Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Off the Beaten Path: Warm Welcome in El Paisnal

It was a quiet February morning in El Paisnal.  We had stopped by the new health clinic on the outskirts of town to greet a few friends.  The clinic sits directly across from the town cemetery (which upon retrospect is a bit humorous and disconcerting).  Sometimes the beauty of an archway, colors, shade and sun, and a random dog cat the photographers eye.  We snapped a few photos and then decided to "be tourists" in a town which we thought we already knew quite well.

Seasoned veteran pilgrims and newbies alike, on journeys of faith and history, frequently visit El Paisnal.  The town located just west of Aguilares holds the legacy and the remains of Father Rutilio Grande, who friends have told me was "the best priest they ever knew."  Father Rutilio was murdered along with an old man and a little boy as they traveled on the road between El Paisnal and Aguilares.  This horrific event brought the violent oppression and actions of military death squads more fully into public consciousness just prior to the "official" beginning of the Salvadoran Civil War, and brought forth a recognition in Archbishop Oscar Romero of his calling as a bishop for a suffering people.  A small monument stands by the side of the road, and the three bodies are interred in the floor of St. Joseph's Catholic Church in El Paisnal.

So we wandered the familiar streets.  Children were in school.  People were working.  It was peaceful and wonderfully surprising!  New public gathering spaces invited us to sit, rest and take in the symbolism in brightly painted murals.  A new sports complex with very fancy artificial turf on the soccer field has covered bleachers and more murals.  Near the soccer field, a tourist kiosk explains the history of the town, the story of Father Rutilio Grande and the places of interest.  As we paused to take photos of a new statue featuring Monseñor Romero and Father Rutilio (placed at a prominent point near the entrance to the center of town), a young man walked up to us and asked us where we were from.  He is the director of a local foundation which is working to preserve the history of Father Rutilio's life.  He and the local mayor's office are working to prepare the town for a hoped-for celebration:  the beatification of Rutilio Grande and the sanctification of Monseñor Romero.

Can you imagine what that event could bring to the small town of El Paisnal?  For example, perhaps, a visit from Pope Francis.  Yes, this is the hope.  One grand celebration for two beloved, charismatic men of God, role models of faith.  Whether you identify with the Roman Catholic tradition, the Lutheran tradition or any Christian faith community, the life and witness of Father Rutilio and Monseñor Romero are profoundly inspiring and people of many faiths and nations could potentially descend upon this tiny town.

We were invited into the mayor's office, where we were warmly welcomed and treated to sweet coffee and a rest in the air conditioning.  Various people met with us, sharing promotional materials, posters, and information about the movement to record Father Rutilio's life story.  Imagine our surprise when we were greeted by a young woman - a friend, who had graduated from the university with help from a scholarship program (our ELCA Synod is a companion with a local Catholic resettlement community named "Rutilio Grande" and has supported education in that community since shortly after the Peace Accords were signed).  This young woman works in the mayor's office, and proudly shared a little bit about a new program of tourist guides who were being trained to assist visitors in the town.

We were impressed.  Seriously impressed.  This small town is getting ready for something big.  The strong yet humble sharing of community pride and the unbounded gestures of hospitality made our visit one of the best visits we have experienced in any place at any time.

Fast forward six months.  In August, my husband, a friend and I decided to drive up to El Paisnal to go to their corn fest.  We noticed a promotion of the festival on the Facebook page of our synod's companion community, Rutilio Grande.  We hunted down a parking spot and arrived in the center of town at the same time as the marching band.  A food court and small booths with local products ringed the streets around the mayor's office building.  Walking around amid all of it were young people wearing bright blue shirts with white lettering on the back which said "tourist guide."  We noticed a young woman in super tall spiked black heels walking tentatively on the cobblestones.  She wore a crown, carried a scepter and the words on her white satin sash read, "Queen of Tourism."  Looking down at my sport skirt and hiking sandals, I thought maybe the black heels did not exactly represent what most tourists have on their feet.

We were invited by a gentleman to go into the mayor's offices, where "there are really nice bathrooms."  We did not really need bathrooms at the time, but could not turn down the lovely gesture.  We were ushered upstairs to a big open room where we could rest, use the facilities and marvel at the display case of awards earned by community government offices and citizens of El Paisnal.  In a few minutes a young man came up and introduced himself - the same man whom I had seen in February!  He remembered me too and shared a quick summary of his work with my husband and friend.

