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