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."