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!

Sunday, March 19, 2017

My New Charla

Last year, I blogged about my charla at the Mesa Final during the Mission of Healing Family Wellness Fair, and I received a surprising amount of feedback from people who found the transcript of my little presentation to be both educational and entertaining.

This year, a pharmacist and my husband took over the charla about antibiotics and super bacteria.  Luckily there was another topic just waiting for its charla debut at the fair:  let me introduce you to my new charla....Menopause!

OK, gentlemen, before you decide not to read this blog post, you should know that there were plenty of men of all ages who very much enjoyed this charla.  So, stick with me here and maybe you will learn a little something and be slightly entertained.

I prepped my little charla space at each of our sites with the following:  a few pink hearts taped up on the wall or hanging from the canopy (because February is the month of amistad y amor), my big pink bag with art supplies for the craft (yes, menopause included a craft), a few paper plates with inspirational quotes (either taped on the bag or whatever surface was handy), and a paper plate sign in plain view which had the title of my charla, "Menopause - My New Normal."

The fair was set up with about 25 stations, and people could go from one charla to the next in any order they wished.  As soon as a little group of 4 to 6 women gathered, I would start the charla.  Women would read the quotes while they waited:

"To complete years is obligatory, to make yourself a little old lady is optional."
"The beautiful young women are accidents of nature, but the beautiful old women are works of art."
"A 20 year old woman can be attractive; a 30 year old - seductive; but only after 40 years can one be irresistible."
"I'm me.  I'm a daughter.  I'm a mom.  I'm a grandma.  I'm a sister.  I'm a daughter of God."

Hello, welcome to my charla, "Menopause - My New Normal."  My name is Linda and I am a volunteer with the Lutheran Church.  Maybe some of you are already having some symptoms of menopause, and maybe some of you have already passed through this stage of life.  And some of you are very young (because there were usually quite a mixture of ladies at my charla), but it's good for you to know this stuff because some day you will have these experiences.  No woman can avoid them.  (Addressing the young ones): Be sure you all go to the menstruation charla over there because it is a really good one.  (Embarrassed looks follow.)

Surprisingly, most of the women knew very little about menopause.  A few were eager to ask questions right away about what age, how long, what symptoms...  

Menopause is a normal change in the body of every woman.  For some it happens in their forties, and some in their fifties.  Each woman is different. The changes come when the level of estrogen decreases in our bodies.  At first we may have changes in our periods, and those can be difficult.  We say menopause begins twelve months after our last menstruation.  Some women have lots of symptoms.  Some women have a few.  It's important for me to know what is normal for me, and for you to know what is normal for you.

One of the symptoms of menopause which I really struggle with is hot sweats (in English, we say hot flashes, but in Spanish, it is hot sweats.  At this point lots of the ladies nod their heads.).  For me, I always get a hot sweat when I am singing.  I don't know why, but I do.  That is normal for me.  Does anyone else get hot sweats at certain times?  At night?  Yes, and does it keep you from getting a good night sleep?  And after being sweaty, do any of you get really cold?  Yes, this is very normal.  

I should tell you a story about my husband.  One day we were at our sister church and I was on one side of the church and my husband was a little distance away talking to our friend.  She told my husband that at night she has a big fever.  It is so bad that her nightclothes get soaking wet.  Then she has chills and she can not get warm.  She says she isn't sick in the day and the doctor says its nothing.  She was very worried.  From across the room I hear my husband say, "Oh, my wife has that all the time.  It's part of menopause and it is really normal.  Nothing to worry about."  Imagine that, my husband was giving our friend a little charla about menopause!  So, hombres, it is good that you are here learning about what is happening to your beloved spouses.

(Next I hand out a half paper plate to each participant.  This is a good way to entertain the children who are at the charla with their moms and grandmas, but it is also a good way to break the ice with the women.)  If you like, you can each make a little craft while we talk about menopause.  Can you guess what it is?  (I grasp the straight side of my half-plate and fan myself with the circle part.)  Yes, it's your personal fan. (The ladies giggle.)  This is something very practical that you can slip into your purse so you are always ready when you have a hot sweat.  You can use these markers and decorate your fan however you like, I know you are all very creative.  I made a big flower on mine, but you can make trees, mountains, houses, whatever you like.  No, don't worry if you are not artistic.  You will make something beautiful for yourself, in your style.  

