Tuesday, January 31, 2017

A Simple Thing a Sister Church Can Do (The Rifa Revisited)

A while back, I wrote a story about the rifa (raffle).  You can find that story here:  The Rifa.

On Sunday, we went to church in our sister community.  I had called up the assistant pastor the night before to see if it would be OK to have a little raffle after church.  "Why not?" he said.  During the drive past volcanoes and sugar cane, I wrote out the numbers from 1 to 30 on little scraps of recycled pink paper, and then made another set on little scraps of white paper.

When we got to church, the evangelist who helps out looked inside my big plastic bag.  "We're going to do a rifa," I told her.  She ran to get a little basket for the numbers, and carefully lined it with a recycled piece of aluminum foil so the numbers wouldn't fall out.  "I will take care of giving people their numbers," she said.  As people trickled in, they got their numbers.  During one of the songs, the evangelist snuck over and handed my husband a little cylindrical container made from cardboard and wrapping paper.  This was for the other set of numbers.

After the final blessing, the evangelist checked to be sure everyone had a number.  Only the preschoolers and babies would not have a chance to win.  I stood up front and explained that we had received gifts of thread, needles, buttons and trim - all kinds of little odds and ends for sewing.   These had been given by grandmothers who had extra things or could no longer sew.  A while back, I had divided all of it up into 26 little zipper bags.  Since there were 4 numbers left in the foil basket, we happily realized everyone could win!

My husband called the numbers.  The first number chosen got the first pick of little bags.  One by one we cheered and clapped for the winners.   About halfway through the numbers, my husband tripped on his tongue and called out "dies y nieve" which instead of "19" meant "ten and snow!"  Poor guy took a lot of teasing that he was predicting the weather and we were waiting for the snow to fall.

Men and women, boys and girls all carefully examined their winnings.  Don Miguel was super happy with his bag of goodies, which included blue thread, blue buttons and blue trim.
"Will you sew something blue?" I asked.
"Yes, indeed I will!" he laughed.
Sometimes the men get overlooked when it comes to sewing, but many or maybe even most of them really can sew.

A little girl in a frilly pink and white dress turned around after she got her bag.
"Can you sew?" she asked me.
"Yes I can," I said.
"I can too!" she chirped back.

The last one to get a bag was the assistant pastor.  His number had been called much earlier but he was not paying attention.  Everyone gave him a hard time about that.  The last bag contained some lovely orange thread.

An older teen guy showed me his bag.  He told me he can sew, and I showed him that he had a spool of darning thread for his socks.  He was pretty happy about that.  A little later he came to me holding a small tool.  "What is this for?" he wondered.  It was a rotary marking tool.  Explaining how to use that to mark fabric was a trick!

Earlier in the week, I was talking with a pastor about fabric.  The women in the Salvadoran Lutheran Church are currently sewing cloth bags which will hold the washable female hygiene kits which will soon be distributed during the Mission of Healing Family Wellness Fairs. The women in our community are using some fabric they had stashed away in a suitcase in the church.

It seems like since the beginning of our sistering relationship in El Salvador, we have been bringing fabric.  Fabric for the sewing cooperative, fabric for the church, fabric for little sewing school in the church, fabric for women who can work from their homes, fabric tied in bundles for a little raffle and fabric that gets stashed away in the church for a moment when it is needed.  We are not the only ones who do this, so I was surprised when the pastor said her church never has fabric and their sister church never brings any.  She suggested I write a blog story about fabric, and encourage sister churches to bring it.

Fabric is plentiful, and easily packs around anything else one might be carrying to El Salvador.  Lutheran churches throughout the United States are pretty well known for their quilting groups, and these groups are wonderful at soliciting donations of fabric.  Very often within these donations, there are fabrics such as knits, certain prints, lace, silky or satiny fabrics, eyelets, and more.  These fabrics are wonderful for sewing in El Salvador.  Felt fabric is also great for preschool and Sunday School use.  Sewing notions - especially buttons, metric tape measures, needles and thread are practical gifts.  Graph paper, and pencils are also very helpful for sewing students who are learning to design their own clothes and make their own patterns.