We went back outside and looking for chairs under the canopy were suddenly greeted by the President of Community Rutilio Grande.  He found us some chairs.  We watched local dance groups, heard a history of the town and marveled at the candidates for the Corn Queen.  Two little girls came up to us carrying ears of corn and Styrofoam cups filled with warm atol de elote (corn milk).  They said, "These are for you from Community Rutilio Grande."

We nibbled the corn and sipped the atol and snapped pictures of each of the candidates as she modeled her dress, shoes and accessories - all adorned with multi-colored corn grains, corn leaves, corn flowers, corn silk ... anything from the corn plant.  While the judges pondered their selection for queen, we wandered around the new parks, taking in the beautiful murals and marveling at the bright blue sky.  A little while later the queen was chosen, and she will represent El Paisnal as the Queen of the Corn for the next year.

We ate lunch in the food court, enjoying grilled chicken, beef, rice and beans, chirmol and a cold soda.  We took a walk around a couple of blocks, passing by the local school and admiring people's gardens.  The vendors were packing up their wares, and we headed back to the car, having had a fun, relaxing, educational, beautiful day.
Marching band at the Corn Festival

St. Joseph's Catholic Church adorned for the Corn Festival

Statue in the courtyard of the church, Father Rutilio

Awards in the mayor's office

A place to relax and use the facilities

One of the new murals and park spaces, featuring
Monseñor Romero and Father Rutilio Grande

Love this colorful corn

The new statue of Oscar Romero and Rutilio Grande

Sports complex

Murals near the sports complex

Candidate for Corn Queen from our companion community

You never know what images will end up being
juxtaposed with one another

The food court - and a new word "Paisnaleña" - a person from El Paisnal

The new queen is crowned - she is 7 years old!

Thursday, August 18, 2016

La Rifa (The Raffle)

The raffle is a steadfast part of Salvadoran Lutheran Church culture.  For 10 cents each, people can purchase their tiny little numbers, written in ink on tiny little squares of paper (each folded in fourths so the number is not visible - resulting in a final little-folded-number-paper that is typically about the size of a pea).

The prize is almost always a basket of some kind, filled with thematic goodies and all wrapped up in cellophane with a big bow.  I have seen people win small plastic laundry tubs with Rinso detergent, towels,  homemade quesadilla (cheesecake), fruit, shampoo,  baby-themed stuff, Valentine bears and more.  The most interesting prize baskets are made when people donate items to put into the baskets.  These pot-luck baskets contain anything from kitchen glasses to little stuffed animals to embroidered cloths.

What's so great about a raffle?  It's fun!  Everyone likes to have a chance to win something.  In addition, the raffle is a practical funding mechanism for all kinds of ministries: from Sunday School to Christmas gifts for church kids to snacks for a meeting to new covers for the altar.  I was recently at an raffle where tickets cost $1 each, and the prize was a new stove!  This raffle was held to raise money for a church construction project.

When it's time for la rifa everyone reaches into pockets and purses to find their little pea-sized numbers.  Someone serves as an MC.  The drawing of the numbers is done with dramatic flair, usually with an honored guest, or a beloved grandma or a child as the "chooser."  With eyes closed the chooser selects a number and the MC calls out the number and says "NO!"  Suspense makes it all the more fun.  It is very typical for several numbers to be called as "NOT the winners" before the MC declares "the next number called will be the winner!"

My husband once won the raffle at the graduation ceremony at the Sewing School in our sister church community.  All those anxious ladies waiting to win, and there he was holding a basket of practical kitchen and laundry stuff wrapped up with a big bow.  Winning with dignity, and re-gifting later is an acceptable option.

The reason I am writing about La Rifa is because we recently held a raffle at the Family Circle Program in our sister church community.  It was seriously the most fun we have ever had at a raffle.  Here's how it came about...

Churches in the US are very generous and like to collect and give things to families in El Salvador.  Generally, as someone who mentors and accompanies sister churches and delegations, I encourage people to buy things in El Salvador (such as school supplies, food for nutrition programs, basic medications for first aid kits, etc.) which supports the Salvadoran economy and provides people with products that are appropriate and useful.  That said, gathering, packing and donating gifts from the US can be a good and helpful experience too.  It can be a first step for a family to "get connected" with the relationship their church has in El Salvador.  Things we  typically collect and carry to El Salvador include art supplies, games (like checkers and chess), toothbrushes, non-consumable first aid supplies and sewing items - especially fabric.

