.  We sat down and looked up.  The white facade of the cathedral and bright blue sky before us echoed the scene which stood behind us in the plaza - white and blue, the colors of peace and hope, the colors of the nation.  In our minds we could still see upon the church facade the faces of the people as had been represented in the ceramic art of Fernando Llort.  Like the people gathered, the cathedral itself lives the struggle between violence and peace.

Dignitaries began to arrive.  The government head of security stood in his white suit, surrounded by the press and by body guards with big guns.  Bishops from the Lutheran Church, Roman Catholic Church, Anglican Church and other protestant denominations gathered at the head table.  Pastors from the various churches were seated on a raised platform.  We were excited to see so many familiar faces - clearly the Salvadoran Lutheran Church had a central role in organizing the Pastoral Initiative for Life and Peace.

The rally had been planned as a way in which to call together youth and adults, in the spirit of the truce which has existed for several months between the two largest rival gangs in El Salvador, to work together to build peace.  Songs, prayers, scripture and a homily called for all who were gathered, pastors and gang members, Salvadorans and foreigners, to become instruments of peace, to work to build opportunity and community, to fight the war of violence by making a "war of peace."  Symbols of peace were brought forth by young people:  a candle calling for the God of Peace to light our way and illuminate our minds; a banner carrying words from scripture calling the church to work for peace; and chains of violence and oppression which were broken to show that peace brings liberation.  The bishops signed the initiative and then called for pastors and cooperating organization leaders to sign the document.  Finally a child was called forth, one of the Angels of Peace (a group of youth and children who work to build peace in their communities through non-violence education), to sign the document.

Throughout the event there was a strange juxtaposition of images - white shirts, automatic weapons, laughter under the trees, ropes and police barricades, an old wound with legal entanglements which prevented church leaders from being able to be seated together.  In the midst of tight security, the humorous images of daily life stuck out - a dog meandering in front of the table of honor during a peace litany; women with heads supporting large bundles of goods for sale walking purposefully behind the guests of honor; and friends ducking under the security ropes to greet us and pose for pictures and share big hugs.

In retrospect, we realized that our "lucky" parking and "lucky" seats were not so much about luck as they were about keeping us safe.  Thanks be to God the rally for peace was not marred by any evil acts, but with so many gang members and security officials gathered in one place, our sister church friends were worried for our safety even as they were worried for their own children.  As we enter into the season of Advent, our prayer is that the Prince of Peace will reign over El Salvador and our own North American cities, bringing peace, hope and love so that our children can play and be children and those who love them can watch them grow in wisdom and grace.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Little Travelers

So, at one point, after a near riot of children and teachers ensued, I promised myself that I would never take another Beanie Baby to El Salvador.

At another point, I reconsidered this position because a wonderful program called Armas ni de Jugetes (roughly, weapons are not toys) teaches kids to be peacemakers and offers them the opportunity to trade toy guns and toy weapons for stuffed animals, positive toys or school supplies.  Seeing a kid cuddle a Beanie Baby instead of sticking a plastic revolver into his waistband is worth the hassle of hauling these little creatures by the 50-pound-suitcase-full through airports and customs.

So, occasionally I pull a decrepit suitcase full of Beanies behind me through the aduanas, and hand it off to an amazing pastor who is dedicated to teaching kids and communities to fight violence with love, but I haven't given a lot of thought to the impact which the giving of the Beanies may have on the donors, until this past Sunday.

On Sunday, a small panel of folks who had traveled to El Salvador from our US church during 2011 and 2012 gathered to tell stories.  We called it, "Gringos in El Salvador - 5-minute Stories from Those Who Have Traveled."  Each person shared his or her own memories of a special person or event, a bond which had been built, a transformation in his or her life at home, a recommendation as to why others should travel.  When one of the storytellers mentioned that a  most memorable moment was observing the opening up of a suitcase of Beanie Babies, I was caught by surprise!

The storyteller was a young woman who just started her career as a pharmacist.  She was a member of the Mission of Healing team which coordinates annually with the Salvadoran Lutheran Church and Salvadoran medical professionals to bring holistic healing to those who do not have good access to medical care.  At one point, while observing the chaos of a few hundred patients traveling between healing stations and filling prescriptions, she noticed a big suitcase enter the picture.  In the center of things, it was opened, and one by one each child received a cuddly new friend.  The storyteller told of her own childhood Beanie Baby collection which she had cultivated back when Beanies were really popular and everybody thought they could be sold as collectibles sometime in the future.  When the Beanie Baby fad died out, and she realized she was never going to sell them, her parents donated them.

Wow, I thought, that was six years ago.  Her parents had asked if we could use the Beanies with our sister church.  I remember hesitating but thinking maybe there would be a good use for them.  Her parents delivered three white Hefty drawstring bags stuffed full of Beanie Babies.

The storyteller was moved by the genuine gratitude that each patient expressed when receiving medications from her hand.  She said that when she dreamed of becoming a pharmacist, it was a dream about helping people, and that in El Salvador she really felt that her professional skills were helping people. When the storyteller saw those kids, standing in line, receiving the Beanie Babies with open arms and big smiles, she remembered her Beanie collection and felt good about giving away all those Beanie Babies.  That good feeling of being with people who are so gracious is something the storyteller wishes to experience again, and to share with the people she loves.  She and her boyfriend are both participating in the next Mission of Healing.

The storyteller finished her story, but there was a little bit more to tell.  She had no idea that those three big white bags with her treasured Beanie Babies provided the impulse for the rejuvenation of the Armas ni de Jugetes program six years ago...that her Beanies would be the pioneers for thousands of traveling Beanies...that her Beanies planted the seeds for what she witnessed with the opening of a suitcase in the middle of the Mission of Healing six years later.

