Sunday, December 29, 2013

Capacitación Christmas and Recovering from a Volcanic Eruption

Today the San Miguel volcano spewed forth a great cloud of smelly gas and hot ash.  Tonight, families from the small towns, little farms and coffee plantations on the sides and the skirt of the volcano are sleeping in nearby shelters.  As the next few days pass, assessments will determine the status of crops, of trees, of animals, and of homes.  At this time, thanks be to God, there has been no word of human casualties. In the dark night, away from their familiar beds, children and parents and elders are no longer planning their New Year's Eve fiestas, but instead are worried about the added economic strain that this disaster will have upon them and are no doubt fearful of additional volcanic or seismic activity. 

When we celebrated Christmas in El Salvador in 2005 (see Capacitación Christmas I and II), one of our goals was to work with Salvadoran Lutheran Church leaders to develop fun and meaningful Bible School experiences for kids using music, art, drama and games.  One day we traveled outside of the capital city to the countryside near the Santa Ana volcano.  A couple of weeks prior to our arrival, the volcano had erupted, raining hot ash upon farmers and farms, and driving families to seek shelter.  We visited with children at a small shelter where families lived in tents, and the children participated art classes.  The children were encouraged to illustrate their experiences and to express their fears through painting.

Back in 2005, celebrating Christmas, learning and growing through Vacation Bible School, and living moments with children whose lives were turned upside down by a great cloud of hot ash blended together in a way which somehow changed each one of us forever.  As I reflect on this final installment of the Capacitación Christmas series, the news of today's volcanic eruption brings to mind the faces of the children in that refugee camp, of the little girls playing with dolls, of boys being silly while sitting on rolled-up mattresses, of youth sharing their stories of the volcano through fire and ash-cloud paintings created on simple wooden crosses.  As I reflect, I am thinking:  We should have brought the drums.

Part IV:  Music
We did not have actual drums.  We made them.  One of our sons is a drummer, and in Blue Man Group fashion, he can turn anything into a drum set.  We hunted through corners and back rooms and garbage piles and gathered up the biggest plastic buckets, paint cans, and good-sounding metal stuff we could find.  A couple of our team members brought guitars and we had put together a participant song book filled with local favorites and some US Bible School songs translated into Spanish.  We had included thematically appropriate songs such as Sois la Semilla (You are the Seed). One of the favorite tunes was "Psalm 150" (Praise the Lord with Trumpet Sounds - complete with actions).  

Salvadoran Lutheran Church gatherings never lack for a couple of talented guitar players and perhaps some of the most memorable music moments took place during the informal guitar and drum jam sessions.  

Part V:  Recreation
The absolutely most memorable moment of recreation was this:  the Bishop's wife, dressed in her slightly-tailored suit complete with pantyhose and sensible shoes, running a very competitive relay race with a balloon tucked between her knees.
 A close second might be the image of Pastor Matias wandering off into the sunset while playing pin-the-seed-on-the-flower (the goal being to get the seed onto the center of a paper flower which we hung on the side of a truck in the parking lot.)  Other team-building games included "human knot" and "don't let the balloon touch the ground".  We also had some fun with Tierra-Mar and soccer relays.

We closed our Capacitación event with a large group gathering, offering thanks to all who had a hand in bringing the day together.  Before sharing a late lunch, we sang with great enthusiasm some of the songs we had learned during the music sessions, complete with impromptu drum set and guitar band. 

A couple of days after the Capacitación we traveled to the refugee camp.  Although we visited and met with families, I think it could have been really helpful to have shared some singing and played some games together. As families spend the next few days or weeks seeking refuge from the San Miguel Volcano, I am hopeful that maybe somebody will think to play some games or bring out the paint or maybe even build a drum set from some old buckets and paint cans.  

May God bless the families near the San Miguel volcano with peace and rest, quick relief, and many friends who can offer love, friendship, prayers and support.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Capacitación Christmas II

This is a continuation of the story Capacitación Christmas . . .

During the registration process, participants had been divided into four groups.  Following worship, the groups each went their separate ways, to each of four different activities.

Part II:  Story Time
Story-telling with illustrations
Story time included three different ways of experiencing the Parable of the Sower from Luke 8:11-15.  The team first introduced vocabulary from the story, talking about words like "parable."  This was fun for the team because while teachers in the US usually need to explain what the word "sower" means, the Spanish translation used the word "farmer" which is a familiar word.  We really learn a great deal from each other when discussing vocabulary!

Acting out the story
Next, the story was told in simple language, using large illustrations which the team prepared ahead of time.  As a reminder that the story is more than just a tale but is the
Word of God, the group read the passage from the Bible, using volunteer readers.  The leaders asked questions about the story and how it applies to our lives.  Participants were encouraged to share and to talk about ways they plant God's word in their hearts and can help each other and their communities to be "good soil."

Then, the group was asked to dramatize the story.  This was pretty fun - to see the adults interpret the story by being seeds and growing or wilting or being eaten by birds.  They were very imaginative!!

After experiencing the story in three ways, the group shared ideas about other ways in which Bible stories can be taught to children.  Ideas included using action figures, having the kids draw their own illustrations, and providing coloring pages which illustrate the story.  Participants were each given a little stack of coloring pages which illustrate the "Parable of the Sower."

Part III:  Arts & Crafts
We thought a great deal about ways in which communities could provide the items needed to make craft projects.  Children can use corn husks, cobs, bottle caps, recycled paper scraps, fabric scraps and sticks from frozen treats, along with easily purchased or donated items such as tissue paper and yarn for their artistic creations.
Participants work on their seed cross designs

Finished crosses and tissue paper ready for making papel picado
The project used to reinforce the story, "The Parable of the Sower" was made from corn husks, dry beans and dry corn, and recycled cardboard.  Each participant traced and cut out a cardboard heart (we had some pre-cut for children of participants) and used a hole punch to put one hole on each side of the heart.  We had pre-printed "May the word of God be planted in your heart.  Luke 8:11-15" as the story-reminder on small pieces of paper to save time.  Participants glued that paper and the seeds onto the hearts.  Then, corn husks were glued onto the back to create a cross, with the heart at the cross's center.  Yarn was added so that the cross could be hung on a wall.

After participants finished making their crosses, they were able to fill extra time by making papel picado, (cut paper - like paper snowflakes) from recycled tissue paper.  We used the papel picado to decorate the art area as the day went along.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Capacitación Christmas

For my kids, "Take Your Child to Work Day" was not a unique and rare occurrence.  Back in the days when I served on a church staff, I depended on my kids to help out - a lot.  No doubt they have fond memories of getting dizzy going round and round big tables collating and stapling documents and setting up classrooms for Vacation Bible School. I recently found a video of the boys as young teens marching in a local July 4th parade.  They were dressed as Moses and Joseph.  "I can't believe you got them to do that," my husband said. year...when we suggested to the kids that we spend Christmas vacation in El Salvador where they would help to run a Vacation Bible School Training seminar for Salvadoran pastors and lay-leaders, they stepped up to help.  And they were not alone -- a group of youth ages 10 to 20 joined adults from our church to put on a big Salvadoran escuela bíblica.

We arrived in our sister church community on Christmas Day and shared a big feast together in the church.  The Sunday School kids presented a little Christmas pageant.  Our week together included fun at a swimming pool park, visiting with kids and families who were living in a camp after they had lost their homes in a recent volcanic eruption, an impromptu afternoon at a small beach and crazy fireworks at the Lutheran guest house on New Year's Eve.  Between events and fun times with our Salvadoran friends, the team spent some late night hours preparing for the Bible School training event.

