Seeing Reality in Cara Sucia

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.

For more of my posts about El Salvador, click here.  For some photos, click here and then view them as a slideshow.

El Salvador Photos

Just a brief post to offer a link to 200 of the photos I took while in El Salvador.  Each photo has a brief caption.  In the coming days I will write more, particularly about our experience in the rural areas surrounding Cara Sucia during our last two days in El Salvador.  On Sunday night I couldn't blog because someone else was using the hotel's one computer . . and today, well, it was laundry, running children around, and getting new tires for the car.  I'm back home, after all!

To read past blogposts about El Salvador, click here.

Enjoy the pictures.  View them from this page, or click on the album to view larger photos and see the captions.

http://picasaweb.google.com/s/c/bin/slideshow.swf

Small Country, Big Church

Today´s travels in El Salvador took us to the UCA (Universidad Centroamericana) and to San Lorenzo, a small community near the coast.  In both places we witnessed the struggles of the Salvadoran people and the global church´s solidarity with El Salvador.

At the UCA we visited the Oscar Romero Center for Theological Studies (if I have the name slightly wrong, please excuse me.  I´m on a terribly slow computer and I can´t look up the proper name right now!).  This center tells the story – with powerful pictures and a well-done little museum – of the 6 Jesuit priests who were murdered – martyred – in November 1989 for their outspoken teaching and advocacy on behalf of the poor and against the civil war.  From the copy of Jorgen Multman´s The Crudified God soaked in the blood of one of the martyred priests, to the portrait of Archbishop Oscar Romero that had been shot by the deathsquads (as if to say that they would kill him again if they could), to the priests personal affects, it was a moving experience.

But to reference the title of this post, I was very pleased to see several posters from the 1980s and other materials demonstrating solidarity from the international community.  A citation from the Washington, DC City Council declared an "Archbishop Oscar Romero" day.  A poster from Taiwan decried the violence of the war.  The sign-in book contained several languages . . . The Jesuit Martyrs and Oscar Romero are revered not only by Salvadorans, but by Christians around the world.

And then we traveled a little more than an hour to San Lorenzo, a small community near the coast that was created after the devestating 2001 earthquakes.  From what I understood – by speaking with Salvadorans and Spanish-speaking Germans – this community was founded largely thanks to the support of the international Lutheran community, particularly from Europe.  About 27 families live in San Lorenzo, where a Lutheran congregation (which also operates a small primary school) is the major community organization.

In addition to the presence of a German missionary pastor, the international community´s presence is made known in several ways.  Organizations and individuals central to the development of San Lorenzo are recognized with street names (including Lutheran World Federation Street), and two simple plazas honor Bavaria and Norway, whose churches made significant contributions to the community.  As you walk through San Lorenzo, you can´t help but feel a larger community – a broader church – at work in the place.

El Salvador is a small country, but there is a big, a global church walking alongside it in solidary, in partnership, in mission.  There was something beautiful about sharing prayer and conversation with a German Lutheran pastor as we both spoke in less-than-perfect and poorly-accented Spanish.  But it was the Salvadoran people – better put, it was the presence of Christ in the suffering of the Salvadoran people – that brought us together, that helped us to better realize the mission of the church – to proclaim the Gospel in Word, Sacrament, and Service, particularly alongside the poor and suffering of the world.

Thank God for the Lutheran Church of El Salvador, and thank God for the partner churches who walk in solidary with it!

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If I write again before returning home on Monday, August 11, it will be on Sunday evening.  On Saturday we head off to Cara Sucia to visit another church and spend the night in family homes.  It promises to be a wonderful experience.

Transition

(Please see previous posts for more details about our church´s mission trip to El Salvador, from where I´m writing this post.  Frankly, there´s more substance in those previous posts, as this post is pretty thin today.  Sorry!)

Today was a day of transition for our group.  Pastor Mike returned home, and for the first time we had a day dedicated to touristy things – visiting an artisan market, the Quetzaltepec volcano in San Salvador, and the National Anthropology Museum.  Unlike other days, we did not meet with members of the Salvadoran Lutheran Church, nor did we visit sites related to the civil war.  It was a bit of a lighter day, and perhaps that is good (particularly because two members of our group were feeling a wee bit sick today).  The fatigue of being on the road now for six days seems to have hit us today.  Perhaps that is why we ordered Pizza Hut for dinner tonight.  To a weary (and for me at least, homesick) group, pizza hit the spot.

But it was a good day of rest, because the next few days will be intense.  Tomorrow we will visit the Central American University, where six Jesuit priests were martyred in 1989, followed by a visit to a Lutheran congregation in San Lorenzo, a community along the Pacific coast that was hit hard by the 2001 earthquakes.  We will likely have some time to talk with members of the church, hear about their ministry, walk through their neighborhood, and worship together.

