Friday, September 22, 2017

Lunch Time Banter and Safety Tips

I love lunch hour in El Salvador.  Yes, lunch HOUR.

A group of us often gather in the conference room where the lunches are as varied as are the stories shared.  A couple of weeks ago we welcomed a new missionary to the office.  She had a little bit of an encounter on a bus earlier in the week, and so we started talking about the ways in which we navigate getting from place to place safely.  Here are a few gold nuggets from the conversation...

On the theme of the wisdom of carrying a bit of money in your pocket:
     One time I was on the bus, and a gang member got on and said, "Everyone has to pay $1.  We don't want to rob anyone so you are all in this together.  Everyone $1."  
     So we all got out our dollars.  This is why it's important to carry a little money in your pocket. You never want to have to dig around for a dollar if you need it.  The older lady next to me pulls out a 5 dollar bill.  I don't know if she didn't have a one or what.  So there were 2 collectors and their boss was watching from behind.  The collector came and took the $5 and didn't say a word.  The boss watched and waited and then said, "Hey (bad name), you give that grandma her change.  We said $1 each person and that means $1." 
     I have to confess that I had bought something earlier for a quarter, so I only had 75 cents in my pocket.  I had given the collector my coins and looked at him pleadingly and he took it.  When the boss was saying $1 means $1 I was sweating in my seat.  But nothing happened.

On the wisdom of separating your money into different locations:
     There was this time when I went to the bank to cash my pay check.  I put half the money in one secret spot and the other half in another spot in my backpack.  I started walking home.  For some reason I forgot to put money in my pocket.  Of course the one time I forgot to put money in my pocket this gang member confronted me and asked what I had in my bag.  I told him I didn't have anything but my work papers.  He wanted my backpack.  As I swung it around I unzipped a pocket and half my money was in there.  He grabbed the money and dropped my backpack.  I picked it up and was relieved to have at least half of my money.  
   There must have been a lady behind me carrying two big shopping bags.  I didn't actually see her because I was really trying to attend to the guy who was in front of me.  When that guy was gone I looked behind me.  There were the two big bags.  I looked around but didn't see anyone.  So I took the bags, one in each hand, and sat down on that little concrete wall by the shopping center.  I waited about 10 minutes but no one came for the bags.  So, I walked home with them.  My wife probably thought, "Oh, he went shopping and bought something great."  Well, in one bag was an iron, still in the box and with the receipt.  And in the other bag was a nice fan.  I put that fan up by my desk at home and it works great.  I guess God felt sorry for me so I ended up with the 2 big bags instead of my whole paycheck.

On the technique for walking down the street:
     I choose my clothes wisely if I am walking to work:  black skirt, sensible shoes, sometimes an embroidered blouse, and always a big cross.  "Buenos días," I say to each person I encounter and to every worker at the pupusa stands, the car repair shops, and pharmacies.  It's good to have friends who watch out for me along the route.  Most of them think I am a pastor, or even a nun, and that is just fine.  I can do this because I am older.  For younger women, the rule is no talking, no smiling, and just walk fast with determination.
   I have a burn phone - just a cheap flip phone that does not actually work.  I carry that in my hand, and my good phone is stashed in my bag.  I keep $5 in a pocket, just in case.  If I have to carry anything of value, I put it into an old plastic grocery bag with some older, slightly grubby folders.  Sometimes I put it under my lunch.

We had a little debate about how much money is needed in one's pocket.  Apparently lots of times, $1 is enough to buy off an assailant.  I will still go with $5.

Just about everybody has hidden a phone or money in a bag of fruit or tomatoes.  Well, except for the $5.  Or the $1.

I just worry that one time the pandillero (gang member) will be hungry and there my money will go, along with my fruit.

Off the Beaten Path: Museo de Ferrocarril

One of the core values we hold dear in our sister church relationship is the practice of doing tourist activities in El Salvador together.   Visiting historic sites, parks, natural wonders and museums gives us the chance to learn about El Salvador together.  It's true that wherever we live, we often have neither the time, the interest nor the resources we need to "be tourists" in our own backyards, and often visitors in El Salvador have been to many more places in the country than their Salvadoran friends have.

In our sistering situation, taking excursions together is especially important because our community is divided by boundaries.  Sections are controlled by different gang groups, and families are not able to cross boundaries from one sector to another.  It is very difficult to plan any kind of event in the church or in the community in which everyone can participate, but with careful organization, field trips are something most of us can do together.

The engineer invited me to take a close-up
A great new attraction for school-age kids, youth and adults is the Museo de Ferrocarril (Railroad Museum).  The museum is made up of a collection of buildings located in San Salvador on Avenida Peralta, between between the Terminal de Oriente and the backside of the Tiendona market.  Plan ahead because you can only enter the parking area via a right turn.  Drive slowly and watch for the railway murals on the exterior wall just before the entrance.  The cost is $1 per person for the museum, and $1 per person to ride the train.  Pay for both right away at the entrance kiosk, along with the $1 bus parking fee.  Foreigners are charged $3 to enter, but if you spend a lot of time in El Salvador and guide groups, you might be able to negotiate a deal.  I called the day before (2259-4100) to let them know we were coming, and I was able to get everyone in for the Salvadoran price.  It's also good to ask at what time the train rides depart so you can plan your visit accordingly.

The guide shows off the ingenious two-
directional seating for first class
The guides are well-trained and will share a lot of historic information with your group!  Signs are posted in Spanish and in English at most of the displays.  Sometimes the tour groups get pretty big, so ask if you can have your own guide.

The museum resides at the old train station
The round house
We started our recent visit with the train ride.  Some of the grandparents in our group remembered the railway system as it existed prior to the civil war.  Some remembered the short run which FENADESAL (Ferrocarriles Nacional de El Salvador) reinstated between Apopa and San Salvador from 2007-2012.  I think it would be very fun to view the photos which the young people took during the visit.  There were, of course, lots of selfies with engines in the background.  One boy took pictures of every mechanical gadget on display.  Some of the kids recorded what the guide was saying.  Many of the mothers encouraged their children to take lots of pictures to use for future school projects.  Everyone really had fun.  The tour is interactive and the guide was really good at making it fun for the little ones.
The presidential car

View down the route the track for the train ride
A positive side note:  the young guides at this museum serve as excellent role models for students who may be studying tourism and history with aspirations of seeking employment in the developing tourism industry in El Salvador.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Plan B: A Beautiful and Impactful Day

There are some days that just do not go as planned.  Tuesday was one of those days.

The day started out as expected.  I met up with our pastor and he drove us out to the community.  As we chugged along the main road alongside the community, we periodically stuck our heads and hands out the windows to wave and greet friends who were passing by.  We ground our way up the rocky hill and parked next to the church.

The training meeting was already in session.  Pastors and leaders from the northern region were reflecting on a passage from scripture and sharing personal stories of God's presence in the midst of health crises.  Through sobs and tears, one pastor recounted the recent times in which her husband was gravely ill and God intervened.  Her husband's faith astounds her.

The tables were set end to end and covered with colorful cloths.  A candle burned in the center.  Vases of pink silk flowers were surrounded by open Bibles, notebooks, water bottles and purses.  The twenty or so persons seated in white plastic chairs are being trained as health promoters in the Lutheran Church.  They attend half-day training sessions once per month.  On this day they were beginning a unit on nutrition and healthy eating.

