Monday, July 15, 2013

Joining Hands in July

Dear friends,

I hope this letter finds you well and enjoying the longer and lovely days of summer. Here, the Salvadoran rainy season is in full swing. I missed the first showers this year while traveling on Mission Interpretation Assignment throughout the United States, but have gotten to experience several awe-inspiring thunderstorms, and even an earthquake, since I have been back in San Salvador for this month of July. It is amazing to me how after three years in El Salvador I have come to equate these wild and unsettling natural phenomena with a sense of being en casa, at home.

I have been incredibly blessed in my travels this year to enjoy the warm hospitality of strangers-become-friends, and to be welcomed with such enthusiasm in Presbyterian congregations around the US. In sharing the stories of our partners in El Salvador, I am reminded of how unlikely it seems that we could receive a message of inspiration and hope in the example of communities in a country with a recent history so wrought with conflict, violence and political and social crisis. But our Crucified and Risen Lord certainly has a way of lifting up the least of these.

As you well know, the harsh, daily reality for many Salvadoran families is one of hunger and undernourishment  Numerous families are not able to consistently provide enough healthy and nutritious food for their children to grow and thrive in all the ways God intends. Having suffered a nearly 15-year civil war, devastating earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and hurricanes, international relief aid has been poured into El Salvador for decades. And while relief aid has contributed to the saving of many lives, it has also contributed to a culture of hand-outs and short-term projects that have not allowed or encouraged communities to truly develop sustainably and on their own terms. 

Our work with the Joining Hands Network, however, strives to do just that. By emphasizing accompaniment, empowerment and sustainable development, we are seeing communities be transformed from the inside out. So, when leaders from a local community approached our Network soliciting a donation of animals for a hen and chicken project, rather than simply offer to buy the animals for them, we invited them to visit and learn from the experience of some of our Joining Hands partners in another community.  In the village of El Tigre, Ahuachapán they met with women who have organized themselves into cooperatives to work together to create
a sustainable, healthy and local food system: one group raises laying hens and incubates eggs, another makes organic chicken feed, and another manages an organic greenhouse garden that benefits not only the one hundred and fifty associates of the cooperatives but also their communities at large! Joining Hands offers them support with additional training and by facilitating connections with other communities to share this model of cooperation and community development with others.

After this eye-opening experience listening to and learning from peers – strangers who have now become sisters in this struggle against hunger – women from the first community formed groups and began to make a plan to incubate eggs in order to raise enough chickens and hens to carry out a similar initiative to benefit their community. Joining Hands has come alongside them to support with training, to help secure a small, homemade, 60-egg incubator, and to accompany them as they grow this program and invite more local women to join in.

Not only are these women addressing the issues of hunger and undernourishment  but their efforts are strengthening the social fabric of their community as well. The local pastor has shared with us that as a result of family feuds and neighborhood grudges, previously there were women in the community who barley exchanged words and would not look each other in the eyes. Now, those same women are working side-by-side to transform their community, and through it all, they themselves are being transformed. What a testament to God’s reconciling love and power to make all things new!

I continue to marvel at and give thanks for the many ways that God is moving in our midst in El Salvador. Thanks to your generous and continued support, the Joining Hands ministry is able to spread the message of God’s unfailing justice, grace and love, and God’s desire for fullness of life for all of God’s people. I am grateful for your prayers that help sustain me in my work, and invite your ongoing partnership in God’s mission with the people of El Salvador. ¡Muchas gracias!

Thursday, January 17, 2013

¡Feliz Año 2013!

Dear friends:


I send warm and sunny greetings from San Salvador after returning from a fabulous visit with family and friends in the Vancouver/Portland area over the holidays. Some of the highlights include several merry gatherings with good food and great conversation, celebrating Christmas Eve service at Northminster Presbyterian Church in the company of my parents and all three siblings, a weekend spent laughing and reminiscing with my beloved grandparents, a Sabbath from all things technological (didn't turn on the computer for two whole weeks!), and even a little SNOW. Pretty much everything one could hope for when "home" for the holidays. I hope your Christmas celebrations were also as joyful and your New Year as filled with hope!

Above, I have included a link to the 2013 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study. What began as a simple prayer calendar to pray for foreign missionaries on designated days  has grown and expanded to the current resource for daily devotions as well as deepening one's knowledge and understanding of where and how Presbyterian World Mission is contributing to God's work throughout God's Creation. Today, January 17, 2013, we lift up God's mission in El Salvador and I would ask you to join us in prayers for peace in the midst of violence, hope and empowerment in the face of helplessness, compassion where indifference has reigned, and that as co-workers with God we might remove the chains of oppression and break the yoke of injustice (Isaiah 58:6). We read last week, in Isaiah 42, the great prophecy of the Lord's Servant: I, the Lord, have called you an given you power to see that justice is done on the earth. Through you I will make a covenant with my peoples; through you I will bring light to the nations. You will open the eyes of the blind and set free those who sit in dark prisons. May we all heed this call to be the servants of a just and loving God whose deepest desire is that all would enjoy the peace and plenty of God's kingdom; may we be the answer to the prayer  on earth as it is in heaven.  Amen.