Of course, the Beanie Baby Trade is not a sustainable incentive plan for the Armas ni de Jugetes program.  Who knows how many Beanie Babies still live in the US, but at some point it seems they will all have migrated south to new homes.  Even now, they are sometimes replaced by crayons and yo-yo's.  With a look to the future, church and community leaders in El Salvador are working with their North American partners to think creatively about peace-making activities, non-violence education and small participation rewards which can be purchased locally.

On Monday, I went over to church to organize some donations for the next Mission of Healing.  Perched on top of a little pile of toothbrushes were four beautiful Beanie Babies.  Four more little Beanies will make their way south, and someone feels good about that.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Better than a call from North Carolina

I walked in the door after a long solo driving trip.  The phone rang.  The caller ID indicated I was receiving a call from an unknown person in North Carolina.

"Hmmm," I thought, "Whom do I know in North Carolina?"

I expected it to be someone who had gotten my number from our synod office - someone from some ELCA church out there who had a question about sister church relationships with the Salvadoran Lutheran Church.  "Ugh,"  I thought.  "I am too tired to deal with this."  I picked up the phone anyway.

"Ho-la."  It caught me off guard, but I recognized Estella's sing-songy greeting right away. Not North Carolina, but El Salvador!  "Hola!" I chirped back, and as with one hand I navigated the process of taking off my coat, greeting the dog, taking out the dog, and feeding the dog, I carried on a lively conversation with Estella.

It was Estella's daughter's birthday.  This was the purpose of the call - to take a couple of moments out of the middle of an afternoon to celebrate together a little girl who was completing her second year of life.  We talked about our kids, our husbands, our churches, our communities, our Bible study groups.  The visit to the doctor for the two-year-old check-up that morning had gone well.  The plans for our upcoming visit in El Salvador were moving along on both fronts.  Three times during the conversation, Estella said, "I love you so much.  You and all the friends from our sister church.  You have made such a difference in our lives - for me and for my children.  May God bless you and keep you and watch over you.  I pray for you every day."

This was so much better than a call from North Carolina (no offense to any North Carolinian fans out there.)

Estella made me promise to call our pastor to thank her again for baptizing Estella's daughter during our last visit in El Salvador.  "Tell Pastor Jennifer that her little girl is healthy and is turning two years old today.  Tell Pastor Jennifer to remember the baptism.  Tell Pastor Jennifer that we give thanks and pray for her every day."

Thank you, Estella, for taking the time to call, for your love and your prayers.  You have made such a difference in our lives, for me and for the brothers and sisters in your sister church.  May God bless you and keep you and watch over you.  We will do our best to pray for you every day.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Grandma

The Abuela after her check-up in 2005
The Abuela was old, amazingly old, perhaps the oldest person in the community.  She had feisty hair and a feisty spirit to match.  She was in her 80's, maybe even 90's.  It was hard to tell.  Her face was well-lined from years of sun and laughter, but her memory was sharp and her personality was spunky.  Some years ago she started to carry a straight tree branch in her hand as a walking-stick.  The top was worn smooth from her grasp.  Despite her age she navigated her way up and down the rocky rutty paths in the community, her walking stick in one hand and her baseball cap in the other.

We called her The Abuela -- The Grandma.  This was out of respect.  We met The Grandma during our first visit to the community.  She came for a check-up at a small clinic which we ran inside the church.  Deb, our nurse practitioner had a special rapport with The Grandma from their first meeting.

The Abuela lived at the corn-grinding house with her son and daughter-in-law.  We would often visit to admire her beautiful flower and fruit garden or to find out how the molina business was going.  She kept a couple of pet cats.  After the earthquakes in 2001, our church helped The Abuela and her family to build a new home as part of a community housing project.  A small group of us visited the home when it was completed to give a blessing.  After the blessing, The Abuela asked Deb to bring her a ring the next time she came to visit.

Deb always treated The Grandma with great respect and care and offered her basic comforts for a difficult medical situation.  It's difficult to talk about female problems in many cultures, even with medical personnel.  This was very true in El Salvador twelve years ago and is still somewhat true today.  The Grandma broke past the barriers of embarrassment and cultural silence, revealing to Deb that she had a completely prolapsed uterus.  Preventing infection on an internal organ which has become external to the body is very difficult.  The Grandma was a role model for other women, advocating for herself, gathering the information she needed, and caring for herself in the best way possible.

The Abuela in 2012
During the next couple of years after the house blessing, we did not see The Abuela.  She wasn't home when we stopped by.  She did not attend worship when we were there.  The little clinic we offered became a more holistic healing mission and was held outside of the community, and she did not come for a check-up.  Deb carried a ring in her purse during all of this time.  Then, one day, there she was!  Deb presented The Abuela with the ring.  It was a joyful moment.

The Abuela in 2012
Dear Abuela, today we learned that you passed away.  We will remember you for your smile, your laughter, your sense of humor and your style.  We will remember you in your beautiful skirts and "sexy" blouses.  We will remember you with 2 or 3 necklaces around your neck, pretty hair clips, bracelets, rings and dangly earrings, all topped off with a baseball cap.  We will remember your frequent request for presents and the joy with which you received them.  We will remember you carefully following they hymn book and singing with gusto.  It has been a blessing to know you, to laugh with you and to learn from you.  Dear Abuela, we will remember you.  

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Pretty Blue Beads

As we were leaving the community, Jonathan's mom hastily tied a blue beaded bracelet around my wrist.  She and her daughter had fashioned four rows of interlocking translucent blue pony beads with blue yarn - a style of knotting and beading which they had learned during recent employment workshops in the community.  The bracelet was a gift from a grateful mom, grateful because we had visited her son Jonathan every day, holding our hands over him in prayer.