When it comes to fabric, like everything else in a sister church setting, it is important to give it to church and community projects.  Even when US groups follow this rule, if the local Salvadoran church is tasked with distributing the fabric among a women's group or using the fabric for the common good, there can be jealousies that develop.  This is where the occasional raffle comes in.  At least in our community, a fun prize-for-everyone raffle after church or during Bible Study helps to alleviate feelings of being left out.  AND, sewing notions and fabric are VERY practical and appreciated gifts.

If you have not customarily brought gifts for sewing to El Salvador, it might be worth asking your sister church ministry team if they would be interested in receiving gifts of fabric.  Just remember, wool and heavy drapery fabric are not useful in El Salvador.

Happy Raffle Winner

Boys and Girls Loved this Stuff

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Tales of the Grandfather: Planting More than Seeds

We turned off the main road onto a dusty route, strewn with rocks.

Gritty clouds waft in through the open windows.  Keeping the windows open is always a good idea when traveling for the first few times in a new area.  We check in with the guys hanging out near the main road, and with the neighbors as we bump along our way.  The Grandfather was born here.  He has walked these paths his whole life.  The neighbors are not accustomed to shaking his hand and patting his shoulder through a car window.

Papá is super happy, smiling and waving his white baseball cap out the window as we move forward.  His oldest daughter and his son, our sister pastor, look lovingly at their dad.
 This is the day that we would get to know the land in which he plants, the land of his dreams.

Nance Tree
The crops beside the road are mostly brown and crunchy, and every leaf is covered with a grayish film.  The tall trees are green, some have yellow flowers, and above the flora and the dust and the mountains the sky shines bright blue.  A big earth-moving machine blocks our way.  Our pastor hops out to guide us through the very narrow space.  "They are fixing the road," the Grandfather tells us.  "It will be paved that way up to the top.  It's blocked off today, so that is why we are taking this long way."

We arrive at the gate.  "This is it!" exclaims the Grandfather proudly.  He and his son unwind some barbed wire and other secret lassos and pull back a wide gate made from 6-foot branches intermittently spaced between rows of barbed wire.  We pull in.  Four little girls walk in behind us.   Three of them wear white head scarves, a tradition in many of the evangelical and pentecostal churches here.  We learn that one of the girls took care of the Grandfather last week when he fell and hit his head near the gate.  The three sisters and their friend come in the afternoons and sit under the shelter which the Grandfather built, and he teaches them the Catechism.

Conocaste Tree
The Grandfather walks from plant to plant, flower to flower, tree to tree.  Like Adam naming bits of creation in the Garden of Eden, he gives me a tour.  He is careful to point out each small paterna tree.  The nance tree, he tells me, produced fifteen big green nances last year - the sweet kind.*  The Grandfather pulls a well-repaired hose out of an old sack, carefully unties the cords that bind it, and connects it to the spigot.  "That is exactly how my dad would have done it," I think.  There is running water here, and a beautiful pila (cistern).  With hose and bucket the Grandfather gives each plant a drink.  "This place has everything," he says.  "Whatever you need to eat, you plant.  Haha!  Do you need soap to wash your clothes?  Go to the conocaste tree.**  You really never need to leave this place."   Papá is in his glory.

A nearby neighbor lets the Grandfather sleep in his cement block house.  We borrow plastic chairs from the house and sit down to rest and visit below the shelter.  The columns of the shelter are fashioned from tree trunks, each with a natural notch at the top where the trunks branched into two, with the upper limbs cut off.  The horizontal poles rest in these notches. The walls consist of bamboo poles and the roof of large bamboo poles cut in half the long way to create beams to hold sheets of laminated metal.  Everything is put together in a way to make best use of limited additional materials - just some wire and only a few nails.

The girls sit on a homemade wooden bench. Carefully harvested piles of bamboo and lumber rest in piles around us, and in the middle of everything sits a porcelain toilet.  The Grandfather has dug a pit, and soon the bathroom will be built.  He also fashioned a tall concrete light pole by making a cylindrical form from metal sheets and pouring the concrete in little by little.  The home-made scaffolding is still erected around the pole so the Grandfather can attach the electrical lines.  The Grandfather is in his 80's. He is a marvel and an inspiration to his neighbors and to his family, though they worry about him because he continues to do the work of his youth.

We chat with the little girls.  They are in third grade and fourth grade.  We learn that the oldest does not go to school because she has not been able to register yet.  She wants to go to seventh grade.