The event was entitled Capacitación II (Training II).  The Capacitación series of workshops had been developed as a joint plan of the Ministry of Children of the Salvadoran Lutheran Church and our congregation in the US.  Our sister church pastor, Santiago, had served as a member of our US church staff one summer and participated and led events at our week-long Vacation Bible School.  He noticed that we used a daily rotation schedule, moving kids from music to art to Bible class to recreation with different kids doing different things at the same time.  He also noticed that we used teams of high school and college youth to lead classes and activities, and with about 200 people on site, things ran very smoothly.  In his church (our sister church) in El Salvador, Pastor Santiago taught about 80 kids every Sunday in one big group. The idea of breaking kids into groups, of training youth leaders as teachers and of rotating kids among different activities which happened simultaneously was not used in Salvadoran Lutheran Church congregations.  Could we help him to share these methods with his colleagues in El Salvador?  Yes -- with the help of our youth!

Capacitación I was led by my friend and I one year prior to the Christmas event.  It was held during a Mission of Healing trip and consisted of a one-day event at the Lutheran Church office complex (where the guest house is.)  Pastors and young leaders from all over El Salvador (and a couple from Honduras) came to discuss child development and teaching methodology and strategies.  The discussion was very lively and the abstract concepts were well illustrated with practical examples and ideas.  The "homework" was for each pastor and leader to share their insights and training with youth leaders in their home communities and to implement at least one new strategy.  A few months later, everyone gathered together again to report back to the group on how that implementation was working.  This was part of an overall 5-year church-wide plan of training and development in the area of children's and youth ministries.

Capacitación II was the next step in the plan.  The idea was to put on a one-day Vacation Bible School experience during which pastors and teachers would "be kids" for the day.  They would participate in all of the activities as children would, and then discuss their experiences at the end of each rotation, offering their ideas and additions, based on their experiences in their own communities.

As we enter a new Christmas season, a time of vacation in the US and in El Salvador, a time during which many Salvadoran churches are running escuelas bíblicas, I give renewed thanks to my kids and the families of our congregation who spent Christmas vacation in El Salvador and helped to cement the tradition of annual Capacitación events which are experienced by youth leaders from our US synod and the Salvadoran Lutheran Church.  The next few blog posts will highlight the different elements of Capacitación II in the hopes that the stories will inspire or encourage others.

Part I:  Registration & Opening Worship

Opening Worship
We set up the worship area with balloons and samples of different art projects from Salvadoran Lutheran churches.  The suggested plan for  a 15-20 minute worship (provided in a handout) included a theme-based song, words of welcome, a skit or socio-drama, a quiet or prayerful song and a closing prayer.  We created the worship around our Capacitación II theme:  "The Parable of the Sower."
One late-night prep session:  assembling gift bags for all of the participants,
each bag included a rainbow of tissue paper for making papel picado

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Green Bean Casserole

It is not likely that when indigenous peoples of North America and European settlers sat down together to give thanks, they had crock bowls filled with green bean casserole topped with fried onion rings at their tables.

It is likely that green beans were among the fruits of the land gathered during bountiful summer harvests.  It is one of the foods which originated in the Americas.

People in Central and South America have eaten green beans for centuries.  Green beans made their way to Europe in the ships of 15th century explorers.  Green beans were expensive and rare, gained culinary popularity in France in the 1600's and eventually made their way into Midwestern USA casserole dishes with mushroom soup and onion rings.

Thanksgiving dinners give honor to many fruits and vegetables which are native to the Americas, In El Salvador, green beans are very often prepared with eggs.  This is one of our favorite dishes served at Casa Concordia in San Salvador.  Although I don't have Alma's exact recipe, this is a pretty good recreation.

Salvadoran Green Bean Casserole
6 eggs, beaten
1-2 cloves garlic, minced or crushed
1 small onion, diced small
3/4 - 1 lb. fresh green beans
Olive oil
Sea salt and fresh ground pepper
Optional dried oregano

Prepare beans by removing ends and dicing into small pieces.  Pour love oil into the pan - depending on your type of pan, about 2 Tbsp.  Add onion.  Saute for a bit.  Add garlic.  Saute until onions and garlic are just beginning to caramelize.  Add green beans.  Add a little more oil if needed.  Saute until almost tender.  Add eggs, salt, and pepper to taste.  Add 1/2 - 1 tsp. dried oregano if desired.  Cook until the eggs are scrambled.  Serve immediately.  Sometimes I add a chopped pepper (pick your favorite) for a bit of heat.


Friday, November 8, 2013

Sweeper Prayers

"What should we do with this big sweeper?" I asked my husband.  I had been cleaning out the garage, giving things to our grown kids and loading up pots and tools for the urban greenhouse project.  "Sell it?" he suggested over the phone.

We bought the sweeper just after we moved into our house.  Pulling it along behind our tractor mower has helped us gather up mountains of leaves and too-long grass over the years -- much easier than raking all of that stuff into the compost pile.

Now, I just wanted it gone.  Once we made the decision to downsize, to move to a smaller place in the US so we could spend significantly more time in El Salvador, I was eager to begin the process. So, I wheeled the sweeper down to the bottom of the driveway.  I tiptoed my dirty, garage-cleaning self into the house and grabbed a piece of scrap paper, a black sharpie and some blue painters' tape.  I wrote a note:

We will gladly accept a donation for this sweeper to support ministry in El Salvador.  If you would like to leave a gift, please leave it by the mailbox."

I taped the note to the sweeper, loaded some stuff into my car, and went inside to get cleaned up.  As I backed down the driveway some time later, I noticed the sweeper was gone.  "Wow, that was fast, " I thought.  My note was folded up next to the mailbox.  On it was a new message:

We took the sweeper.  I didn't have any money with me, so we will bring some buy later. Signed, a neighbor.  

Yesterday, I found an envelope stuck inside my screen door.  Inside was a lovely little note from the neighbor, wishing us well and sharing her email address in case we wanted to send prayer requests or share a blog or something.  And, inside the note, was $50.  I never expected a generous gift of $50.

I hope our neighbor gets many more good years of use from that sweeper.  I hope every time she sits on her tractor and pulls it along, she says a little "sweeper prayer" for the people of El Salvador.  I will try to remember, whenever I am sweeping the dust from my future Salvadoran floor, to say a little "sweeper prayer" for the good neighbor at home and for all who have slipped little envelopes into our door or mailbox or the offering plate over the years in support of ministry work in El Salvador.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Night Tales

It is late in the evening.  Moths flutter by the light bulb.  The white plastic chairs are gathered in a circle.  The door is open to let the heat of the day escape from the house.  This is story time.

"One time, I was walking through the woods, and I heard something beside me.  I stopped and looked, but I did not see a thing.  Then I kept walking.  I sensed something by my side.  Then," the teller gasps...

Just then a cockroach starts zooming around the room like a hummingbird playing pinball off of our heads.  We all gasp and swat at the warm air as the teller says, "I saw it -- it was the white cadejo."

The other women in the circle nod.  They had all experienced the presence of the white dog.  "The white cadejo walks beside the woman, protecting her from danger.  One time, when I went to the river to do the laundry, the white dog was with me."

