I’ve been struggling with how to entitle and how to write this post. We encountered poverty on Saturday and the legacy of war on Sunday, and these are truly two central characteristics of Salvadoran life. Today – our third full day in El Salvador – lacked (for me, anyway) a defining theme or a central moment.
- We began our day with a visit to a museum dedicated to the FMLN (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front) and its armed struggle against the (USA-supported) right-wing government in the 1980s and early 1990s. It also had an impressive temporary exhibit about the inidigneous population of El Salvador which today hardly exists thanks to disease and massacre.
- Afterwards, we visited the Cathedral in San Salvador (which was beautiful!), where folks were busy building floats and decorating the church for the August 6 parade celebrating El Salvador del Mundo, the patron saint of El Salvador (and the culmination of the week-long “August Festival”).
- Following that visit we headed off to Suchitoto, a colonial-era town to the north of San Salvador which today is a bit of a tourist trap for Salvadorans and foreignors alike. We enjoyed lunch at a lake-side restaurant, a boat tour, and a walk through a street market in the central plaza.
- On our way back to the hotel, we visited another Lutheran church – Cordero de Dios (Lamb of God) – which ministers in the middle of an urban neighborhood struggling with class divisions, violence, and AIDS.
Perhaps a unifying theme in this collection of visits – if one is to be found – is that on our third day in El Salvador our visit to these disparate locales prompted in many of us (though I should speak only for myself!) reflection about the many links between El Salvador and the United States, and the situation of the poor in El Salvador and of the poor in the United States.
In the museum – El Museo de Imagen y Palabra – there was displayed an American rifle that was used by a US soldier in the Vietnam war. That rifle had been captured by the North Vietnamese, and later transferred to the FMLN for use in their struggle against the US-backed government. I was moved by how American war efforts in Vietnam had an impact in Central America over a decade later. Pastor Norma (of the Salvadoran Lutheran Church) and I looked at that rifle and talked about how war had brought so many weapons to this country (leaving a legacy of violent crime today). She told me that Oscar Romero once said that there were guns for everyone, but not bread for everyone. We then reflected on the Lord’s Prayer – give us this day our daily bread, and noted that scripture does not say, “give us today our daily weapon.” The sad thing is that during the war, the United States provided much more aid for weapons than for bread.
In Suchitoto we enjoyed a lovely lunch and a tour on a boat. It is a touristy town, and we enjoyed taking photos and visiting the open air market in the town’s main plaza. While there I saw a boy wearing a Phillies t-shirt and a Washington National’s hat – my two favorite baseball teams! It reminded me of the links between our two countries . . . but that the links are not as vital or supportive as they could be. His shirt was a donated little league t-shirt (North Hills Little League?) from the United States, an example of chairty. But charity only goes so far. As we were there in one of El Salvador’s main tourist towns, it was clear that El Salvador’s tourism infrastructure needs to improve dramatically if it seeks to be a destination for visitors from the United States and Europe. Charity – and the relatively small spending power of visiting church groups and backpackers – will only go so far. Stronger, more nurturing links are needed between our two countries.
At the end of the day we visited Codero de Dios church (I’m sorry, I cannot remember the name of the municipality). Just a few blocks from the church is a community of 1500 families, whose homes of cinderblock and corrugated metal are built into a hillside, one atop another. These were temporary homes provided by the government for victims of the 2001 earthquake. So far, the government hasn’t done anything to provide permanent housing for these people. The hillside leads to a river, and during big rains, floods and hurricanes, these homes are deluged and the living conditions are unbearable. Futhermore, the people who live in these cramped conditions are looked down upon – literally and socially – by the people who live on the level ground above. Pastor Norma tells of the difficulty within her own church for youth of the level ground to accept youth from the hillside, for the people living in the government-provided housing are blamed for the area’s drug and crime problems.
And so we wondered, how could a more activist US foreign policy support the needs of the people in El Salvador? In what ways could we as US citizens advocate for the poor of El Salvador? And what could we directly do – help build church buildings, provide funding for social programs?
And then some of us wondered if our newly-found concern for the poor of El Salvador might change the ways we look at the social situation in our own country, cities, and neighborhoods. It is easy for us, as outsiders, to align ourselves with the poor of El Salvador and be critical of a governing and social elite that seems to keep the poor in its own place. But back home, as well-educated middle and upper-middle class suburban folks, we are part of the social elite that benefits from the American system. We look at the situation in El Salvador and we are outraged. Will we return home and also be outraged by the poverty of rural and urban America? Perhaps it is easier to see the speck in our neighbor’s eye than it is to see the plank in our own . . .
I imperfectly entitled this post “links,” because if more than anything else today I began to make connections, pull together links, between what I’m seeing and experiencing here and my life back home. We live in a global economy, and are citizens of the world’s most powerful – for now – global power. I’m beginning to identify El Salvador on the globalism chess board, and to see its fragile position in the wake of US political and military might.
But more importantly I also see that El Salvador is a part of God’s Creation, a member of the Body of Christ, a vital part of the universal church. I see in this country a witness to the God of love and mercy, a place where a Theology of Life flows from the lips of pastors and through the actions of congregations. I see in this place the living and vibrant memory of Oscar Romero, a servant of and advocate for the poor. I see in this place the presence of God in the suffering and the poor, and faith in the promised Kingdom to come, a Kingdom which is seen when God’s people gather around God’s Word and Sacraments, when they organize to serve those suffering from AIDS, when they walk in solidarity with the poor, when they preach peace in the midst of war, when they lift up the lowly in response to Christ’s command.
Thy kingdom come, they will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Let us pray. Oremos.