The teaching pastor is the coordinator for health ministries for the Lutheran Church.  She suggested we sing a song to recover our energy after sharing and receiving the testimonies.  She started with a melody which was not the one which actually goes with the song she chose, so the singing was a little rough as people graciously followed her.  Then it was time for the snack:  tamales!  Each person could have one tamal with beans and one plain, served with cream and a cup of coffee.  These tamales were super delicious, made by one of the moms in the church.

The workshop continued with a focus on the plant of the month:  carambola (starfruit).  One woman has a carambola tree, so she was in charge of bringing in the seeds.  (Each month a different volunteer brings in leaves, sticks, roots, fruits or seeds of a different nutritional or medicinal plant.  This is the second year of training, so the group has gathered a good amount of knowledge about the plants which they can grow in their own communities to improve their health.)  Each of us received 3 seeds and 3 black seedling bags so that we can grow a tree for ourselves, a tree for our church and a tree to give away.

We did some reading and sharing about nutrition and the importance of breakfast.  We created a little artwork of sample meals and snacks based on foods that are good for us, balanced and available.  One by one we presented our menus, the majority with the caveat:  "If I have money, I would eat..." Everyone eats beans for breakfast and beans for dinner.

The workshop ended with lunch.  The reason I had accompanied the pastor to the workshop was because I had been invited to an event for the afternoon.  The only way I could get to the event was if he orchestrated something, which he did.  He would drive us to the nearby community which is a controlled area, but we are known there so it is not a problem to enter.  Two men of confidence would meet us and guide us into the neighboring community.  There, one would take me into the school for the event - a corn fiesta.  A girl I have known since she was a baby was competing in her beautiful princess dress made entirely from elements of corn plants.  The men of confidence would then accompany the pastor back out to a meeting.  After his meeting, the pastor would be guided back to the school so we could meet up and be guided out again.

Plan in place, Pastor went out to the car.  It would not start.  What followed was an adventure of lifting the car over a big rock, rolling the car down a steep hill, taking parts out of the car, and pondering a plan B.  Big raindrops started to fall.  I pulled out my umbrella; onlookers ran for cover.  The neighborhood mechanic helped roll the car, now with a new battery, down another hill still with no luck.  "Sister," he called out over the now pounding rain, "Go into my house!"  I went inside as a woman gathered up the chickens.  A giant bold of lightning struck next to the house with heart-pounding thunder.  "Holy ****," I said, under my breath.  The thunder was crazy.  The pastor and mechanic ducked in for shelter.  We had no choice but to wait out the storm which was now dumping buckets of rain onto the tin roof.  It was so loud that we had to shout to talk with each other.

The Box
We talked for an hour.  The men said that the storm popped up because the heat just kept increasing with no place to go.  I nodded.  It seriously had been hotter than hades all morning.  The mechanic had lived in the US for a number of years, studying as a nursing assistant and then working in healthcare.  He either was deported or came back to El Salvador years ago.  He got up and pulled out an old wooden box.  He slid the cover open to show us the contents:  an old roll of gauze, a bottle of peroxide and a disheveled stack of yellowing papers.  "When I came back from the US, the health ministry made me a first responder," he said.  He thoughtfully thumbed through the papers.  "These are the medical records from the years of the chargas plague."  He had all the records from the original families that settled in the community back in 1996 after the war.  Chargas (a parasite disease that affects the eyes of unborn babies) had left its mark on the community.  I suggested the mechanic-first responder help us out at the Mission of Healing in February.  Apparently he is also an expert in natural medicine.  Who knew?  I reached into my bag and pulled out my first aid kit.  I pulled out some bandages and gauze sponges.  Our friend carefully placed them into his wooden box, slid the lid closed and placed the box in its place, right by the door.  It's hard to be a first responder without any bandages.

"Look," said the mechanic.  "There is no problem.  The sister can sleep on the sofa and the pastor can have the hammock.  You can stay the night."  A little later, the rain let up.

A friend of the mechanic showed up.  His white car was parked nearby.  He could be our taxi driver and take us to the other community so that at least the pastor could get to his meeting.  The government official had been delayed by the rain too.  We all climbed through the mud and into the car.  It was a little tin can with stinky exhaust, a bad transmission and a back seat that I just barely fit into (along with the mechanic).  We drove at breakneck speed so we would not lose our momentum in the lakes that now covered the road.  At one point we sped across a little river and bumped so hard that we almost hit our heads on the ceiling.  "Water took out the road," said the driver.  The mechanic and I looked at each other.  No kidding.

"What do we own you?" we asked the driver.  He said we did not owe a thing.

We walked into the community center, damp and apologizing, and slid right into the content of the meeting.  The youth and young adults of the community have organized a group for themselves and are working to get legal standing.  Dance groups, rap, hip hop, folk music, visual arts, skate-boarding, singing, drama  and a drum corps are flourishing and some have won national awards.  The group wants to start a community radio station to help promote their activities, and also to make money through advertising for local businesses.  The experience of running a radio station, complete with news reports and educational programming would help build the resumes of young adults.  We met for 2 1/2 hours, much of the time learning about the process from a deputy in the National Assembly.  One young man is about to graduate from the university as an engineer.  He has all kinds of ideas of how to promote the study of math, science and technology in the community.

One of the biggest challenges for these young people is where they live.  When you live in or come from a controlled community, no matter what your level of education or your talents, there are suspicions about you.  These young people have a vision for a future which is different.  The pastor is their connection to the resources beyond their borders.  He loves them, encourages them, accompanies them and brings a measure of protection to their efforts.

One of the younger boys in the group left for a bit.  He came back and passed out plastic bags and straws to everyone in the circle.  "I'm sorry I could not find cups," he quietly said to me.  "Do you drink soda?"  I was the only female in the room.  He poured warm Coke into my bag and then filled each one around the circle.  He offered me a cookie, and then served the others. It was a beautiful gesture of hospitality.

Thanks to my patient husband, who had his own agenda for the day, we were able to get a ride back to the city.  The pastor's car stayed safely with the mechanic.  The corn fiesta probably happened, and hopefully someone took photos.  We were not struck by lightning.  We had conversations with people which otherwise would not have happened.  As we dropped the pastor off at his house, he said, "It was a very beautiful and impactful day."

Yes, yes it was.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Tales of the Grandfather: Our Own Forests

The Grandfather quietly slipped into a pew a few rows back.  I glanced over my shoulder and gave a little wave.  He slipped the baseball cap off of his head, grinned, and waved back.  We refocused on singing.

A little while later the devotional ended, and I made my way over to the Grandfather.  "Hola, Papá!" 

"Hola mi hija," he said.  We shared a good strong hug.

A small conversation circle lamented the suffering which the world is currently experiencing at the hands of Mother Nature.  The Grandfather said...

Each one of us must take care of our own forest.  Do you understand what I mean?  People grab and grab and grab for themselves (he gestures like he is grabbing fruit from trees and stuffing it into his mouth and his pockets).  All of the little trees around them are skinny and drying up, while they have this big thing around the middle (a fat belly).  Pastors are afraid to say these harsh words, because many of them are busy getting fat.   These are the words which need to be said.  We must take care of our own forests.  When we care for the trees around us, literally and figuratively, our faith is growing.  One tree alone breaks in the storm, but the forest of trees is strong.

One hundred years ago, these words were preached.  I walk and preach them now.  I have almost one hundred years.  One hundred years from now, these words will be there.  People will remember them.  I walk among the trees and I preach.  We must take care of our own forests.  This is the legacy of faith.  This is eternal life.  