The Bishop arrives.  He is here to celebrate the work of the Grandfather and the beginnings of the little church which has grown up here.  The Bishop and his wife and another friend join us under the shelter, and a few more friends from the community settle into the circle of plastic chairs.  We take a little time to get to know each other, and the Bishop lovingly asks each girl her name, her age, and her grade in school.  The oldest says she does not study.  "It's your right to study," says the friend.  Yes it is, everyone agrees.

"Do your parents know you are here?" asks the Bishop.  The girls say yes, they have their permission.  "It's good when our churches can be together," he says.

We sing and we pray.  The girls in their little white veils know the songs..."I have a friend whose name is Jesus who loves me."  Only one week of school has passed.  Maybe something can be done to enroll the girl who wishes to study.  The friend takes down some information.

The Bishop and those who came with him need to leave.  Our sister pastor and I ask the girls if we can walk to their house.  We can!  The view of the Guazapa volcano from the dusty road is precious.  "It's that way to the river on the mountain," points out the girl who wants to study, "and that way to the river below."  We walk onto a tidy field strewn with dried corn leaves.  Two cows are tied up below a couple of trees.  "Good morning, cows," I say.  The girls laugh.  "What are their names?"

"That one is Butterfly, and that one is Princess."

We meet the goats.  The chicken house is very large, and hens swing happily on long benches suspended from the ceiling from ropes.  Their cackling song is quite loud!  The pastor and I look at each other, both thinking that this is quite a farm!

The pastor introduces himself and me to the girls' grandmother and he explains the purpose of our visit.  He asks the daughter if her friends are in school.  "Yes," she says.

"All of them?" he asks.  Yes, they are all in school.  The grandmother passes her phone to the pastor so he can talk with the girl's father.  It has been hard for the mom and dad to register their daughter because the school for 7th-9th grade is pretty far away.  Another phone in the house rings, and it is the mother.  The pastor is very skillful in his conversation with the parents, very respectful of their faith tradition, but also clear that this little girl should be in school.  Both parents happily give permission for the Lutheran Church to help to register the oldest daughter for school.

As we say good-bye to the goats and the cows and head back up the hill, the pastor tells me it will be hard to find a spot for the girl in the morning session.  Her mother will only accept a morning slot because she does not want her daughter to have to walk home from the bus late in the afternoon as it gets dark.  She is right, it would not be safe for this tender-aged girl to walk home after dark.

The pastor gets on the phone and makes a plan.  Between him, his older sister (who is a teacher at a Lutheran elementary school) and his younger sister (who is a pastor in the town where the girl should be registered for school), they know who to call and how to make an appointment.

We say good-bye to the neighbors and the gardens and climb into the car for the journey back to the main road.  Along the way, the Grandfather tells a story from his childhood.  "Right there," he points, "there used to be a big well.  One time a boy fell in.  Everyone looked and looked for him, and when they finally found him, he was alive.  His dog had jumped in, and grabbing the boy's hair in its teeth, the dog held the boy's head above the water for all that time."  Sometimes the tales of the Grandfather are almost too fantastic to believe!

This visit happened on a Saturday.

On Monday, there were phone calls.

used with permission
On Tuesday, the girl and her mother and the younger pastor-daughter of the Grandfather met with the director of the school and secured a place in the morning session for the girl.  As the director was filling out the paperwork for the entry certificate, she asked the girl for her date of birth.  The pastor and the director were surprised when the girl said, "It's today!"

With the help of friends, on her fourteenth birthday, a girl in a rural community claimed her right to continue her education.  Her mother was extremely grateful for the help in navigating a system that was a little bit beyond her reach.  Her mother could not stop giving thanks to God for sending friends who could help the daughter to claim her right to an education.

Yesterday, I met with the pastor who accompanied the girl and her mother to the school.  She said, "When we are called to act we cannot sit and wait.  When we are called to act, we have to act on time."

The Grandfather has planted so much more than seeds.

*These fruits are described with photos in a previous story.

**The seed pod of the conocaste tree is sometimes described as an elephant ear.  The mature pod contains hard seeds often sliced and made into jewelry.  The fluffy stuff around the seeds makes a good soap substitute.

Friday, January 20, 2017

The Uniform Game

8th and 9th graders in a graduation ceremony in November 2016.
The new school year begins each January.
School started in El Salvador this week.  Traffic on Monday was crazy as the buses once again were filled with children, and parents with cars took to the streets in the early hours.  At midday, as the little ones head home for lunch and the older students head to school for classes, the streets are once again filled with chattering children clutching projects and small backpacks, teenage girls walking arm in arm, and boys smirking and trying to talk to the teenage girls.  They are easy to see:  all these children in white shirts.

