Monday, March 17, 2014

A Place for Them

Before the sermon, the children are invited to head off to Sunday School (escuela biblica).  They file out of the sanctuary through a door in the chancel area.  Their teachers follow them.  Their room is tiny - a storage closet, really - about 5 feet by 8 feet.  Two tables and a bunch of little chairs hold about 12-15 children and 2 young adult teachers.  Soon the strains of their singing are competing with the pastor's preaching, and a mom closes the metal door with little bang.  Even though the door is closed, the worshipers can hear the children acting out the Bible Story, giggling while coloring, and eventually singing the "go-to-song when the sermon is running long."  That song is catchy, and sticks in your head even while you are concentrating on the sermon...era un crocodilo, un orangutan...

The congregation has been working for a long time to find a Sunday School plan that works.  Back in the old days, when the church was a little tin and bamboo structure, Sunday School was held on Sunday morning.  The altar was covered with a giant board and converted to a work table.  Thirty to sixty kids would scamper up the hill to listen, dramatize, color, sing and pray.  No one worried about the kids finding their way to and from the church.  More or less, the community was peaceful.

Then the gangs infiltrated the community.  Little by little the Sunday School grew smaller, eventually consisting of mostly the teachers' siblings and cousins, the children who live close to the church and a few other children of dedicated moms.  Worship was moved to early on Sunday morning (better for those who work on Sundays), and Sunday School was simultaneously held in the teachers' home near the church.  After a young father was pulled from the home and murdered, no parents really wanted their children to attend Sunday School there.

"Sunday School" then became "Bible School" and was held in the church on Saturday mornings.  The young teachers were accompanied by the pastor or other adult leaders in the church. Eventually the situation grew more dangerous, and a few times teen gang members came into the class to color. Other times they milled around outside.  Sometimes the soldiers were there instead. Parents became uncomfortable, and the Bible School closed.

The desire to pass the faith on to the next generation is strong, and new energy now surrounds the desire to create an education time and space for the congregation's children.  The goal is to have Sunday School class overlap worship so that parents and children can be together for part of the time.  For now, the few children in the little space are happy, learning, and singing, close to their parents.  The dream is to enclose an area next to the church to create a bigger space.  Maybe some day, that dream will come true.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Election Day in El Salvador Part 4

If you are following the twists and turns of the March 9th presidential election in El Salvador on Tim's El Salvador Blog, you know that five days after the election, the ARENA party is contesting the declared victory of FMLN candidate Salvador Sánchez Cerén.  As an observer, I do not believe that there could have been widespread voter fraud.  The checks and balances of the system seem to make it easy for the Supreme Electoral Tribunal to review the voting process as is being demanded.  My hope is that during this drawn-out process, that those who are working to build peace, to build relationships among people and to grow a just society are the victors.

Here are a few final images from election day...
Our "super-official" car sign which allowed us to park nearby and identified
us as neutral observers.

Fire-fighters (following an ARENA bus) on their way to fight a grass fire.

Two little girls, learning about the voting process.

Youth in Santa Tecla, giving out yellow ribbons and hosting an outdoor
concert to encourage everyone to get out and vote the next day.

A somewhat small parade for International Women's Day on March 8th,
the day before voting.  Because political rallies are not allowed during
the few days prior to election day, turn-out for this usually large event
was diminished.  Everywhere we went, though, women were specially
 honored and given extra voice!

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Election Day in El Salvador Part 3

As the Supreme Election Tribunal announced the victory for Salvador Sánchez Cerén of the FMLN, the ARENA party continues to argue that there was election fraud.  During our observation time in three different locations, we did not observe fraud.  There were a few voters turned away for not having the proper identity document.  There were a few disputes over marked ballots, but the voting table personnel came to reasonable conclusions.  As the final outcome continues to unfold, I will continue to share the photos and stories from our observation experience...

As voting began at our first observation site, the flow of voters was slow and steady.  "I think we will have fewer voters than in the first round."  We heard this phrase frequently.  It was very fun for us to begin our day in a place where friends from our sister church community were working, watching and voting.  The young people were especially proud when they tracked us down to say, "I voted!"
After voting, each person received ink on his or her thumb or index
finger, to prevent people from voting twice.

