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.