Let's talk about everyone's favorite topic:  the vagina.  (Depending on the group, I sometimes sent the children off to the side - but mostly the women wanted their little ones to listen.)  With the changes of menopause most women experience dryness in their vagina.  No, it is not fun to have a dry vagina, and it can make sexual relations uncomfortable.  It isn't easy to talk with our partners about these things, but they love us and want to know what is happening.  What are some things we can do to help with this symptom?  Drink water.  We really need lots of water in our bodies.  What else?  There are some foods that have vitamin E in them, and they can help make our skin beautiful and our vaginas more spongey.  Avocado and papaya are really full of vitamin E.  You eat avocado every day?  I thought so, because look how young and beautiful you are!  (Yes, these are actual quotes from my charla.)  

Sometimes the clinic might give you a cream with estrogen in it.  You can see that word estrogen on the label.  If you are very dry it is OK to use a cream like this, but if you have any troubles with breast cancer or other female cancers, this cream is not a good idea.  It is very important that you have your mammograms and your pelvic exams so that you stay healthy, and that you share everything with your doctor. 

Many women like to use a lubricant during relations to be more comfortable. (Eyes widened.) Yes, it is really OK to use a lubricant.  Use one with a water base.  And protect yourself - have you been to the STI/HIV charla?  A lubricant will make relations much more comfortable.  They have it at the pharmacy - even at some Supers.  One woman asked, "I don't have a partner or relations, but can I just use the lubricant myself to feel more comfortable?"  (The women waited for an answer.)  Oh yes, sister, yes you can!  (I give a lot of credit to the women who were brave enough during this charla to ask questions like this.)

After the vagina, I moved onto another favorite topic...

Let's talk about the bladder.  Well, during menopause things get dry inside and this affects the bladder.  It is really important to keep our bodies spongey by drinking plenty of water.  I know we don't like to drink water because then we have to pee more often.  But really, our bladder will work better if we drink plenty of water.  Maybe we all have a little trouble with drips of urine leaking out, like when we sneeze or we laugh a lot.  (All the older women and pregnant women nod.)  Nobody talks about this, but really, many many women have this problem.  It is important that we talk with each other so we know we are not alone with these symptoms.

With the bladder, one thing we need to do is think about using the bathroom.  The last thing we should do before leaving the house is:  use the bathroom.  And the first thing we can do when we arrive in a place after a long bus ride is:  find the bathroom and use it.  When I got here today the first thing I did was find the bathroom.  I didn't feel like I had to go, but I did not want to find myself here in front of you, giving my charla, and doing the little dance (they all cracked up at my little dance), and then run to the bathroom and have an emergency with my pants a little wet. (The women all look at each other and nod.)  No, it is better to plan and use the bathroom regularly to prevent an emergency.  And it's OK if you are going on the bus or out for a long time to put a little towel or pad in your bloomers.

One goal of this charla is to help women realize that many women struggle with these common symptoms and that it is helpful for us as women to talk with each other about the changes we experience in our bodies.

Did you know there is an exercise you can do to help your muscles inside so that you can control the exiting of your urine?  Yes.  The next time you go to the bathroom, start to pee, then stop, then start and then stop - those are the muscles.  You can do the exercise right now in your seat.  OK, everybody squeeze and relax, inside of yourself.  Can you feel that?  No one knows that you are doing this.  It is your private exercise.  When you are riding along in the bus, you can do it 1-2-3-4-5... maybe 10 times and you can think to yourself, "Ha, I am doing my personal exercise and nobody knows it."

The ladies were crazy for the Kegel exercises.  Depending on time and interest we also covered change in humor and difficulty with sleep.  If there were children in the group, I asked them how they could be helpful to their moms or teachers who might have some symptoms.  The kids were cute - with answers like "bring a cup of water" or "bring a chair so my mom can rest."  We talked about heart palpitations and the signs of a heart attack.  I tried to answer their questions.

Many thanks for coming to my charla.  I hope you learned a little something.  If you have any questions about your body, be sure to talk with your doctor or with any of the health workers here.  What beautiful fans!  

Actual quotes following the charla:
"My husband is very attentive.  He doesn't pressure me if I don't feel well."

From a husband who attended the charla:  "We should really know these things too."

"Now I can go home and tell my husband.  Before I did not have the information I needed to explain it to him."

Actual funny story:
A group of teen boys sat down in front of my table.  They noticed the paper plates and markers and thought my charla looked like fun.  In addition, participants were encouraged to attend ALL the charlas, so the boys were being responsible in complying with that directive.  I said, "My name is Linda.  Welcome to my charla.  Do you know what this charla is about?"

"No, no," they said.

"Look around," I said.  "Do you see a sign with the title?"

The boys noticed the paper plate with "Menopause:  My New Normal" written on it.  "Aaaaack," they scream and all but one take off like they had seen a ghost.  The ladies at the nearby Breast Health charla had a good laugh.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

40 Years: Remembering Padre Rutilio Grande

On March 12, 1977, Father Rutilio Grande was driving on the road between Aguilares and El Paisnal. An old man and a boy were riding with him.  Because he was an advocate for education, because he worked to organize poor farmers in his community, because he believed in freedom for the oppressed people around him, Father Rutilio Grande was assassinated.  Every year on the anniversary of his death, people who were and are inspired by Father Rutilio's life work gather to honor his memory.