Here is a glimpse of what I was up to in 2012...

Marching with community members
 in protest of the construction of a
new Walmart that threatens the local
environment  and economies.
Doing the "Chicken Dance" with
folks from the community of
San Isidro,Usulután thanks to members
of a delegation from Long Island Presbytery.
and here is a bit about my Mission Interpretation Travel in 2013.

Making delicious corn pancakes
riguas in the community
of El Tinteral.
At the end of every three year term of mission service, as Mission Co-Workers we are asked to spend several months in the U.S. visiting churches to share about the ways we have been participating in God’s mission in our part of the world. This means I have the blessed task of preparing for a season of visits to churches, presbyteries, and other groups in 2013 before returning for another term of service with Joining Hands Against Hunger in El Salvador. I plan to be based in Vancouver, WA from April through mid-June, after participating in the Ecumenical Advocacy Days event in Washington, D.C. April 5-8, and in Southern California throughout the months of August and September. It has been a joy to get to know you and build relationships through letters and online communications, and I would love to visit in person if you would consider inviting me.

If you are interested in having me come share with your congregation, presbytery, community organization, etc., please let me know as soon as possible so I can begin to work out a schedule. I hope to coordinate visits on a “first come, first served” basis, while also trying to be a good steward of time, money, and fuel by grouping visits together geographically. If you know of other churches or interested groups in your area, presbytery or synod, I would appreciate your help in making connections!

I am eager to share about my role in Presbyterian World Mission and the wonders God is doing in Central America, particularly in El Salvador. I love to participate in worship leadership—preaching, giving a “minute” for mission or a children’s message, leading a Bible study or Sunday school class. When possible, it is best to have space other than or in addition to Sunday morning worship to share with greater depth and focus, and give a fuller picture of what God is doing through Joining Hands in El Salvador, and mid-week engagements are excellent as well. I am happy to work with you in planning topics and format(s) that best suit your community’s interests and situation, for example:
·         Sunday school (any age group)
·         Special event (potluck or otherwise)
·         Youth group
·         Bible study
·         Men’s or women’s groups
·         Prayer breakfast
·         Campus ministry
·         Mission committee meeting
·         Presbytery or synod meeting
·         Church camp or vacation Bible school

A note on expenses:
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) pays my salary while I’m on interpretation assignment, so I neither need nor expect any kind of honorarium. My food, lodging, and travel expenses are not covered, however, and I will need your support in meeting those needs. The specifics can be discussed as we plan, but please know that I will try to group visits by region and share the cost of airfare or car rental among several churches or organizations whenever possible. I am also happy to work with you if you have frequent flyer miles to donate for airfare, a borrowed car , bike, metro pass, etc. available for transportation within the area. If you would like to invite me but cannot provide for my travel, please consider working with other churches or groups in your area to combine activities in the same week and share costs. If that is not possible, let me know and I will look for other ways to cover those expenses.

Thank you for your faithfulness in supporting me with your prayers, notes, and financial gifts; they are truly essential in sustaining me and making my ministry possible. I look forward to the opportunity to share with many of you in person this year!


Sunday, December 16, 2012

Prepare to be Unprepared

Dear friends,

Advent greetings from El Salvador in the name of the coming Messiah!

This is my third December in El Salvador and I still haven’t quite assimilated to a tropical holiday. Sure, lights adorn many houses, the markets and malls are bustling, and traditional straw reindeer and nativity scenes are being sold around every corner.  Yet, the hot and sunny days, the buzz of mosquitos through open windows in the evenings and the palm trees instead of pines just don’t seem to lend themselves to preparing for Christmas. As in years past, my Christmas preparations include closing up my apartment in San Salvador and getting ready to travel to my parents’ home in Washington State to spend the holidays with family. These additional arrangements always add an extra bit of excitement and stress at an already busy time of year, and as I try finish preparing to leave there are several year-end and holiday traditions to be enjoyed here.

