Saturday, October 29, 2016

Smiling, Waving, Friendly Lutherans and The Reformation

I put some thought into my outfit for the day.  Sensible black skirt, sensible black shoes, a white polo shirt with a big Luther Rose embroidered near the right shoulder, and a hand-made wooden cross hanging around my neck.  Just in case we were stopped at the entrance to the community, the clear Lutheran Church identity could be useful.

As we turned into the narrow dirt lane, with our windows rolled down, I waved.  A few people hanging out at the palm-frond-covered bus stop waved back.  A guy smiled.  "Good," we thought.  It was slow going because months of rain had washed away both sides of the road up to the paved area.  Our slow pace gave us the chance to call out "buenos días" to people standing outside their homes and the school.   It's important to let anyone controlling the streets know who you are, and to connect with friends who recognize you.  It's also just more fun to be those crazy, friendly, smiling Lutherans.
The paved area gave way to rocks.  The fine, gray soil flows away during the yearly rainy season, leaving behind a road of helter-skelter big rocks. We bumped along, turned into the open gate, and realized that although we were ten minutes late, we were just about the first to arrive.

Pastor Chemita had set up the tables and chairs in the church.  He is the coordinator for the Northern Micro-Region of the Salvadoran Lutheran Church.  Once a month, he convenes a meeting for all of the pastors and lay-leaders of the Lutheran churches in the region.  This day's theme:  The Reformation.  We stood outside the church chatting with Adelmo about the harvest.  A plague had killed all the pepper plants.  The tomato plants had mostly died too.  I asked if Adelmo's tomatoes ever got the powdery fungus disease (something my plants at home had this year).  He said that was exactly what his plants had; it kills the whole plant.  Pastor Chemita talked about the fruit trees in his community.  He knows a lot about different classes of medicine from the trees.  It is always amazing to me how much knowledge the Lutheran pastors and church-folk have about so many things!

A few more people arrived.  The others were late because the bus was super full.  Pastor Chemita said he prefers to ride in the back of a pickup truck whenever he can.  (This is an informal mode of transportation that is used in many rural communities.  A ride usually costs a dime.   "I like to talk to the people and hear about their concerns - their real concerns in their lives.  Then I can make my sermon and preach about the things that are relevant to them."

After a church van arrived with the majority of participants, we got started:  singing, praying,   and scripture reading.  The original plan was to watch a movie about the life and work of Martin Luther, in honor of The Reformation, but the woman with the movie and equipment did not show up.  So Pastor Chemita initiated Plan B.  We started by sharing our thoughts on the scripture:  Ephesians 2:19-22:

19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.

Here are a few of the comments made by those gathered...

"We are none of us strangers who live on this spinning disc surrounded by air.  We are one family.  The difference between us is the way in which we receive the grace of God."

"The important thing is we gather together and whatever we build, we center it on Christ.  Then it is big enough for all; there is room for all."

"Returned people [deported from the US], or foreigners alike, as the called church, WE are called to love them.  We are called to defend life - abundant life.  Last night I received a call to talk with the police regarding a youth who was captured.  This is our life, the pastor life, to come to the defense of those who are innocent."

We shared a review of the life and theology of Martin Luther.  Pastor Chemita asked us to think about the Reformation and what it means to be a prophetic church.  He raised up the example of the first prophet mentioned in the Bible:  Miriam.  Miriam gave a prophecy about God's power of protection for God's people.  Her song was sung in "harmony" which means that the people were in "one accord with her."  Pastor Chemita pointed out that not too many churches talk about Miriam as the first prophet, because she was a woman.  Luther preached about the priesthood of all believers - this concept that God's work is equally in all and done by all was reborn in the Reformation.  Katie Luther is an example - she was out spreading the faith while her husband was holed-up writing all the time.  The women pastors around the table chuckled at this.