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Earthquakes and the Story of the Ugly Baby

We were sitting around the table last night, sharing a lovely pupusa dinner with some friends and their family.  It had been a pretty long day.  Each of us had gotten up early for various appointments after suffering from a  lack of sleep the previous night.  A large 8.1 earthquake centered off of the coast of Chiapas, Mexico, shook Central America all along the fault line. At just before 11 PM, San Salvador's buildings rattled and creaked for more than one full minute.  It was an odd sensation, with a few seconds of shaking and then a prolonged sensation of swaying in a boat over the waves.  MARN (Ministerio de Ambiente y Recursos Naturales - Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources) was quick on social media to identify the source of the quake, and those of us online at the time posted "Did you feel that?" and "aguado" (like water) and  "everyone's OK," recognizing that in Mexico, not everyone would be OK. 

El Salvador has a recent history of being impacted by big earthquakes about every 15 years.  The last big earthquakes took place in January 13, 2001 and on February 13, 2001.  Salvadorans live with the expectation that the next tremor will bring "the big one."

Around the table, family members shared stories from 1986, when a devastating quake hit the country.  The adults in the room were young and remember buildings collapsing.  In 2001, the double quake and all of the aftershocks sent people running outside.  People were so frightened of being buried that they slept outside.  Everyone slept outside.  Carlos shared a funny story about his co-worker, who was not Salvadoran, who slept outside but underneath a coconut tree.  They tried to tell him it was not a good idea, but he insisted, until the coconuts fell down.

Carlos' wife asked if we had heard about the bebé fea (ugly baby).  All of the Salvadorans around the table knew the story of the ugly baby.  No one knows if the story is true.  A short time after the earthquake of January 13, 2001, a baby was born.  After the birth the baby was quickly wrapped up.  When the nurse unwrapped the baby and saw its face, she gasped and exclaimed, "Oh, what an ugly baby!"  In a deep voice like a grown man the baby said, "The most ugly thing will be on the 13th of February."  The ugly baby predicted the second quake.  Truth or urban legend?  In El Salvador, sometimes one cannot say.

I doubt an ugly baby will predict the next quake.  What is sure is that El Salvador, like other countries located near the slipping points of the earth's tectonic plates, will experience quakes.  For residents and visitors alike, it is important to be prepared.  Know where the safest location is inside or outside your structure.  At home or in your hotel, keep a bag (or your backpack) ready with the following: your legal documents, cash, 2 bottles of water, snack bars, and a small first aid kit.  We also keep a crank radio, small candles and matches, a permanent marker, a tarp and duck tape in our grab bag.

As our sister pastor has taught us, The elements of creation were created to do what they do.  We do not need to fear creation, but respect it.  The earth's crust moves.  We know this and should do our best to prepare for the next quake.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Leave the Door Open

I leave the office door open.  The office is a narrow room with a slightly hidden door off of a dark outdoor corridor.  No one really thinks to knock if the door is closed, even though I have taped a foam heart on the door that says "welcome" in three languages.  It's a surprisingly quiet space.  It receives the afternoon sun, which gives it a stuffy, oven-like quality that lasts into the next morning.  The slatted windows let in just enough car exhaust and kicked up dust from the parking area to give everything in the office a slightly gray patina.

I leave the office door open.  An open door invites people in.  An open door says that the person inside has time for you.

People wonder what I do in El Salvador.  I sometimes wonder about that too.  Today was my second day back in the office.  I start each day by wiping off the desks and lighting a candle.  This could be viewed as a spiritual practice.  The candle is big and smells of citronella, so honestly it is more of a practice in mosquito abatement.  I keep a cardboard container on the desk (it was a gift) filled with pencils or candy or some little treat.  A long time ago a graceful woman at my home church taught me the value of creating welcome and having treats even in the smallest and most humble of offices.

A familiar face peered into my doorway.  "Come in!" I chimed.  After a little hug and a few seconds, I could tell my friend wanted to talk.  "Sit down," I offered.  She took the green plastic chair.  I sat down in the wiggly aluminum one next to her.  I have known this pastor for a very long time.  She was a solid companion to the Bishop and an educator in the Lutheran Church during the war years.  She has had her ups and downs and miracles and horrors with her health.  She is smart and makes her points in meetings with authority and wisdom.  Today, as she has done from time to time, she just stopped by to talk.

Two hours passed.  There were a few tears.  There were a few hugs.  And while listening intently, I  jotted down a few words in my calendar book.  A few hours later, I am left with a little collection of her words and my reflections from our morning together...

The ideas of building peace and reconciliation amidst our current reality, the goals of the IPAZ (Pastoral Initiative for Peace) are good, but at this time advocacy has become a huge challenge.  The culture of violence is pervasive.  For a time we had the truce [between the gangs] and in my opinion that was good because it created a spirit of hope among gang members that change was possible.  We believe that people can change, right?  But now with the police or security forces taking youth and beating them or killing them in whatever community they live in...where is the truth? What do we do as the church when the societal authorities which are supposed to seek the truth are perpetuating violence?  There is no truth...

There are youth who served time in prison.  They have nowhere to live.  Where can they go with tattoos on their faces?  They are the ones, as we say, who "found Jesus" or Jesus found them, right? While they were in prison.  So we started a bakery project and they bake breads.  They live in the church because they have no place to go.  They work at the bakery and they live at the church...

One man was a member of MS.  He was sent to maximum security prison and then was released.  He came to us and told us of the conditions there.  All he had was one toothbrush.  He was there for six months.  No soap, no toothpaste, nothing.  No family members are allowed to visit or bring things.  Everyone washes only with water.  Brushes teeth only with water.  No hair cuts.  No shaving.  No laundry.  They are supposed to get 2 hours of sun each day but there is no room.  There is not enough air.  Men are sick, very sick with lung infections.  Some have AIDS and even cancer but no one is treated.  It is inhumane.  As the church we plead for these men - we know they are not good people, but they are humans - and then we are accused of being aligned with the gangs.  When the man was released, the guards started beating him right outside the prison gate.  His sister was there to pick him up, and had she not been there, the guards would have killed him...

When there is no hope, no belief that people can change, then the culture of violence grows.  When there is no opportunity for education or employment, when narco-trafficking consumes a community, the culture of violence grows and the victims are the little ones, the most vulnerable in society - the little store, the little business, the people on the bus.  There was a little store run by a family.  The gang demanded a rent of $25 per week, that is $100 per month for a little store.  One time the gang sent the boy to collect the rent and the man paid as usual.  But the boy was always high on drugs.  He did not turn the money in to his boss.  The boss sent another collector but the store owner could not pay and he explained that the collector had already come.  The first collector denied receiving any money.  The gang member pulled out his gun and shot up the store.  He killed a person who was there buying something.  The man was shot and taken to the hospital and thankfully did not die.  The gang shot people, and for what?  

Gang live is an alternative lifestyle.  When there is no economic development, when there is no hope, where there is no societal movement toward reconciliation and the belief that change is possible, it is the only alternative, chosen or chosen for you...

I leave the office door open.  I help a little with communications and prepare for upcoming workshops.  Youth, Migration, Gangs, Inter-culturality, Education, Partherships - these are themes that weave themselves through the work of my day.  I sit at a desk with ants in the drawers.  The incredibly loud fan blocks out the sound of afternoon thunder.  I leave the office door open because a friend, a co-worker might want to talk.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

They Are the Youth

They dance.
They have friends.
They stay up late doing homework.
They text.
They work when they can.
They go to high school nearby.
They do spoken word.
They live with their parents.
They ride the bus for 3 hours to study at a university.
They are active in their churches.
They are artists.
They care for babies.
They have babies.
They stay up late doing homework.
They play the drums.
They play cell phone games.
They play soccer games.
They have friends.
They have friends who have died.
They have friends who have been killed.
They love their community.
They come home before dark.
They are afraid of their community.
There are rules in their community.
They are organized.
They are organizing in the community.
They have gifts.
They have talents.
They have goals.
They have dreams.
They love their community.
They want to live in their community.
They want to live.