Jonathan was a miracle baby.  His mom found out that she was pregnant just weeks after her oldest son was murdered.  A year ago, when he was one year old, Jonathan was baptized.  This year, as a two-year-old, Jonathan is spunky and playful and energetic.  The day before our visit, Jonathan had fallen and hit his head on the hard ground.  He had symptoms of a concussion, so his mom and dad took him to the clinic where they were told he had a skull fracture.  Keep him still. Watch him.  Come back if the swelling on his head becomes worse or if he loses consciousness.

When Jonathan and his family were not in church, we asked around and found out what happened.  So we went over to the house and asked if we could pray over Jonathan.  Each day during our visit, we went to the house and laid hands on Jonathan and asked God to heal him and to comfort his mom.  Each day, we observed Jonathan getting a little better.  After a few days, he was playing in his crib. On our last day, Mom carefully led Jonathan on his first walk after his accident.  That was the day that the bracelet was added to my wrist, a reminder to pray for Jonathan's continued healing and protection from other dangers for a two-year-old.

Sometimes I have a chances to take photos of my bracelets before they break, but this time the blue beads tumbled to the floor before I captured a picture of the pretty bracelet.  The yarn only lasted a couple of months -- long enough, I think, for prayers of protection to have surrounded Jonathan's little head while it healed.

I was down to one bracelet after the pretty blue beads scattered, so I looked inside a small box I keep with gifts from El Salvador inside.  There I found another bracelet with pretty blue beads.  I have had it for a long time.  It deserves a story too...but that is for anther day.

Friday, August 31, 2012

The Rice-a-Roni Story

In the early days, the secret goal of any delegation member was to be assigned to Sandra's house.  Even before the days of cinder block and tile floor when the roof leaked and a riverlet channel ran across the width of the dirt floor, Sandra's house provided a much appreciated level of comfort.

Some people are just naturally neat and tidy.  Some people have a knack for creating a cheerful and welcoming space with very basic things.  Some people can turn ordinary ingredients into a gourmet dinner.  Sandra has these gifts by nature, but she has also developed these gifts in order to preserve the precarious life of her son.  Born with a serious heart condition, Sandra's son was not given good expectations for a long or active live.  He is now in high school and has aspirations of becoming a doctor.

So, as Sandra swept debris from her yard to keep the cockroaches and mice away, as Sandra carefully washed her vegetables and dishes in water which she chlorinated, and as Sandra kept her latrine (complete with ceramic toilet over the waste hole) impeccable, as Sandra grew vegetables and medicinal herbs in containers around her home, and as Sandra cooked healthy meals for her family she wasn't exactly setting out to create the best bed and breakfast in the community, as she said, she was "guarding the life of her child."

Sandra's house was one of the gathering places for the women of the community.  This is where we would sometimes have cooking lessons.  Try as she might, Sandra never could teach any of us northern girls how to spin and flatten tortillas in the crooks of our thumbs and forefingers.  "No, not pat-pat-pat...spin, spin spin like this," Sandra would laugh.

One time, Sandra made "meat on a stick."  I have no idea what this is called in El Salvador, but we gave it this descriptive name.  First, you make your tortillas.  If you can't spin them, pat them.  Keep them a little bit thicker than usual.  Set them aside.  Chop up a carrot, some onion, and some tomato (only the fleshy part) into really tiny pieces.  Don't chop like an iron chef, but take your time to cut each tiny piece one by one.  Take some ground meat.  Sometimes in El Salvador it is best not to ask what kind of meat it is, but beef might be a good option.  (If you use turkey or a mixture, just add more seasonings.)  Add salt and some mysterious leaves and twigs which you pick from the garden and chop.  Fresh rosemary and oregano would be close to accurate, but probably any savory herbs you like would work.  Add the chopped stuff, herbs, and an egg to the meat.  Take your tortillas and cut them into strips about 3/4 inch wide.  Mix the meat stuff with your hands until well-mixed.  Form a meatball around the center of each tortilla strip, leaving the ends of the strip poking out of the meat (about 1 inch on each side).  Fry in hot oil until the tortilla ends are golden brown and the meat is cooked through.

Of course meat on a stick is best served with rice.  One time, we asked Sandra what her secret she had for making such delicious rice.  She went to her cupboard and pulled out a box, "Rice-a-Roni," she laughed.  "Seriously?" we wanted to know.  "Yes, the secret is out!" she exclaimed, but of course she added regular rice, and consume de pollo, and her own touches to make a big batch ...

I have lots of fond memories of spending time with Sandra and her family, and have written a couple of stories previously:  A Rain Story and Lessons with the Kids.  Sandra and her husband continue to guard the life of their son, and the lives of their other children.  To escape the violence of the neighborhood, they have relocated to another place in El Salvador.

Author's note:  I was thinking about the moment in which we learned the secret to the tasty rice as I was walking up a steep hill today in San Francisco.  

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Legend of El Tabudo

After we returned from Lake Coatepeque, I wondered if there were any interesting folk stories about the lake.  It felt like one of those special places - a little bit quiet, hidden in a caldera, deep blue water, lots of fish.  Thanks to Gloria and Guillermo, I learned this story...

The legend of El Tabudo has become very popular among fishermen, residents and visitors to Lake Coatepeque and has spread so much that people tell the same legend of all lakes and lagoons of El Salvador.

It seems that the owner of a beautiful mansion located on the shores of Lake Coatepeque went for a ride in a traditional hand-made canoe.  As he came near the island he was swept away by an underground stream and carried to the realm of the goddess of fresh water, never to be seen alive again. 

A few months later he appeared to the people who were looking after his property which they had inherited. They were astonished and confused when they saw him because his knees had widened so much that looked like a pair of soccer balls and the same with his lips so that he looked like a sea creature more than a human.