At some point in the morning, we broke for our refrigerio or snack - small, pre-packaged quesadilla (a sweet dessert cake) and coffee.  We resumed our discussion about the Reformation, and people were invited to share their ideas about how we experience the Reformation today...

"God sent the Mission of Healing to El Paisnal as a prophetic mission of prevention.  The doctor at the clinic tells me that the people who used to demand medicine now ask for explanations about their problems and want to learn.  In reality, the people would have called for her to be fired had this transformation in their culture not taken place because there are not enough medications for everyone to be taking pills all the time for everything.  God sent the prophetic voice of prevention told at this mission."

"We have learned that we need to respect each person as a prophet because God is using each one of us.  This is the priesthood of all believers that Luther talked about."

"How do we know if the social works that we are doing are pleasing to God?  Luther says, 'Read the 10 Commandments.' We are working on that, studying the Catechism."

"We are not obligated to anyone, but must serve anyone.  Luther taught us to focus on loving our neighbor."

"With or without money, the Reformation continues via our faith and our confession.  The Word of God is from the beginning and will exist until the end, and we, as holy people, need to work with all of our enthusiasm and faith."

"Luther said, 'Laughter is healthy' so this is why pastors should tell funny stories at the start of their sermons."  Well, I wondered where that tradition had started.  Good job, Martin Luther.

The study concluded and Pastor Martina brought out the raffle item.  Everyone who could paid 25 cents for a number.  All of the names and numbers were written on a big piece of paper and taped up onto a door, and then little number papers were put into Adelmo's straw hat.  Numbers were drawn one by one, and with great laughter and anticipation people cheered and names were eliminated until finally the last number was drawn, and that was the winner.  My husband is very lucky at these raffles, and so walked away with a new aluminum pot and coffee mug with red hearts on it, all bundled up in clear cellophane and tied with a yellow ribbon.

Of course the final activity was to share announcements.  This is an important part of the meeting because not everyone has reliable cell service or money to pay for cell service or access to the internet.  The pastors shared information about all of the upcoming workshops and community events.  Training sessions will be held for representatives from each congregation who will learn how to use social media, web sites, and communication tools to better share and promote ministry events.  Pastors were invited to a conversation about how to better accompany victims of domestic abuse.  Church health promoters will meet next week to continue their training.  

We shared a closing prayer.  Lunch was delayed, so Pastor Abelina served up small plates of hot, boiled yucca with lime and salt.  Yum!  Quite a long while later, we were each served a plate of chicken, rice, salad and tortillas.  It was substantial and delicious.

As we left the community, we waved to the women and youth standing outside their homes and in front of the school, calling out buenas tardes along the way.  Some of the people waved back.  Some just gave us a look that seemed to say, "there go those crazy, friendly, smiling Lutherans."   

Yes, there go those crazy, friendly, smiling, waving, grace-filled, reforming, loving, serving Lutherans.  May God continue to bless the work of the Salvadoran Lutheran Church.

Friday, October 28, 2016

The Migration Table

It was a beautiful cool night, and a glorious clear morning.  The little, green parrots flocked noisily to their daytime home in a nearby tree at 5:45 am, as they do without fail every single morning.  They are incredibly loud and fun to watch at later hours in the day.

We had to leave early to navigate our way through traffic and out of the city.  We were meeting in Guazapa with the Mesa de Migración  for the northern region of Lutheran Churches.  The Migration Table was formed by the church to better care for families impacted by migration due to violence. The participants in the Mesa are pastors, healthcare workers, police representatives and local government officials.

The meeting began with a review of cases by municipality.  The "cases" consist of internally displaced families and "returned" people - that is, people who were deported from the US or caught and returned while journeying north.  The Mesa keeps track of the cases so they can be recorded and so that the church can accompany the families.  The focus of the Mesa is prevention - working with communities in programs to prevent violence and working with families who have no option but to migrate to find safety as close to home as possible.  The focus of the Mesa is advocacy - working with the police and local authorities to create safe spaces and communities and fighting for justice with families who suffer threats or violence at the hands of gang members or corrupt police officers or military personnel.  The focus of the Mesa is accompaniment - visiting families, listening to their stories, providing them with emergency food or shelter as needed, and working with them to find safe places to live.  In each municipality, the church is taking the lead in accompanying migrant families.