Members(and members-in-training) of the JHES Directive Board;
Abel Gonzalez, Carmen Diaz with Josias, Edith Morales,
Silverio Morales, Doris Evangelista with Maya, & Kristi Van Nostran
Not pictured: Rev. David Alvarado and Blanca de Guardado
The Directive Board of Joining Hands El Salvador (JHES), complete with 3 new members elected at our Annual Assembly in October, held its final meeting of 2012 and holiday celebration last week. It was a blessing to reflect upon all of the work of Joining Hands communities to strengthen the food sovereignty movement in El Salvador. All shared their hopes and aspirations for the coming year as JHES continues to promote and advocate for public policy that guarantees small farmers access to land, the right to utilize native seeds and employ agro-ecological practices that contribute toward the restoration of God’s Creation.

The Reformed Calvinist Church, my church home in El Salvador, celebrated its Annual Assembly and holiday lunch yesterday with fifty adult members in attendance, and almost as many children! I was humbled and encouraged as this small denomination with extremely limited resources, but with a passion and calling to serve our marginalized and impoverished sisters and brothers in El Salvador, committed to partnering with other churches in 2013 to support the Pastoral Initiative for Peace. This ecumenical effort, in collaboration with the Ministry of Justice, is striving to unify the Church’s voice and actions in support of a peace process that began with a negotiated truce between warring gangs in El Salvador. Gang violence that contributed to an average of 14 homicides per day has dropped significantly to an average below 4 since the truce was originally negotiated in February of this year, and in the second phase of this ongoing process of peacemaking and reconciliation, weapons are being handed over and peace zones are being designated throughout San Salvador and across the country. It is in this context that our little church is living into God’s call to be agents of peace in God’s world.

With all that is going on it is nearly impossible to focus solely on Christmas and the preparing that is yet to be done. Again this year I feel as if Advent has gotten away from me; somehow I missed the voice crying out to fill the valleys and bring the mountains low, to smooth the rough roads and make the path straight for the coming of the Lord.  Still, during Advent we are also reminded how Emmanuel, God with us, came into the world as a baby born to young, first-time parents, far from home and in less than ideal accommodations – it is certain that neither Mary nor Joseph felt fully prepared for their roles in God’s Christmas story either.

As the season of preparation comes to a close I am thankful that even now God does not wait for us to be prepared. Just as God sent Jesus that first Christmas into an unjust and broken world to be our Hope and our Peace, we feel Christ manifest still today, with us even in the midst of violence, conflict and division; in the hills and valleys, on all the trails we have yet to level.  The Good News of great joy, my friends, is that Christmas came…and Christmas comes, whether or not we are prepared. May we join our voices with the choirs of angels, singing: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased!”

                              Blessings and peace,

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thanksgiving Day

   Off to the supermarket to pick up a couple of last minute additions to my contribution to Thanksgiving dinner, I decided to walk rather than drive in order to fully enjoy the beautiful day. The sun was out and a strong breeze made the nearly 90-degree temperature feel quite comfortable - thankful. As I walked, I thought about all that was surely taking place in the homes of my family and friends in the United States: ovens preheating, turkeys brining, pies baking, family members traveling, pets scrambling to find a solitary place among the numerous visitors or trying to avoid being stepped on, refusing to leave the kitchen, waiting for the inevitable scrap of food to hit the floor. I thought about the smiles and laughter, the nicknames and inside jokes that only family and close friends share. I thought about the cups of coffee, now taken with a splash of eggnog, as the oldest and the youngest (and some in between) find a comfy place to snooze after the meal – thankful. And, I thought about the friends with whom I would share a meal this evening, the North Americans and Salvadorans who have become like my family over the last two years in El Salvador. I thought about how amazing it is to have developed this community and what a blessing it will be to celebrate together by giving thanks.
 Entering the supermarket I half-way expected the lines and the urgency associated with obtaining last minute menu items at one of the few grocery stores open on Turkey Day in the States. I was pleasantly surprised to find the “super” no busier than any other Thursday. Usually I try to avoid the canned food and import aisles, forcing myself to cook with fresh vegetables and local ingredients. However, in honor of the holiday, I had given myself permission to seek out the fixings for my beloved green bean casserole…wherever they might be. Milk and mushroom soup mix were easy to track down, and I had pretty much resigned myself to the fact that French fried onions would have to be improvised, but to my shock and disbelief canned green beans were nowhere to be found. I chuckled to myself as I placed a bag of locally-grown ejotes (green beans) into my basket. Evidently, food sovereignty doesn’t take holidays – thankful.
 After the customary looks of confusion at check-out as I request that my groceries be loaded into the cloth sacks I bring with me rather than plastic bags, I made my way to the exit. I contemplated the additional steps that my favorite Thanksgiving dish would now require as I crossed through the parking lot and out to the street to walk the five blocks back to my house. As I passed the bus stop I was pulled out of my daydream of pumpkin pie and cranberry sauce and thrust back into reality.
 A young woman had just gotten off the the bus with her daughter in tow. As they shuffled toward the corner the woman was approached by a kid in his teens, held up with what may or may not have been a pistol in his pocket, and had her wallet and cell phone stolen. All this took place in matter of seconds, in broad daylight, at a busy intersection, and right in front of me! I was in shock; I can’t imagine what the young woman must have been feeling. Seemingly unshaken, the young mother scooped up her daughter and wrapped her in a tight embrace. Unsure of just what kind of assistance I might offer in a moment like this, I decided I had to at least ask if or how I could help. As I got closer I overheard the little girl asking her mother; Mami, ¿y ahora qué hacemos? “Mommy, what do we do now?” I will never forget her reply: Damos gracias, mi amor, damos gracias. We give thanks, my love, we give thanks.
 Not because today is Thanksgiving, not because this day has been set apart that we might remind ourselves of all the blessings in our lives for which we are grateful. Today we give thanks because every day is a gift, especially if it is spent with those whom we love and care about the most. We give thanks because we trust in the hope that God is making all things new, and we give thanks for the opportunity to work with God and with one another to bring about that long-awaited day.
 This Thanksgiving I give thanks for being in the wrong place at the right time. I give thanks that a cell phone call and taxi fare helped allow this family to regain a little peace of mind. And tonight at dinner I will give thanks for yams without marshmallows knowing that the marshmallows I bought went to a better cause.