The rainy season had not quite taken hold, but the afternoon skies were gray and threatening.  The young people were not deterred.  They had organized a street fair - a showcase of the abilities and talents and determination of the community's youth.  Cultural performance groups from choreographed athletic dance, to Batacuda (drumming), to hip hop, to spoken word, to ballad singing, to spray-paint art, to Andean folk music, to a rock band each performed for a very large crowd of parents, children, friends and community members.  The event was a first fruit of a newly self-organized youth organization.  This mighty little group of youth leaders made a statement, and they made it loud:  They have the right to dream and the right to go after the lives they want for themselves.  Their identity is not determined by where they live nor by the forces of violence which surround them.   They don't want to hide.  They want to live out loud.

They are the present.
They are the hope.
They are the community.
They are the energy.
They are the love.
They are the future.
They are the youth.

Little ones practicing their moves during a dance performance

Activities for the younger children


Opportunities for local vendors - I really admire this
entrepreneur's creativity

Monday, July 10, 2017

Celebrating Life Together

My friend was diagnosed with cancer.  The last months of his life passed quickly, well-blessed with trips with his family, visits with friends, and a giant circle of love and prayer support.  Today, his life will be celebrated in his church, where he served as a tireless and generous worker.

I was in El Salvador when the decision to discontinue treatment was made.  From the beginning, the pastor, church leaders and families of our sister church in El Salvador reached out to accompany my friend and his family in prayer.  They wrote messages and prayers on the Facebook page created by the family.  The hope for healing was incredibly strong, and the news that there would not be healing in this life was hard for everyone to accept.

My friend visited El Salvador one time.  In that one visit, his easy manner, his comfort in communicating with actions because he spoke no Spanish, and his gift in being with children with special needs touched the families in the community.  His teen daughter shares her dad's style, and she cooked up plans with a few Salvadoran girls for future visits.  She and her mom have visited twice since that first trip, leading the way in celebrating our big sister church quinceañera (15th anniversary) and more recently, helping to run a community Vacation Bible School.

As my friend neared the end of his earthly life, he shared with his US pastor that he would like his Salvadoran sister church to "be present" at his funeral.  We sent a message to the Salvadoran sister church community, and they made a video right away.  A young person from the community stayed up for two consecutive nights (after going to classes during the day) to put together a beautiful tribute.  She posted it on YouTube and sent the link.  My friend and his family were able to watch the video together, and later today, the video will represent the presence of the sister church at my friend's life celebration.

On the day that our friend died, I was with our sister pastor in El Salvador.  The pastor said, "I am thinking about something that happened.  The last time I was visiting in his home, our friend hugged me and said very quietly to me, 'I love you.'  We felt something together, a deep friendship.  This is not common among men.  This is the love of God, of the Spirit."

Yesterday I sat at my friend's kitchen table, to spend time with his family and to make a delivery.  Out of love, unsolicited by anyone, community members had asked the evangelist at the church for paper and envelopes, and they wrote letters of support to this dear family.  The letters were all addressed with the name of the daughter.  I pulled the stack of letters out of my bag and put them on the kitchen table.  I described how the evangelist and her two little girls had traveled 2 hours by bus to find me before I left El Salvador.  I had been surprised when they handed me the stack of letters.

We talked for a long while at the kitchen table.  At one point, some relatives asked, "What do you do in El Salvador - as a church, what do you do?  Do you build things?"

My friend's wife looked at her daughter, then at me, then at the relatives and said, "We go to be with the community."

Sometimes we do build things.  Mostly, we build relationships.  Mostly, we are family.  Today, we are crying together and celebrating the life of our dear friend.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Tips from the Translator

Communication:  In most sistering relationships, good communication is held up as a core value.  Poor communication is held up as a significant challenge.

If we natively speak English (or German, or Finish, or whatever) and our brothers and sisters natively speak Spanish, and if our only words in common are taco and sombrero, then we have an obvious communication challenge with the language itself.  Hence the occasional or persistent need for an English-Spanish translator.  Yet no matter how fluent one might be in the English and Spanish languages, without cultural context, it is almost impossible to translate effectively.

At this point, I want to give a shout out to all of the really great translators who have gone over and above expectation, digging into history and context in order to be able to translate documents and conversations for folks in sistering relationships.  The focus of this blog post is not primarily directed toward translators, but to the folks speaking and writing English words which need to be translated.  If we are in relationships as sister churches or companions in any sense across language and culture, it is our responsibility to learn some history and to build personal and collective knowledge of culture.  We should not expect to offload that responsibility onto our translators.

I do a lot of translating.  This was not always the case.  I went to El Salvador without any study of Spanish other than a couple of songs which my young son taught me from his first grade repertoire.  As visits became more frequent, it was sink or swim for me, and gracious Salvadorans patiently taught me their language while we muddled our way through meetings, told each other stories and navigated every day life together.  I am still learning!

Communication:  The recent and ongoing intercultural training events which I am helping to put together in El Salvador focus a significant amount of time on the theme of communication.  Some of the wisdom gleaned during those workshops along with my translating experiences are provoking me to start a new intermittent blog series.  Hence:  Tips from the Translator.

Todays Tips...

  1. Many sistering relationships include letter-writing between Salvadoran students and North American friends and sponsors.  Many US letters written during the months of May through August ask the Salvadoran kids, "What are you doing for summer vacation?"  While it is true that Salvadorans have vacation during the week containing August 6th in honor of Jesus Savior of the World, these months are school months for Salvadoran children.  In addition, El Salvador has two seasons:  Wet Season (called winter) from May through October and Dry Season (called summer) from November through April.  Thus, without context, a question like "What are you doing for summer vacation?" can be very confusing for Salvadorans.  Salvadoran school vacations are from mid-November through December.  (University students have a slightly different schedule, running trimesters and including vacation in July and later in December).
  2. In general, Salvadoran society is a little more formal than in the US.  Children are taught from a young age to write letters with a formal introduction.  Usually, it is considered polite to begin with something like "I hope this letter finds you well, surrounded by your family and friends."  If you are in a church setting, it is customary to begin and certainly to end by giving blessings and offering prayers for one another.  In the US, we are typically more direct get right to the point of the letter or a list of questions.  To many Salvadorans who do not have much exposure to US culture, this seems rude.  An exception to this might be in an email.  If you need to make clear communication and receive a response in a short time, a quick greeting followed by bullet points is definitely OK.
  3. Speaking of time...time in El Salvador is not necessarily linear.  Stories circle around; past mixes with present.  Urgency to be on time is not as strong (partly because it is nearly impossible to get anywhere via bus through traffic in a timely fashion).   In El Salvador it is common to hear the phrase hoy algún día.  Literally translated this means "today some day."  Depending on the context, it is used as "one day" (in the past, but without an exact date), or some day (in the future).  Meetings begin on time once everyone has arrived.  When we write and speak back and forth regarding time, it is important to verify exact dates and times if being on time is critical (such as for a visit to the US embassy or a video-call together) and to be patient with one another when our cultural understandings of time clash.
  4. When we use words such as "maybe" or "probably" in English, we generally understand these words to contain elements of uncertainty or indications that we are not making a firm commitment.  When literally translated, these words to a Salvadoran indicate a strong "yes" or "likely unless some huge act of God prevents it."  So, if a Salvadoran asks you, "Will you come visit in September?" and you answer "probably," the Salvadoran hears you saying "yes."
Hopefully these (and future) tips will help all of us, along with our translators, to improve communication across language, culture and distance.  