Those who saw him told of his appearance and his big “knee knuckles” gave him the name “El Tabudo”. The tabudo is a kind of underwater tycoon.  He will appear to you like a person pretending to be a humble fisherman to earn your trust.  Then he will take you to the depths of the lake, where he turns men into huge goldfish and women into freshwater mermaids.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Off the Beaten Path: A Day at Lake Coatepeque

It was a long drive from the city out to the lake.  We crammed ourselves into a bus and an SUV. According to the advice of the group, we left San Salvador at 6:30 am.  Our first stop was a gas station where more than a few grabbed an early morning coffee and everyone used the bathroom.  Considering the women vastly outnumbered the men, the ladies decided to take over the men's room too.  It's hard to describe how funny this was - the teenage girls needed a lot of convincing that this would be OK. When a gentleman showed up he chuckled at the situation and graciously waited in line for his turn after the ladies finished up.   We were soon on our way and arrived at the ruins of San Andres too early to enter.  No problem! We decided to go to the lake first and the ruins later in the day.

Our next stop (after the gate at San Andres) was at the grocery store in El Congo where a very practical team of  women picked up the fixings for a picnic lunch of ham sandwiches and orange drink.  We took the tree-lined highway to the lake, driving down into the ancient caldera and the lake shore.  The public park we had hoped to access was closed, so we paid a fee to enter a private beach adjacent to the public area.  Hopefully the government will keep its promise to reopen the park so that the public can continue to enjoy this Salvadoran natural treasure.

We gathered on the boat dock for a time of devotion.  It was a pastor's dream...a fisherwoman standing in a rowboat near the shore, casting her nets and pulling in the fish.  We read from the Gospel: Jesus calling his disciples to come, to follow him, to fish for people.  Pastor Santiago asked the Where is our lake?  Where do our little fishies swim?”

“In [our community],” came the reply.

“Who are the little fishies who need to be caught?  What are their names?”  It took a moment, then someone said, “Vanessa.”  Someone else said, “Karla.”

“OK,” said Pastor Santiago. Vanessa and  Karla are two among a group of 6 girls who are “in the streets” of the community.  It was clear that all of our friends know these girls who either do not have parents or whose parents do not attend to them.  “In the streets” means that they are at risk of being recruited by the gangs or harmed by the gangs.  They do not have food.  They are at risk for prostitution and may already be working “in the streets” to survive.

“What is the net that we will use to catch these girls?”  Pastor Santiago continued.

“The Sewing Cooperative?” suggested Sonia.

“Yes, good example,” said Pastor Santiago.  The conversation continued, identifying other fish and other possibilities for nets.  Pastor Santiago said several times that each one of us has a job from God:  fish for people.  It was practical.  It was real.  Fishing for people is not meant to be a metaphor.  Jesus wants us to go out there and really care for the lost ones and to take practical actions which change lives.  We concluded our worship time by singing the "Lakeshore" song.  

Next, it was time to go swimming.  The majority of the group of about 40 people from the community had never been swimming before.  A few had bathing suits.  Some swam in their clothes.  A few were too afraid to try so enjoyed sitting in the cool grass and watching the kids splashing in the shallows.  The water was cool and wonderfully clean!  It was a lot of fun for so many who never had a chance to swim before!  We brought a blow-up raft which provided lots of fun.  Next time we will bring extra swim suits.

At lunch time the grocery team gathered to make sandwiches:  white bread, ham, cheese, lettuce, tomato and salad dressing.  Each sandwich was carefully wrapped in a napkin, and when it was time for lunch each person received two.  There were special ones without the fresh veggies for those with sensitive northern tummies.  The sandwiches were delicious. 

After lunch a young man said he would give us a boat ride for $1 per person.  A few teenage girls were eager and with encouragement, some of the mothers and younger kids decided to give it a try.  Luckily I had a $20, and I slipped it to the boat driver so that all 22 who wanted to go could climb on board.  "Linda, you have to come too," they said.  The driver handed me a life jacket.  I passed it on to one of the moms who didn't have one.  Pastor Santiago handed his off to a teen boy so that everyone but the two of us had jackets.  "No worries," I said when a couple of moms looked at us with concern, "Pastor Santiago and I know how to swim."

A couple of the women looked a little worried.  "Are you OK?" I asked.  "I'm nervous," one whispered.  "Me too," said Julia, "I've never been in a boat before."  As it turns out, no one had been in a boat before.  I thought about how at home the landscape is generously dotted with lakes left behind by long ago glaciers.  It's hard to find a person, city or countryside, who has not seen a lake, played by the lake shore, ridden in a boat, or gone swimming.  Sometimes we just take things for granted.

We clipped through the water at a pretty slow pace, but fast enough to enjoy the occasional bump and splash of waves and to feel the wind whipping through our hair.  Half-way out the driver accidentally killed the motor.  The ladies panicked a little, worried we would not make it back to shore.  Soon we were on our way, and we made it back just fine.

A few families bought fish from the local fishers.  We gathered up our clothes and our towels and our fish and loaded up for our trip back up the interior wall of the caldera.  It was fun to see the lake again from above.  We waved good-bye to the water and continued on with our adventure for the day.   It was a good day, a day to remember with a message to remember.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

A Special Visit

"I never ever thought someone would come to my house to visit my boy."  Marina started crying before she could say anything else.  It was a moment of sharing, of sitting together in the shade beside the excavations at San Andres on the last day of our visit together.

We were a mixed group of children, youth, moms and dads - five of us from the US and the other forty or so from our sister church community - representatives of the students and families who participate in the scholarship program.  All of the students in the program have economic need, and the majority are older students who seek to overcome the culture of gangs which surrounds them by completing high school and earning technical or university degrees in the hopes of achieving sustainable employment.