The cases:

  • One municipality is following 10 cases.  As the pastor began to explain the cases, it became clear that this municipality is receiving migrants.  This was unexpected - the opposite of what we usually hear regarding migration.  A healthcare worker from the local clinic described one family:  a woman with children ages 9, 6, 4 and 10 months.  They had escaped a violent situation.  The focus is to get the children registered for school.  The clinic had worked to get the children vaccinated.  
  • A mom with four kids has been moving from place to place in her municipality, staying with different family members.  They thought they could move home after a year and now that it is calmer, but it is still too dangerous.  They are planning to go to the US.
  • A young mom lives in a "hot zone."  She had to leave with her 1 year old baby.  Where are her other kids?  No one is sure.  Maybe with a relative.
  • A family with a long history of gang threats and violence escaped.  With a little help they rented an abandoned house in a nearby town.  Over time, when things were very desperate, strangers came together and helped them.  They used an old church banner for a tarp to cover a broken roof.  Then someone donated metal.  Through the Mesa they received a small loan to open a little perfume shop.  They are living with dignity.  Last Sunday they came to church.  The grandmother always tries to come.  She was threatened.  The pastor said, "Sometimes people with vengeful hearts use the cover of gang violence to make threats against other families."
The pastors continued reviewing all of their cases, and then moved on to upcoming events and strategies.  A variety of events have been scheduled to strengthen local migration committees which are being formed in each municipality.  The idea is that these committees can keep track of their local cases and coordinate local events.  The idea is to build strong communities in which the church, the police, the social agencies, the schools and the health clinics are working together to prevent violence, to reduce migration, to accompany families who must migrate and to channel regional and national resources into the community as needed.  

At one point there was a very lengthy discussion about the ways in which meetings and events are announced.  Apparently phone calls are good, but lots of people don't answer and as one pastor said, "I don't have any saldo (money on her phone) so I didn't call anyone."  Apparently emails are good, but lots of people get tons of email so they don't read them.  Apparently letters are best - not mailed but hand-delivered.  Yes, somehow in El Salvador, communication eventually comes down to letters with signatures and seals, hand-delivered to offices where either you wait or you sign something that says you left a letter.  

The meeting of the Mesa de Migración ended.  We drove to a particular municipality to hand-deliver some letters for an upcoming event.  When we walked in to the local health clinic, one of the doctors did her Moses impression of parting the crowd and called out, "Here come the Lutherans!"  Yup, we Lutherans are pretty well known in these parts.

By the time I was delivered home, the little green parrots were starting to get restless.  At 5:00 pm they start migrating away from their daytime roost to wherever it is they go to find safety for the night. 

Monday, October 10, 2016

Off the Beaten Path: Climbing up the Mountain with Super Abuela (Part 2)

Shall we continue up the mountain?

Yes, everyone including the grandmother said yes.

We climbed up and up to the Cocina Vietnamita (the little Vietnam kitchen) - an ingenious design of a kitchen built into the hillside, complete with tunnels lined with clay roof tiles that vented the smoke a long distance away from the cooking site.  This was done so that air reconnaissance could not detect the exact locations of the guerrilla cooking fires.

We continued our climb up to the former FMLN camp.  For a while, the teen boys carried my backpack and the other grandmother's purse.  Eventually they grabbed Super-Grandma under her arms and carried her up the steep, rocky grade so that her feet hovered just above the ground.  This was a very sweet act of kindness by the boys, and not a word was spoken as they scooped her up to fly.  We finally made it to a camp which is named after some kind of snake.  (I did not understand what the guide said as the name of the snake.)  Here the guide shared a story:   Two female guerrilla fighters had made their sleeping spot near to the entrance of the camp.  Huddled under their tarp they heard "hiss, hiss."