As in many places in the world, schools in El Salvador require their students to wear uniforms.  Navy blue skirts, white blouses and white knee socks with Mary Jane black shoes identify public elementary and middle school girls.  Substitute blue dress pants and black dress shoes for boys.  Kindergarten children sometimes have blue and white gingham shirts.  They also have smocks.  Most of the high school students wear kakhi or green bottoms with the white tops.  Some schools have white pullovers with collars and the school logo embroidered on the front shoulder or the sleeve.  These are the everyday uniforms.  On gym day, boys and girls alike wear stretchy or silky gym pants and white pullovers.

When the FMLN won the office of the presidency, one commitment it made to the public was to provide uniforms and shoes to students.  (Students also receive a small scholastic package with a couple of notebooks and pens.)  This has been heralded as a big help to poor families, who in the past struggled to provide their children with acceptable uniforms and approved shoes.  Without the right clothing, many children were not allowed to attend school.

The government contracted with small businesses throughout the country to produce the school uniforms.  In our sister church community, for example, a small sewing cooperative has a contract to sew uniforms for a few of the local schools.  The uniforms they make are of high quality, with sturdy fabric and very professional design and stitching.  The challenge:  the government must have the money to pay for the materials and labor, and the businesses need to receive the government fund or actually receive the bolts of fabric in a timely fashion in order to make the uniforms.

So, on the first day of school, children do not have their new uniforms.  This may not be a big deal for students who are attending the same school as the year before, or who have not grown much over the vacation time.  However, for children who are moving from kindergarten to preparatory, or from a community 5th grade to the middle school in town, or from 9th grade to high school, this is a problem.  In addition, for the thousands of youth who need to change schools because gang boundaries have moved or threats have been made, the uniform change is problematic.

One mother with a house full of children told me that the regular uniform would probably arrive at start of March.  The gym uniform might not come until August or even later.  Even with the arrival of the government uniforms, it is difficult to keep the children well-dressed when they only have one uniform each.  To wash it, dry it and iron it, especially in the rainy season when clothes do not dry well, is a challenge.  So, what is a mother to do?

Uniforms are precious.  Children learn early to care well for their uniforms.  Mothers are expert at letting out seams, letting down hems and re-designing them to fit.  Big uniforms can be cut down to make two smaller ones, or small ones can be cut apart to create something new from the pieces.  Families are also expert at knowing what children in the community have attended which schools.  Older students participate in an informal sharing economy of passing uniforms around among friends.  If they can, mothers try to buy fabric that matches the school uniform fabric, so they can make extra shirts or skirts or pants at home.  This is the uniform game.

As with many things in El Salvador, the uniform game is time-consuming and worrisome for the mothers and grandmothers who are responsible for getting their children to school.  And, as with many things in El Salvador, unless you spend some time in a home, with moms and kids scrambling before the start of the school year, you might never know that the uniform game exists.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Antonio Lives

Antonio lives.

It's a phrase that creeps into the conversation every now and then when we are remembering Missions of Healing, when we are telling stories of God's miraculous powers of healing, when we remember a beloved friend from El Paisnal.

Antonio received his miracle healing on a leg that was dead, a leg that was to be amputated, a leg that only God could heal, a leg that Antonio named his "miracle leg," a leg that lifted Antonio up out of his wheelchair and walked him to church, a leg that carried Antonio throughout his town of El Paisnal and beyond so he could testify that God is real and God heals.

Two years later, Antonio was once again in a wheelchair.   As we recognized him from a distance, we were disappointed to see that he was not walking.  Years of uncontrolled diabetes was taking his sight, and had claimed one of his feet.  We came to him with greetings and hugs, and he lit up, saying, "Look, the miracle leg still lives!"  The lost limb was not the one which God had healed, but the other.   Antonio had come to the Mission of Healing to continue the work that God gave to him, to proclaim that the miracle leg was alive.

Some time later, Antonio's body could no longer sustain his miracle leg, and he died.  As his casket traveled by pick-up through the town, people from all around El Paisnal and well beyond walked in procession.  Hundreds of people:  Lutherans, Catholics, adults, children, all those who had listened to Antonio's testimony and were transformed by it.