With friends from communities repopulated after the war, with friends from the Catholic church and with friends from the Lutheran Church, we walked the route from "The Three Crosses" - the memorial by the side of the road, the place where an old man, a boy and their priest lost their lives - to the town of El Paisnal.  We listened, we walked, we hugged, we sang, we held hands, we took photos, and we sat for a while in the church.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of Rutilio Grande's death, and there is hope among the faithful people of El Salvador, that Father Rutilio will soon be beatified - a step in the formal process of being named a saint in the Roman Catholic tradition.  Like Monseñor Oscar Romero, Father Rutilio Grande is a role model and an inspiration to many people from a variety of faith traditions.

The banner shown in the photos near the end of this collection, holds the names of many people who lost their lives because they stood up for justice and dignity for all.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

With a Little Strategy, God Provides

In honor of International Women's Day, this story is dedicated to all of the faithful women who provide for families with great wisdom and perseverance.

One day, a young pastor and I decided to sit together and eat lunch and chat.  We know each other from time spent together at big church events and during Missions of Healing.  I asked her to tell me about the ministry in her community.  She shared a beautiful story with me, and afterwards sent me some photographs.  Since we were eating lunch, I did not take notes, but it is the kind of story that makes an impression, and so with or without notes, it got pasted into my memory.

The church is in a small town in the mountain range that runs along El Salvador's southern coast.  The hills around the town are steep, some shaded green with coffee bushes clustered beneath large shade trees.  A patchwork of terraced milpas dot the landscape, alternating brown or green depending on the growing season.  To plant their milpas, farmers tie ropes around their waists and repel down from the top of the hill, poking holes into the soil with pointed sticks and dropping two or three corn seeds into each hole.  This is the traditional way to plant, and on the steep hills it is the only way to plant.

I asked the pastor if people come down from the higher hills to come to church, and she began to tell this story.

Yes, they do, but it is a long, long walk.  There are a group of families who live up in the hills, well hidden.  They say they live in Las Champas because their homes are "champas" - small corrugated tin homes.  They don't have a legal right to live where they do, but where can they go?  They have no place to go, so they built their little champas and that is where they live.  They do not have water, they have to walk a long way to a river to get water.  They do not have light, nothing.  The only way to get there is to walk through the fields, there is not even a road.  It is so difficult to get there that the church in the town decided to start a mission up in Las Champas.  So one Sunday each month, I walk up there.  No, I don't go alone, there are people from the church who accompany me.

There are about 65 or 75 children who live up there.  They have never been to school.  No one goes to school.  How would they go?  There is no way to get to a school.  They live half-way between our town and the next.  We are working with the local municipality to advocate for a little school in the community.

In the weeks before Christmas we wanted to do something for the children.  There are no resources up there, nothing.  Well, our church leaders met and they said, "We don't have any resources either."  Yes, that is true, but I told them that they probably know people who do have resources.  Maybe they shop at a little store and that owner has some income.  Maybe they know people in the town who have little businesses or things they can share.  We made a plan.

We wrote a letter, and it was quite formal with the letterhead of the church.  The letter explained that we wanted to have a Christmas party for the families in Las Champas.  We needed food, gifts, whatever we could get to make the day special for the families.  I signed the letter and so did the council leader, on behalf of all the church.  We made copies and the people of the church took the copied letters to the different business and neighbors in town.  The people were afraid to deliver the letters because they were embarrassed to ask for things, but our plan was not to ask.  We did not give any speeches.  We just went from place to place and presented the letter.  "We are from the Lutheran Church and we would like to leave this letter with you," we said.  Nothing more.  That was maybe at the beginning of December.

We wanted to follow up with the businesses and the neighbors - to give them a little something from our church.  Well, I didn't really have anything so I made something from an old soda can and put sand in it and a candle.  This is what we decided to give out to those who had received the letters.  We worked on making those little candle gifts.  Then, just before Christmas Eve, we took what we made to the places where we had delivered the letters.  "We are from the Lutheran Church," we said, "and we are bringing the light of Christ to you."  We did not ask for anything.  The business owners and neighbors remembered the letters.  "Oh," they said, "you brought that letter.  When is the Christmas event? What time do you need it?  How much do you need?  Where should we bring it?"  Some clothes, some food, some treats - we received everything we needed.  On Christmas we walked up to Las Champas, and we had a beautiful celebration.  