One of our friends was a table president.  Before she opened the box to unpack the ballots and all the equipment for the day, she led her team in a prayer, asking  God to watch over the whole process and that it be peaceful and honest.  In another room, the table team and vigilantes talked with each other about setting aside their partisan differences for the day and working as a team.  They made a pact with each other to work together for the good of the whole.  It was really a beautiful moment.  There were a large number of police officers at the site, which made sense due to the heavy level of gang activity which occurs there.  We saw one guy get frisked, and people entered by one gate and exited by another.  The officers were overall smiling and friendly, and did a good job helping the older people step up through the gate to enter. We did not spend our whole day at this site, so we don't know if the prayers and agreements rained peace and tranquility over the entire process, but while we were there, we enjoyed the experience and it seemed like the voters and workers did too.

At 9 am we left our first site, and passed by another site so one of our observer team members could vote.  Then we headed up to a voting location which was near the Cuscatlan stadium.  During the drive, I took a few photos...

One thing we did notice throughout our travels on election day, was that the ARENA party had a huge busing operation to help people get to the polls.  Someone told us that the owner of a bus company had made a last minute arrangement with ARENA to provide transportation.  At one point we saw a line of more than 20 buses with ARENA flags.  The FMLN also had their operations for getting out the vote, though they tended to be more in the line of trucks crammed with people in the back waving flags, pick-up trucks and taxis.

The voting site up past the stadium was small but crowded.  The voting tables were set up under small canopy tents and there were a lot of people milling around, taking photos and gathering with family.  The atmosphere was very different from the earlier site.  There were some pretty amazing political party outfits which I wish I would have captured in photos - think super-model tight clothes with glitter, spikey shoes and shiny cowboy hats.  It was a little more difficult to observe in this location because not all of the vigilantes were wearing vests, the space was very tight and the table teams worked very quickly.  It is different when the workers and voters are not necessarily neighbors.  It seemed like the vigilantes were keeping a close eye on the process and we did not observe anything of great concern.
We stayed at the urban site until lunch, and then grabbed some Pollo Campero before heading south to our last site of the day.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Election Day in El Salvador Part 2

Be began our day as election observers in a small town north of San Salvador.  The poll workers arrived before 5:00 AM. As soon as the police arrived we were ready to go, opening up for set-up just after 5.  The process of setting up is coordinated by each voting table group.  Groups set up their areas (in classrooms, since we were at a school) and table-by-table receive their voting boxes.  The team carefully opens the box, inventories the contents, and sets up for voting.  The polls open at 7:00 AM.  Here are a few images from the opening process at our site:
The police arrived a few minutes after 5 AM and were greeted by
the voting table teams, the vigilantes (members of each party who
are assigned to watch at each table), and party affiliates.  The affiliates
set up information tables outside the polling place to help voters
to find their assigned voting table numbers.

Table teams waiting to receive their boxes.
The vigilantes keep an eye on all aspects of the process.

The table president takes the box to the assigned room.

Each member of the table team needs to sign the document
indicating that they received the box in tact.

The process was slow at our site, which was a very large site,
causing some teams to scramble at the end.

The voting booth - our site had some steps near the classrooms, so
those with difficulties walking and older folks were able to vote
at one of two accessible tables in the courtyard.

This is the team which I observed during set-up.  Everything needed is
in the box, from tape to pens to ballots to a garbage bag.  At this moment, I was
observing to be sure the ballot box was empty as it was being assembled.

Notice how the vigilantes keep a close eye on everything.  This
helps to keep everyone very honest.

After the team in my room was all set, with ballots counted, voting lists
ready, ink to mark thumbs of voters taped to the table, they voted.  They put their
identity cards into a sealed bag and put that into the ballot box.  Then
I asked if they would like a team photo.  They were very happy to have one!
The early morning sun was just coming through the windows.

This was one of the last rooms to get its box.  The cardboard stand outside
each room holds the list of voters for that room.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Election Day in El Salvador: Part 1

On March 9, 2014, I served as an international election observer through FECLAI - Foro Ecumenico Consejo Latina Americana de Iglesias (Ecumenical Forum of Churches of Latin America).  I was part of a team of about 70 Salvadoran and international observers who were invited by the forum of churches to observe the second round of the election for the office of president of El Salvador.  As of this moment, the preliminary results indicate that the FMLN candidate, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, has been elected as president.  The election results are disputed by the ARENA candidate and party.

