Monday, April 30, 2012

A Different Lens

When our sister church pastor was here for our daughter's wedding, I took the opportunity to download all of his photos from his camera onto my computer, with his permission, of course.  Because of computer crashes and sketchy internet and time constraints, we don't share photos back and forth as often as we should.

Today I took the time to open up the folders and look at each of the photos.  What fun to see my Salvadoran Papa painting crosses in his workshop, friends around a Christmas tree, Sunday School kids working on art projects, church meetings, birthday parties, and marches through the streets of San Salvador with familiar faces peering over banners demanding protection for El Salvador's water. I found a couple of pictures of me in the mix.  I smile a lot when I am in El Salvador.

Smiles and more smiles filled my computer screen as I rolled through photos from The Day of the Child and community celebrations.  I paused for a few moments to think about the young woman who proudly held her university diploma in a series of photos with the pastor, her friends, her family, her son.  She was beautiful with a grand smile  that said, "Now I am a math teacher."  Her time as a math teacher was cut short by her arrest.  The allegations against her relate to her proximity to gang members.  The story is complex and filled with holes that cannot be understood from a distance.  The community and the church are accompanying her as best as possible, sure she will be released once she has a hearing.

The girls and boys soccer teams made it into the mix of photos.  The kids look tired and happy and a few trophies are featured which means they must have done pretty well in recebt tournaments.  It caught me off-guard to read the words Kimberly Clark across the boys' jerseys.  From time to time, members of the community have protested against the non-environmentally-friendly practices of this corporation in El Salvador.  The uniforms are pretty spiffy.

As I was clicking along through the photos of youth and adults working together in a beautiful organic garden, an unexpected photo caused a little gasp.  My computer screen was filled with the lifeless face of Don Rene.  He died unexpectedly a few months ago.  When I realized what I was looking at, I hit the right arrow button pretty quickly -- I do not want that image to be the one that comes to mind when I remember Don Rene.  The next photo held the cries of his granddaughters clinging to his coffin; the next held the tears of his wife as she peered into the grave.  I have mixed feelings about funeral photos.

The last photos in the batch were taken during in the US during the wedding visit, including a whole bunch of photos that were taken in our church preschool as "ideas" for our pastor to use back in the community.   It's fun to see all of these experiences through a camera lens other than my own and to know that some rainy afternoon in El Salvador, our sister pastor and his co-workers or families from our sister church community might be clicking through a batch of photos.  Some will have been taken in El Salvador and some in the US, there will be smiles and tears, curiosities and new understandings, and some images that will just make them laugh out loud.

Friday, April 27, 2012


They meander in late, usually after the first hymn has been sung.  They have to sit up front because that is where there is space.  They tend to nod off during the sermon.  They seem to know that woofing during worship is frowned upon.  God's waggy-tailed creatures are welcome to worship in El Salvador.

Dogs, or chuchos, wander the streets of the cities and small towns, they can sleep just about anywhere, and they have a great knack for keeping visitors awake in the night.  In the city they hover behind metal doors and gates, ready to bark loudly at any passerby.  In the pueblos and countryside, it's difficult for an outsider to figure out which are the strays and which are the pets, because they roam freely and often lay down at your feet waiting for a pat or a snack.

As families in our sister church community have increasingly been threatened by gang violence, they have fortified the fences, walls and gates which surround their houses and they have trained their dogs to patrol the perimeters.  A while back, one of the girls in the community took me on a tour -- a dog tour -- to teach me where the mean dogs live so that I wouldn't turn a corner and come upon one a scary dog without a leash.  The kids know just how to walk from place to place, avoiding the dangers, including the mean dogs who are faithful to their owners.

One night I learned the value of a good and faithful dog.  We had gone to bed; it was about 10:30 pm.  I was laying awake on the top bunk, my hostess was asleep below me and her husband was in the hammock in the other room.  The dogs were asleep in their corner of the yard.  Suddenly the big dog began to bark fiercely.  The couple got up, the wife grabbing a machete from beneath her pillow and closely following her husband to the door.  They whispered to one another, assuming I was asleep.  The barking had stopped.  They listened for a few moments, wondering if all was well or if someone had killed their dog.  They slowly unlatched the door and whistled softly.  The dogs came to the door.  The husband peered outside, and slowly exited the house.  He checked all around, making sure no one had scaled the fence, that no one was crouching below the windows.  He settled the dogs into their places, and came back into the house.  The machete was hung on a nail by the door, and everyone returned to bed.

The next morning, my hostess asked if I had heard anything in the night.  I confessed that I had been awake.  "Well," she said, "we are thankful for the dogs...because it is the boys that you love during the day who will come to kill you in the night." This was not an easy thing for her to say, nor for me to believe.  But, this is part of the reality of life in our sister church community.