A husband speaks up.  "I have spied the black cadejo from the corner of my eye.  He has followed me through the woods.  I know this because I have heard a stick break, and when I have turned around fast, I have caught a glimpse of him."  Some men are afraid of the black cadejo, and have run to get home quickly.  Other men say that it will protect them when they are out at night.  If they are drunk the black cadejo will keep them from harm.

These are not just ghost stories.  These are the legends which are told among the people of El Salvador, and seem especially popular among those who live near the small town of Tonacatepeque.  Legend and life experience are woven together here, and the stories shared are not only shared on All Hallows Eve.

"When I was a little boy," the husband continues, "my grandfather ran into the house one night.  He was as white as a ghost.  He had seen the headless priest.  I was not sure this was true, but my grandfather told us exactly what happened, and I know it was true.  He was walking toward the big tree on the old path to Tonaca."

Others in the circle confirm they know of this tree.

"There was a fork in the road and my grandfather had to pass by the tree.  The priest was sleeping by the base of the tree.  Suddenly he stood up in front of the big tree trunk.  It was the priest with no head!  He started to chase my grandfather who had to run for his life.  I have believed this story since I was a little boy, maybe 8 or 10 years old."

"What about the Siguanaba?" I ask.

No one in the circle has seen the Siguanaba.  Some have heard her cry out by the little dirty rivers in the woods. Her voice is beautiful so she can lure men who are out late to come to her.  The Siguanaba was once a beautiful woman who fell in love with the son of the god Tlaloc and lured him to marry her.  While her husband was away, the woman had affairs and became pregnant.  She was a terrible mother to her son, Cipitio, and was cursed by the gods to wander the earth forever searching for Cipitio, who was also cursed to forever remain a little boy.  At first, the Signuanaba seems beautiful, with long black hair and beautiful fingernails.  She wears a white night gown and her body is very lovely beneath the fabric.  She lures men to come to the river where she sits combing her hair and washing her clothes.  When her victim is close by, she suddenly reveals her hideously ugly face.  Her eyes are read and  bulged out and her long breasts slap at the water as she walks. Her nails become long like claws and she grabs at her victim. If her victim sees her true self, he will be crazy for the rest of his life.

This is one of the many stories which encourage men to be home at night, rather than out to be out seeking the company of his drinking buddies or another woman.

We are sleepy.  The door is closed and the light extinguished.  We crawl onto our warm beds, our foreheads damp with sweat, our dreams filled with visions of spirit dogs, a headless priest and a mysterious woman.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Four Boys

Today I was meandering through some old video files, looking for some footage of singing in El Salvador, with the goal of finding audio for songs which we could sing with our congregation on an upcoming "El Salvador Sunday."  In the meandering, I came across a video entitled, "Four Boys."


The title appears.  This is one of the videos we created as a promotion for the scholarship ministry we coordinate with our sister church community.  A boy's first name emerges in white letters on a black screen, and then the image transitions to the face of a teenage boy.  He's wearing a Tazmanian Devil t-shirt.  The camera follows him as he shifts nervously from foot to foot.  Subtitles appear as he talks.  "I'm [complete name].  Greetings to the brothers and sisters at [sister church name], especially [boy name] who is sending help to me.  What I want to say...what I want to thank you for the help that you have sent me, and take care of yourself, and of your family, your father, your grandma, your mom, just take care of yourselves.  That's all."  He smiles a little shy smile during the entire interview.

The next name appears.  A little boy is seated in a white plastic chair. He has a big smudge of dirt on his cheek from wrestling around with his brothers.  Around his neck he has a cross made from pink and red fun foam and blue yarn.  His eyes look up at the sky, and he holds one finger by his cheek as he thinks of what to say.  "Hello, good afternoon, I live with my mom and my dad and my brothers, and my little brother who has to have his little foot operated on. I go to school. I am 7 years old.  I have brothers.  That's all."  He gets up quickly and has a big smile as he scoots off camera.

Same chair, new boy.  This one has a Badgers football cap on his head.  He swings his legs back and forth and talks fast.  He is about 9 years old.  "I live with my family.  My mom's name is ____, my dad's name is ____.  My brothers are ... and me.  I am in fourth grade.  I want to continue studying.  Thank you to the brothers and sisters who give me some help.  Thanks."  He is eager to get out of the chair.

Boy number four:  "Hi.  My family is of people who are pretty poor.  Everyone is working. My brother Marvin.  My sister [name] went away on a trip. We'll have to see when she returns.  Through God you are helping me.  I want to keep studying.  I go to second grade.  Thanks to the brothers and sisters who are helping me.  Thanks to my sponsors who are there in the United States, and I tell you that you are helping me and I will send you a letter later.  That is all."  This little guy has charisma.  He is the kid everyone falls in love with.  He could be a great leader, if all that energy is channeled in a positive direction.

The video was made a little more than six years ago.  Six years...a long time in the life of a boy.

The first boy dropped out of school shortly after the video was made.  He joined a gang.  The reasons are complex but were partly due to stresses in his family.  For most of the last six years he was out of touch with the boy in the US who was helping him.  The US family never stopped praying.  Both boys grew up.  A short time ago, the grown boy began studying again.  He is in a safe place.  It is not easy for a young man to stay hidden.  The US mom visited him.  The love and prayers he receives from across the miles encourage him and sustain him when he is lonely.

The second boy has been studying.  He still has that thoughtful manner and shy smile. His little brother, who was born with club feet, had surgeries and can run and play like his big brothers. This year, the boy dropped out of school for a little while, copying his older brothers.  One older brother convinced him to go back.  "You will regret leaving."  The boy has returned to school for now.

The third boy needed to work to help support his family.  He figured out a way in which he could work every morning and weekend and go to school every afternoon.  After five years of working and going to school, he has quit school.  He works as a mechanic and is very good at it, but without a diploma he will only be able to work at a non-professional level.  The hope is to find a technical school which will help him to get the credentials he needs.

The fourth boy has moved away from the community.  His brother, Marvin, was murdered while he was working taking fares on a micro-bus just one week after we made the video.  The second brother joined the gang and dropped out of school.  The mother took her younger children and left, leaving no contact information behind.  I think about this little guy - well, forever little in my memories - all the time.  Someday, I know I will connect with him again.

Four boys.

Friday, October 4, 2013

¡Feliz Quinceañera!

"Be sure to have a cake.  Usually there is a cake.  We couldn't afford a cake, and we were a little bit sad about that, but it was OK, right?  The cake should have layers and be tall and pretty like a wedding cake."

We had a cake.  And balloons, lots of balloons.  And streamers and pink tablecloths and pink sparkly stuff and a princess in a pink dress and pink lemonade.

From the beginning, we had planned two quinceañera celebrations to honor our fifteen years together as sister churches:  one in El Salvador and one in the US.  Even though we were sad to say good-bye to our Salvadoran friends at the end of our time with them, we had some fun together planning for the party "in the north."  We probably would not have dancing.  We would decorate using colorful balloons and streamers just like the Salvadorans had done.  And there would be cake.

The party in El Salvador was planned by the community, and we had sent some funds ahead of time so our friends could plan the kind of party they wanted.  When they met to make their plans, they decided to use the funds to give a party to the church!  They painted the exterior of the church so it would look just like it did in 2011 when it was born - a beautiful, soft purple.  They also built a low wall and fashioned a black metal fence and gate around the church to protect it from the occasional delivery truck or mischief.  When we arrived, the community showed us the fifteenth anniversary gift they had given to the church.  They hoped we were in agreement with their choices for the use of the money.  We absolutely were, absolutely.  We were also tremendously impressed with how much work they were able to do with a little bit of party money!

