Monday, December 21, 2015

My Little Donkey

We were sitting around a bunch of tables which had been shoved together to make a giant rectangle.  Pastors, lay leaders, and a little group of three young people with their pastor from El Salvador.  It was a meeting - in the Salvadoran Lutheran Church it would be called a micro-region meeting; in our city it is called a cluster meeting.  It is just a few weeks before Christmas.  We share a warm lunch of ham, herbed rice, greens, and roasted vegetables from an unusual December harvest from our church gardens.

We go around the table doing introductions.  "Say your name and the first line of your favorite Christmas song."  A few groans emerge when we suggest we sing the first lines...but once the first strain of "Silent Night" is sung, we are all in.  This is fun.

The young man from El Salvador is 15.  He is pretty shy.  It is his turn.  Without hesitation, he busts out a lively rendition of a song we do not recognize.  "Con mi burrito sabanero voy camino de Belen."  I explain to the group that this is a song about a little donkey on its way to Bethlehem.  The Salvadorans clearly love this song, the pastor starts clapping and singing along.  We continue around the circle, "Drummer Boy" in Spanish is also a favorite.  The little donkey song is shared for a second time and all four Salvadorans are singing.  I try to learn this song to remember it.

When I get home I decide to search for the little donkey song on YouTube.  Well, clearly I have missed something in my many years of travel to El Salvador because this song appears all over YouTube.  A few days ago, my husband switched our Pandora station to Navidad Latina and "Mi Burrito Sabanero" is played every fourth song!

So, if you are in need of a new earworm this Christmas, and a very cute song to teach the children in your life, check this out this Video which has both the Spanish words and English translation.

Feliz Navidad!

Thursday, November 12, 2015


From Encuentro IV - a gathering of international partners of the Salvadoran Lutheran Church in November, 2015...

The Miracle of the Loaves and the Fishes.

Most folks with a bit of biblical knowledge probably know the basic story:  5000 hungry men plus families listening to Jesus preaching and teaching.  All these people need to eat.  A boy offers up his 2 loaves of bread and his 5 fish.  Jesus tells his disciples to pass the bread and fish to everyone, and some kind of great multiplication miracle occurs.  Everyone is fed and there are 12 baskets full of leftovers.

The devotion for the day focused on this lesson.  Pastor Gloria wore a white sheet and played the part of Jesus.  Another pastor, like the boy, brought some bread.  Then as "Jesus" blessed the bread and started to share it, another person brought some snack foods, and then another brought some fruit.  The message from Pastor Gloria was simple:  We all have something to give, and when we all give something, God multiplies it into a miracle, and everyone is satisfied.

After the devotion, we moved into business.  Conversations about sustainability, financial transparency, and clear communications are challenging for every church.  Among folks with different cultural norms and different languages, the challenges in talking about church sustainability can be a little bit greater.  The Salvadoran Lutheran Church presented a long strategic plan.  At its center burned the light and hope for a church that can continue its mission of  speaking with a prophetic voice and working for justice and peace.  "I have a vision," said Pastor Vilma, "that one day my church will be self-sustaining.  We are a really poor church in a poor community, but we can do it.  We all have something to give.  We can do it."

After the meetings, our little group shared some time with our sister church pastor.  "The church is no different from a family," he said.  "The parents add up the costs for the month:  food, rent, medicine, transportation, etc. and then add up their sources of income.  Of course, the amount needed to live is much more than the amount which is coming in.  So, how does the family survive?  Arañando"  The pastor made a little wiggling motion with his fingers as he moved his hands up through the air.

Araña means spider, and the pastor's hand motions looked like the actions for "Itsy, Bitsy Spider" so I asked, "Like a spider?  Catching food like a spider?"

"Siiiiiii," said the pastor, "Arañando."   Spidering.

When a family has no more corn but the neighbor brings over some beans: spidering.  When the young person learns a new skill and starts a small little business to help the family:  spidering.  When someone needs a little medicine and a neighbor has some:  spidering.  Somehow with faith in God and the community working together, even though the costs to survive seem so much more than what can be earned, in the end there is enough, through faith and through spidering.

On a relaxing afternoon after the Encuentro had ended, we found ourselves wandering in a greenhouse on the side of a volcano.  "Look at these little spiders!" Their webs were fantastic and complex, and when opportunity struck, the spiders ran fast, worked fast and captured their food.

Maybe "spidering" isn't exactly the right translation for arañando (the dictionary translates it as "scratching"), but I think it captures the creative, dedicated and hard work that the Salvadoran families and the Salvadoran Lutheran Church do in order to survive.

Monday, October 19, 2015

The Lesson of the Bees

Just outside the door to the church, on the sheltered wall of a small portico, a small family of bees began to construct their nest - not on the stuccoed cement wall as one might expect, but on top of a poster which is securely taped to the wall.

If this happened outside of your church door or on the porch of your home, what would you do?  I probably would have spritzed the little mud daubs with a bit of vinegar (thus ruining the poster) or perhaps would have pulled the poster off of the wall to discourage the bees from building in that spot (thus ruining the poster).  After all, no one wishes to have bees buzzing about near a well-used entry way.  Right?

Daniel never considered impeding the work of the bees.  Instead, each Sunday morning before worship he snaps a few photos to capture the progress of the construction project.  As he has observed the progress, Daniel noticed something quite remarkable.

