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.