So, at the Salvadoran fiesta we each ate one piece of chicken instead of two, and we cut no cake and broke no piñata.  We laughed and danced and shared lots of warm and lovely hugs.  The cake, beautiful with layers like a wedding cake, would be served up north.

And so it was.  We had a great big up north party with all of our congregation invited.  We ate cheese pupusas and sweet tamales with cream.  We shared photos from the celebration in El Salvador, and told stories.  The quinceañera princess cut the cake and little ones marveled at her sparkly dress. Finally, we hoisted the piñata over a tree branch in the church yard and children took their swings.  One good whack and candy spilled over the ground.  The party was over.

Fifteen years as sister churches.  Fifteen years of growing and learning together.  We think about the little ones who broke open piñatas in the early years and are now grown - some with children of their own.  We look forward to the next fifteen years, hoping our children and grandchildren will continue to grow in faith and love together, sharing wisdom, hopes, dreams, joys, sorrows, and fun.
¡Feliz quinceañera!

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Papa's Crosses

The quinceañera party for our sister churches ended with good-byes in the pathway that marks the boundary:  one gang territory over here, the other over there.  We walked from over here and up the hill to over there and settled into the van for the ride back to our little hotel.  We were tired from the heat and celebration and emotion of the day.  We all felt it - a little sadness in our hearts that one family, and one fifteen-year-old girl in particular, had been left out of the celebration.

The girl is a friend. Some of us have known her all her life.  Some of us only knew her from photographs and stories.  One of us, one of our quinceañera princesses, has known her for a year.  The two girls met last summer, and in one of those mysteries of friendship, the two girls grew close.  Heads together all the time.  Giggles.  Sharing little secrets girls share when language doesn't matter.  The quinceañera party was something the girls dreamed about and as it became a real planned event, the girl and her mom were in the thick of the planning.  So when the edict was given, the girl and her siblings and her mom could not cross the gang boundary and could not attend.  When we walked down the hill to see them, they were not home.  They had gone to sell food in the market.  Perhaps it was just too painful to be trapped at home while the party was going on.

A couple of days later, we took some time to relax in the park at the top of El Boqueron, and then we were surprised with an invitation to have lunch with our sister church pastor and his parents at their house.  Sometimes we do this with a small group, but with ten of us I could tell that Pastor Santiago was a little nervous.  Tables were pushed together and covered with flowered cloths and soon the center of the table was piled full of delicious cooked vegetables and potatoes and rice and tortillas.  There were just enough ceramic plates or bowls, spoons or forks to go around, and soon we were full with the warmth of good food, love and hospitality.  Surprise number two:  ice cream!  Delicious ice cream!  After dessert, Papa Santiago came out with surprise number three:  a small wooden cross strung onto a green cord, one for each of us.  He carefully placed a cross over each one of our heads, giving a little blessing.  

Papa Santiago's ministry of the crosses is well-known and honored in the Salvadoran Lutheran Church.  As a retired pastor and forever wood-worker and inventor, Papa Santiago spends time every day, searching for wood to recycle and make into crosses.  His crosses are hanging around necks and in homes all over the world.  After each one of us had received a cross, he handed two little plastic packages of crosses to us and said, "You will know when to give these away."
Our afternoon plan was to return to our sister community and visit the girl and her family. We knocked on their corrugated tin gate - and they were home!  We spent the rest of the afternoon hugging, listening, crying, sharing, praying.  Each person in the family shared his or her feelings for the camera - part of a documentary we are making about life in the community.  Mom talked and talked - wiping tears from her eyes - about the dangers which face her children every time they leave the house.  Seeing the teenage boys choking back sobs, their shoulders shaking, as they told a little bit about their struggles...well, that is not something one can describe in words.  Little boys in big boy bodies, scared for their lives.

"You will know when to give these away. 

"We pulled out the crosses.  We placed a cross over each head.  We stood in a circle, each wearing a cross on a green string, each wiping away tears, each with his or her own troubles, each with something to tell and something to hear, each searching for peace and solutions in the presence of division and violence, all feeling comfort in the hug around the circle.  

We all took a breath and then one of the moms in our group suggested ... a sleepover!  The girl could come back with us to our hotel and spend the night with the quinceañera princesses!  Why not!  So off we went with three girls giggling in the back seat for a night and new day of fun together.  At the end of the next day, we returned the girl to her home in the community.  Her mom met us at the gate, anxious to have her daughter home.  "It was the first time we have not slept together in the same room since she was born!" her mom exclaimed.  The dad said he kept looking over at her empty bed and he couldn't sleep very well.  We all laughed and hugged.  Good-byes are always a little sad, but the joy of the sleepover and all of the accompanying stories will hopefully help to heal the little hurt of the missed quinceañera party.

And around our necks, or hanging on our walls, there are little wooden crosses on green strings which bind us together, bring us comfort and remind us we are not alone.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Partying Beyond Boundaries

The quinceañeara celebration processed from the church to the community center.  There are no words to describe how unbelievably hot it was in that building.  It was like being in an oven, so hot that we could hardly breathe.  Yet spirits were high and so was the volume of the music!  Everyone posed for photos with everyone, and then it was time for the special dance.  We couldn't quite catch all of the words, but the song was a traditional quinceañera song, and all the belles of the ball with their escorts took to the floor.  This dance was rehearsed!  The girls twirled from boy to boy with their big skirts swishing and swaying -- it was like watching a Disney princess movie.

After the dance a series of tables were set up end to end and covered with white cloth.  It was time for the feast of chicken and rice and tortillas.  As we finished eating, a hip hop dance group from the community performed.  The photo-taking continued for a while and then families said their farewells and headed home.

A few photos could not be taken.  Although they had been planning for months, a few mothers could not come.  Although they had looked forward to wearing fancy clothes and dancing, a few boys and girls had to stay home.  An edict from the gang bosses was issued and it prevented these families from crossing over their pathway to the area by the church -- a pathway which is an invisible boundary chopping off one section of the community from the rest, dictating who can walk where, who can play on what soccer field, who can go to what school, and now, who can and cannot go to church.

There are reasons why such an intimidation tactic might be used.  There are rules.  There are suspicions,  And bosses from outside the community don't know the history or understand the sanctity of the holy ground at the top of the hill.  Whatever the reasons, guided or misguided, the edict was issued and people were sad.

Yet the quinceañeara princesses were undeterred.  "Is it OK for us to walk down there?" they asked.  So the quinceañeara princesses hiked up their skirts and navigated their way through the barbed wire short-cut and took the party to the other side of the invisible boundary.  Not everybody could go, but we could go.  One of the mothers was home.  She invited us into her yard.  Beneath her humble tree (as she called it) we shared the fruits of her garden.  We all tasted sunsa (a sweet orange fleshy fruit which reminded us a little bit of sweet potato).  Then she made green mango with chile.  A neighbor mom came over with her son.  She had also been ordered not to walk up the hill.  We spent a good long time relaxing and enjoying the fruits until the thunder rumbled and it was time to go.

"It wasn't the same as being at the party with everyone," the moms said, "but this way we got to have you all to ourselves in our own garden." We shared lots of hugs and thank-yous, and then those of us who were allowed to do so walked back up the hill.

to be continued...