The poster on which the bees are building their home is the theme poster for the Salvadoran Lutheran Church for this year.  It depicts people coming together around a table, holding hands and overshadowed by the dove of peace.  The slogan, "Dialog leads to Reconciliation and Peace," describes the commitment of the church to work to transform hearts and communities filled with violence in to hearts and communities built on peace,  The bees chose the center of the dove's body on which to begin their work with mud and spit.  Bit by bit, their home has been growing, and as it has grown it has taken on the form of the dove's body.

"The Holy Spirit is here," says Daniel.  "The bees feel a sense of protection in this place, and so do we.  This is something mysterious.  Something like a small miracle."

We watched the bees flying to and from the nest as they did their work, building their home.  Bees were created to be bees, to pollinate, to build homes, to reproduce, to defend themselves if threatened.  These bees were respected, not feared.  For Daniel, and for the community, these bees are a sign from God, that dialog and respect for life will bring peace.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Columbus Day - Our Destiny Changed Forever

Today is Columbus Day ... in El Salvador.

Bishop Gomez concluded today's weekly devotion, and he said this:  "Gracias a Dios por este dia - el 12 de octubre, el dia de Cristobal Colon."

Thanks be to God for Columbus Day.  This statement was a little bit unexpected.  Back in the United States, Christopher Columbus has fallen out of fashion, or at least slipped off of the pedestal on which he stood back when I was a kid learning history.

"On this day," the Bishop continued, "the destiny of our country was changed...forever.  People ask, 'Why is our country so violent?'  Some say that the Indians were violent.  Some say that the Spaniards were violent.  The reality is that some people are violent.  It is an illness.  Something is wrong in the minds of people who commit terrible acts of violence.  To kill, one must be ill, and to chop up a body and dishonor another human by scattering the parts after killing - that act can only be carried out by someone who is horribly ill."

Bishop Gomez, fellow bishops and leaders of several Christian denominations in El Salvador are working together to call for dialog with the gangs.  "No to violence, yes to life!" will be the chant at a risky and historic march later this month.  Bishop Gomez - with the planning for a peace march with gang members on his mind, with the details of a grisly murder causing his heart to ache, with his own indigenous heritage filling his soul and with Columbus Day written on his calendar - pulled all of his thoughts together in a unique reflection:  Columbus Day - the day on which "the destiny of our country, our destiny was changed forever."

The Bishop pondered a moment and smiled.  He asked if people had friends or knew people who were called "China." Kids used to call him that.  He said one time someone saw his photo and saw his name, Medardo Gomez Soto and thought he was from Japan, and the person was convinced that "Soto" was misspelled and should have been "Sato."  Everyone laughed.  It's true, we all know Salvadorans who have the nickname "China" because of their Asian features.

"Thanks be to God," the Bishop continued, "for the ancestors who crossed the bridge to this continent and mixed with the indigenous groups who were already here.  Thanks be to God that we still have some connections with our indigenous peoples.  Dark skin, white skin, we are all mixed.  The Spirit of love is in us all, producing miracles."  The point:  we would not be who we are if we were not all mixed together.  We would not experience the love we have if we were not all mixed together.  God is in the mixing.

"We give thanks for October 12th, and we also feel the pain of those who were killed because they did not speak Spanish and of those who were killed because they would not convert to Christianity." We should also be mindful of the massacres of indigenous people which were carried out in the 20th century as oppressive governments sought to eliminate cultures and beliefs which they did not understand or were simply labeled as "different."

Bishop Gomez pointed out that many churches do not recognize or lift up the ancient religions of the indigenous peoples of El Salvador, but that in the Salvadoran Lutheran Church, these ancient beliefs and traditions are honored and enhance spiritual growth and the connection people have with the Creator and creation.

May God bless the mix.  May peace win over violence.  May we all be enriched with the wisdom of the ancestors as we seek to live in love and harmony in God's creation.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Accompaniment and Mountains

Grief.  Anger.  Frustration.

These are not the words we would choose to have enter our sister church relationships, yet there they are, in the midst of our US sister church meetings and conversations.

Grief, anger and frustration.  You might expect a writing about violence.  Invasions.  Gun shots.  Blood flowing across tile floors and dirt paths.  Promising lives of girls and boys and now even old men senselessly lost.  Certainly grief, anger, and frustration are rightly expressed in the current context of violence in El Salvador.

But gang violence is not the subject of today's writing.  Today I write about a beloved pastor who died.  She died.  We don't even like to say it out loud:  she died.  As a bunch of brothers and sisters from a bunch of sister churches who knew and love this pastor and her family, we do not want to accept the reality that she died.

She was a mother with three children.  She died.
She was a creative, lively, leading, successful pastor.  She died.
She seemed healthy when we last saw her.  She died.
We prayed and prayed and believed she would live.  She died.
She was in charge of a bunch of stuff we have going on.  She died.
Her husband needed her love, her income, her part in the parenting team.  She died.
We tried to help with her medical care.  She died.
We thought God would save her.  She died.

It seems unjust when a young person dies, when a mother dies, or when a person dies because the medical care may have been substandard (at least, compared to what we are accustomed to).  Our feelings of anger and frustration at this seemingly unjust death are expressed in statements like, "She wouldn't have died if she had been in the US," which, of course, we cannot know to be true.  Our sense of injustice causes us to ask questions, to try to figure out what could have been done differently or what we could have done differently.  Our sense of injustice causes us to work for change, and that generally is a good thing.  Yet, especially for those of us who live in the United States with some degree of wealth and privilege, our sense of injustice can turn us into The Great Fixers.