For one young man, the dream of employment seemed impossible.  He was born with a severe hearing impairment.  The public schools in El Salvador are not equipped to assist children with special needs, and often, children with disabilities who outlive their parents face life in the streets. This was the fear which Marina had for her son.  Although he attended the little community school and the other children include him well in their games and activities, he was not learning much.  As sister churches, we worked together to find a way for Marina's son to study in a more meaningful way.  The scholarship program team found a school in San Salvador which specializes in teaching children with auditory and speech problems.  A family volunteered to give a scholarship, and three years ago, Marina's son started to go to his special school.

As we sat in the shade that sunny afternoon, we shared memories of the week we had just spent together visiting schools, visiting in student's homes, sharing meals together and spending some time being "tourists" together.  This is how we ended up at the historic site, San Andres.  Some of the parents and students and some of us shared beautiful words about what this week together meant and about the dreams for the future which the scholarship program helps to bring closer to reality.  But Marina could only share a few words, "I never ever thought someone would come to my house to visit my boy."

The visit to Marina's house was super special.  Her lot is at the bottom of the hill in our sister church community. Big trees shade the property.  A few years ago, the home which she shared with her husband and 4 children was made of plastic and cardboard.  Today, thanks to Marina's careful saving of little bits of money which her mother sends her from the US, she has a large home (by community standards) made of concrete block with a wide veranda.  A small road runs along the front of the property, and she has planted a solid fence of sturdy plants as a security wall.  A couple of times each day, small herds of cattle pass by on the road, and although he cannot hear them "moo," her son feels them coming and excitedly watches them go by.  "He has a gift for working with animals," Marina said.  "He spends time with the farmers and can milk a cow."  "And he squirts the milk into his mouth right from the cow" his brother grimaced, "and that's disgusting."

Each day, the family gets up at 4 am so the Dad can take his boy to the special school.  It is a 3-bus and 2 1/2 hour adventure.  Mom leaves the house a couple of hours later so that she can be at the school at noon to pick up her son.  Some days she goes early for her classes.  Marina is learning to sign so that she can teach the other members of the family to communicate with their hands.

We sat on the shaded veranda, sharing stories and chatting with the kids.  Marina and her sister had made a special treat for the occasion:  tuti-fruti - watermelon, papaya, pineapple and strawberries cut up and drizzled with honey.  When Marina brought out her dictionary of Salvadoran Sign Language, we quickly learned a few words so that we could communicate with our hands.  The guest of honor quickly grabbed his mom's book, and went through the pages lickety-split, signing in rapid fashion to show us how much he knows.  The adults were pretty careful to give good attention to all of the children - two of the other children in the family each receive partial scholarships to help with their studies and they were able to share their stories with us too.

Earlier in the week we had visited each of their schools.  We had visited the local public schools during previous trips, but this was the first opportunity we had to learn about the school for hearing impaired children in San Salvador. Students are accepted based on medical evaluation, need and commitment to learning (on behalf of the students and the parents).  Our little guy's day begins with  small-group therapy.  The children practice building their sign-vocabulary as well as vocalization and lip-reading.  It was really impressive to see the attention which the children received and the very strict discipline required at the school.  We were able to observe gym class and reading/writing time as well.  Several of the students have cognitive and physical disabilities in addition hearing impairments.  We noticed that Marina's son writes backwards.  She said that he does not like to read.  For students who are fifteen years of age or older and are not succeeding academically, the school offers technical workshops:  a bakery, a sewing/tailoring workshop, and a carpentry shop.  These are very good options for students who need a skill which will help them to be employable.  Marina thinks that her son will probably be able to take advantage of these workshops.

When we were planning for this recent trip, our sister church pastor and I thought about the travelers - a father and thirteen-year-old sister of a teen with special needs, our pastor and her young son who has a few challenges.  Our church in the US is very welcoming of families with special needs and has recently developed some new day-events for special needs children.  We thought that the time was right for a focus on learning about special needs education in El Salvador, so we asked Marina about the possibility of spending time with her son and his school.  Normally the school does not allow visitors, but we were allowed to learn and ask questions.  There was a lot of common ground for our group, and a special warmth developed between the US dad and Marina's son.  It didn't matter that one did not speak Spanish and one did not speak at all.  What mattered was  patience, reading a signing book together, sharing tuti-fruti, giving each other thumbs-up, hugging, and getting to know each other.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Off the Beaten Path: La Neveria

After a long hot day, the best way to revive a delegation is to head on over to La Neveria - any one in a franchise of ice cream stores which can be found throughout El Salvador.  The store in Apopa is highly convenient if you are on route from Guazapa or some northern town north of the capital.  If you are staying in San Salvador, you can often find one within walking distance of your hotel or guest house.  

Once inside, you are faced with the challenge of figuring out what to order from the big poster on the wall.  Banana split?  Ice cream shake with cookie wafers poked into the top?  Or maybe a choco-wafle triple (choco-waf-lay-trip-lay).  The easiest way to order is to divide your group into pairs, because of course, you will never enter La Neveria without finding a two for one promotion.  The servers can not imagine that you might not choose to take advantage of the promotion, so if you are on your own or in an odd-numbered group, be prepared to eat two cones or to give one away.

The La Neveria master chefs must spend quite a bit of time thinking up new and imaginative ideas for their ice cream menu.  During my last visit I had a capuchino - that is, a waffle cone filled with chocolate ice cream (you could choose any flavor), dipped in chocolate and rolled in nuts (or sprinkles or crispies).  The waffle cones are delicious, and thanks to a little ball of chocolate in the bottom of the cone, they don't leak.

Maybe the most unusual item on the menu appeared about a year ago - the dona wafle (do-na-waf-lay).  You get a waffle cone filled with the ice cream flavor of your choice, topped with a warm sticky doughnut, whipped cream and a cherry...and for the same low price you get not only one dona wafle, but two!  I have not personally tried to eat one of these, but I bet they would offer up pretty good flavor and a very sticky face!