So the dogs guard.  The dogs play.  The dogs eat tortillas.  The dogs bark in the night.

I was recently eating lunch in a small garden restaurant.  A dog wandered from table to table, looking up at the patrons with big loving eyes.  Our friend gathered up the chicken bones, tortilla scraps and gravy drippings and put them onto a paper plate.  He took the plate out to the sidewalk and fed the big-eyed dog.  Salvadoran chuchos are fed tortillas with the family, chomp on chicken bones and have really white teeth, are referred to as "creatures of God," are looked upon with compassion (from a distance) when they are sick with mange, are trusted as protectors, and are allowed to sleep through a sermon on a cool church floor.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Knit Together

I have been working with a friend to compile a short story about my life and ministries with brothers and sisters in El Salvador.  This morning, while doing some edits, I was reminded of the power of miracles, and particularly a miracle which occurred for our son.  A while back, I wrote about his encounter with fire ants, subsequent journey through anaphylaxis and miracle healing through the power of prayer.  This is an amazing and inspiring story in its own right, but like so many stories which include the mysterious workings of God, there is more to the story of Mi Milagro.

For us as a family, for those in our church who share in the story, and for our friends in El Salvador, this is a memorable moment in our relationship together, a moment in which we were frightened and responded in prayer together, and God did something amazing.  These kinds of shared experiences knit us closer together as more than sister churches, but as family and as witnesses to the living Gospel.

The allergist, who told our son that he was a living miracle gave him a warning.  Desensitization was not an option, given the severity of the first reaction, so the warning was, "Don't travel to El Salvador, don't travel to places where there are fire ants, don't go to college in Georgia or Florida."  Well, to an eleven-year-old boy this probably sounded ridiculous and college was a long way off.

Five years later, our son needed to travel to El Salvador to try to help get a shipping container released from customs.  As I write this, this sounds somewhat ridiculous, but the intervening years had brought our son to the point of completing his Eagle Scout project -- the creation of a library in the small school in our sister church community.  The 1000 inventoried and boxed Spanish books gave birth to The Container of Hope - a shipping container filled with all kinds of supplies for schools, small businesses, and families recovering from the 2001 Salvadoran earthquakes.  When the container was held up by customs, our son decided to to with us to the aduanas to try and get it out.  Before we left, I made our son promise to always were shoes and socks.  We carried two epi-pens and did not venture too far away from the city.  Our son was called the boy of the loaves and fishes -- a kid with a little idea that God grew into something big.  Eventually the container was set free.

Later that same year, our family joined with another family, college students and adults for a second Christmas Vacation in El Salvador adventure.  In the back of my mind, I held onto the warning of the allergist, but our son had no qualms and with epi-pens in the backpack, played soccer, swam, had fun in our sister church community. "No stupid ants are gonna keep me from going back."

Our son did not go to college in Georgia or Florida, although I doubt ants entered into the decision.  One early morning, our son called me and said he was sick.  "Yes, I want you to come."

I tossed some clothes on and drove the 45 minutes to his apartment.  We thought it might be the flu.  We decided to drive back to see his doctor near home, but pretty quickly realized urgent care was the better choice.  From there we went to the emergency room.  From there he was admitted.  The doctors tested, and our son got sicker.  A couple of days later, the surgeon said his gut was telling him to go in to see what was wrong.  In the end, the appendix was the culprit.  Without warning it had burst into our son's intestines and abdomen, scattering poison and wreaking 3 days of havoc.  Our son recalled the elevator ride with the surgeon as they came out of recovery, "You should have died,"  the doc said.  This seems like an unusually frank comment.

"Mom, that's the second time a doctor told me that."

So it was.

The surgeon talked with us after our son was safely recovering.  The tests did not indicate that it was the appendix.  Specialists had had a variety of ideas.  He had taken the whole file home, studied it and just felt like it was time to operate.  At this moment in El Salvador, our sister church was praying over our son. We do not question the power of prayer.

After his hospital stay and before returning to school, our son went to church with us.  "God must have quite a purpose for your life," people said to him. "I know," was his response.  "Mom," he turned to me, "It's a burden to know that."