As sister churches, I do not believe that we are called to be The Great Fixers, especially of the Salvadoran critical care health system.  As I ponder what our call might be, I am reminded of a song:

Lord, you don't have to move that mountain, but give me the strength to climb,
And Lord, don't take away my stumbling block, but lead me all around.

How do we accompany, how do we help as we move on in life as program organizers and sister churches after the death of our friend and pastor?  It feels like our Salvadoran brothers and sisters have so many mountains, so many stumbling blocks.  The reality is we cannot fix something which is not ours to fix, we cannot move the mountains, but maybe we can hold some hands as we walk around and push and pull our way up together.  Maybe we can help.

First, I think we have to remember that all people have the right to make their own decisions about their own care and to keep their conditions private.  Think about your own self and what you share with people and when you ask for advice and from whom.  We can help by listening.  We can help by praying and literally being together and holding hands.  We can help by remembering we only have a small view of the whole.  We can help when we are asked to help.

Second, it is important to understand that the Salvadoran healthcare system's strength lies in its well-care system.  The system does not serve well for people with complex diagnoses, or who need advanced procedures. That is the reality in El Salvador. So how can we help?
  • We can help by learning more about the Salvadoran Healthcare systems, listening to providers and visiting clinics near our sister churches.
  • We can help by encouraging our friends in El Salvador to get regular check-ups and to talk OPENLY with their doctors about any concerns.  Prevention and early intervention are the keystone of their system. Doctors do not seem to ask as many questions as US doctors the patient needs to come forth with all information.
  • We can help by working with local and church leaders to make sure that every Salvadoran knows how to access the care system and knows their rights
  • We can help by working with local church leaders and local clinics to set up public/private/church connections so that when difficult situations arise and patients or doctors do not have answers, teams can come together in a timely fashion to help
  • We can help by encouraging and increasing education in every aspect.  This has increasingly been the work of the Mission of Healing Family Wellness Fair.  Education examples include:
    • Teaching people about medications and their uses.  Salvadoran pharmacies do not watch out for drug interactions - patients are wise to ask about that.  Many people stop taking medications when they "feel better" because they do not understand that chronic medications may need to be taken for life
    • Teaching families about danger signs - Salvadoran physicians consistently tell us that by the time people come into the hospital or the clinic the situation is grave and too late to save the person's life
    • Sponsoring studies for Salvadoran medical professionals to specialize in areas lacking specialists
    • Working with Salvadoran clinics or hospitals to create a colleague relationship between US professionals and Salvadoran professionals, which could include learning exchanges and perhaps create a "second opinion" network among physicians 
As sister churches, as people who are grieving, angry and frustrated by one woman's death come too soon amidst a host of violent and unjust deaths come too soon, we are searching for the right path, the helpful path of accompaniment around and over the mountains.  May God grant us strength and wisdom so that we may walk together in faith, comfort and the promise that joy will come around the other side of the mountain.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Images of Romero

Wearing Romero T-Shirts and selling bracelets
During the May 23rd beatification ceremony, we captured a few photos which illustrate the creative entrepreneurship of Salvadoran fans of Monseñor Oscar Romero.
The stylish Romero cloth bag - very popular with the clergy crowd

Romero balloon, especially fun to float over a nearby Romero statue

I am guessing Romero himself would wonder about these 

St. Romero of the Americas

Nuns looking good in Romero caps

A variety of Romero head gear

Posters large and small

Romero Umbrellas!

New definition of "holy water"?

Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Vision

I wasn't asleep.  Maybe it was the medications, I don't know.  But early in the morning I had a vision. I was lying here in my bed.  There were two angels standing just behind me, over my head.  I knew they were my guardian angels.  They were so close.  I could feel their wings just touching my shoulders.  I couldn't feel their hands, but somehow their hands were below me.  I was lifted up, like I was floating, with a white blanket, floating up out of my bed.

Pastor Norma knew that God was with her.  She shared this vision with us, knowing she would be healed, expecting to be raised up out of her bed, grateful for the comfort of God's angels.

We believed she would rise up.  We believed she would walk.  We believed she would mother her children,  accompany her husband, shepherd her congregation, and laugh with her friends.  We prayed for a miracle, and we expected one.

We do not doubt that today, as Norma's body is committed to the earth, she has experienced the prayed-for miracle.  She is healed. She has risen up out of her bed.

We wanted the guardian angels to guide Pastor Norma back into health in this world.  We wanted the vision to be a sign that the mother, wife, pastor and friend would be with us, here, now, in this time.

I believe the vision was a gift.  For Norma.  For us.

Yesterday a friend said, "God is weeping with us."  Today we weep for the loss of the mother, the wife, the pastor and the friend who will no longer walk with us for a time.   God is weeping with us.

Adios, querida Norma, hermana y amiga.  Nos vemos en los tiempos de Dios.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Más Cuentos del Abuelo - More Tales from The Grandfather

We reached the outskirts of Suchitoto and turned up the road to Cinquera.  Cinquera was our destination:  a tiny town which suffered great loss and destruction at the start of the war and which was resettled by surviving families ten years later.

"Have you ever been to Cinquera?" I asked The Grandfather.  Beautiful views of Lake Suchitlán passed by outside of our vehicle's window.  Maybe some of our delegation members took photos.  I listened to The Grandfather.