"Oh, it's just the boys harassing us," they thought.  They continued to read with a small light under their tarp.

"Hiss, hiss," they heard a second time.  And then a third time!  They jumped up and saw the snake!  This same thing happened to two other women fighters in the camp.  No one knows why it only happened to the females, but the smart women realized that they should cut off the snake's head and save the venom sacks to make anti-venom.  Thus, this place is known as the snake camp.

The guide told us how the medics did surgery on flat bamboo slats that were lined up on a wooden frame.  The slats could be changed between patients to maintain a clean area.  The sterile table was close by, and a metal wire attached to a tree branch held the IV bag.  The field doctors did everything from stitches to amputations, and when it rained, the patient was protected by a tarp which was placed over the tree branch.  The surgical assistant held a small burning stick just above the place on the patient's body where the doctor was working so that no light could be seen by nearby soldiers.

The sense of home was strong in this place.  We could feel the presence of young men and women who found their way here for healing and rest.  We could barely imagine receiving or giving medical treatment as the guide described.
The revolutionaries who fought here, camped here, and survived here want to keep their strong sense of community and their unyielding fight for the human rights of oppressed and marginalized people alive.  I think that the work to preserve and grow this forest carries within it this desire of the community, to be alive again as a community knit together, to preserve the  deeply rooted values of the rebellion, and to grow together into a new and healthy life in this new time.

From the camp, we continued our journey upward.  Our chests were burning from the climb, but we made it all the way up to the look-out.  After climbing the final fight of stairs, we took in the amazing view, and then collapsed on the wooden platform to catch our collective breath. In this beautiful resting place, the super grandmother received her new name.  At age 67, she became La Abuela Mágica (The Magic Grandmother).  There is a famous Salvadoran soccer star who is known as El Mágico - so when the boys among us gave the grandmother the title "Mágica," it was quite a big compliment.

In all her humility, the Abuela Mágica looked at me and said, "No, the magic grandmothers."

We eventually mustered up the energy to make the climb back down the stairs, and down the mountain.  In no time at all we were back at the swimming hole where we found the rest of our delegation.  We had walked for 3 hours, and during the journey the grandmothers had become magic, though I think La Abuela Mágica has been magic for a long, long time.

On our walk back to the micro-bus, the Abuela Mágica laid down her walking stick - a straight branch which she had acquired in the forest.  She thanked her stick for accompanying her on her journey through the forest of Cinquera.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Off the Beaten Path: Climbing Up the Mountain with a Super Grandmother

On October 4, 2012, I wrote a story about a Grandmother.  After a little hiatus away from blogging (with my own grandchildren), today I realized it is October 4th once again.  In memory of the grandmothers who have gone before us and in honor of all of the super-grandmas who climb mountains, crawl around on the floor, bake yummy treats, tell inspirational stories and give fabulous hugs, I am writing today's blog story.  ¡¡Que viva las super abuelas!!

We wandered around the small town of Cinquera, then hopped into our micro-bus and, following the instructions from the town-folk, drove a little ways down the road to the roundabout with the giant ceiba tree.  With more than a little bit of skepticism, we hiked up a gravel and dirt road, hoping eventually to find a small rain forest in which we could do a little hiking and swimming.  We arrived at the Cinquera Ecological Park and were warmly greeted by our guide, Raquel.  The park has not been given any status or protection by the national government, but has been preserved by local citizens and scientists.

We were reminded that the people of Cinquera evacuated in 1980, leaving everything behind, including farm fields of corn, beans and vegetables which were cultivated to feed local families.  Throughout the war, the FMLN forces were strong in this region, and the fighting was intense.  The town was destroyed by bombs, and without cultivation, the fields were quickly overtaken by the natural forest.  The forest provided cover and resources for the guerrilla forces.  (Raquel pointed out that the engine from a downed helicopter on display in the Cinquera museum was evidence that the FMLN forces successfully fought against the military here.)