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Big Day

The day for the anniversary celebration had arrived!  We arrived in the community before 7:30 AM so that our two quinceañera princesses could get their hair done by the expert fancy hair stylist in the community.  They spent a couple of hours getting their curled and sprayed up-do's and then changing into sparkly pink and poofy dresses.  All over the community, girls were donning their pink and pastel-colored dresses -- dresses which had attended proms and weddings ten, twenty or thirty years ago, dresses which had traveled to El Salvador a month before the celebration, dresses now expertly re-fashioned to turn excited teen girls into beautiful flowers.  As the girls giggled and fussed with their hair and dresses, teen boys polished their black school shoes and walked around nervously in black dress pants and white or pink button-down shirts.

Adults hovered around the church, adding finishing touches.  A few days earlier, the church had been dressed in a fresh coat of lilac paint, and the new fence around it was decorated with streamers and balloons of every color. The archway was crowned with a tiara of green palm branches. Pale pink and pale green lace curtains draped from the rafters.  The women had sewn pink covers for the altar, the pulpit and the communion elements.  Silk flowers, pink ribbons and baby blue balloons were everywhere.

Fifteen girls accompanied by fifteen boys represented the fifteen years of our partnership as sister churches.  These youth were chosen and honored as the once little ones who have grown in years and wisdom as the sister churches have grown together in love and ministry.  When the music started, the young couples walked in slowly and lined the center aisle of the church, making an archway with their arms and holding long-stem roses in the air.  Little girls dressed in bright green dresses tip-toed beneath the arch, dropping flower petals along the way.  They were the "little leaves."  Two little ones in white dresses walked behind the leaves - they were "the snow."  The maids of honor were dressed in matching yellow gowns.  Then the quinceañera princesses walked in with their escorts, carrying pretty pink bouquets.  The archway of couples then ducked under and walked forward, one by one, until everyone was seated for worship.  The princesses ended up shyly sitting in chairs at the base of the altar, facing the crowd.

The worship service was filled with special moments, with heartfelt words and the presentation of gifts.  Roses were presented one by one to the quinceañeras, fifteen roses to each, and then representatives of our two churches put their hands together to receive the roses as one bouquet, symbolizing the coming together of two congregations into one.  During the offering, youth brought gifts forward - light (a glittery hot pink pillar candle which survived the flight and the heat, education (a children's book) and hermandad/partnership (a giant hand-made anniversary card signed by kids, youth and adults from our home church).  

After worship, everyone processed down the dusty path to the community center...

to be continued...

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

This is your Daily Bread

"This is your daily bread.  This is your daily bread."  There is a voice in my head, and these are the words.

Daily bread.  Give us this day our daily bread.  As people of faith, we pray this prayer every day, perhaps several times in a day.  We ask God to provide us with what we need to sustain us today -- shelter, clothing, food, and water.

As a person of privilege, I have never passed a day without having adequate shelter, clothing, food or water.  I have always been given daily bread.  Sometimes I marvel at God's creativity in providing daily bread.  I have upon occasion found myself without food, through my own fault in forgetting my lunch or not planning properly.  I work in communities where the struggle for daily bread is real, yet, in these communities, I am always fed.  Someone shares a sandwich, a piece of fruit, or a tamale.  An invitation is extended to a community meal made from reclaimed food.  "This is your daily bread."

We had been walking for a couple of hours as a part of the August 6th pilgrimage through the streets of San Salvador in honor of the 27th anniversary of the consecration of the office of bishop in the Salvadoran Lutheran Church.  Among the between six and ten thousand Lutherans, we stuck out a little bit in our hot pink tie-dye shirts and holding our pink and white banner.  We marched with youth and adults from our sister church community. We were all super happy to be walking together, still basking in the pink glow of the big quinceañera party we had a few days earlier to celebrate our 15 years together as sister churches.

As we approached the end of our walk on calle 5 de noviembre a man approached us, holding out his hand.  He walked back and forth in front of the banner, slowing us down a bit.  He was thin, his blue dress pants bunched up under the belt that held them up.  In his outstretched hand was part of a thin vanilla creme wafer cookie.  It was partially crushed in his warm, smudged palm.  In his other hand he clutched a small stack of cookies - the rest of the package.  His face was sincere, and he walked unsteadily from one to another of us saying, "This is your daily bread."

A Salvadoran woman and I were walking arm in arm.  She watched carefully as the man went from person to person, "This is your daily bread."

Each person kindly said, "No, gracias."

As the man approached us, my friend looked at him warmly.  "No, it's yours," she said.  We could tell he had been drinking.  He looked at me.  I wasn't sure what to do, so I followed her lead, "God put this into your hand.  It's yours," I said to him.  Even as I said it, I thought maybe I should have taken the cookie wafer offered as daily bread.  Maybe this was a gift the man was trying to give me.  It looked a lot like a wafer for Holy Communion.  Then the man was gone.

"I thought maybe he was trying to sell it," someone said later.

"I don't think so," I said.  "I think he was sharing his daily bread."

I think I should have accepted it.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013


In two days, ten of us will head off to El Salvador to celebrate the quinceañera of our sister church relationship.  For the majority, this will be the first time they will visit our sister church community.  There is a lot of excitement and anticipation floating through the air!

The last days of packing before a delegation trip always seem like a bit of a rush.  Today was errand day - a day to get all of the finances, paperwork and stuff ready for the trip.  At my feet, sits a great big suitcase with donated yarn and fabric and crayons spilling out beyond the zippers.  Behind me, the kitchen table holds a giant celebration card made from foam board and filled with signatures and messages from congregation members written in shades of pink and purple.  When the glitter paint is dry, the card will hopefully go into the suitcase.  What else is on the kitchen table?  Letters!  Stacks of envelopes of all sizes which contain letters and a few small gifts for children and youth.  Tonight will include a little bit of late-night translating, I think.  There is one more thing on the kitchen table - a big box of photos.  One of today's tasks was to upload almost 400 photos which I took during my last visit to our sister church and to get prints made.

There are photos of cute babies, photos of the Sunday School class, photos taken during worship, photos of families, photos of all of us together.  I took them over the course of a month, capturing daily life and daily love.

A few months ago, Javier asked me if I would take a picture of him with his mom, and "be sure to bring a copy of it" for him when I returned.  I ordered an 8 by 10 enlargement of the special photo: Javier standing close to his mom, a small smile on her face, a big smile on his.  He towers over her.  His arm is around her shoulders.
Our sister pastor wrote to us.  Javier's mother died.  Her death was sudden.  Perhaps she knew she was sick, yet as a quiet and humble person she did not go to the hospital until it was too late. It is hard to believe.  I will give this 8 by 10 photo to Javier.  I expect we will cry.

The young woman who processed my photos paused before handing me the boxes. "These photos are really touching," she said.  "Did you go on a mission trip?"  I explained that the photos were taken during the last visit we had with our sister church in El Salvador and I would be handing them out to the families later this week when we are together again.  "The faces, there is something about them.  They are just so precious and touching," she said.

We all have photos we treasure.  They touch us, in a way, when in-person hugs are not possible.

When I looked at the receipt for the photos tonight, I noticed that the young woman had written some words at the top:  "Touching photos.  Thanks for helping."

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Think Pink!

During the first week of August 1998, two churches officially became sister churches.  This year, we celebrate our fifteenth anniversary together.  How will we celebrate?  With a big pink quinceañera!