With a little bit of strategy, God provided.
Candle gifts

Thanksgiving for the Christmas gifts
Celebrating in Las Champitas

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Days for Girls in El Salvador

A year ago, after the 2016 Mission of Healing Family Wellness Fair (learn more here and here), we did a pretty intense evaluation and determined that a charla (educational discussion) about menstruation would be very beneficial for girls, young women, and their families.  We got connected with Days for Girls International and groups in the US started creating the washable feminine hygiene kits.  In August 2016, I wrote a blog story which invited people to help.  The response was fantastic.  By December 2016 we already had received suitcases full of complete kits and kit components, and I wrote a follow-up story.

Just a few weeks ago, we held the 2017 Mission of Healing Family Wellness Fair in four Lutheran Church communities in the Northern Micro-Region of the Salvadoran Lutheran Church.*  The menstruation charla was one of 23 total charlas, and fit into a circle of charlas about sexual and reproductive health.  Pastor Emely of the Salvadoran Lutheran Church did a great job talking with girls and women about the myths and facts of menstruation, and opened up a space for participants to ask questions and to feel comfortable talking about their bodies.  The Days for Girls kits were available to menstruation charla participants, and our target group was girls ages 12 to 25 (though some younger women and some older women also received kits).

Getting ready to give her charla!

With the impressive sewing effort from the sister churches in the US and friendly folks who sent kits to us, we started the week with 345 complete kits for the northern region.  More than 150 of the kits were placed into drawstring bags made by Salvadoran Lutheran Church women.  We ended up with 11 kits without outer bags.  In total, we packed and carried donations of 690 shields and 2760 pads -- all lovingly made with beautiful fabrics according to the Days for Girls instructions.  We carried all of the other kit components:  undies, washcloths, soap, plastic zipper bags and instruction cards.  About 100 of the kits were assembled in the US, and the rest were assembled by our Advance Team in El Salvador.

We also brought some shield and pad fabric, 3 yards of the impermeable fabric for the shields, various shields and pads in different stages of completion, thread, patterns, snaps and the snap application tools so that we could teach Salvadoran Lutheran Church teams how to make the kits themselves.  We ran a small pre-fair workshop and used a borrowed sewing machine to demonstrate the process for making the kits.

In the days immediately following the Family Wellness Fair, our Post Fair Team visited 5 northern region health clinics, where we shared sample kits and explained their use.  At two of the clinics, doctors and nurses expressed interest in learning how to make the kits.  They would love to have them on hand to give out to girls who need them.  One of the Lutheran Churches has already responded to this request and will be holding a two-day training session to teach how to make the kits.  They will use the extra materials we brought, and our team provided a small fund for lunches on those two days.
Explaining the use of the kit to local health clinic personnel

During the past month, youth groups in two of the sister churches (whose US partners had led the efforts in creating the kits) held workshops for girls and youth during which the kits were distributed (neither of these communities hosted a fair this year).  One goal of the youth workshops was to encourage girls who are just starting to have their periods to use the cloth option.  The girls and their moms really enjoyed these workshops, and they have promised to talk with their friends about the kits which should help to popularize their use.

I think we can officially declare the Days for Girls in El Salvador movement a great success!  Thanks to all who supported the efforts for 2017.  Of course, we are already planning for 2018!!  There are a number of ways in which you, your church group, or your Girl Scout Troop can help:

  • Go to the Days for Girls web site and learn about the program.
  • Make kits!  For 2018 we plan to purchase the soap in El Salvador, and we again hope that the drawstring bags can be made by Salvadoran Lutheran Church groups.  We are asking groups to ASSEMBLE the kits in the US according to the instructions provided by Days for Girls, and we will add the soap and slip the kit into its outer bag in El Salvador.
  • Do a fund-raiser to help with the purchase of materials.
  • Go on a shopping spree for Undies!!  (Girls sizes 10-14)
  • US churches with sister churches in El Salvador are encouraged to connect with their partners to learn if they have interest in receiving Days for Girls kits.  If you are connected through the Lutheran Church, Pastor Emely and Pastor Conchi can help provide the proper training/charla to accompany the distribution of the kits.

Our team created a power point presentation which can be used both as a report for 2017 and a promotion for 2018.  If you would like access to the presentation, send me an email message (which you can do if you are subscribe to my blog via email).

These girls had a little fun shouting "No más kotex!"

*A second Mission of Healing Fair was held in the Central South Micro-Region.  The format is significantly different than in the Northern Micro-Region, but the menstruation charla and distribution of Days for Girls kits were a highlight in that setting too!  When we receive Days for Girls kits from friends and churches outside of our sister church network, we share the kits between the two regions.  I help coordinate the events in the north, but I believe the group for Central South had about 200 additional Days for Girls kits which they distributed during their event.