On Saturday we head out to Cara Sucia, to a Lutheran congregation ministering among the poor there.  We will meet members of the church, hear about their ministry, and have time for fellowship.  We may also get to visit a beach near the Guatemalan boarder, Bola del Monte.  That night, we will stay with families in their homes.  On Sunday I will preach – in Spanish – during the worship service.  I´m about half-way done composing my sermon right now . . . and I will be preaching this sermon with a manuscript – I´m not about to preach in Spanish from an outline or simple notes!

I will probably write a brief post tomorow night, but will not write on Saturday as I will be away from an internet connection.  On Sunday evening, our final night here, I´ll write again.

Walking With the Salvadoran Lutheran Church

One of the ways we have described our mission trip to El Salvador has been with the words, "walk with."  Our intention on this our first trip to El Salvador is to walk with the Salvadoran people in their daily lives, and particularly to walk with the Lutheran Church of El Salvador.  To this end, our trip has been designed to give us a broad perspective on Salvadoran life and the ministry of the Salvadoran Lutheran Church, taking us to a variety of places to meet people, to see historical sites, to gather for worship, and to hear the Salvadoran story. 

Today we quite literally walked with the Lutheran Church of El Salvador.  Every August 6 – during the country's August Festival – the Lutheran Church in El Salvador celebrates the anniversary of the Lutheran Episcopate in El Salvador (more on the foundation of the Lutheran Episcopate in El Salvador at the end of this post).  This year is the 22nd anniversary.  The celebration begins with a 3km parade/demonstration/walk through San Salvador, arriving at the bishop's church, Resurrection Lutheran.  Leading this walk were several youth, carrying symbols of the church – Bible, a cross, baskets of food, and a banner, among others.  Behind them were the Bishop and the clergy – visiting clergy from overseas along with a large percentage of the Salvadoran clergy – visiting delegations from overseas churches, and then thousands of youth and adults from the Lutheran Church and partner organizations.  The coordinator of the event estimated that about 4000 people were in attendance.

It was truly an amazing celebration and demonostration of the church's presence and of God's work through the church in El Salvador.  However, it was not too long ago that the Lutheran Church and Bishop Gomez himself were persecuted by the military regime in the late 1980s and early 1990s because of their advocacy for the poor and their opposition to the war (during the war, Bishop Gomez was "disappeared" once and went into hiding several times to avoid capture).  To this day church leaders are not warmly embraced by the right-wing governent, and the church faces new challenges from drug gangs (last year two pastors were killed as they came out of worship).  The church's mission is truly a lucha, a struggle, in a society wracked by poverty and crime. 

In that way, then, the parade today was much less a celebratory walk – like a high school homecoming or a July 4th parade might be - but much more a walk of solidarity, akin to the civil rights marches of the 1960s.  It was a march of solidarity – with North Americans, Germans, Fins, Swedes, Brasilians and others walking alonside of Salvadorans, supporting the ministry of the church in El Salvador, and telling the people of El Salvador that there is a great community of nations and churches walking with the Lutheran Church of El Salvador in its ministry and mission among the Salvadoran people.  You are not alone.

The march ended at the Resurrection Church, where the bishop gave remarks and a ceremony of presentations and thanksgivings took place.  The theme for this year's pilgrimage is "Give us this day our daily bread."  The bishop commented that God has given the world all it needs for nutrition and sustanence, but that the human hands that administer God's creation have selfishly and sinfully created inequalities and divisions.  He highlighted that the Lord's Prayer does not ask for "my" daily bread, but "our" daily bread, that the prayer and the need for sustanence is not a personal concern, but a communal, a global concern.

This was the most powerful day for me thus far.  To literally walk with the people of El Salvador and the Salvadoran Lutheran Church was an experience that I will never forget.  Yet marching is only a first step.  Anyone can hop on a plane and participate in a parade.  But I hope for me that this march becomes a symbol and a reminder of what it is I am called to do – to walk with God's people in need, to join them on their journey of faith, to participate in their struggle, to sing and pray and work for justice alongside those who most struggle for it.

This evening we will have a celebration with the Bishop and with several of the other foreign delegations.  It promises to be a late evening.  Tomorrow Pastor Mike returns to the United States – please keep him in your thoughts and prayers – and the remaining delegation is scheduled to visit the San Salvador volcano (and likely something else, too – we have not stuck terribly close to the original itinerary!).