Sunday, June 4, 2017

The Pasarela

Many times there is just no choice.  You just have to suck it up, be brave, make eye-contact, and cross to the middle. From there you just have to suck it in, steady your nerves, and wait for a break.  I'll confess, I am not too proud to play the "helpless gringa" card if I am caught in a particularly snarly street-crossing situation.  With a smile and a wave I can usually still stop traffic.

Sometimes, there is a better choice:  use the pasarela.

"What is a pasarela?" you ask.  Well, if you google translate this term you might call it a "runway" or "catwalk."  "Catwalk" is a pretty good description.  In El Salvador, a pasarela is the walkway which pedestrians use to get across busy streets.  Typically, pasarelas require the user to ascend 2 or 3 flights of stairs, walk across the catwalk and then descend 2 or 3 flights of stairs on the opposite side of the road.

Now, as you might imagine, climbing up a bunch of stairs in 90°F sun or 85°F pouring down rain (the two basic seasonal options in El Salvador) is not exactly on most people's list of favorite things to do before catching the bus to work or school.  In the city, when traffic is moving at a snail's pace, pedestrians forego the pasarela  and snake their way across the road, weaving between between cars and trucks and keeping watch for the darting motorcyclists.

Depending on the location, pasarela stairs can be steep, open and just plain scary.  In places where buildings, concrete walls, and bus stops surround the base of the pasarela,  ascending or descending the stairs in shadow and seclusion can feel quite unsafe.  And in some neighborhoods, finding oneself enclosed on a catwalk simply does not seem like a good idea.

Last year 577 pedestrians were killed on El Salvador streets.  Most families have a story about some family member being hit and injured or killed while crossing a busy street.  Anyone who drives or rides around El Salvador has certainly seen close calls, and has certainly wondered at the wisdom of a mom with two kids in tow running across 2 lanes of highway, climbing on top of the Jersey barriers in the middle, waiting, and then running across the other two lanes.  Pasarelas can save lives.  Especially in locations where traffic moves swiftly or erratically, where lighting is poor, and where there are no medians, pasarelas are really beneficial.

Clearly the placement of pasarelas is a challenge.  When a busy road or highway cuts through a community, and the nearest crossing point is 2 miles in either direction, there is a problem.  This is especially difficult for children who need to get to their community school which lies on the opposite side of a highway.  One choice is to pay a micro-bus to drive a child up the highway, make a u-turn at the nearest retorno, and drive back down the highway.  That costs money.  Another choice is to walk a couple of miles to the nearest crossing, and walk back a couple of miles to the school.  That is not realistic.  The common choice is to run across 2 lanes, climb the barriers, and run across the other two lanes.

In some places, pasarelas provide shelter for streetside vendors (I walk past a woman with a little pupusa stand under a very under-used pasarela on my way to the church offices each day).  During a march or demonstration, the pasarela can provide a great vantage point from which to snap a few photos of the crowd (with a caution of safety - I once saw a group of US teens hanging off of the outside "cage" of a pasarela to take photos).

August 6, 2016 Lutheran Church March
The next time you are in El Salvador, keep your camera at the ready and grab a shot of your favorite pasarela - and, when crossing streets, please be smart!

Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Funeral

The coffin was so small.  She was a tiny woman.  Cut flowers rested in a vase on top of the casket and in another on top of the altar:   bright white lilies and creamy calla lilies.

Death brings white flowers.

Rows of red, aqua and beige plastic chairs were set up in rows under the covered corridor along the back of the parking lot.  This is where church happens on Sunday, where pastors and community groups meet, where fiestas happen.  This is where I found a young woman sitting alone.  There had been others with her during the night, but for a little while the young woman and the body of her mother were alone.  Four white candle flames flickered in the breeze.  We hugged.  We sat.  We talked a little.

As synod workers arrived for their day, some glanced in our direction.  Others paused to give a "good morning" or a hug.  Cars parked and people began their days.

The body had arrived at about 10:30 PM.  Five or six people, including the mother's pastor, stayed until about 4 AM.

"Do you want to go take a shower?" I asked.  "Don't worry, I will stay with your mom.  She won't be alone."  In El Salvador, it is customary for family to stay with the body from the moment of death until the internment.

The mother and daughter are my friends.  The daughter is a physician, and over the early years of the Mission of Healing she saw hundreds of patients and stayed side by side with us in the community.  As she developed her own career, she helped with organization and made connections for us with other doctors.  Once, my friend and I spent a week with her studying the work of her clinic in a rural community.  Her only sibling, a sister, was killed during the civil war.

The wind picked up and the candle nearest to me sizzled.  Each of the gold, spray-painted candle holders stood about 3 feet tall near each of the four "corners" of the coffin.  A few more people came to sit, and the pastor returned.  Usually a few members of the congregation gathered at this time for a weekly Bible Study.  Many of the adult and child members of this congregation have special needs.  The change in the routine was a little difficult.  One of the men helps to take pictures for the church.  He had printed a large photo of the mother and propped it up against the vase of flowers on the coffin.  A little later, he returned to the vigil carrying a plastic bag from Dollar City.  He pulled a simple black frame from the bag, unwrapped it and put the printed photo into the frame.  He placed the photo carefully on top of the coffin, angling it just right so people would see it as they walked over from the parking lot.

Usually, a small glass window allows people to see the face of the loved one who has died.  The mother had been badly beaten and did not look like herself.  The framed photo was a beautiful gift.

The pastor led a few songs.  We said the Lord's Prayer and the Apostles' Creed.  We sang a little more.  We sat.  In the mid-afternoon the funeral home team arrived with their pick-up truck.  It was specially outfitted with what can best be described as a "little house made of glass" over the bed. The driver turned on a recording of Ave Maria.  The tailgate was opened, and one by one the four candle holders with their burnt candle nubs were loaded in, underneath the platform that would old the coffin.  The small wooden lectern was next.  The team asked for some help, and they slid the coffin into its spot, closing and latching the glass doors behind it.  The flowers were set on small ledges on either side of the glass house.

People found rides.  The daughter and I sat in the back seat of the synod's micro-bus.  "Why did they choose only those sad songs?" a pastor remarked.  I noticed that aside from myself and the daughter, all of the others in the micro were female pastors.  The mother was a strong feminist, admired and imprisoned for her work in protecting mothers and children during the war.  These faithful women took leave from their work of the day to sit, to pray, to accompany and to support a daughter in recognition, admiration and love for her mother.  The women of the Salvadoran Lutheran Church have a depth of strength and solidarity, rooted in the love they have for God and one another, which is humble in style and mighty to feel.

The Bishop had donated the burial spot.  There were two men of the church buried there already, deep in the earth below where the mother would rest.  There will be room for one more above her.

We sat in folding metal chairs in a brisk, warm breeze and under the shade of a metal cabana supplied by the cemetery.  The workers stood off to the side, leaning on their shovels. A tractor with a small boom and tripod of chains pulled up and parked nearby; the lid to the concrete sarcophagus gently swung from the chains. A pastor had brought his guitar.  We sang and prayed and said the creed and then the bishop spoke a eulogy.  "As a girl she must have been quite a little princess, because as an adult she was still a beautiful princess."  He said she had been tortured and suffered, but now she was in the arms of Jesus.  We sang the song Salvadoran's sing on Mother's Day.  Neither the daughter nor I could sing at all.  The mother's burial was taking place on the anniversary of the mother's birth.  It was just too much. All of it.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.  Those words are universal.  The Bishop and two pastors beside him held handfuls of dirt over the coffin and sprinkled it down, forming three dirt crosses.