"Oh...yes," he paused, "I came up here in 1991 or '92 accompanying a group of [Salvadoran] families coming from Honduras who were re-populating their lands after seven years of exile.  They traveled from the refuge in Honduras to San Salvador, and then came to the shore of Lake Suchitlán.  We lived in this forest for 10 days because we had to transport the people to their community by boat.  We only had small wooden boats, and it took 10 days to move the people.  The most difficult part of the experience was that the children born in Honduras during the exile, some who were seven years old, did not know their own country, their own culture, their own land.  This was the time when I was doing work with the Lutheran Church."

"Is there a Lutheran Church near here?" I asked.

"No. At one time there was a hacienda near Cinquera which the Lutheran Synod was going to purchase.  It was land which the church planned to use as a resettlement area for refugees coming back from Honduras.  When I arrived at the land I saw that it was surrounded by many, many families living in little houses of cartón (cardboard).  How could we move people onto this land when it rightly belonged to the people who already lived there and who needed it more?  They were the real owners of the land, so I said we could not buy it.

"Before we could bring the people back to their land I helped to clear it.  I looked for mines.  I removed the abandoned ordinates - live and dead ones.  I coordinated with the mayor's office and the local priest.  This was the work we had to do. This was a time in which my work for the Lutheran Church touched the whole northern region, from Chaltenango to Nejapa. All this time in the work of moving the people I was accompanied by two nuns.  They said, 'Eat, Pastor, you need to eat!' but I did not eat during that time because the work was so hard and the people did not eat."
We arrived in Cinquera.  The Grandfather got out of the small bus and walked slowly along the town square.  "What change -- what a difference," he said quietly.  His eyes moved slowly from building to building, and he moved along the street as if he were moving through time.  "There was nothing here when I left.  Nothing here."

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Cuentos del Abuelo - Tales from The Grandfather

"My grandmother was a very beautiful woman.  No one could understand why she was with my grandfather.  Hehehehehe," he chuckled.  Well, these are the mysteries of love.

We were driving along the road between Aguilares and Suchitoto.  The Grandfather sat beside me as we bumped along the way.  The Grandfather's face shines as he spins his tales, remembering moments of his life as they come to mind, often repeating phrases and smiling broadly when I understand.  He talks with his hands, and sometimes gives my shoulder or arm a little whack when he wants to be sure I agree with him on the significant points of his stories.

"Grandmother was Honduran.  A tall woman with blond hair.  She traveled to the festivals in Chalatenango and there she met a short man with very dark skin.  It was unusual, a tall, beautiful woman with a short, dark man.  He was my grandfather.  They built a life together and settled over there in Suchitoto.  There are no papers, no records for the births of their children.  But they built a life and a family and had a big property.  There is a grand hill over there and they owned about one third of the land on that hill...

"La Señora was a wealthy woman.  She had what you might call a farm and she managed the hacienda and all of the workers.  All of us children learned to work on the farm.  La Señora Delfina made sure we knew where our bread came from.  In this area of Guazapa, we grew up.  A lot of this land in this area was owned by La Señora.  Well, we had our riches."

La Señora Delfina was the grandfather's mother.  He always calls her La Señora.

" are of the original fourteen families?" I gave the grandfather a little whack on the arm.

"Hahahaha, well maybe so.  The truth is that during the war, papers were lost.  There is no proof of ownership.  Many things were lost..."

"This road has many memories from the war," I said.

"Once I was riding along this road.  It was just me and a German driver.  There were military troops all around us.  We came to a place in the road which was well-flooded.  We couldn't go back, so we had to go forward.  We planed across the lake of mud, sliding and sliding and we made it to the other side.  We kept going forward to Suchitoto.  Military shooters were up on the rooftops and all around the town.  They asked us why we were in town and instructed us to turn around and go back.  We said we couldn't because of the flood.  We had to leave.  We walked for hours, carefully because the guard was all around.  Well, we survived the long walk."

Maybe this story loses a little in the typing, but imagine The Grandfather's grand gestures describing a great flood of mud on the road before us.  Picture a well-lined face looking up at remembered sharp-shooters with a finger raised as guns were raised.  Feel the little whack on the arm and hear the chuckle:  "Well, we survived the long walk."

"You should write a book," I said.

"I have thought of that," said The Grandfather.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

July 30 - A Legacy of Marching for Justice

Students worked feverishly during the final days in preparation for the march.  The wooden frame had been transformed into a paper mache military plane.  Tanks and other replica military vehicles were surrounded by students dressed in military gear.  The purpose:  giving honor to the university students who were killed in a massacre on July 30, 1975.

The students at the University of El Salvador in San Salvador retell the story which they have heard from survivors of the horrific event.  Forty years ago, university students marched to protest repressive military actions which had taken place at the national university in Santa Ana.  As the student march reached 25th Street, the military arrived with tanks and other vehicles.  Tear gas was fired into the student group, and shots were fired.  The tanks rolled over the wounded, pushing the student marchers onto an overpass where they were surrounded by military vehicles on both sides.  Students scrambled to escape, many jumping over the side of the bridge, becoming wounded from the fall.  To this day, the exact number of dead or disappeared students is unknown because the military authorities removed the bodies and cleaned the street with soap and water before allowing access to anyone.  Some say 20 or 23 students were killed.

Students from our sister church are leaders at the university.  They are proud of the work they are doing now to work for justice and bring peace to their home communities.  They are eager to share the work which they are doing and to honor the students who built a legacy of working for justice at the national university.  "Share these photos!" they said.  "Tell the story."  Here are a few of their photos from the July 30, 2015 march.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Just Look At Him Shine!