Our team of four observers, made up of two persons from El Salvador and two from the United States, observed the voting process in three locations.  We will compile a detailed election report over the next 24 hours which will be submitted to FECLAI.  The FECLAI report is then shared with the Supreme Election Tribunal in an effort to improve the electoral process.  It is also shared with the citizens of El Salvador through the press.

As observers, we had the opportunity to take photographs of the process and of the general activities at the voting locations.  I will be posting photos from each of the locations. These photos were taken in the southern part of the country in a rural area where we observed the last 3 hours of voting and the closing and counting process...
This little girl, age 8, had learned about the election process from her father.
She was very well-spoken about the importance of voting!

During the counting process - unused ballots are counted and stamped.
The corner pieces from the cast ballots are also counted.

Each ballot is held up for scrutiny, and then given to the corresponding
party Vigilante who then counts the ballots for his/her party.




Resting as the day comes to an end

Tallying the number of voters

This little girl broke my heart...

Monday, March 3, 2014

Off the Beaten Path: The Thermals at Santa Teresa

At the conclusion of a Mission of Healing, we are always very tired.  Each year we try to dedicate one day to rest and recovery.  We call this our "tourist day" and usually we seek out a source of water.  We have found that floating in a pool or taking a boat ride or relaxing on the beach helps us to recuperate our energy after a week of absorbing our brothers' and sisters' stories, burdens and illnesses.  The Salvadoran members of the team have encouraged us in this practice.  Sometimes they join us, but often, they send us on our way so that we can enjoy the beauty of their country and can unwind together without the burden of translation.

I had heard about some hot springs from a friend, and when I asked the Salvadoran pastors about the possibility of going to some hot springs to relax, they agreed that the Termales de Santa Teresa was the place to go.  It was a pretty long drive out to Auachapan from San Salvador, and the final leg offered up some pretty extreme road construction, but once we turned into the driveway we realized the trip was definitely worth the effort.  Along the drive we could see steam rising from small lagoons and mud bubbling up along the roadside.  A dull roar could be heard every 20 seconds and we wondered if an airport were nearby -- but it was the sound of one of the big geysers venting steam.  The springs are surrounded by by a beautiful mountain landscape.

We paid our entrance fee ($10 per person) and took a quick tour of the multiple pools, bar, restaurant, changing rooms and comfy places to lay in a hammock or sit on outdoor sofas.  Some folks lathered up with mud and went right for the pools.  The series of pools which go from very hot to quite cool are perfect for relaxing and rinsing off the mud.  And that mud is really awesome for your skin!

Some of us headed out for a hike before swimming.  The hike is guided for safety, and it is included in the price of admission (though a nice tip is a good idea).  We walked through the area along the entrance road, experiencing hot spots and cool spots, bubbling water and bubbling mud.  Our guide had lived in the area for his entire life.  He said that when he was young, the biggest geyser had exploded and killed several families who lived in the area.  Some of the steam vents smelled of sulfur but overall the area smelled warm and fresh.  The guide said that the hot spring water flows down the mountain.  They built the pools where the water collected, so it is a naturally sustainable place.  We toured the coffee tree nursery and a full-blown coffee processing plant which is run by a collective of coffee growers from the sides of the surrounding mountains.  At one point on the hike we took a water break.  "Look over there," our guide said, "those mountains are Guatemala."  It was simply beautiful.

We had decided to eat a late lunch outside of the resort, on the recommendation of a Salvadoran friend.  The restaurant at the resort seemed very nice, but expensive.  The Termales de Santa Teresa does have a good web site.  It was very lovely to be there during the week when we were essentially the only ones there.  It does get a little bit more crowded on weekends and holidays, according to the guide.  With a little more business the resort could hire more people and better care for a few of the older pools and walk areas which have been somewhat neglected.  Our group said they would LOVE to return to this place every year!  I agree.  This is one of El Salvador's treasures!

Entrance to Santa Teresa
Pools which decrease in temperature as you descend

Steam geysers 
Children who live near the hot springs