16 Be joyful always, 17 pray at all times, 18 be thankful in all circumstances. This is what God wants from you in your life in union with Christ Jesus.               1Thessalonians 5:16-18 

Sunday, October 16, 2011

El Salvador in State of Emergency

Enjoying a relatively quiet and typical winter, Salvadorans were already dreaming of the cool, breezy months of November and December, and then the summer days beyond. Across the country, the May or “summer” harvest was solid. Though many had to scramble and purchase expensive bean seed to plant the year’s second crop season, due to losses sustained during last year’s late winter storms, hopes were high and the climate seemed promising. I had even begun to hear folks saying, “yep, winter has come to an end”.

Anyone who was thinking along those lines has certainly since changed their mind. Constant, heavy rains related to Pacific Hurricane Jova have drenched El Salvador for more than a week now, beginning last weekend and predicted to continue through Wednesday. President Mauricio Funes addressed the nation Friday, declaring a national state of emergency. As of this morning, fourteen people have lost their lives, hundreds have lost their homes, and thousands have lost livestock and crops that are their livelihood. More than 13,000 men, women and children have been evacuated from their homes and are receiving attention in one of close to 200 schools, churches and other temporary centers meagerly equipped and staffed to provide food, bedding, clothes and medical attention to evacuees.
I have spent the last three days trying to reach friends and colleagues in the communities by phone. When the grid is not flooded and the calls go through, for the most part I have been relieved by what I have heard. In many places people are still at home, with their families, safe and relatively dry. In other places families have been moved into shelters, and while it is not the most comfortable of accommodations, they too are content to be safe and dry. As of yesterday in most of the Joining Hands communities 4x4 vehicles were still able to get in and out, and there had not been severe landslides or flooding reported. However, last night the situation went from bad to worse. The bridge on the main highway connecting the central and western regions of El Salvador has collapsed, and the secondary route is being closed intermittently in order to clear away reoccurring mudslides, making mobilization of people and aid to and from the most devastated areas nearly impossible.

Eleven of El Salvador’s fourteen Departments, or Provinces, are on “Red Alert”. All community activities, including classes, sporting events, even worship services have been suspended and people are being advised to stay inside if possible. While I am safe and dry, aside from a few leaks in the ceiling, here in San Salvador and as in other urban centers, many homes and livelihoods are at risk.

The rain has lessened for the moment, from torrential downpours to light but steady showers as we transition from one storm to another. From San Salvador, I am trying to maintain communication with all our partner churches and organizations and their communities to keep our information as up-to-date as possible. Since in many places the conditions of even the main roads is not clear, at this point it is not wise to venture out to these communities to see for ourselves. This, for me, is one of the most difficult things to accept in these situations and at times the helplessness seems almost unbearable.
Our hope is to be able to reach out to some of these communities with emergency food and water rations tomorrow. There is a well coordinated effort on behalf of the government, the Red Cross and other relief organizations to meet the most urgent needs of the people, but they too are working with limited resources and as tends to happen under these circumstances, many donated items sit in storage or get siphoned off and those needs are not met.

Please join me in prayer for the people of El Salvador and throughout Central America as we continue to weather this storm. The recovery and rebuilding phase will be even more challenging and costly, but we have faith that “Dios es grande”, God is great, and is with us every step of the way, just as we accompany others.