Traffic was at a standstill.  Workers could not get to their jobs.  Students could not get to their schools.  The buses were not running.  

We had a car.  We didn't really know why the traffic was so heavy because the buses along our street were actually operating.  When we got to Casa Concordia my husband dropped me off and continued on to his meetings for the day.  Pretty soon I heard the news that the buses running north of San Salvador and into the city were not running due to a strike.  Then someone heard about a couple of buses being burned and 7 or 8 drivers being killed.  Everyone was talking about the gangs.  
The story of the gang order for buses to stop transporting people in certain areas and of deadly consequences for drivers who were not complying with the gang order describes the terrible circumstances  which set the stage for another story which took place on Monday.  On a day when most people could not get to where they needed to be, one young man and his dad were determined.

Pastor Santiago was to pick me up at Concordia so that we could meet a couple of the students in the Education for Life program that we coordinate.  The students attend the national university and are very active in student leadership at the university.  Their idea was to orchestrate some kind of connection between the university and communities like theirs, which is struggling with the impact of poverty and violence.

Santiago was an hour late.  The female student had called and said she couldn't get out of the community.  The male student does not have a phone.  We decided to travel to the meeting spot at the Lutheran Clinic, in case the young man showed up.  Although no pastors were able to get to the center of San Salvador for the weekly, churchwide devotional, the young freshman and his dad had made it.  There they sat, in a clinic with no devotional, no pastors and no patients.

It had been quite an adventure for our friends.  They found one ride, then a second and then a third -- three successful hitches to get to their destination.  We talked for a while and then the three of us, Pastor Santiago, myself and the freshman headed off to the university.  Maybe we would not be able to meet with university student government and organization leaders, but at least our young friend could give us a tour and tell us about his experiences as a new freshman.

We got out of the car near the agronomy department.  "I feel so good here," the young man said.  "It's very emotional for me.  There are students here with great riches, and others who come from a humble home and a simple family like me.  Everyone is treated as equal.  There are no higher-ups in the student organizations.  Everyone has respect."  As we walked through a grove of trees, he continued.  "I have this idea to plant orange trees, and some other fruit trees.  The only fruit we have growing on campus is mango.  We could improve the environment and produce food at the same time.  Look, this is a perfect spot for orange trees."  He pointed to a dry hillside surrounding a basketball court.  "This is where our student association of architects and engineers plays basketball.  There is a lot of heat on that court.  Orange trees would provide fruit and shade."  

The freshman comes from a humble home.  He and his dad largely survive on the fruit that grows around their house.  His mom died a few years ago of tuberculosis because she could not afford to buy both food and her medication.  No one really knew how sick she was.  "One idea I have," he continued, "is to plant one tree of a different type of fruit in each person's yard.  Then, people could trade with each other to have a variety of fruits for nutrition."   This young man is an architecture major who knows a lot about trees and plants.  I think he sometimes sleeps at the university.  He talks about being under the trees at 5 o'clock in the morning.

The airplane.
The young man shows us where his classes are held, and where his student organization meets.  We connect with an older student in his 4th or 5th year and clearly he and our young man are good friends.  No discrimination when it comes to age:  the older student treated the younger as an equal.  They talked about the upcoming parade to be held on July 30th in memory of the massacre of university students which took place in 1975.  The architecture and engineering students had built a model plane which would be one of the floats in the parade.  Students would be dressed as soldiers and various pieces of military equipment would appear as floats, reminiscent of when the army surrounded and shot at unarmed students, killing 20.  The wood "bones" of the military airplane float would be fleshed out by the students in the next few days.

We eventually ended up having a meeting with a couple of student organization leaders in the engineering department.  Another meeting was set up for the next day; everyone was so enthusiastic!  Bringing students into impoverished communities to teach, to mentor kids, to do projects that fulfill the students' social service hours...the ideas kept flowing!  In the current reality, the church, with its non-partial relationship-building work in communities, could be the gateway for the university to enter into communities in order to make a positive difference.

We grabbed a bite of lunch at the university food court, and then walked our freshman friend back to his airplane.  A few more friends showed up to work.  The freshman pointed us out to his friends, and they all waved to us as we walked away, the freshman with a smile beaming from ear to ear.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Off the Beaten Path: Shaw's

One fine afternoon, my friend and I decided to check out a small coffee shop in the neighborhood where we were staying.  It seemed like there were always cars parked out front, and from our investigations walking by a few times, it looked like a nice little coffee shop.  Coffee shop:  for sure!  But beyond coffee, this place has bakery, fantastic desserts, delicious gelato, and chocolate, chocolate, chocolate!!

Folks from San Francisco, California might recognize the Shaw's name, and back in the day the chocolates were imported from San Francisco.  When the government of El Salvador passed a law regulating the importation of chocolate, the owners of the Salvadoran Shaw's had no choice but to learn how to make chocolate for themselves.  The chocolates and desserts might be described as European in style, but they are made locally at the Shaw's production kitchen.  The cacao is purchased from a Central American cooperative.

The menu at Shaw's offers breakfast, sandwiches and a variety of sweet items.  Once we discovered this place, we have especially enjoyed heading over for an afternoon coffee with dessert.  The coffee choices, which personally for me typically include chocolate, are delicious.  The atmosphere (at least at our frequented location) is relaxing and comfortable, with small cafe tables and chairs but also a couple of small sofas and a "reading room."  It is a good spot for meeting up with friends or for holding small meetings during mid-morning or afternoon when it is not crowded.  Shaw's also offers free wifi, and many of the coffee drinks come with a small piece of delicious chocolate.

