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.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

First Impressions

We exited the plane and entered the jetway.  It was like walking into an oven. The airport was not much better.  We followed our leaders like ducklings waddling behind their parents.  By the time we exited, slumping under the weight of our backpacks and dragging our suitcases behind us, our moist hair was sticking to our heads and our clothes stuck to our skin like damp rags.

We were greeted warmly by strangers who would become friends, we all piled into an old school bus and a couple of pick-ups, and we began our adventure.  We didn't get too far.  A vehicle with lights flashing and full of police with large semi-automatics stopped one of our trucks.  One of our delegation members had not signed his passport, and having been flagged by security, he was targeted for an inquiry.  It took a little time to get this straightened out, perhaps because with his native North American features this guy "looks" Salvadoran.  Everyone in the bus surreptitiously pulled out their passports to check for signatures, and a few pens were pulled out too.

Fruit stands rimmed the edges of the small 2-lane highway.  Our sweaty faces gathered a thin layer of grime as we peered out the open windows at the green hillsides, mountains and volcanoes.  The road carried us right into the heart of San Salvador, where small cars jostled for imaginary lane positions with fabulously painted Bluebird buses that belched out clouds of diesel exhaust.  Gridlock prevailed. This allowed us to gaze with appreciation at the beautiful hundred-year-old wooden buildings, to smile at the women and children who walked along the sidewalks, to observe the habit of Salvadorans at that time of tossing their trash out of the bus windows and into the streets.  Litter was everywhere.

Some first impressions, the sights, the smells, the feelings are so strong that it seems that they could not have been experienced a dozen years ago.  Curious as to the accuracy of my memories, I dug out some loose pages of note paper from an old folder...

We took a walk around the neighborhood near the guest house.  It did not feel too different from home.  The sounds of early morning are very different from home.  Doves, roosters, lots of dogs barking and maybe fighting over food or territory, and lots and lots of unusual bird calls.  This is a very loud city - from the TV at midnight to the car backfiring, to the buses gathering at the intersection...

Our first visit was to the community of Los Olivos.  It was a long bus ride through streets polluted with noise and trash and smog.  After we stopped for gas, we got into a tangle of traffic which culminated in Laura quickly pulling her elbow and head further inside and gasping, "!"  The drive into the community, which although in the city feels like a world away, was lined with small houses and champas (maybe shacks is the best word) and stands of thick vegetation.  The road was just wide enough for the bus.  It was a rutty rocky mess.  We walked up to thte school, where the children were giving a concert of local folk music.  The instruments are so cool!  Seed pod shaers, a drum, marimba, guitars, wooden flutes, sea shells and turtle shells.  The community's sister church from Munich then shared its music - a brass um-pah band, featuring classical tunes and a bit of jazz...Backing down the road was scary.  Admiring the abuela jamming to the German tunes was a lesson in enjoying life.

We stopped next at the clinic and offices of the Lutheran Church.  We took turns sending emails home to let everyone know we had arrived safely.  This is in a very depressed part of the city.  Pastor Santiago told us that it is filled with drugs and bad examples for children.  A small group of kids "adopted" us for a couple of hours.  Katerin and Karla were very adorable.  They were so free and friendly, and I wonder what they do when they don't have the kind of attention they had today.  We visited the Youth Room which held a giant paper shofar which will be used in the August 6th parade.  Pastor Santiago was so proud of the kids' work.

I wonder what first impressions will stick with the families from our church who will soon travel to El Salvador for the first time.  I wonder what words their journals or scraps of note paper will hold.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Off the Beaten Path: La Divina Providencia

The Monseñor Romero Historical Center at the Divina Providencia hospital is not exactly off the beaten path.  Most pilgrims to El Salvador find themselves visiting the hospital chapel and humble home of Monseñor Oscar Romero, whether guided there by their delegation leaders or by their own desire for inspiration.