It all started with a trip last summer when a teen from our US congregation befriended a teen from our El Salvador congregation and they realized they were both turning 15 in the next year.  The idea for a joint party together this summer, complete with pink dresses and all the fanfare, was born.  The adult leaders in the mix realized this could be a fun opportunity to celebrate our sister church relationship and the quinceañera anniversary party became a real plan.

Dresses filled the Fellowship Hall
In the US, we gathered pink dresses.  Prom dresses and bridesmaid dresses, lacy and shiny, poofy and sparkly. Moms and daughters gave away dresses which had been lovingly cared for in the backs of closets.  One young girl and her mom shopped at second hand stores on a pink-dress scavenger hunt. Before we knew it, we had more than 30 pink dresses.  People also donated pastel and jewel tone maid of honor dresses. We packed the dresses into a giant suitcase and found a courier - none other than Tim of Tim's El Salvador Blog - to carry the dresses to El Salvador a month in advance of the party so that the community sewing school could alter the dresses to fit the birthday girls and their entourage.

Meanwhile, in our sister community in El Salvador, secret plans have been hatching for the big event.   When the suitcase of dresses was delivered, Tim had a some fun showing off the dresses for the Women's Ministries leaders.  (I will leave it to Tim to post those photos!)  They shared a few party details with him:  Little girls will be dressed in green, serving as hojitas (little leaves) to surround the birthday "flowers."  We also learned that 15 girls will celebrate their quinceañera birthdays at the party.

At the beginning of August, our delegation of 10 will travel from the US to El Salvador to celebrate and spend time with our sister church.  Two of the group are carrying their own pink dresses and will celebrate their birthdays with the girls in El Salvador.  Everyone is VERY excited about the upcoming fiesta!

to be continued...

Friday, July 5, 2013

Off the Beaten Path: Lima Limón and Paseo el Carmen

Night life?  We don't get out much.

Here's the thing:  when we are in El Salvador, we are typically working with the Salvadoran Lutheran Church or spending time out in communities or generally hanging out where it is better to be inside at 10 PM and not outside wandering in the cool evening air with a delegation of 25 people.  Yet, upon occasion, we have the opportunity to venture out and try something new.

My friend Deb and I met a couple of friends in Santa Tecla.  It was super easy and quick to get there via the new highway.  The cab driver dropped us off near Paseo el Carmen - a mostly-pedestrian street that is home to restaurants, cafes, small shops, bars and live music.  We went on a week night, so it was   pretty quiet and easy to meander up and down the paseo and peek into doors and study a few menus.  The restaurant area begins near the El Carmen Cathedral, an impressive structure that was built over several years beginning before the turn of the century.  The 2001 earthquakes caused serious structural damage to the church, but the steps near the wall around it provide good seating for tired children.

We took a little time to browse and make a few purchases at an artisan shop, Galeria de Tecla.  This fun place has many unique art pieces and a pretty extensive jewelry collection.  Our friends caught up with us at the shop, and together we headed to our intended destination for the evening, the "tropical bistro" Lima Limón.  Our friends know the owners so of course we had a warm and wonderful welcome.  It was clear, though, that the graciousness with which we were received is the norm for all who come.  We sat outside, enjoying the lovely evening and really excellent margaritas.  Dinner was delicious!!  Best steak we have EVER eaten in El Salvador.  The owner recommended the bananas foster, and we would recommend it too!

Part of the charm of Paseo el Carmen is that the cafes are small, and the vibe is less about mass-production and tourism and more about artisan food and drink and unique musical groups. Our friends have seen a small change in the scene as tourists have discovered their quiet paseo, and it will be interesting to see if the slower paced "artsy" culture can be preserved as more people discover and want to experience it.  What is good for business might be almost too good for business.

So, without suggesting that everyone descend upon Paseo el Carmen, I think it would be a great night-spot for a delegation.  It is safe enough that the group could split up (following the usual good rules of gringo safety), find the cafes of their choice, enjoy the food, the music and the cool evening, and then reunite for the drive back to San Salvador.  I would definitely recommend Lima Limón as a great place to relax and enjoy a delicious meal.  I can't wait to return on a weekend night!

You can find Lima Limón on Facebook!
Photo take by Deb

Photo taken by Deb

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Tales of Greasy and Grubby: Babies

Today I got peed on by Messiah.

OK, not THE Messiah, but by a little guy who is named Messiah.  Pants all wet, both his and mine.  Not a lot I could do but walk him over to his mom for a change, and walk back to my chair feeling a little bit icky.  I looked across at Greasy.  She is visiting and we decided to go to Bible Study together at the church where I work as a volunteer.  It seemed like old times.

We used to joke when we were together in El Salvador:  "Which one of us will some baby pee upon today?"  We love babies, and we love to hold babies, and the reality is that babies pee.  We even planned to wear patterned skirts on days when we knew we would be out and about visiting families, just in case.  Lots of babies in El Salvador wear cute cloth diapers with little bears or airplanes on them.  The diapers  fasten with velcro at the corners, which is much better than pins which tend to rust.  Of course, babies do not wear plastic pants - who wants to wear plastic pants when it is 90 degrees outside?  Very few babies have disposable diapers, because those are expensive and add to community garbage heaps.

Jesus said, "Let the children come to me."  We hear these words and in our mind's eyes what do we see?  Children climbing into Jesus' lap, giving him hugs, hanging onto his clothing.  Jesus loves children.  Jesus loves babies...even when they pee.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Marvelous Moringa

A while back, I shared the saga of the Mission of Healing medications which were caught up in an aduanas adventure.  This created quite a conundrum for the people who needed prenatal vitamins or medications to manage their pain and illnesses and frustrated our conscientious pharmacy team.  In the end, everyone received what they needed, but it did further highlight the importance of our continued search for alternative sources of nutrition and medicines.

Historically we have carried medications in multiple suitcases in order to care for patients in the most economic and effective way possible.  We have also consistently sought out sources for purchasing or acquiring medications in El Salvador.  Cost has been a prohibitive issue, partly due to a lack of generics in El Salvador.  Availability and quality are also challenging.

Yet, there are local sources of nutrition and medicine which were known to the ancients.  Many of the men and women in the countryside know the uses of plants for healing, and some of this knowledge is being captured in the various botanical gardens* and by leaders in the Lutheran Church before it is lost.  Other nutritional and medicinal plants are imported and cultivated by the Lutheran University and at the organic agricultural center Fe y Esperanza in Nejapa.  This is not a new area of work for the Salvadoran Lutheran Church, but it is being reclaimed and expanded, and the sharing of knowledge about natural medicines has become an increasingly important part of the Missions of Healing.

Introducing...marvelous moringa!  This was the feature plant for the 2013 Mission of Healing in Nejapa.  We first met the moringa plant out in the field.  A seedling grows into a tree in just a couple of months!  The leaves can be eaten like salad or dried and made into a powder for tea.  The leaves are high in vitamins C and A, and in potassium, calcium and protein.  The seeds are high in protein and can be eaten raw or ground to use like flour.  We heard testimonies from people who had good results with using moringa seeds to treat high blood sugar, digestive problems and a variety of health issues.  Mostly, though, it is valued as a high nutrition food -- very important for people who struggle with food security.  In addition, moringa seed powder can be used to remove harmful bacteria from water, creating healthier drinking water for people who live without potable water sources.