Salvadorans often say that on a very hot day it is good to drink hot beverages.  I am not going to weigh on on that debate.  If you are not in the mood for an afternoon coffee, there is always gelato...

Monday, July 13, 2015

After the Ceremony

This is a continuation of the story, Beato Romero ...

We walked up the street toward San Jose de La Montaña Church, happy to have been in the throng, and happy to emerge from it.  Our mission:  to find a place to eat lunch, preferably a spot with some seating.  We made up the hill, glad to see a few sidewalk cafés opportunistically set up just beyond the church.  The delicious scent of carne asada and an empty table with a few chairs were all the encouragement we needed to hustle ourselves over to that table.  We peeked over at the grill, and the meat looked as appetizing as it smelled.  We scooted our chairs to the table to the sound of shrieks and laughter.  To our great surprise, friends from Rutilio Grande were eating lunch at the table beside us!  We jumped up and shared hugs and kisses, marveling at the coincidence.  Weeks before the Romero beatification ceremony, we had communicated with these same friends and figured it would be nearly impossible to connect with one another in the midst of the huge crowd.

We chatted with our friends, enjoyed our delicious lunch and watched as the Holy Communion distribution teams walked by.  Each team consisted of a white-robed priest carrying a white gift bag (presumably the sacrament was inside the bag), and a small team of volunteers wearing turquoise t-shirts, one of whom carried a big yellow umbrella.  Each distribution team had been pre-assigned to a designated location, and the process of bringing the sacrament to the people seemed to be taking a while.   We had seen the first teams moving out to their spots as we began our walk away from the crowd.  In fact, we passed by as an old woman held out her hands for communion, but the priest told her he was not in his spot yet so she had to wait.  That seemed a little bit wrong to us.  As we sat eating our lunch, an older priest interrupted his walk a couple of times to hand out communion to old women in aprons and some teen guys.  "He is from the older generation," the pastor who was with us said, "He gets it."   We nodded.

After lunch we decided to walk back to the center of things to see what we could see.  Barricades were still set up, but we could walk easily walk around the Salvador del Mundo monument.  The streets were littered with all kinds of trash, not surprising given the size of the crowd and overflowing garbage barrels.  Entrepreneurs carrying large bags picked water bottles and other recyclables up from the gutters and trash cans.  We ran into Bishop Gomez and his wife, and a few other familiar folks along the way.  Eventually we made our way back up the big hill via the same street we had walked hours earlier.  The vendors for the most part had packed up their Romero posters, candles and other souvenirs.  We stopped to use the portable toilets two-thirds of the way up the hill.  They were clean, which indicated to us that the crowd probably did not make it up to that point.  We stopped for ice cream and then called it a day.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Beato Romero

We woke to the sound of music in the air.  Soon a military helicopter buzzed closely overhead,  drowning out the singing.  The day had arrived:  on this day Archbishop Oscar Romero would be officially beatified by the Roman Catholic Church.  For those who receive inspiration from Romero's walk of faith, this day would serve as a celebration and recognition of the life and sacrifice of the man who is already known as Saint Romero of the Americas.

We began walking down Paseo General Escalon toward the El Salvador del Mundo plaza a few hours before the beatification mass would begin, allowing plenty of time to navigate the 3 km journey and predicated large crowds.  The road was closed to traffic.  Up ahead we could see teams assembling a big screen in the middle of the road.  It seemed a bit last-minute to be doing that work so close to start time, but given the deluge of rain that fell the night before, maybe it was wise to procrastinate.  As we descended the hill, we noticed a few hopeful, opportunistic entrepreneurs set up along the sidewalk.  Posters, t-shirts, candles...Romero would be astounded at the grand multitude of his image portrayed on everything from baseball caps to balloons.  On the light poles and street signs along the way, the city had posted welcome signs in Spanish, Italian, English a fourth language we didn't recognize.

As we got a little closer, lines of orange-shirted volunteers greeted us...every one of them greeted us!  Many had shirts that said "bilingual volunteer."  As we approached the next big screen, a little line of watchers sat on the pavement watching a documentary about Romero.  The spaces were ready for big crowds and we wondered where the big crowds were!

Nearer to the Salvador del Mundo plaza, we found crowds.  Our initial idea had been to hang out near the periphery, but once we got to the crowd, we wanted to dive into the experience.  Actually, a better description would be "sucked in."  The crowds were tight!  There is this great dynamic in a crowd of such size and density:  whenever a little hole opens up and one person starts moving, it creates a stream for others to follow.  We perfected our technique of streaming and ended up near the line of clergy who would soon process to their places near the stage.  We made a game of "can you get a shot of a cardinal?" as we caught an occasional scarlet-capped head approaching.  We were near to the water tent, the staging area for huge piles of bag water.  Upon closer inspection, we noticed each bag featured the face of Oscar Romero.

We decided to move when another stream opened up, and we wedged ourselves between a cement wall and metal gate to escape the crowd.  We headed uphill, plotting out a route to get around the crowd and maybe get to a spot facing the stage.  We had no delusions that we would get close.  We were a little group of three, so fairly mobile, and one of us (that would be the Salvadoran Lutheran pastor), sweet-talked a guy with a gun into letting us go down a closed street back into the crowd.  The determined pastor elbowed his way in, creating his own stream and pretty soon we were stuck.  Solid people.  No more moving.  We could see the stage in the distance and make out images on a couple of big screens.  We had arrived:  the complete Beatification of Archbishop Romero experience, and it was beautiful.