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Wheel Chair

On most days my email inbox has messages from friends and acquaintances in El Salvador.  Seventeen years ago when our congregation first became connected with ministry in El Salvador, communications were exchanged once every six months via hand-carried letters as delegations traveled back and forth.

When emails first traveled to and fro, we were careful to address each other with long and formal greetings, wishing for one another the comfort of family and friends close at hand and asking God to bless our families with good health.  These greetings are still shared but often in a more condensed version, for with familiarity has also come an informal style, with a quick hello and a quick sharing of the daily prayer concerns and the small challenges or joys of everyday life.

A couple of weeks ago, I received just such an email from a pastor friend.  Subject line:  "Prayers."  Text:  "Dear brothers and sisters, may God rain down many rich blessings over you to raise up in prayer my mother in-law who suffered a thrombosis or embolism and is paralyzed on half of her body and cannot walk and needs a wheel chair and my wife is suffering so for this reason I ask you to include them in your prayers in worship on Sunday.  Also, my grandma is weak because of her age and cannot walk so she also needs a wheel chair so pray for her too.  Her name is Maria."

The next morning I was at church.  A woman was there with her husband who has a debilitating disease.  He had a new wheel chair, and the woman asked our pastor and me if we could take the old one to El Salvador with us.  We were less than a week from departure and had our extra suitcases ready to go, so, thinking practically I said, "Sure, we could take it when we go for the Mission of Healing in February."

After I got home, I got to thinking...didn't I just receive a prayer which spoke to the need for a wheel chair?  Sometimes God must just laugh at how slow I am to catch on to God's knocks on my head.  I called up our pastor who contacted the woman, and the chair made it into our pastor's trunk and it arrived at the airport ready for a journey.  We piled a few suitcases on top of the chair, and Pastor pushed it along into the line at the ticket counter.

When the question came as to how many bags we were checking, I said, "Well, would it be OK to push this wheelchair to the gate and to gate-check it?"

"For a person who will be riding in it?" tentatively asked the ticket agent.

"Well, not exactly.  There is an elderly grandma in El Salvador who really needs this chair," I explained.

"Sure, no problem." She smiled.

We wheeled that chair through the airport, gate-checked it, wheeled it to our connecting flight, gate-checked it, wheeled it through customs, squeezed it into the micro-bus and drove it to San Salvador.

On Monday mornings, the Lutheran Church pastors gather for worship with the Bishop in San Salvador.  We parked the wheelchair in the back of the church, hoping to encounter the pastor who had sent us the prayers.  After worship, we did connect.  After hugs and greetings, I asked if his family needed a wheel chair.  "Well, YES!" was the reply.  "Well, we have one!"  He was so surprised and we shared the whole story.

The very next day, while we were still El Salvador, I received this photograph of his grandma sitting in her new chair.  The family can share the chair among those who need it.  This wheel chair was an answer to prayer.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Off the Beaten Path: Coffee Stories

Sixteen of us bumpety-bumped along, shoulder to shoulder as our micro-bus traveled down the side of the volcano.  "One time, I was kidnapped for fun," I told my Salvadoran friends.  "That was how I had learned about a place on the side of the volcano where we can get some food and see some historic equipment from a coffee plantation.  It's called Cafe Miranda."

We arrived at the cafe before lunch time.  The waiter seated us on the veranda outside of the coffee museum, saying that there was more space than down below (where the nice view is), but inviting us to walk around and take photos wherever we liked.  The sounds of young people singing along with contemporary Christian songs rose up from a small building below us.  At first we thought it was a worship service, but the level of laughter and the site of kids in their gym uniforms indicated that we had stumbled upon a group of kids from a Christian school who were on a day-retreat.  

Our group was made up of Salvadoran Lutheran University students, a couple of other young adults, a seven-year old, two Catechists from the Salvadoran Lutheran Church, our pastor from the US and her twelve-year old son, a guy from our church in the US and his thirteen year old daughter and me.  We ordered our beverages (yummy hot chocolate for the majority).  It took quite a long time for the waiter to come back to take our food order.  Luckily a nearby playground offered some good entertainment for the younger ones.  The waiter finally came back to take our order, and the two US adults ordered pupusas.  When one of the university students also tried to order pupusas, the waiter said that the whole group could not have pupusas because the kitchen stopped making them at 11 am. The two could have them because they were foreigners. Luckily I had a "Plan B" and we ordered a bunch of appetizers (including mini-pupusas, fried yuca, nachos, and a couple of types of plantains) with a promise to go to the Neveria for ice cream later.

Everyone was happy with the plan, and we sat around chatting about the visit we had just had to the national park at the top of the volcano El Boqueron.  It took a seriously long time for us to get our food, and the students were pretty critical of the poor service, including making jokes like, "Come to Cafe Miranda!  Order today and get your food tomorrow!"  Once we did get our food, it was really delicious, and all agreed it was worth the wait.

After lunch we wandered into the museum.  We paused by the grinding stones.  Some of the students did not know how to use them.  Some did.  Vanessa said that her grandma still uses it, not for corn but whenever she needs to grind leaves or other things to make medicines or creams for their skin.

The hacienda kitchen had two big ovens with flat iron comales or cooking griddles for making tortillas.  As we walked, our friend who is in his fifties said that when he was a young boy he picked coffee.  We strolled past the large metal bean pots.  "There have always been a lot of stories about pickers finding things in their beans, you know, insects like cockroaches or even mice."  He laughed.  "Well, I can tell you that those stories were true.  One time, I got my big tortilla and the cook put a big scoop of beans on top of it and it had a whole mouse head in it.  Really!  But, a cooked animal is a cooked animal, right?  One cooked animal is the same as another."