Again, some time later, Antonio's family invited us to come to their home for a meal.  His widow gave us a small wooden memorial with Antonio's photograph.  "God gave Antonio a special mission," she said, "and he took it very seriously.  For more than two years he gave testimony to the healing power of God.  The crowd of people at his funeral is evidence of God's work through Antonio.  Antonio lives."

A few years have passed.  Antonio's story lives on in the video he asked us to make and in the stories people share.

Back in the United States, a generous donor provides a large quantity of high quality shoes, designed specially for persons with diabetes, to our local church.  On our annual Shoe Day, people in need of shoes to protect their feet come to receive free shoes.  Many of the people suffer from diabetes.  Many live outdoors or in struggling circumstances.  At the end of our last Shoe Day, we bundled up the extra shoes.  These shoes traveled to El Salvador.

Yesterday, these shoes were placed into the hands of Antonio's pastor, in honor and memory of Antonio.  "Antonio lives," said the pastor, smiling and crying.  Antonio lives in all of the people who heard his testimony, but more than that, Antonio lives in all of the people who he helped during the war.  This is a part of Antonio's legacy, which we did not know until yesterday.  During El Salvador's civil war, Antonio worked with this pastor to file refugee papers so those in danger of being kidnapped or murdered or arrested for their work could flee to safety.  "Whenever I see one of those that we helped walking down the streets of El Paisnal, I say to myself, 'Antonio lives.'"

To have known Antonio for a short time, to have heard the story of his work during the war, to have witnessed his faithful response to God's healing and call to witness, to have eaten at his family's table and to be able to share Antonio's life and legacy with others is a true blessing.  May Antonio continue to live within those who knew him, who loved him, who have life because of him, who are transformed by his story, and who walk where he walked in shoes shared in his name.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Tales from the Grandfather: A Picture of a Boy

Paterna Fuit

"How are the little trees, Papa?"

He smiles a big, wide, smile, his eyes squinting with delight.  "They are this high," he says, gesturing with his hand about 3 feet from the ground.  "You gave me one, two, three, four, five paterna seeds, and I collected a few more and now there are nine trees.  Some day there will be a whole field of trees.  The people walk along and pick the fruit and eat it."  After all, that is how I acquired the seeds.  Out in a country field, a friend picked a paterna fruit.  I cracked open the pod and ate the white fluffy flesh, and saved the seeds.  They were already sprouting a bit when I gave them to the Grandfather.

He is a retired pastor, but in his retirement was given a large piece of land out in the countryside.  He has spent the last several years developing a small congregation there, and planting trees on the land.  He has built a "country house." That is what he calls it.  Maybe it is made of adobe.  It has a roof and walls, but he says he needs to build la banca (which could be the sleeping platform or a bench) and a place to bathe.  "I have potable water," he says, "and with the light of the sun, I have everything I need."

He loves this place in the countryside.  It is where he was born.

He tells me he is going to paint a mural.  "I already have a little drawing of it," he tells me.  "When I was 8 years old, there were two giant nance trees by the side of the path. (Nances are small, greenish yellow fruits - sometimes sweet and sometimes sour.)  One morning, at about 5:30 AM, I went out to gather the nances because it was their time and they were falling from the trees.  And what did I encounter on that morning at 5:30 or 6:00 AM, a great group of gatos de monte (wildcats), congregating below the trees and eating the nances.  With one burst from my slingshot the wildcats dispersed, and I went and gathered up all the nances.  I took them to the market and I sold them, and I got 20 centavos!!"

"This is the picture I have in my head:  a boy below the two nance trees, fighting off the gatos de monte.  This is the mural I want to paint."

"Papa, I would like to know this place," I say.

"Siii, hija," he said, "the road out there is beautiful."  And the Grandfather tells me how to get to this special place.

"I will die in this place," the Grandfather says.  "It is good for one to die in the place in which he was born."

The Grandfather wants to put a name on this place:  "Lutheran Church Center for the Arts."  The first work of art is a field full of trees.  The second will be a mural, with a picture of a boy fighting the wildcats.
A long time ago, a little boy named Brian picked some nances
from a tree in his yard.  He wanted to teach me about the
special fruits in El Salvador.  He wrote these words, and helped
me to take this photo.  Brian, wherever you are now, thank you!