As mass began people sang -- really sang -- songs from the Salvadoran folk mass.  The crowd was faithful and enthusiastic.  Every now and then a stream would open up as vendors passed through calling, "Aguaaaa, Gaaay-tor."  At first thought, it might seem disrespectful to be pushing through a worshiping crowd selling water, Gatorade, fried chips and ice cream, but it was really hot out there, and there was no way to move out to get food or drink.  My husband commented that he thought Romero was probably more present right here with us, in the crowd, with the people who had to sell bottles of water for $1 so that they could feed their families for the next week.  Less so perhaps on the stage with the fancy ones.  That thought was reconfirmed when, just as the beatification pronouncement was being read in Latin from the stage, a halo formed around the sun.  "Romero esta aquí," the crowd gasped, "Romero is here."  Everyone had goosebumps.

The mass continued, and we stayed for most of it.  As Holy Communion was being organized for distribution, a small stream of people made its way to the side of the road, and eventually we made it out of the crowd.  We headed up the same street that had led us to the crowd, deciding that lunch would be our next destination...

to be continued...

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Look, Listen and Learn: Learning Lessons from Dad

The team carrying record bags and the vaccine cooler
We walked to a ridge on the side of the
volcano, where there was a welcome breeze
"It's not about the numbers, but the person."

The list of visits for the day included the names of 74 children.  Of the 891 persons living in the neighborhood, 74 were under 5 years of age, and their vaccination records needed to be checked.  In communities with health promoters, the vaccination rate is 100%.  Each family receives 8 visits per year, for vaccinations, holistic education, and water monitoring. Keeping track of water storage and disposal is critical in the fight against dengue and chikungunya.

Vaccination records are kept by the promoters in plastic-covered notebooks.  These log books are meticulously scrutinized by the clinic directors, and by the bosses of the clinic directors.  Each child or adult keeps his or her personal book of vaccination and medical records at home.  Children have green books.  Pregnant women have their own special books.  The information in the patient books is cross-checked to be sure that it matches the information in the clinic notebooks.

"It's not about the numbers, but the person."

Elias said that.  He has been a health promoter since 1982.  We walked under umbrellas to fend off the sting of the hot sun.  "Rattle, rattle, rattle," we shook the gate or "knock, knock, knock" we rapped against the metal door.  "Hi, we're here from the Unidad de Salud!  Bring your tarjeta (vaccination record," the nurse sang out.  Sometimes we were invited inside.  Sometimes, vaccination books were poked at us through holes in barbed wire fences.  "There was trash and smelly water EVERYWHERE," I recorded in my journal.

Elias talking with a young mom about hygiene
As we went from home to home, Elias poked his nose into the pilas (water storage basins) and containers, looking for mosquito larvae.  "A few little tilapia will eat those larvae right up."  Tilapia seemed to be the preferred method of pest control here, as opposed to the permethrin sachets which are also commonly used.  Every now and then, Elias would sidle up behind the nurse and female promoter to listen more closely.  "Have you had your annual pap smear?" he would occasionally interject, following up with a little speech about how important it is for women to have annual gynecological exams.  He was very comfortable in his role:  The Team Dad.

Literally, Elias is the Team Dad.  His daughter became a health promoter in 2008, and works right along side her father.  Watching the two of them working together was quite a treat.  He watched his daughter with pride sparkling in his eyes.  She nurtured the relationships which he had grown over the years.    We met families who lived in a wide set of circumstances.  Our route came to its end in a neighborhood which had a wide street and homes made of concrete block.  The morning shift of school let out, and a big group of kids ran down the road to greet us.  "Hello!"  "Good afternoon, how are you?"  Children are always eager to try out their English on a couple of native speakers.  We walked up to the school to visit an adult technical training program for aspiring beauticians.  If we return, they will want to cut and dye our hair!

Beauty School Class
Practically melting from the long walk in the sun, we decided to wait inside a little cafe for the pick-up to come and get us.  The cafe consisted of a few picnic tables under an awning outside of someone's home.  Pupusas were frying on the griddle, but it was too hot to think about eating.  We talked about the morning's visits, marveling that out of all 74 children, only one needed a vaccination in order to be up-to-date.  The conversation became a little more serious as we spoke about struggles with violence in the neighborhood.  Elias was the dad, the protector:  of course it was best to sit inside while waiting for the pick-up. Sometimes we are oblivious to the care which is being given us. The hostess brought out ice cold orange soda for our little group.  She refused payment, just delighted to give us this small gift in gratitude for our visit and for the work of the health team.

Vaccination delivered.
We returned to the clinic, and said our good-byes, and we were all just a little bit sad.  Our week working with the Unidad de Salud in Nejapa was amazing.  We learned so much in just one short week and gained incredible respect for the community-based work of healthcare professionals who bring basic care and education to the people who are most in need.  The openness of the Unidad de Salud to team up with the Salvadoran Lutheran church is a huge blessing and an opportunity to bring improved access to quality healthcare to people who live in poverty.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Look, Listen and Learn: A Little Farther Up the Volcano Road

 We hiked back up the rocky trail to the highway, back to our vehicle.  We drove a bit further up the road to our next location.  Not too far off of the highway, we found the 3-year-old girl who was the next one to be weighed and measured by the health promoter.  Before we could attend to the little one, the child’s mother and her sister began to tell us of their own health issues.  One of the young women complained of extreme stomach pain and had a leg injury.  We could tell that she was very swollen around the middle, and the dressing on the leg looked pretty scary.  Promoter Yani was very patient, listened, gave the sisters the speech about HIV and the need for yearly pelvic exams, and helped the sister with the injury to make an appointment at the hospital for the next day.  Yani looked around the large yard and identified a few plants which the family could harvest to improve their nutrition.  Overall though, there were not many fruits or vegetables in sight, though there were various herbs and greens.  The small corn field seemed to belong to someone else and maybe as the caretakers, they were allowed to keep some of the corn.