"Will you say some words?" the Bishop asked the daughter.  She shook her head, no.

The cemetery administrator walked over to where the daughter and I were seated.  "When you're ready, let us know to continue."

"I can't," she whispered.  I nodded to the man.

The coffin was placed over the hole and gently lowered down with straps that were connected to a hand-cranked winch.  The squeak, squeak, squeak sound pierced the air as the coffin sunk lower and lower into the earth.  "Isn't it there yet?" whispered the pastor behind us.  We were all thinking the same thing.  The floral arrangements were dismembered and people walked over to the hole to toss the flowers onto the coffin.  A worker climbed into the hole with a bucket of cement.  He slathered the gray goop onto the edges of the concrete sarcophagus which held the coffin.  This was work which we envisioned, for we could really only see his head and hear the scrape-scrape-scrape of the trowel.  He climbed out of the hole, and the tractor lowered the lid into place.  The worker jumped back in with his cement bucket and sealed the tomb.  We sang You Have Come Down to the Lakeshore while he worked.

Two men with shovels then peeled back an astro-turf carpet, revealing a pile of dirt.  They shoveled and tamped, shoveled and tamped.  The mourners left.  The micro full of women pastors left.  The daughter stayed, accompanied by a best friend nurse, a friend from fourth grade, and me.  In El Salvador, it is customary for someone to stay beside the grave until the dirt is completely replaced.  That's the only way to make sure your loved one is really buried.   The concrete corner post-stubs that mark the boundaries of the plot were replaced as well as the two grave markers.  A third marker will be added.  The salesman left his card.

The fourth-grade friend hopped onto his motorcycle.  He and the daughter had not seen each other for 20 years, but there he was, keeping an eye on the women and making sure everything was OK.  The nurse's brother drove us back to the synod offices, in what might be one of the most harrowing car trips the daughter and I have ever had.  When we were safely deposited at the offices, we burst out laughing at just what a terrible driver that brother was!  But we were grateful for the ride.

Later that night, we went out for pupusas.  Comfort food after a long day.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Mother's Day at the Migration Table

On May 13th, our little team headed up to our sister church to meet up with the youth group and do a workshop on the theme of migration.  This is the same workshop that my husband has been leading around and about - an introduction to US Migration laws and how the laws and enforcement practices impact Salvadoran families.  The two of us spent some quality time retooling the workshop to make it a little more interactive and appropriate for youth.  We added in photos and removed some of the detailed slides.  The biggest change was the introduction of written scenarios or character stories.  We planned for youth to read these as discussion-starters which we would then follow with the informational power point slides.

We started strong, singing Caminando en la luz de Dios (our Spanish version of We are Marching in the Light of God).  Everyone was clapping and the words are easy so the youth and the moms caught on quickly.  Then we shared the story of Jesus, Mary and Joseph migrating to Egypt because of threats against Jesus' life.  We don't really think much about Jesus migrating as a baby, and really, migrating from place to place his whole life.  Our next activity was designed to for all of us to learn more about the connections we share between the US and El Salvador.  We began in a big circle, and little by little people were invited to the center:  US citizens (my husband and I started as the example), anyone with a parent in the US, siblings, aunts or uncles, cousins, friends, Facebook the end there were a big majority in the middle and very few remaining in the outer circle.

In an interactive workshop about migration, it can be very tricky to create a comfortable space for people to ask questions or to share their stories.  More than once, I heard my husband say, "Don't worry, we are not La Migra (migration police).  We learned that in this group essentially no one had any accurate information about US laws.  The group also had very little understanding of concepts such as asylum or protected status.  We also learned that reading small scenarios is very helpful, and most of the readers tried to be pretty expressive with their situations.  Here is an example scenario:

Persona con DACA:  Llegue con mis padres en los Estados Unidos en 2002 cuando era muy joven.   Solo tenía tres años cuando crucemos la frontera sin documentos.  No recuerdo a El Salvador.  Vivíamos en Los Ángeles donde asistía la escuela y ya muy pronto voy a cumplir mi bachillerato.   Mi familia vivía en miedo siempre porque no tenemos documentos, pero hace 3 años, el presidente Obama inicio un programa se llama DACA.    Ya tengo protección y puedo conseguir mi sueño de asistir la universidad de California.    Pero todavía tengo miedo que el programa termina o que mis padres son detenidos y deportados a El Salvador.

Person with DACA:  I arrived with my parents in the United States in 2002 when I was very young.  I was only 3 years old when we crossed the border without documents.  I don't remember El Salvador.  We lived in Los Angeles where I attended school and now very soon I will complete high school.  My family always lived in fear because we don't have documents, but three years ago President Obama started a program called DACA.  Now I have protection and I can complete my dream of attending the University of California.  But I am still scared that the program will be ended or that my parents will be detained and deported to El Salvador.

We then talked about who is responsible for this young person's presence in the US.  We talked about how he or she would feel.  We also talked about what it would be like if the parents were deported or if the program ended and this young person had to come back to El Salvador.

It was pretty hard to read the faces of the group, but toward the end a couple of the adults asked questions about their family members who have been in the US for a long time.  One of the young people said she really enjoyed the workshop.  She said it was very dynamic and she liked my husband's professional expertise.  She is studying to be a lawyer.  We still were not too sure about the reactions of the other youth.

You never know what seeds are planted when you lead a workshop or teach a class.

The next day, Sunday, we celebrated Mother's Day with our sister church.  (Mother's Day in El Salvador was Wednesday, May 10th.)  The pastor pointed out how beautiful it was that the US and El Salvador sister churches were celebrating mothers on the same day.  The church was decorated in pink, with balloons and streamers, hearts and flowers. After worship, the mothers were given the gift of a dramatic presentation by a group of children.  One of the youth who had been at the workshop the day before was the narrator.  This was the story, the narrator said, of a brave, single mother.  The little family - father, mother and child - were struggling financially.  One day the father had good work, and the family had food on the table.  Then he could not find work, and eventually the situation was desperate and he migrated north.  He stayed in the United States a long time, and sometimes he called home.  His little girl grew up and eventually she became a mother to her own little girl.  After many years, the father came home to his family.  It was a beautiful reunion, but he had passed so much time away, it was also very sad.

After the drama we shared cake, sandwiches and a Mickey Mouse piñata.  I congratulated the actors.  When I asked the future lawyer if she had anything to do with the project, she just smiled and looked at the narrator.  She smiled back.

You never know what seeds are planted when you lead a workshop or teach a class.

The youth group meets again in 2 weeks.  They have already planned to continue talking about migration.  The main theme is:  migration to the US is not a solution.  The reality is:  migration within El Salvador is a prevalent, and if it is life or death, migration to another country truly might be the only solution.

This is one of the visuals we used to understand the status of
different groups of Salvadorans who live in the US.  We had
to extrapolate a bit from several sources.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Return to the Migration Table: Why Migrate?

She came to the United States to study at a graduate school with a student visa.  Her husband and children remained in El Salvador.  After graduation, she got a job offer at a business which sponsored her employment visa.  Her husband also secured an employment visa and the family settled in a small city in the US.  The children were young and quickly became fluent in English.  The parents' English was already pretty good, and improved over time.  Eventually the parents applied for permanent residency.  There were times when the family resided in the US "illegally" or without current documents because their document renewal papers were stuck in a bogged-down system.  The family paid thousands of dollars to immigration lawyers to make sure they followed a correct process.  The mother became a naturalized US citizen.