Today, the people of Cinquera, all of whom lost loved ones during the war, say that the only good thing to have come from the conflict is this forest.   Botanists from the botanical garden in San Salvador assist the locals in identifying the trees of this forest.  Each tree is counted and named, and a few very rare trees have been identified.  Trees known in Nicaragua and Guatemala (but no where else in El Salvador) have been found in this forest, their seeds brought in by bats and birds which migrate exclusively to this place.

We walked to the swimming hole - a beautiful spring-fed pool accessible by a swinging bridge and a few rock-to-rock jumps over a stream.  A couple of people stayed to swim, and the rest of us followed the guide uphill about 20 minutes to the "blue pools."  These pools, made from natural rock and mortar (created with egg white) more than 150 years ago were used to process indigo into blue dye.  Our guide said, "Before the war, poor people wore white and wealthy people wore blue." (There are good examples of traditional clothing at the Museum of Word and Image in San Salvador.) The dye was created by fermenting the indigo plant in the first pool.  Rainwater collected in the pool via a gravity system.  Once fermented, the plant liquid was moved into the next pool by unplugging holes that exist between the two pools.  People then climbed into the pool and stomped on the fermented plants.  This process was repeated in a third pool.  The indigo was ready when it could be formed into a ball in one's hand.  The workers pressed the indigo into little cakes which were shipped throughout El Salvador and across the globe.

After the tutorial on indigo, our guide offered to take us up the mountain.  The less able among us walked back down to the swimming hole, and the braver ones decided to climb despite the heat and humidity.  We followed Raquel up a steep and narrow trail - the route to an old FMLN camp site.  Our first stop was a bunker near a large tree.  We paused here to catch our breath, drink water, and learn about the strategic shape and location of the bunker.  It was designed to hold 2 guerrilla fighters whose job it was to protect small bands of troops as they made their way back to camp with provisions and medicines.  The angle of the bunker drew fire away from the path.

The big tree was planted about 76 years ago.  There are only two trees of this type in the entire forest.  It began its life as a sprout on top of the oven of the Escobar family business.  The oven was used to cook crushed rocks and create a powdered, white paint that was used to paint houses and road markers.  When the sapling appeared someone in the business said, "Let's plant this tree here and it will serve a purpose some day."  During the war, this great tree saved many lives.  It's wide trunk protected guerrilla soldiers.  The trunk is marked with many bullet holes.

Not long ago, a nearby neighborhood petitioned the caretakers of the forest for permission to insert a pipe into a spring in order to bring water to the neighborhood.  Permission was granted, as long as no trees were harmed.  As digging occurred to lay the pipe, workers unearthed an olive green shirt, then a pair of short boots, and then a green bag like that which every guerrilla fighter carried.  Inside the bag were a change of clothes, a carpeta (small blanket), a rolled up hammock and a metal tin of toasted corn mixed with sugar.  If a fighter were without food, one spoonful of the corn and sugar would be used to "kill the hunger."  Nearby to the bag, the workers discovered human bones.  In this place, beside the bunker and near the big tree, an informal burial had been held for a fallen comrade.  "Sadly," Raquel reflected, "the trees of the forest are fertilized by the blood of those who fell here - guerrillas and military alike."  We sat on some benches and felt the presence of those who had lost their lives here, and those who had survived.  People of the corn.  People of the trees.

This was a serious moment, for those from the US walking in the legacy government-funded planes and bombs, for the Salvadoran youth and young adults walking with no war memories of their own but in the shadows of their parent soldiers or guerrillas or refugees, and for the grandmother walking in her story.  We sat for a while, before continuing our climb up the mountain...

the story of the climb up the mountain continues...