Pastor Santiago taught an ongoing workshop during the Mission of Healing days, and it was fun to see how excited he was about moringa.  People seemed really interested, and they took seeds home to plant in their own little gardens or in pots around their houses.  When I returned home, I found a web site which is dedicated to the moringa plant.  Who knew??

Well, apparently the cashier at my grocery store knew and so did several other folks with whom I shared a little bit about my encounter with moringa.  There is so much to learn about the amazing plants on this earth!  I think it's time to plant some moringa seeds in a pot near my home to see if it will grow here.  This could be a very good source of nutrition for families which struggle to find fresh and healthy produce in the urban desert where I work.

This year it was marvelous moringa...I wonder what next year's amazing plant will be!!

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Off the Beaten Path: Refuge in the Cathedral of San Vicente

Our church-hopping strategy had worked well in the morning, so with our stomachs filled with delicious relleno de ejote (green beans surrounded by cheese, dipped in egg and deep-fried) and armed with fresh water to ward off the heat of the afternoon, we set out down the hill, in search of the oldest church in San Vicente.

We walked down a wide, paved street in an area that mostly seemed residential.  We thought it would be easy to continue our church-navigation strategy, but on the low, flat terrain we could not see much beyond the houses and trees beside us.  The paving cobbles ended, and we found ourselves at the edge of town on a dirt road, so we turned around and took a side street which ended up leading us to a soccer field.  We went through the gate and walked along the edge by the "bleachers" (well-worn and faded boards set on random cans and buckets) until we came to the other side.  Apparently the end of the soccer field also functions as an informal trash dump.  We quickly toured the dump and emerged on a very tidy, quiet street with colorful homes and beautiful flowers.

The unexpected site of a couple of strolling gringas interrupted the daily life of sweeping, tending grandchildren, selling frozen ice and standing by pick-up trucks.  When the street came to a dead end, a friendly neighbor said it was OK to go on through the dark and tiny pathway to the next colonia or neighborhood.  These small "neutral zones" between colonias are somewhat neglected.  As we crossed a ditch surrounded by trees Deb said, "I think this is one of those places your husband would tell us not to go."  No worries:  the only people we met along the path were a couple of high-school sweethearts.  Apparently we had stumbled upon the second make-out spot in town (the first being the stairwells of the clock tower).

We took a right on the next street, and it was HOT in the sun.  A few blocks later we came to a church and a park.  An elderly man in a wheelchair sat by the fence.  He really wanted to talk with us so we asked him about the Church of Our Lady of El Pilar - the oldest church in San Vicente.  He had a lot to say, but we could not understand anything except "Jesus."  As we reached through the fence to shake the man's hand and thank him, we realized that he had no legs.  We expressed our gratitude for his story and guidance, and gave him a little money in payment for his help.  We walked toward a nearby shady street and suddenly, there it was:  the church dedicated to the Virgin of El Pilar!

The church was completed in 1769.  It suffered severe damage during the 2001 earthquakes, and the congregation has built a simple and modern church next to the historic structure.  A local legend tells of the history of the church:  A woman named Manuela wanted to kill her husband by stabbing him while he slept. Her husband, Merino, had a painting of the Virgin of Pilar hanging above his bead. As she was about to strike, the painting in it's frame moved and banged against the wall repeatedly.  Merino woke up and his wife did not carry out her plan.  Instead, she went to confession and was told to admit her sin to her husband.  He accepted the whole incident as a miracle, and decided to build a chapel dedicated to the Virgin of El Pilar.

The current state of the old church is a little sad.  Perhaps the church was bright, decorated, filled with art at one time.  The whitewashed walls and empty echo of the sanctuary seems a little ghost-like.  Yet, as we explored the new church and read the flyers up on the walls, it was clear that the congregation is lively and busy and filled with children...and that's really what is important.

We meandered back to the park where our tour began, with a plan to sit on a bench and write in our journals.  We had not been seated for too long, when a gentleman came and sat beside me.  Park benches are certainly big enough for three people, but not when one of the people is somewhat creepy.  He tried to talk to us, but we pretended we didn't understand and just kept writing.  That did not work.  I explained that our pastor was close by and we were workers in the church.  That did not deter him.  We made our excuses and hustled ourselves into the Cathedral where our day had begun.  Safely in God's house, we spent the next twenty minutes writing before venturing out, and, finding that the bench guy was nowhere to be seen, we crossed the park and made it straight away to the ice cream store.  We sat on the tall curb by the town square, enjoying our ice cream and the last moments of our adventurous day in San Vicente.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Sunday Morning Hospitality

I am sure you have all been sitting on the edge of your seats, awaiting the next installment of the San Vicente escapades...and I apologize for the long absence.  The last few months have been filled with travel and events at home, so I have not found time enough to write for the blog.  No worries -- I have been keeping up with my hand-written travel journals, so the stories are not lost!  Today's tale is not exactly based in El Salvador, but its theme will ring true for all of you who have been invited into Salvadoran homes.

We woke up early, determined to find breakfast before going to mass at the basilica.  We had laid out our "nice clothes" the night before, and had mapped out possible food locations on our little guide book map.  We were very proud of ourselves as we trudged up the long hill from our hostel toward the basilica, with our clean hair, cute outfits, and hungry tummies.

The basilica in Quito, Ecuador, was built in the late 1920's.  It's old Gothic style would have one think it was built centuries ago.  It is a magnificent ediface no matter when it was built, and my niece and I had spent several hours earlier in the week studying its interior and climbing stairs and steep ladders to capture magnificent views of the sprawling city and nearby mountains.  We had decided then to come back for mass on Sunday morning.  We wondered what it would be like to worship in a place with mammoth darkness and echos, condors instead of gargoyles, and a changing-color-neon-lit portrait of The Sacred Heart of Jesus over the altar.

Quito is hilly.  Beyond hilly.  It is a mountain city, and the altitude adds to the fun of working those leg muscles while carrying a backpack full of stuff or wearing cute outfits.  We were already sweaty by the time we made it up to the main street near the basilica, and we had yet to encounter an open cafe or bakery or restaurant.  We walked toward Old Town, knowing that the steep trek downhill would have later consequences.  We wandered off the map, and then decided to go down yet another hill to get back onto the grid.

We finally arrived at a place with Restaurante Vegetariano posted outside of wide open doors.  We peered inside, but the place seemed  really quiet.   A young man appeared.  "Do you serve breakfasts here?" we asked.

"Well," he paused, "We have chocolate cake."  We must have looked at him quite quizzically.  "Or granola and yogurt.  Is that OK?"

We said yes and the young man invited us to sit down.  Quiet music became a little bit louder, and a few other people hustled about, apparently doing their morning chores.  The man and a friend unlocked a door to a space marked "fair trade market."  They rummaged about and emerged with two bowls full of granola.  "It's homemade..." the young man said almost apologetically.  "That's fantastic," we responded.  Two cups of lumpy homemade yogurt came out from the kitchen, and a big covered ceramic pot full of brown sugar.  "Maybe you would like some cut up fruit?" the man asked.  "Oh, thank you," we gushed.

We looked around.  We were seated at simple wooden chairs at a simple wooden table in a courtyard of a building which probably had origins in the 1600's.  Images of Hindu deities and a carved plaque honoring the local guru were mounted around the wooden railing of the upper balcony.  Sounds of drums and other rhythm instruments accompanied the music as a yoga class began upstairs.  It was the first time either one of us had been to an ashram.