La Divina Providencia is first and foremost a hospital.  It was founded by Sister Luz Isabel Cuevas who sought to shelter cancer patients who had no place to stay other than the streets as they needed to remain close to the hospital where they received treatments.  Eventually land was donated by "divine providence" and the residential cancer hospital was constructed.  Monseñor Romero chose to live among the sisters and minister to the patients during his time as Archbishop.  The hospital's mission is to provide palliative care with attention to pain management and emotional and spiritual guidance for patients who nearing the end of life on earth.  It is possible to make arrangements to visit the hospital and to volunteer there.  

Before traveling to El Salvador, I encourage delegation members to spend some time learning about the life and witness of Monseñor Oscar Romero.  We have used the films Romero with Raul Julia, and more recently Monseñor:  The Last Journey of Oscar Romero to help travelers to prepare for their experiences in El Salvador.  Few of us have personal experience with the kind of oppression and violence which occurred during the time surrounding the civil war in El Salvador, and without some forethought and preparation, it is difficult for our children, youth and adults to be confronted by the horrific stories and images which are preserved in museums and sacred places in El Salvador.  The Monseñor Romero Historic Center contains artifacts and photos which depict his humble life and his violent death.

Over the years we have been guided through Romero's home and the chapel by a series of Carmelite Sisters, each with her own style.  In the early years, the sisters shared stories of how they and others in their community had hidden artifacts and photos during the war, protecting them from seizure or destruction.  As the movement calling for the beatification and canonization of Monseñor Romero as a saint gained publicity and global support, the sisters began to share miracle stories including answers to their own prayers and stories about the lack of decay of Romero's heart or body.

Last summer, our sister guide began our tour by walking with us to the hospital chapel where Romero was killed.  She described the events of Romero's final day, emphasizing his dedication to his flock, the poor, the suffering and his willingness to serve in the manner of Jesus by laying down his life for his sheep.  She invited us to step up to the altar and to think about the ways in which we are dedicating our own lives in service to Jesus.  Then she told us to place our hands on the altar, to close our eyes, and to make a promise to the Lord that we would take the transformational experience of Monseñor Romero's life to heart and somehow dedicate our lives to service in new or stronger ways.  After some quiet moments in the chapel, we walked down the hill to Romero's small house where we carried on a long conversation.

This experience really stuck with us.  As Lutheran Christians we have always visited the chapel, prayed in the chapel and even attended mass in the chapel in faith and with great respect.  Yet to be invited to step to the altar to place our hands onto the altar was profoundly welcoming and personal.  On that particular day, we were accompanied by three mothers from our sister church.  Thse young women live an hour away from La Divina Providencia, yet they had never been there.  We placed our hands on the altar together.  What each one of us promised is a mystery; that we did it together is a blessing.

The last time we visited the historic center at La Divina Providencia we were greeted by whom I thought was a new sister guide.  (I later realized she was the same guide from the summer.)  She did not seem very welcoming, and when she learned that we had watched the Romero film prior to our visit, she went on a little rant about how North Americans don't really learn the facts and should read books (she had a laundry list of good ones).  She said, "North Americans come here as tourists but they don't really want to stop and experience and take the time to learn things."  The delegation members were taken aback for a moment by "the little sister with big attitude," but they stuck with her and said, "that's why we're here...tell us the real story." The group asked lots of questions.  As the conversation grew, so did the smiles from our guide.  Perhaps she had sized up the group and knew that they could be challenged.  Somehow we ended up talking about our favorite pupusas, and I mentioned queso con loroco.  Sister showed us the loroco vines which grew on a trellis in Romero's garden, hopping up there to pick a few pods so that folks from the group could smell and taste.  At the end of our trip as the delegation members shared memorable moments and people, the "little sister with big attitude" was fondly remembered.

Each year on March 24th, the anniversary of Monseñor Romero's assassination, pilgrims gather in the park-like area and small street outside of the Divina Providencia.  The small chapel is filled to overflowing with bishops and campesinos, Salvadorans and Europeans, North Americans and Central Americans.  After mass the throng marches through the streets of San Salvador on a pilgrimage to the cathedral, not an easy thing to do after getting up at 3:30 am to shoot off fireworks and drink chuco...but that is another story.