I don't know when our son might travel again to El Salvador.  But whether he travels or not, his life has been knit together with the lives of the people in our sister church, and for him, this is a miracle.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Ashes and Artists

The farmers who lived and worked on the sides of the volcano sensed the heaving of the mountain.  They felt the trembling breaths beneath their feet and saw the exhalation puffs of dust.  The government did not call for an evacuation, but the farmers sensed the danger.  They organized groups of pick-up trucks and drove away from their homes and their farms and found safety at a camp.  Eventually, government officials realized that danger was imminent, and they also called for an evacuation.  Just a short time later, maybe an hour after the order was given, the volcano exploded, expelling rocks and hot cinders and ash onto the farms below.  Hot mud and lava flowed from the sides of the volcano.  Had the farmers waited for the official order to evacuate, they would not have escaped.

The farmers and their families took refuge at a camp.  It was owned by the Catholic Church and used for retreats at one time.  Now it was home.

We visited with our sister pastor who was providing psycho-social counseling to the families and who wanted us to see the artwork which the children and youth had created in response to their experiences with the volcano.  A few brought out wooden crosses -- wooden crosses with simple, painted scenes of the exploding volcano, the ash covering the houses, the sparks and smoke in the sky.  Beneath the volcano, the children had printed the words, "I am also a creation of God."

The volcano lives, trembles, puffs, burns and blows as a part of God's creation.   It is a part of the earth and it creates new earth.  God made it, and it is good.

The children talked about the difference between fearing creation, and respecting creation.  They talked about what it was like when they had to leave home.  They showed us where they slept and where they played and where their mothers cooked for them. 

At the time of our visit, the families had been living as refugees for about 3 months.  We visited for a couple of hours, a short visit for listening, for learning, for expressing compassion and solidarity.  A short visit in which faces were etched into our memories, and hugs into our hearts.  Now, more than six years after the eruption, I wonder what has become of the families who we met at the camp.  Many of them could not return to their farms because the fields are covered in rocks and boulders.  Because these families fled prior to the official government notice of evacuation, they were not eligible for resettlement assistance.  The churches were working together to help the families to rebuild or to start fresh in new locations.

It's hard to imagine that the children whom we met are teens, and teens are now adults.  Are they studying?  Are they working?  Are they still living on the skirts of Santa Ana?  Do the crosses they painted hang on their walls as reminders of their time in the camp, reminders that the volcano is not to be feared, but to be respected?  Do they know that their faces are etched into our memories and their hugs into our hearts? 

Santa Ana fell asleep again in 2007.  I hope she sleeps for a good long time.  But if she wakes, I hope that the farmers and their families will pause to feel her trembles and hot breath and will help one another to get safely away.


Sunday, April 1, 2012

Salt and Light

Yesterday, eleven ninth graders affirmed their faith as Lutheran Christians at my home church in the United States.  I have been working with the students and their faith mentors throughout the year, and it was truly inspiring to listen to each of them speak about his or her faith journey, the ups and downs of confirmation class, and the funny moments and inspiring moments from the last year.  Giving confirmation speeches is probably not the favorite moment of the day for most of the students, but these speeches tend to stick with everyone who hears them for they are filled with the honesty of youth.  Few adults could stand and give such testimony.  Later, during the laying on of hands, each student felt the touch of parents, siblings, grandparents, mentors, pastor and teacher, and each one responded.  Some were a little teary.  Some smiled.  One giggled when her little brother tickled her.

One of the newer traditions in our Affirmation of Baptism service included a procession.  Each student came forward with his or her faith mentor, carrying an unlit candle.  Beside the altar stood a bowl filled with salt, with one lit baptismal candle in the center.  One by one, the students ignited their candles with the light from the baptismal candle and placed them into the bowl of salt.  Throughout the year, we have been using the symbolism of salt and light to remind us of how Jesus wants us to BE in the world.

The idea for incorporating the images of salt and light into the confirmation experience and worship at our church came from our sister church in El Salvador.  As young people stand before the altar to be confirmed, each carries a white candle.  Sometimes it is decorated with fancy ribbons and sparkles.  After the laying on of hands, each confirmand receives light from the altar candle and is reminded to be a light in the world.  Then, the pastor carries a small dish of salt and places the salt onto the tongue of each, reminding the young people to be salt for the earth.

As parents, as mentors, as teachers, we want our kids to be light in the world.  We want our kids to make good choices despite peer pressure, to help others who need a hand, to stand up for justice.  We want our kids to be salt for the earth, to embrace life with zest (but not too much), to be the unique people God made them to be, to sprinkle hope and love on others so that the community of faith grows.  This is true in El Salvador.  This is true in the United States.

"You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.  You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven."        Matthew 5:13-16

Today marks the 2-year anniversary of Linda's El Salvador Blog.  Today's story highlighted the sharing of worship traditions between sister churches.  If you and your sister churches are sharing traditions, please write about them in the comment section on the blog and we can spark some new ideas for growing and enriching our partnerships.