"Yes," Sonia chimed in.  "I have experience picking coffee too, when I was a little girl."  In the middle of the day when it was time for food we children would shout 'Comida! Comida!' (food!  food!) and we would get so excited.  We got a big tortilla (Sonia showed the size with her hands - like the size of a dinner plate).  The men got a big scoop of beans, but as little children or women we just got a small scoop, and we were disappointed.  But at the end of the day there was a woman who made a big pan of bread, made from corn and cheese, like the quesadilla that you love.  She cut it into squares and we each got a piece.  I looked forward to that.  But, it's true, the plantation owners did not take care of their workers.  They did not clean the beans and they didn't care what we ate."

We took some photos of the artifacts and of the beautiful gardens.  Before leaving, we used the restrooms.  ("Never pass up a flush toilet" is one of our delegation phrases.)  Our pastor noticed a sign in the ladies room - it said that the establishment reserved the right to deny service to people.  What did that mean?  If someone showed up just to use the bathroom but not the facility it could be understandable that the owners would turn them away.  We thought about where we had been seated and the issue with the pupusas, and hoped this was not evidence of something more.

The history of coffee in El Salvador is sadly tied to wealthy barons forcing people off of their land,  to the oppression of a majority of the population, to the massacre of the indigenous people, and to the civil war.  For many, picking coffee for meager pay and eating a lunch of infested beans meant survival.  Many of the youth in our sister church community have more recent experience picking coffee.  When needed, they are called on by their parents to help support their families.  "One time," one of the girls shared, "my little sister and I were picking and she wandered off.  We told her not to do that, but she did it and she got lost.  She was lost for a whole day.  Finally we found her sitting by a log and she was crying and we told her, you can't walk away like that or you will get lost.  My parents were so glad we found her."

Author's note:
Information about historic and fair trade coffee in El Salvador can be found at

Tuesday, June 19, 2012



When asked about my first impressions in Peru, the first word to hit me was precarious.  It was difficult to describe the deeper meaning behind this word as a first impression.  Life in itself is, of course, precarious. Yet the visual images of homes perched on slippery hillsides, the challenging climbs up to and down from these homes, and the surprise of feeling an earth tremor have helped that word to stick as a first impression.

Construction in the city of Lima:  precarious.  Buildings of brick, never really finished.  Rebar sprouts from every rooftop, inviting another layer of family or another possibility to earn rent.  I am not an engineer, but these buildings do not seem stable.  The facades are deceptive, stuccoed over and painted green or purple or blue, but a peek behind shows the brick, wood, cardboard, plastic, and metal collage of apartments. When we were in the catacombs of the Franciscan monastery, the guide described the centuries-old mortar which included crushed bird egg shells and earthly elements which made it very strong (centuries strong!)  Maybe there is something going on with the new mortar that makes it strong, but to me, much of the building in Lima looks precarious.

Construction on the hills outside of Lima:  precarious.  Actually, more like dangerous.  I am not a mountain goat, and climbing up to the houses at the top edges of the community seemed like an invitation to break a bone.  Unbelievably, no none fell.  Part of our group spent 3 days up there building 2 houses on platforms which were made by stacking rocks one upon another.  There was some rock-structure within the hill, but the dirt on top slid easily.  We asked what would happen if an earthquake struck.  One of the men said, "Well, the people down at the bottom will have their houses fall down, but they will mostly be OK.  The people on the hill will all be dead."

We visited a young mother who had been hit by a car as she tried to cross the highway.  The highway cuts through the two communities which are served by the Lutheran Church.  Everyone makes the precarious walk across the highway to catch a bus to work or school. Activists from the church are petitioning the government to install multiple safe footbridges across the highway to facilitate safe crossing on a daily basis and in the case of a tsunami evacuation.  The mother rested in bed, tearful, unable to move due to severe leg injuries.  She hopes a surgery, scheduled about 2 months after her accident, will lead to physical therapy and eventually enable her to walk.

One of the families which received a new house spent a precarious night outside with all of their belongings.  The only food they had was a small bag of rancid chicken bones and a few sprouted potatoes.  The women's mom brought some rice.

I understand that life is precarious, that in a moment there could be a bad diagnosis or a crazy accident or a freak storm.  These kinds of things happen to everyone.  But the kind of life that is precarious a result of poverty or abuse of the land or injustice is different.  This is the kind of precarious which exists widely in places like El Salvador, or Peru.

When we travel from the US and experience the precarious life of children, women and men in   places around the world, how do we respond?  Jesus says that offering the glass of water, sharing a bit of food, and spending time together are good responses.  Supporting our sister churches who do amazing work in precarious communities is important.  But sometimes, it is pretty overwhelming.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Greasy and Grubby Go to Peru

I have often written about the adventures of Greasy and Grubby in El Salvador.  There are still adventures from the past to transcribe and to share, but since Greasy moved away, the number of Salvadoran adventures has lessened.  Last week, Greasy and Grubby were together again in Lima, Peru, where Greasy's church has a sister church relationship with Luz Divina, a Lutheran congregation just north of the city.  Greasy's daughter gave me the idea to write a bit about this Peruvian experience with the occasional question:  "First impressions?"

So, here are a few first impressions...

Warmth - not the climate, but the people.  Greetings in Peru are filled with "encantada" (which is like saying, "enchanted to meet you") and a big kiss on the cheek.  Good-byes at the end of the day or at the close of an event take a very long time, as everyone gives everyone a hug and a kiss.

Hospitality - the sister churches had worked together to plan the week.  We divided into two teams, headed up by lay-leaders from Luz Divina and Luz de Paraiso (the nearby mission site where most of the visits and work took place).  One team did house visits and one team worked to rebuild two roofs and two complete homes for families who were in extreme need.  Greasy and I were on the visiting team.  As we were welcomed into homes, as we were offered places to sit, as we observed a child being sent to the store to buy some Inca Kola, as we listened to stories, as we laughed together, as we cried a little, and as we prayed together, the visits acquired a familiar rhythm.  Some of the women apologized for not having time to prepare something.  Others served their specialty desserts.  One young mom, after telling us a few tales about raising her four kids which include a set of identical twin boys who started the house on fire last New Year's Eve, pulled out a pot, added some water, sent one of her boys to the store to buy some cloves, and quickly whipped up a quinoa and milk dish which could be served as dessert in any fine restaurant.  In home after home we were welcomed and trusted and loved:  Thank you for visiting us.  We have waited and hoped for a visit like this to happen.  Our home is humble but the doors and our arms are always open to you.  When will you come back again?