This is one story of migration from El Salvador to the United States.  The pathways by which Salvadoran families establish roots in the US have been and continue to be numerous and diverse.  Since the time of the Salvadoran Civil War, Salvadorans have come by plane and by foot, seeking safety, education, work and The American Dream.  Conscription of children into military forces and threats from death squads during the war, devastating earthquakes in 1986 and 2001, Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and the rise in gang culture and gang violence in the 2000's, along with economic crises along the way, are identifiable events or phenomena which have caused Salvadorans to migrate north.  Once established, family members attract other family members or friends with desires for unification or stories of success.  Families established themselves, with documents or without.

In El Salvador, just about every family has some relative living in the US.  Roughly 20% - 25% of living Salvadoran citizens live in the United States.  Salvadorans work in all different sectors of the US economy. Those without documents, find work in a variety of informal ways, and can suffer abuse by unscrupulous employers.  Salvadorans have a pretty strong reputation has hard workers, many holding down multiple jobs to earn enough to live in the US and send money home.  The river of financial support that flows from the US to El Salvador is a river of life which sustains Salvadoran families and makes money-transfer companies a healthy profit.

While economic survival or pursuit of The American Dream have historically drawn Salvadoran family members north, changes in US immigration law enforcement have diminished the desire to migrate for purely economic reasons.

I can't work because
the gangs will not let
me leave the house...
Over the last 15 years, the gangs in El Salvador have wreaked havoc in all sectors of society, but especially in poor communities.  The reasons behind their success are complex:  poverty, lack of opportunity for youth, a weak judicial system, corrupt policing, the US market for illegal drugs, organized crime.  Whatever the reasons, the reality is that threats, fear and acts of violence come in waves to small communities.  The police move to one place, and the gangs move to another.  In 2014, the level of violence and fear reached epidemic levels.  Families were forced to migrate from one community to another.  This internal migration (sometimes referred to as internal displacement or forced migration) is not well-documented with statistics.  People in the US who sponsor scholarship students in sister church communities in El Salvador might know a little bit more about internal displacement than your average US citizen, as scholarship sponsors frequently learn that their students are no longer in the church community or need to change schools or are living with relatives in parts unknown.
My mom sells but what
little she earns she has
to give to the gangs as rent...

I feel helpless because
of the impossibility of
doing something...
Four generations of the family lived in a small compound of cinderblock and laminate structures on a tiny lot in a small community outside the capital.  One adult brother had been threatened; he fled to the mountains; he came back; the family was threatened; the brother fled to the US; he was deported, and eventually he joined the gang.  The family tried to stay apart from the brother's activities. One night, a family member was dragged out of the house and murdered.  The brother became more imbedded in the gang.  One night, rival gang members broke down the door of the house and held a pistol to a teen girl and threatened young adult mothers in the home. The police came into the community and drove out the gang members, including the brother.  One night, the police pounded on the door and turned everything in the home upside down, looking for weapons.  The police threatened the family.  The family fled to an abandoned house in another community.  The police returned and burned what was left in the empty home.  The local Lutheran migration ministry team helped the family to put a roof on the abandoned house and to figure out who the owner was so they could get permission to stay there, and pay rent.

When the threats follow families from community to community, and there is no place left to hide, families make the difficult decision to send their young people north.  Witnesses to murders and victims of persecution by police make the decision to seek asylum in the US.  Family members established in the US try to help their family members who are endangered in El Salvador, sometimes working with the visa system, sometimes paying for a smuggler to bring their loved ones north, sometimes paying legal costs when their family members are in the asylum process.

The Salvadoran Lutheran Church Migration Ministry is working with the regional Migration Tables on a workshop which helps families to talk about migration issues in a safe space.  The pastor who coordinates the office of Migration Ministry wrote a book entitled Pasos y Hellas (Steps and Footprints - the Route of the Migrant.  The conversation points and illustrations in the book help families to identify the fears which exist in their communities.  The book raises up reasons for migration, discourages migration for economic reasons, describes the journey north and what it is like to be deported.  In a recent Migration Table workshop, my husband and I were trained on the use of the book, along with community leaders, pastors, police, and health workers.  We used drama to act out portions of the book, which made it very comfortable for everyone to then ask questions or share real life experiences.

In the plane they had us
chained from feet to
hands, worse than if
we were delinquents or
That which was the
American Dream before,
now is the nightmare
of Latinos...

 Illustrations and captions taken from Pasos y Hellas - La Ruta del Migrante ©2016 Sinodo Luterano Salvadoreño Pastoral del Migrante

Friday, May 5, 2017

A Return to the Migration Table - My Story, Your Story, Our Story

In my elementary school, fifth grade was the year during which each student made a family tree,  made a binder of stories and photographs, fashioned a costume from the homeland, got help from mom or dad in preparing an "ethnic" recipe, and put on a big folk fair for all the students in the school gym.  Norway, Germany, Sweden, Ireland and Italy were well-represented.  Most of the students had grandparents or great-grandparents who traveled by ship to Ellis Island.  One girl had parents who had emigrated from Russia.  One girl had come from China. A few had Native American ancestors.  A few had roots of family trees which disappeared into the early years of the United States or even the 13 colonies.  No one had been brought to the Americas in slave ships.  None of us gave any thought to a kid who might not be able to follow the roots of a family tree.

In my community, we grew up surrounded by nostalgia for the homeland.  We grew up with stories of brave ancestors who left their homes to seek adventure, to escape famine and poverty, to escape fascism, to practice their religion freely.  Three or four generations out, we were taught children's songs in German or Norwegian,and we still ate weird foods at Christmas.  Forty or fifty years after being established in an English-speaking country, our congregations still worshiped one or more times per week in a European language.

Today I was on Facebook and through a message ended up on a site which celebrates the building of the United States by the immigrants of the past, who came "legally", who did not come to "suck resources from the country but built it up to what it is today."  The page was filled with hundreds and hundreds of comments critical of "people who do not assimilate like my family did," or "are here for 2 years and still don't know English," or "are here to get handouts and not work hard" and statements like, "my family came here the right way."  Between the lines we can read, "the white way."  This Facebook page really pissed me off.

Look, I grew up white and Lutheran.  I grew up celebrating the cultures of Europe. Good stuff and bad stuff happened in my family.  That is my story.

I am sure you have a story.  It's probably a lot more interesting than my story.  It is not more important than my story, just as my story is not more important than your story.  Neither is right.  They just are.  If there is one thing I have learned during these decades of my life it is that the more stories we listen to, the more we realize we don't know much more than we do know.  It's time we sit down at the table and listen to each other.

On May 3rd we sat down at the Migration Table.  The topic was "Migratory Laws of the United States and Their Repercussions for Salvadoran Migrants."  My husband is accompanying the Salvadoran Lutheran Church and presenting this workshop. He is a lawyer, but not a migration specialist, and has done a lot of work studying up on the laws and the changes in enforcement practices over the Obama and Trump administrations.  The goal of the workshop is to provide pastors and community leaders with the tools they need to:

  • encourage youth and families not to migrate (in fact, the title of the educational campaign is Migration is not the Solution)
  • give advice to family, friends, congregations, etc who have connections with people in the US 
  • receive deportees and prepare for a possible deluge of deportees as policies change

The seats at the Migration Table were occupied by people with hearts and heads full of stories. They listened carefully.  They wrote factual and personally important points on note paper...