Our sister church community has a long history of teaching sewing and encouraging people to sew in order to support themselves.  The fabric we bring is donated by quilting groups from a couple of US churches.  It is fabric which is not suitable for making Lutheran World Relief quilts because of its pattern or texture.  This means we get lots of sparkly, fun fabrics - perfect for sewing children's and women's clothing.  We also receive fabric from families of grandmas who can no longer sew.

Sometimes it is very difficult to figure out how to distribute gifts to a Salvadoran sister church in an equitable fashion.   Rather than leaving a suitcase full of fabric at the church, we recently asked our partners if it would be OK to have a fabric raffle.  We divided the fabric into little bundles, each bundle tied with a pretty ribbon.  There were enough bundles so that everyone could win.  We made two sets of tiny paper numbers, keeping one set to draw from and folding the second set into pea-sized squares.  We placed the "peas" into a plastic bucket and passed it around until every adult had a number.  As we called out the random number selections, each winner came forward to select his or her fabric bundle.  Yes, HIS or her bundle.  This was a raffle at the Family Circles program, in which children from age 0 to 5 participate with a grown-up.  There are some awesome dads and grandpas that bring their little ones, and these men were actually more excited about the fabric than the women!

Each parent, grandparent, teacher and honored guest received fabric, and it was super fun to hear the winners discussing their ideas for skirts, preschool outfits, curtains, and bedclothes.  One dad came up to me at dismissal time and said, "This is very practical, thanks so much!"

In the bottom of the suitcase of fabrics, we had a mattress bag full of donated random sewing stuff.  Yesterday, I assembled 25 quart bags of notions and sewing needles - secret prizes for a future gathering or celebration during which we might just have a raffle.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

A Wellness Issue and How YOU Can Help

"My grandma told me not to eat watermelon when I have my period.  Is that right?"

How do girls learn about their bodies and their natural reproductive processes?  What do girls do when the advice they receive from their mothers or their grandmothers is confusing to them?  How do girls acquire the supplies they need when they do not have money or live far away from the nearest store?  How can girls and young women continue their education, go to work, play sports or simply leave their homes if they do not have the supplies they need during each monthly period?

If you are a guy, and you are thinking this story is not for you, you are wrong.  You exist because your mom grew you in her uterus.  Even if you don't have sisters, a wife, a girlfriend, daughters,  female friends, female co-workers, or female clients, you do have a mom.  Keep reading.

During the Mission of Healing Family Wellness Fair (see this and this) which is put on annually by the Salvadoran Lutheran Church (SLC) and the Greater Milwaukee Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), participants attend charlas (interactive teaching discussions) about health and wellness.  For many years, there has been a strong presence from the SLC HIV-Aids Education Team which has given charlas about sexually transmitted illnesses, pregnancy prevention and sexual abuse.  Yet during our last fair, we realized during the Nutrition Charla that many girls and young women have lots of questions about their periods, including what foods are OK to eat.  After doing a little research, the planning team for the fair identified a need for a charla centered around female reproductive health and specifically addressing the myths and facts about menstruation.

Step 1:  Using the word "menstruation."  When I met with Pastora Conchi, the coordinator for health ministries for the SLC, she congratulated me on using that word.  She said that most people feel it is taboo to say "menstruation" - even in a doctor's office.  In the charla we will use plain language and help girls to recognize that they should not be ashamed of having periods.

Step 2:  Supplies.  When we talked to girls and moms and dads, we learned more about the struggle families have to supply females with hygiene products.  Girls and women in El Salvador (and many other countries) prefer to use pads.  To conserve funds, they don't change them until absolutely necessary.  Girls without resources use rags or paper or leaves.  Girls without resources are stuck at home or in the farm fields.  As part of the charla, we will give out washable, fabric hygiene kits.

Step 2.5:  We need help!  We have set a goal of making 2000 kits by January 15, 2017.  We are using the Days for Girls patterns and educational material.  Our hope is that women and men who have some sewing skills can donate the materials and make the kits.  In the Greater Milwaukee Synod, women's ministry groups are getting started on this project, but we recognize that the more people who are involved, the better!  The reality is that we can give away as many kits as we can make!  We believe this is a good, ongoing project which can help girls throughout El Salvador.

Step 3:  Good News.  Small women's groups in the SLC will gather to make a quantity of draw-string bags to hold the contents of the kits.  They will make the bags from scrap materials or donated materials.  So, if you or your group can provide the inner contents, Salvadoran women can provide the bags.  We will be working toward creating complete kits in El Salvador, either for women to use themselves or to donate to other women who need them.