The Gray - Greasy told me once that her first impression of Lima was that it is just so gray.  She wondered if I would also have that feeling of the lack of color.  It's not just that gray clouds blanket the sky every day, that the gray mist rolls in off of the Pacific in the evenings and lingers until well after sunrise, though certainly this contributes to the sensation that Lima is gray.  The Gray also lies in the not black, not white sand on the beach, the loose sandy dirt and rock that slips down the hills and bluffs that form the eastern boundary of the city.  The Gray is the film of dust that forms over every surface.  For those who can afford paint, they tint their homes with bright lime green, pink, royal blue, and purple, and beautiful bright sweaters abound.  Much attention is given to the cultivating of small flower gardens along the beach, in the medians along the highway, wherever plants can take root on the hillsides, even in the dusty pathways of El Paraiso.  Color is very precious when there is so much gray.

The Singing - we sang everywhere.  Maybe this is a little bit of a Lutheran thing, but we sure did have a lot of fun finding songs in common and teaching each other all kinds of camp songs, kids' songs and hymns.  It's amazing what kind of accompaniment a kid can create with a coin on a seashell.  There was also a fair bit of dancing, and I have to admire the Texas spirit in my friends who brought music to teach the Cotton-Eye-Joe.  During the farewell fiesta in El Paraiso, the Sunday School girls, decked out in sparkly dresses and battery-operated blinking tiaras, did a song and dance routine expressing God's love for them and how in God's eyes they are princesses.  Near the end of the song the girls broke out into an air-guitar routine that was just precious.  Seriously, when was the last time you saw Sunday School kids doing an air-guitar routine in church.

I am sure that when I look back into my journals, I will find all kinds of other first impressions and reflections.  God certainly has something in mind with the life labyrinth in which Greasy and Grubby walk.  Only God knows what mysteries lie ahead as I carry the voices, the faces and the kisses of my new Peruvian friends with me during a journey to El Salvador in two weeks.

(And to all who know us personally, you will laugh when you learn that even in Peru, it only took 24 hours for people to be confusing Greasy with Grubby and using our real names together in a sentence as if  they are one name.  Greasy - when you read this, I know you will chuckle. We are the Laverne and Shirley of ministry!)

Thursday, May 31, 2012

More First Impressions

When I think back to that first trip to El Salvador, one thing I really remember were the worship services:  lots of worship and lots of trying not to keel over from heat exhaustion during worship.  The good thing is that Lutheran liturgy is pretty predicable, so despite the lack of Spanish in my then-repertoire, I could follow along pretty well.  Language differences did cause some humorous moments did generate one of our all-time favorite worship jokes.  During his very long sermon, Bishop Gomez kept saying "Gracias a Dios" or "Thanks be to God."  Of course, we rookies heard the two words we knew in Spanish, "gracias" and "adios" or "thanks and good-bye."  One of the guys in our group (the same one who got pulled over by the police during our exit from the airport), said, "I kept hearing thanks and good-bye, and I stood up to leave, but the sermon just kept going on and on and on."

My journal entries from the time serve to remind me that there was more to our worship marathon than hard benches, language misunderstandings and sweating through the heat...

After lunch we drove out to Pastor Santiago's father's church, Springs in the Desert, for a special worship with first communions, confirmations and baptisms.  This was so beautiful.  The children were dressed in their best clothes, with the three girls in white dresses and veils.  The service paralleled our own, and I couldn't help remembering our daughter's confirmation.  I watched the pastors -- all of them, from El Salvador and from the US -- bless each child, laying hands upon them just as we had recently laid hands on the children at our own church.  This is a testimony to the power of the Holy Spirit, working in each of us and in all of us, wherever we live.  It was a tear-jerker.  We celebrated with the multitude and then spent some time with Pastor Santiago's family.  Gloria showed us the wood-working shop and sewing cooperative.  The church reaches out into every aspect of the people's lives - because without jobs, without food, without encouragement the people cannot live lives for themselves, for their families or for their Lord.

It is HOT.  

I like Salvadoran beer.  I do not like the nasty pink rice milk stuff which (Greasy) had.  I have to learn the name of it so I don't order it.

At one point we were so hot and tired during worship, that we couldn't help laughing.  It was during a hymn to the tune of "Those were the days my friends..."  That simply struck us a very strange tune for a Jesus song.

Cold showers are nice.

It's funny how time and experience change perspective.  I do remember getting the giggles during that hymn.  It just seemed such an unlikely a song to hear in church, at least in the form of "those were the days my friends, we thought they'd never end...and a verse about raising a glass in a tavern."  But, of course, we Lutherans have a history of taking common tunes, even drinking tunes and converting them to sacred song.  A few days later we sang that song again when we were in our sister community.  We knew each other just a bit better by then, so (after worship) we visitors sang the English-words-secular version of that song and did a little dance to it.  Then it was the Salvadorans' turn to giggle.  We spend a lot of time laughing at each other's jokes and stories, whether we really understand them or not.  

So, to the tune of "Those were the days" I now find myself singing this:
Yo quiero ser feliz
Yo quiero ser feliz
llenar mi vida de una nueva luz.
Cristo esa luz será; en mi alma brillará
y alunbrará toda mi juventud.

I want to be happy...fill my life with a new light.  Christ will be this light; it will shine in my soul and light up all of my youth.