People who have the legal right to be in the United States are citizens (by birth in the US, by naturalization, children born to US citizen parents) and people with documents.

  • Permanent residents have documents (green card).  
  • People with valid visas have documents - there are more than 180 different types of visas and all have an end point (examples:  student, sports teams, conducting business, tourists)
  • People with Special Protection have documents
    • TPS (Temporary Protected Status) issued to people without documents who are in the US when a natural disaster or epidemic or war hits their homeland
    • Asylum Status
    • Refugee Status
People without documents do not have a legal right to be in the United States.

  • People who are picked up by migration police typically begin a court process.  They may be detained or released with conditions.
  • Undocumented people do not receive government benefits, do have the right to receive emergency medical care (and pay the bill).  Their children do have the right to go to school. 
During 2014, 16,000 Salvadoran children and youth traveled to the US and were detained after crossing the border.  This is why the Migration Tables were formed.  Thousands more traveled north during the next 2 years.  Thousands more traveled with their mothers or fathers.  Just from El Salvador.  There were similar numbers of children who migrated from Guatemala and Honduras.  Each child, each family has a story.  These are stories filled with gruesome acts of violence in the migrants' home countries and en route.  Most will rely on these stories to apply for asylum in the US.

To qualify for asylum, a Salvadoran migrant needs to prove that the Salvadoran government cannot protect them from rape, torture, death.  Step 1 is a hearing to determine if the child, youth or family has credible fear.  If the migrants don't pass Step 1, they are deported.  If they pass Step 1, the migrants pursue a case in immigration court.

These become part of the 123,000 pending cases ONLY FOR SALVADORANS out of a total 565,000 cases pending in US Immigration Court.

Salvadoran children, youth, mothers and fathers migrate north because they already have family in the US.  
  • A total of about 2 million people born in El Salvador live in the US.  This includes naturalized citizens and people with documents (all the types described above) and without documents.
  • 280,000 undocumented Salvadorans received TPS (Temporary Protected Status) when the earthquakes struck in 2001.  200,000 of these people still live in the US under TPS. 
  • 50,000 young people live in the US under DACA (commonly known as "Dreamers") - these are children who were brought from El Salvador when they were little, and have spent their entire lives in the US.
  • Thousands of Salvadorans live in the US with permanent residency
  • Thousands of Salvadorans live in the US without documents
The faces around the Migration Table were serious. Each face told a story.

Story:  My daughter is up there.  She has the ankle bracelet.  Once she had to go to a school thing for her kids and the bracelet went off.  What happens with her kids?

Response:  There are legal things your daughter can do to protect her children.  Guardianship documents, passports.  It's really important that she has a lawyer who specializes in immigration law.  (A resource list for family members is being developed so they can prepare for whatever changes occur in law, policy or personal migration status.)

What if TPS ends?  Do 200,000 people get sent back?
Response:  The example is set.  After the ebola crisis was over in Africa, all of the Africans in the US from the affected countries who were on TPS received a card telling them they had 2 months to return home.
But those people do not even know how to live here.  They don't know anything about the situations, the dangers.  They hardly speak Spanish.

On May 3rd, people gathered around a table to learn from each other and to share their stories.  At the Migration Table, my story, my husband's story and stories from El Salvador intersect.  And I write these stories in my blog. You read the blog.  Your story is part of the intersection.

Intersected stories become our story.  We are in this together.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

A Return to the Migration Table - A Month of May Days

May Day.

When my friends and I were little, May Day meant walking home from school carrying cone-shaped baskets made of woven construction paper filled with tissue paper flowers.  On the way home, we would hang the May Baskets on the doorknobs of our adopted neighbor "grandmas" and on doors or mailboxes of random people in our neighborhood.  We were taught that this was an act of kindness.

Later, we learned that May Day is celebrated as International Labor Day.  In midwest suburbia we were shown footage of communist marches and were told workers in other places did not work hard because there was no incentive to get ahead like in the US.  We heard little or nothing about protest marches in our own capital or cities.  We thought May Baskets were for little kids.

On May Day 2017, social media showed us marches across the globe celebrating the hard work that everyday people do to support themselves, their families and their communities.  In many places, marchers advocated for workers rights.  In our home city in the US, 30,000 people marched in solidarity with workers, recognizing the work immigrants do in our community and raising up particular awareness of the widespread contributions of persons from Latin America.  Many Latinx-owned businesses closed for the day to illustrate in a concrete way the impact which the Latinx community has on the local economy.

May Day 2017 in El Salvador was officially a day off from work.  There were marches in the streets of San Salvador in support of workers and in support of the FMLN - the political party historically aligned with everyday working folk.

The following day in the Salvadoran Lutheran Church offices, the women around the lunch table shared their Labor Day activities with one another.  A few had ridden in school buses with community members to the marches.  It seemed everyone but me had gone out to eat and they were really interested in each other's food choices - nothing fancy, but also not typical Salvadoran foods.  For this group of women, Labor Day included recognition of their work in and outside of the home, and freedom from cooking was a treat and a right.  Like in the US, however, clearly someone is working to make pizza on Labor Day.

On the 3rd of May, we accompanied the Salvadoran Lutheran Church in presenting a workshop for a Migration Table (municipality-based focus group which includes representatives from mayor's offices, schools, health clinics, the police, community advocacy groups and the church).   The office of Migration Ministry of the Salvadoran Lutheran Church is establishing Migration Tables in municipalities in which there are Lutheran Churches. (Note:  a municipality includes all of the small communities in the zone surrounding the town.)  The work of the a Migration Table is to understand the realities of migration at the local level, to accompany families who are forced to migrate due to threats or acts of violence, to discourage migration to the US for economic reasons, and to educate families about their options and rights.

The office of Migration Ministry was formed in response to a large increase in the migration of unaccompanied children to the United States in 2014.  Children and families migrating away from threats and acts of violence is not a phenomenon in isolation, but is part of a web of history and complexity which includes the migration of individuals and families from El Salvador to the United States for work.

On May Day, the focus of many marches in US cities was on Latinx workers.  There are between 1.6 and 2 million people born in El Salvador who are currently living in the US.  The Salvadoran workforce in the US is sizable.  Migration to the US for work with or without documents has never been the ideal nor the desired solution for Salvadoran families who are struggling to eat and have roofs over their heads, but migration north has been a reality for decades.  On May Day, society gave some recognition to the work Salvadorans do at home and in the US, contributing to both economies and sustaining families on both sides of the border.  For the Salvadoran Migration Tables and US organizations working in support of migrants, every day is May Day.

At the May 3rd Migration Table meeting, my attorney husband, led an introductory workshop on US immigration laws.   The presentation evolves as US law, policy and practice in the US.   This is a workshop which the two of us are adapting for youth, and is part of a series of Migration Table workshops being done by the Salvadoran Lutheran Church.  Education is critical for families who need to make decisions surrounding migration.  As I have been participating in these workshops, I find myself thinking that every US citizen should know this information.  Awareness on May Day or marching on May Day is one thing, but I believe we have a minimal responsibility to be well-informed, and a greater responsibility to communicate with our government representatives and advocate for just and compassionate migration laws and policies.

Would you like a seat at the Migration Table?

This is the first of what will be a series of posts on the theme of migration - sort of a "migration for dummies" approach, of course with some stories.  I have written a couple of previous migration-themed posts, which might be good to check out during the month of May Days.

A previous experience meeting with a migration table

Thoughts about borders during the crisis of unaccompanied minors