It was time to examine the little one.  The first order of business was to dump the urine out of the girl’s plastic sandals and to take off her wet panties.  Yani hung her spring scale in a tree, lifted the little girl and placed her into the sling.  She read the weight, scooped her out, gave her a hug, and set her back down to play before recording information in her medical log.  All the while, Yani spoke to the sisters, “It’s important that your daughter learn to use the latrine.  When she has an accident, you need to bathe her.  Wash her bloomers and when you hang them up to dry, be sure to hang them right-side-out so flies do not land on the inside and leave germs which can contaminate her vagina.”  Yani spoke kindly, but in a way that let the sisters know she was serious.

We shared hugs and playful moments with the little girl.  We left worrying that the sister with the swollen belly and leg injury would not keep her appointment at the hospital.

We walked to the highway and went a little further down the road to visit a family with a preschool girl and a 5-year old boy.  The boy was a little gentleman, chasing the two diligent guard dogs to a safe distance and then sitting calmly on the porch in his 5-year-old-sized chair.  His sister was afraid that she would get a shot.  This is one of Yani’s challenges – convincing children that she is more than just the “vaccination lady.”  After the children were weighed and determined to be healthy, we learned about the family kitchen.  The mom and her sister talked about the great amount of time the generations of women in the household spend cooking and telling stories in the kitchen.  Deb and I could feel the love centered within the family kitchen, and thought about how in our own homes, generations of women gather together to cook, share recipes and wash the dishes. 


 We visited a family compound which housed more than 25 people, sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters with the Grandma and Grandpa heading up the household.  Little ones were weighed and measured while older children got ready for school or watched us with shy smiles.  Moms did laundry – there was laundry hanging everywhere – all washed with collected water.  Water totes, cisterns and barrels were tucked into every corner amidst squash plants and herbs.  The system was designed to catch every bit of rainwater via a system of roofs, troughs and gutters.  The only source of water for this family, as for most of the families who live on the side of the volcano, is the rain.

We walked below a large and low trellis, home to cucumbers and lorroco, and ducked our way into a little patch of sun and into the next home.  A pink bike was parked in the sun, next to a crouched old man.  “Is he OK?” we gently asked Yani.  “He’s just cold,” she replied.  As in every home, we were treated like dignitaries.  Benches were cleared so we could sit.  The grandmother and two young mothers sat and chatted with us.  The grandfather crouched, his feet flat on the ground, his arms clasped around his knees, his head down – he did not move.  The six-year old boy turned the bicycle upside down in the yard.  He turned the pedals and checked the chain.  The babies were weighed, the mothers were counselled, the grandmother chopped onions, and I was mesmerized by the boy with the bicycle.  He went over to a white tool bucket and took out a small tool or two.  Pretty soon he had the bicycle chain off and then on again, had tightened a couple of screws and was riding in tiny circles next to the grandpa.  When it was time to leave, the grandmother presented Deb and I with two big bags full of bananas which they had grown themselves.  We graciously accepted the gift, hugged the adults, kissed the babies, congratulated the bicycle repairman on his excellent work, and bid farewell to the grandfather. 

We made one final stop in a home with another new mom and an adorable baby girl.  The home was located in a small family compound and the family had sufficient resources to purchase a few more fancy items for the baby.  A male relative who had been drinking stood outside and Yani closed the door.  Yani gets her amazing energy by being with her children.  She hugged and cuddled the last little baby girl for a good long time, resting up before heading over to Yani’s satellite office. 

Most afternoons Yani returns to her home community and has office hours in the small clinic there.  The community is just a tiny hamlet with one rocky dirt path, just barely navigable by vehicle.  The community school is just up the hill from the clinic, so as Deb and I sat on the porch, we were able to greet the school kids as the shifts change at midday (little kids go in the morning and big kids in the afternoon).  Yani snuck off behind the clinic to her house to cook us some lunch, so Deb and I poked around the clinic a bit.  We were pretty impressed with the amount of educational material she had, as well as basic medications, an exam table, scale, wall posters and the mandatory wall map of her promoter-zone.  Pretty soon Yani appeared with two plates full of fresh, scrambled eggs, beans, tortillas and crema.   We could not contain our admiration for Yani’s work nor our humble gratitude for her generosity.  She showed us her log books and the way in which she records each patient’s information.  She updates her records every afternoon and is often interrupted by people coming by for advice on a health issue, a check-up or to pick up some condoms.  Yani runs educational workshops for the community, and treats emergency cases until an ambulance arrives.  She is trusted by everyone in her care-zone and beloved in her community.  After lunch, she walked us to her own home, and gave us a tour of her garden.  Cutting bananas from her own tree, she presented us with a gift of fruit.  This is how we said good-bye.

Yani and her patients taught us about life on the side of the volcano.  They taught us about survival in remote places, dependence on family and community, and the vital place health promoters have in in the lives of families which have extremely limited access to healthcare facilities.