Speaking of volcanoes and of things tectonic . . . last evening we experienced an earthquake.  Waking (some of) us up in the middle of the night was a tremor rated 4.6 on the ritcher scale.  It scared the crud out of me!  Having lived on the east coast my whole life, I had never felt an earthquake before . . .

I have noticed an uptick in readers this week – thanks to all at home who are reading about our travels.  Please know that you are in our thoughts and prayers!  We miss you!

I've been lucky enough to write each day using Pastor Mike's computer and the hotel's wireless internet connection.  He and his computer leave tomorrow, so the blogging might be a bit briefer ("thank God!" you say) as I will be writing from the hotel reception desk's computer for the next few evenings.

Peace to you all.

– – – – –

A brief note about the Lutheran Episcopate in El Salvador

I know some who read this blog are interested in church polity and church order and whatnot.  From what I was told by a pastor here in El Salvador, the Episcopate came to El Salvador in 1986.  Medardo Gomez was the Pastor President of the Salvadoran Lutheran Synod, then affiliated with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.  However, the Salvadoran Church was looking to become autonomous, in part because a large number of female leaders were being trained and the church wanted to ordain them as pastors (which is prohibited in the LCMS). 

Additionally, the church sought to raise the profile of Pastor President Gomez by consecrating him as a bishop.  This was partly for his protection, as his elevation as a bishop would make it (incrementally, anyway) more difficult for the government to persecute him (easier to persecute a Pastor President than a Bishop). With the presence of several foreign bishops, including a bishop from the Church of Sweden (a Lutheran Church that has maintained the historic episcopate) he was consecrated Bishop of the Salvadoran Lutheran Church on August 6, 1986.  Consecrating as Bishop an advocate for the poor and a critic of the military regime – an amazing act of international solidarity and a defiant demonstration of faith in the midst of a bloody civil war.

It is clear that Bishop Gomez is loved here in El Salvador.  During the march several cheers of "Long live Bishop Medardo Gomez!" with loud responses of, "Viva!" were heard.  He has truly been a symbol of this church's tenacity, and a shepherd, a guide, a pastor to this church.  A simple anecdote tells of his dedication: last evening, at the end of a long day including two worship services (one to dedicate several trained lay leaders, another service of Ordination and Holy Communion), greeting several of the foreign delegations, and preparations for today's march (and who knows what else!), he got in our van and asked our driver to drop him off at Casa de Esperanza (House of Hope), a ministry for people with drug and alcohol addictions living on the streets of San Salvador.  As he got out of the van, a man ran over to the van and hugged him, and he was greeted warmly as he passed through the shelter's doors.

Opening Hearts

Hello! Chris thought it might be nice if someone else from the delegation shared some thoughts on our experience and I (Jane) volunteered. Frankly, I am hoping that taking some time to write will help to clarify some of the many thoughts and emotions that are swirling through me after just 4 days here.

I chose the title "Opening Hearts" because that is a phrase that conveys a number of things I have experienced already. First of all, my heart has been opened to new experiences and feelings- all that is involved in encountering any new culture. This one seems to particularly speak to the heart, however. The guide books all say that El Salvadorans are some of the kindest people you will ever encounter and they are accurate. The waitresses hug us as we leave restaurants, the children reach out their hands, the kiss of peace in church is hugs all around… the warmth is amazing.

My heart also has been torn open. The poverty goes beyond what many of us can imagine. Beyond that the images from the war- the museum and the wall of remembrance- made my soul ache. I counted- over 3500 people died in just the one year I graduated from college. And those are the ones who have been accounted for- and that is one year out of about 12. A civil war is always particularly ugly- this one had atrocities that are hard to even read about, let alone imagine living through. And despite the role that the US played in supporting the military that committed those atrocities, we are embraced by the people here. Their hearts have been scarred by the war, but not shut down.

The hearts of the people here have also opened to us. Pastor Norma has spent time with us, sharing her history and her country and opening her heart to us. The people of the communities we have visited have been very quick to share with us. They encourage my very poor and reluctant Spanish and we communicate with hugs and smiles.

I am amazed at the hope that the people have. They have little reason to hope with the next earthquake or hurricane or coup d'etat around the corner. They are thankful for what they have and willing to hope and work for something better.

Tomorrow we will walk with the people of the Lutheran Church of El Salvador in a pilgrimage to show we are a community both within El Salvador and in relationship with the world. I am eager to share in this experience with my new friends – in this beautiful country that I could barely identify on a map before I came. I ask that you will lift us all up in prayer tomorrow as we walk together so we can have a show of God's strength that outdoes the military parade that was our introduction to El Salvador.

The phrase, "May the peace of the Lord be with you" now has more meaning to me than ever. I wish all you God's peace.

Links

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.