We ate our breakfast, feeling like we had walked into someone's home as the morning routine was just getting started and realizing that we had received a great gift of hospitality.  Our hosts sat at a long table behind us, laughing and finishing up their breakfasts.  "I feel like they are sitting at the 'cool table'," my niece said.  It did feel a little bit like we were missing out on something.

We stacked our dishes and asked what we could pay.  The young man smiled and said, "Six dollars would be good."  He invited us to join the yoga class, but, with our cute outfits we were not really dressed for yoga.  We gave big smiles and as much thanks as we could, and then ventured out for some serious fast hill-climbing so we could get to mass on time.

We slipped into a pew at the rear of a small crowd as a contemporary song group played and sang along with a CD.  It was loud and not exactly in tune - a pretty stark contrast in style to the breakfast music which was still singing in our ears.  Soon we realized that 8:00 am mass was just ending (a little late) and we were more than on time for the 9:00 am mass.  This is something I appreciated in Ecuador as I always do in El Salvador - grace in time.

Although I have been Lutheran all my life, I have also spent significant time worshiping and studying in the Roman Catholic Church.  We have a lot of shared theology, liturgy and music, and mass at the basilica in Quito felt a lot like worship in a Salvadoran Lutheran Church.  For Pentecost Sunday there were fewer bells and whistles than I might have expected, but the little congregation in that great big space created a warm and welcoming atmosphere.  They smiled and shook our hands when we passed the peace, maybe just a little curious about who these two gringas were in their midst.

An hour later, as we were sitting on a bus heading out to Mitad del Mundo (a monument at the almost-zero-degree latitude point), we marveled at the hospitality we had received that morning.  The experience was repeated over and over again, from the warm welcome of my niece's host family as they cooked a lovely meal for the two of us to the guy in a delivery truck who gave us a ride when we were in search of a bus.  We were welcomed and gifted by the kindness of strangers at every turn.

Sometimes we tend focus on the dangers and the troubles in places like San Salvador or Chiapas or Quito.  Of course we never want to be foolish when we travel because dangers are real.  Yet, hospitality and kindness are so much more prevalent than danger.  Life is so much more joyful when we look at each other and our communities with less suspicion and more love.

I am very grateful to my niece, who invited me to travel with her as she concluded her time studying for a semester at a university outside of Quito.  We had some fantastic adventures, ate some amazing food and learned a great deal about Ecuadorian history and culture.
Interior of the basilica in Quito

The basilica in Quito

View from one tower toward the others

Mitad del Mundo

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Off the Beaten Path: Church-Hopping in San Vicente

Catedral de San Vicente
Our strategy was to navigate by heading toward the churches.  As we left the central square, we crossed the street and headed into our first church of the day, the Cathedral of San Vicente.  The church was constructed in 1943 and suffered a nearly complete collapse in the 2001 earthquakes.  The sanctuary was reconstructed in a style to fit the original facade.  It was very cool and peaceful inside.  We sat for a little while.  St. Vincent Abad, the community's patron saint, was killed in the 7th century for defending the beliefs put forth by the Council of Nicea.  The plaque on the wall indicates that though his body was beaten, his soul was lifted to heaven by the angels.

The faith of believers, that they will be lifted up and carried to heaven by angels seems to be woven into the souls of those who live in the shadow of the San Vicente volcano.  I thought back to a few short years ago when tropical rains brought a torrent of boulders and mud roaring down the side of the volcano of San Vicente.  People were crushed.  People were swept away.  We walked with families who were grieving, yet their faith was strong, bolstered by the miracle stories of a wife and children being carried along the top of the mudslide safely into the second story of a house and of a grandmother lifted by angels who deposited her and her wheelchair safely into the top of a palm tree.

Stones and relics and treasures from the original cathedral dot the walls and the altars of the new interior, concrete reminders that God is always busy resurrecting God's creation.

We quietly left out the side door, and found ourselves stunned for a moment by the bright sun, the heat of the day and the rush of people around us.  We decided to walk uphill, toward a church we had seen in the distance.  This route took us straight through the marketplace.  The streets were lined with shops which were completely hidden by the rows of outdoor booths which sold everything from motorcycles to plastic toys to shoes.  Of most interest were the women selling underwear.  Some had a few panties laid out on the sidewalk, seemingly shocked that we would pass up such great bargains as we politely said "no, thank you."  Some were covered from head to toe with their wares - well, "under-wears".  Bras in all colors hanging off of one arm, nighties and slips on hangers looped over their shirt collars and apron strings, heads covered with sombreros made from twisted towels with undies hanging off of every side.  If we could have taken a photo of this without being disrespectful, we really would have.  We gulped down the giggles and politely said, "no, thank you."
Note the oncoming bus...

One good tip for market-goers:  look out for the buses.  It's difficult to express in words or in photos how really narrow these streets are.  The Salvadorans were very good at warning us to step to the side (we were the ONLY North Americans in town that day -- so we attracted our fair share of attention and guardians).  When you see a bus up the road, the best plan is to find a clothing stall with some bare pavement beneath the hanging clothes, and dive in.  Then wait to get up close and personal with a big bus wheel.
Object is actually CLOSER than it appears!

We meandered through the booths and a few of the shops before finding our way to the indoor market.  This was an unexpected surprise!  The indoor market was HUGE!  The first few stalls near the entrances sold toys, candy and small items.  Further in, we looked at each other with one question...WHAT IS THAT SMELL?  A little more exploring revealed the answer - meat juice smeared around by flip flops on hot concrete.  Raw chicken sat in its natural juices dripping onto the floor.  Raw red meats oozed their own aromatic red liquids. We tried to be cool, nonchalant, non-horrified-gringas.

We did ask if it was OK to take a photo.
Soon we came upon literal mountains of dried fish fillets.  "Did you catch these yourself?" we asked one of the vendors.  He was an older guy with a good smile and jolly attitude.  "Yes, I did, me and my wife."  We talked a little bit about fishing and thanked him for sharing his story with us.  Beyond the raw meat rows were small restaurant counters where people could order and eat prepared foods.  None of it seemed very appetizing, and really there were not too many local folks checking it out.  Deb and I agreed that of all we saw (and smelled), the dried fish held the most promise.

Photo taken by Deb
We were happy to exit the indoor market, but happy also that we had experienced it and learned a little bit more about the struggles which Salvadoran families have in finding healthy and safe food.

After exiting the market, we headed up past a residential zone and quickly found our destination - another church!  Iglesia El Calvario (Calvary) was built in 1784, although because it was closed, we could not learn much about the current structure.  From the steps, we looked back upon the way we had come, and could see the clock tower in the distance.  We decided to take a different route back toward the town square, where we would find a place to eat lunch.

Calvary Church

Typically, small cities and towns have several good lunch spots near the municipal buildings off of the town square, and San Vicente did not disappoint.  We checked out the menus at a few places, which consisted of walking past the different items on the grill or being kept warm near the griddle.  We settled on two important criteria for lunch:  availability of bottles of cold water and good vegetarian options.  We chose a spot, sat at an outdoor table, and the kind staff brought us our food.  The food was absolutely heavenly -- relleno de ejote (green beans nestled in cheese, covered with an egg coating and friend).  We watched the midday world go by as we relished the warm cheesy goodness and drank two huge bottles of water each.
Relleno de ejote

After a good lunch and a good rest, it was time to head off into a new direction.  This time, we headed downhill, hoping to find the church of the Virgin of El Pilar.

to be continued...