Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Happy Birthday to Community Rutilio Grande

In a small community not too far from El Paisnal, there is a small hamlet named Comunidad Rutilio Grande.  Every year during the second week of March, this community celebrates its founding as well as the life and work of the Jesuit priest for which it is named.  Each day of the celebration features something special:  a pageant, a dance, a race, a mass.  On March 15th, residents of Comunidad Rutilio Grande mark the exact date on which the community was born.

In 1991 as peace talks were taking place near the end of El Salvador's civil war, negotiations with the government and land-owners created spaces for poor families to rebuild their lives.  The families of Comunidad Rutilio Grande had lived together as refugees at a camp in Nicaragua during the conflict, and on March 15th were flown back to El Salvador where they slowly made their way to the place that would become their new home.

We were invited to the March 15th celebration when we met up with friends from the community during the March 12th pilgrimage from the three crosses to El Paisnal.  Comunidad Rutilio Grande has been connected with the Lutheran Church synod in our US home community for all of its 26 years.  We have accompanied one another in life and especially in the area of education, growing up and growing old with one another.  The relationship is a beautiful example of ecumenism, with Lutheran folks and Roman Catholic folks working together across faith traditions and across country boundaries.

So on March 15th, my husband and I, a friend from the US who is volunteering in El Salvador for the year and a local Lutheran pastor (whose church is close by, whom we saw at the march and whom we invited on a whim) headed out to Comunidad Rutilio Grande.  We were welcomed as if we were rock stars.  We took a little walking tour through the school and down the main street.  It was our friend's first time in the community, but both my husband and I have stayed there several times.  We were a little surprised at just how well-known the Lutheran pastor was - old people and young alike were super excited to see him.

Pretty soon everyone gathered in the community center.  We sat in a middle row, trying not to be too conspicuous.  The President of the community came by and gave us big bags of freshly picked jocotes (sort of like mini-mangoes).  One by one a few guests were called to sit at the mesa de honor (table of honor) up on the stage.  Well, when you rank as "an international guest" and have a long history with the community (which includes almost falling into a big hole during a crazy nighttime rainstorm - but that is another story), you sometimes find yourself seated at the mesa de honor.  Fortunately, my wise husband had contacted a friend from our home city who lived in El Salvador and whose personal story is beautifully woven into the story of Comunidad Rutilio Grande.  She sent us a letter by email, and so I was able to at least sit at the mesa de honor with something to read.

Speakers were interspersed between cultural acts.  Three girls did a traditional folk dance.  Two girls did an extremely well-choreographed (and lengthy) dramatic dance montage depicting the relationship between a man and a woman.  The town queen and her court did a disco routine.  The most impactful speakers were a man and a woman who shared the story of how the families came to the community...

     ...our stuff was shipped over land but we came in by airplane... this very time on that afternoon we walked from Augilares to El Paisnal, with all of the families and all of those children...we had nothing but we made it...
     ...we were singing along the way...
     ...we were accompanied by organizations and a Lutheran pastor... was scary because the armed forces were still in the area...
     ...we had our first meeting to organize ourselves, under the mango tree...

Later, during the car ride home, we learned that the "Lutheran pastor" was indeed the same one who accompanied us to the celebration.  He told us that he traveled with the people from Apopa to Aguilares, praying and singing, and that he led them in worship that very day.  For a time, he and the local priest led worship side by side in Comunidad Rutilio Grande - it was a beautiful experience.

There was a point at which I was invited to the microphone and I read the letter.  Before I could even finish reading the name of its author, there was thunderous applause.  I wished our friend could have been with us to see and hear the love which the community expressed on her behalf.

After the speeches were finished, everyone gathered outside for a small parade.  The drum corps piled into the back of one pick-up truck and the queen with her princesses climbed into the back of the other truck.  Well-stocked with candy for throwing, the princesses waved and tossed treats during the ten-minute parade from the community center to the church and back.  Then everyone lined up for the refrigerio (snack).  We sat in a little circle and enjoyed our chicken sandwiches and cold cans of Coca-Cola.  At one point the Cuban Shuffle came on over the sound system, so our friend and I got up and danced, much to the amusement of a few community members.  No doubt there is video of this episode somewhere on social media.  We were almost finished with our snack when suddenly there was this horrific, beyond-description base sound.  Seriously - a rattle-your-bones, feel-it-in-your-chest, scare-the-elephants base.  The DJ's were testing the sound system for that night's dance.  It was definitely a good time to take our leave.

We said good-bye to our friends and made plans - for the 30th anniversary, we would bring a group and stay the night in the community.

Happy Birthday, Comunidad Rutilio Grande!

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