Our final two days in El Salvador took us to Cara Sucia and surrounding communities, on the western border with Guatemala. It reminded me of Lobato in terms of the level of poverty – which had houses made of clay brick or cinder block, roofs of corrugated steel – though Cara Sucia seemed a bit worse off. Whereas in Lobato they were relatively close to the urban center of Santa Ana, in Cara Sucia there was no larger urban center to provide jobs or education or social services. Cara Sucia is a small hub in the middle of an agricultural area. No university to provide education, no quality medical facility to provide healthcare, no factories to provide jobs. Just an agricultural zone with many communities built in flood planes, a recipe for humanitarian disaster if a significant hurricane were to hit.
The church in Cara Sucia – Iglesia Luterana Bendición de Dios – was planted after Hurricane Mitch devastated the area in 1998. Built on high ground at the edge of Cara Sucia's main strip, the construction materials were donated by the Lutheran World Federation with local workers providing the labor (by the way, there is no shortage of labor in El Salvador – North Americans workgroups coming south to paint walls or build houses is not necessarily what this country needs). The church also serves as a disaster shelter and has a radio station, though which it broadcasts a variety of religious and cultural programming, and emergency information during natural disasters. In that way this was one of the most organized ministries we saw while in El Salvador.
On the other hand, this church serves an agricultural zone with communities spread out over a 15km radius. Families have few dollars to spend on bus fare – which can be quite expensive for a family of six or eight, which is common in this area – thus Pastor Jorge has a great challenge reaching out to the various communities and gathering some portion of his membership for worship each Sunday morning.
We visited two communities – one slightly north of Cara Sucia, another to the south. The presentations in these communities were direct and to the point. "Thank you for coming to see reality," one man said, as he then described the lack of jobs, the lack of healthcare, the poor state of nutrition, and the extremely high rates of illiteracy (few in this community have advanced beyond a few years of an elementary school education). He and others spoke clearly about the capitalist system in which the few jobs – usually temporary agricultural or manual labor jobs – are controlled by a wealthy elite who wield their economic power to force laborers to work long hours or on Sundays. They spoke about families separated by migration to the United States – usually illegal immigration. In the first community we visited, a large number of the families had loved ones in the United States, sending back funds which have largely sustained that community.
The leftist loyalties of the pastor and lay leaders was clear. The pastor's son read the New Testament lesson in Sunday worship, wearing a Che Guevarra t-shirt emblazoned with the words, "Country or Death." The word "capitalist" was thrown around with disgust, and some level of hope was expressed for upcoming elections in which the left-wing FMLN has a good chance of winning the presidency. But even with all of their material poverty, Pastor Jorge expressed less a need for a partnership that would bring material support than a partnership that would bring spiritual support. "We know how to survive in these conditions. We don't need help. We need prayer. We need to know we have brothers and sisters of faith. We need a spiritual brotherhood."
Seeing what we've seen, those are hard words to hear. Yet it is true. The material support that one North American congregation can lend to a Salvadoran congregation is not insignificant, but it cannot change the fundamentals of the oppressive economic and political system in which Salvadorans find themselves. We might be able to send money for construction materials, or provide funding for some education programs, and these things are good. But in the long run, the best thing we can provide is moral and spiritual support through prayer and spiritual partnership, through trips in which we literally and spiritually walk with our sisters and brothers. As with the march through San Salvador a few days earlier, such a spiritual partnership lends strength and support to a church that through its own ministry of Word, Sacrament and Service is seeking to change Salvadoran society for the good of all.