If you go to the Days for Girls web site, there are links to the patterns (which you download) and educational materials in Spanish, as well as an instruction sheet on how to care for the kit (one sheet goes into each kit).

If you wish to make one kit, or many, simply ship them to
Greater Milwaukee Synod
1212 S Layton Blvd
Milwaukee, WI  53215

And as for eating watermelon, while medically there does not seem to be a reason not to eat it, the women in El Salvador say it causes cramps and heavier flow.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Notebooks full of Sermons - Happy 30th Anniversary to the Office of the Bishop of the Salvadoran Lutheran Church

Bishop Medardo Gómez of the Salvadoran Lutheran Church is a great preacher.  Even before I could understand Spanish, I could tell that he was a great preacher.  Over the years, his teachings about the sacraments, about Mayan traditions, about the role of women in the church and about caring for those most in need have greatly impacted my spiritual journey.  Yesterday, at the National Assembly of the Women of the Salvadoran Lutheran Church, Bishop Gómez referred to God as a woman and as our mother throughout his prayer.  He said he hoped no one had been offended by that reference and described an incident in the past in which a man led his family out of the church after the Bishop had prayed in this way.  Bishop Gómez said, "Of course, God is our father.  But the love God has for us is that of a mother.  We know nothing stronger than the love of a mother, and God loves us like that."  I cannot speak for fathers, but as a mom and a grandma, I can say that my love for my children and grandchildren is fierce, and to imagine the love of God being bigger than that ... yes!

When Bishop Gómez preaches, I take notes.  Many of my journal pages are filled with transcriptions of sermons given by Bishop Gómez, with no doubt a varying degree of accuracy given my ever-evolving comprehension of Salvadoran language and culture.  I imagine that the journal pages of many pilgrims in El Salvador may be filled with the inspirational words of Bishop Medardo Gómez.

I have a recent journal by my side today, and in honor of the 30th anniversary of the office of the Bishop of the Salvadoran Lutheran Church which will be celebrated on August 6, 2016, I would like to share a few notes from a sermon preached by Bishop Gómez earlier this year.  These are my notes, which reflect my understanding of what the Bishop preached on this particular Sunday...

Based on Luke 5:1-11 - The story of the great catch of fish

The Sea of Galilee - Jesus arrived at sunrise with his objective, his plan.  The fishermen had abandoned their boats because they had worked all night but had not caught any fish.  They were good workers; they knew their trade; they knew how to catch fish. They felt unsuccessful, like failures.  

We feel this way - unsuccessful, like failures.  The call of God in this story for fishermen means for us that God calls all sons and daughters.  Women who are domestics or doctors in their work, lawyers, engineers, farmers - whatever our trade or work, Jesus comes and calls us to realize the miracle of life.  We are here to realize this miracle of life, to realize the miracle of the multitude of fish.  (In Spanish, this word "realize" can mean to both "experience" and to "make real.")

The fishers were distressed, and that is when they received God's call.  I give testimony to my feeling of failing when I was filled with fear of persecution.  It was terrible.  Yet when we call upon Jesus we can feel he is coming.  For those who suffer in the name of Jesus, who suffer greatly because of lies and persecution, God raises our enthusiasm.  

With God with us we are not a fractured community.  This is part of the miracle of the fish:  we can call others to God.  We are not about winning people for the Lutheran Church, but for God.  

Boys and girls, and youth need calling.  We have girls as young as age 12 who become pregnant.  This is an example of how we are not caring for our children.  We are placing them in the midst of violence.  This is not God's will.  God's will is that we call the children.  Jesus tells us where the fishing is better.  We only need to try it and God will make a miracle of fish, how great it will be if we fish in the name of Jesus!  Failure, fear and terror:  in the name of Jesus this changes to hope and safety.    

There are many families who live in fear.  Before now they never prayed, but now they pray.  Some communities are totally desperate and out of fear people leave.  In the name of Jesus, each of us personally and all of us as a country can change things - we long for the miracle to break the fear, break the sadness, break the feeling of failure.

God gives us the spirit of life.  God helps us to survive until the last moment of life.  Jesus came so we could receive the force of life, the sacraments, and the call to fish and share the love of God so the Christian values of justice, peace, hope and faith and the big work of love can be shared with others, May we all be great fishers!

Finally remember:  work and pray.  We all have our little works to do.  We are all called to be priests because we all have little milpas (small fields) to plant and fish to catch.  Work and pray.