Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Feed the Hope

When I was little, my favorite Christmas craft was the paper chain. No sooner had we put away the Thanksgiving trace-your-hand-turkeys than I was gathering the construction paper, planning the color order and cutting the strips. As I reflect back now, it may have been that I loved this simple holiday project because of my, shall we say, limited artistic abilities. But at the time, I would have told you that it was because the paper chain was essential to the Christmas countdown. There was something magical about watching the paper chain get shorter and shorter that meant that Christmas was getting closer and closer. Excitement and emotion grew with every link that was removed, and for a child, this is the intrigue of Christmas; the waiting, the wishing, the hoping.
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The energy and enthusiasm among the in-country partner organizations and churches for the Joining Hands El Salvador Network makes one feel almost like a kid at Christmastime. There is so much passion and commitment to working with and for the impoverished people and communities of El Salvador, and their spirit of organizing is impressive. I remember thinking to myself in my first meeting with the Coordinating Committee, “They really understand the issues, they see the big picture, they’re ready and raring to go; building this network is going to be easy.”

As the meeting went on, it became clear that each partner institution had a different idea about which steps should be taken first, how to truly bring about change, even about the change that they want to see. Everyone had their own idea about how we should move forward. “I can lead workshops in all of our churches, I can facilitate development projects in our communities, I can sponsor training programs through our organization, and I can organize protests with our students, I have connections; we can even meet with the President while we’re at it.” All good ideas. I wanted to respect everyone’s opinion and point of view, and I certainly did not want to offend anyone by suggesting that we pause to clarify our objectives. But I couldn’t help but wonder, were we rushing the process or was it just me?

I know it can be hard not to let oneself get carried away with eagerness and anticipation. It becomes even harder when you are the “new kid” and you want to encourage the energy of the group. Maybe I was the only one who felt out of sync. Maybe I couldn’t see or simply didn’t understand the method behind the madness. But this didn’t feel like eagerness and anticipation, it was like we were under the gun; like we were running out of time.

Not having been directly affected by 12 long years of civil war like every one of my colleagues around the table, and currently living in relative suburban comfort in comparison, I was not faced everyday with the need that is so real, and the inequality and injustice that are unmistakable. I knew I needed to look through a different lens in order to appreciate the pressures of a context in which the daily reality presents such urgent needs and conditions that cry out for immediate attention. What then could bring people with such diverse personalities, beliefs, experiences and backgrounds together, to make decisions and take actions of one mind? Hope.

I thought perhaps we could create together a mission and vision for the network, to shift the focus back to the change we anticipate and highlight our hope in positive outcomes. I thought for sure that could
help to bring everyone onto the same page, as well as foster camaraderie in the process. During the extremely dynamic brainstorming session that followed, a number of beautifully worded, thoughtful and poignant phrases were taking shape. I was particularly taken by one suggestion and repeated it out loud: aliviar los efectos de la pobreza y alimentar la esperanza, to alleviate the effects of poverty and to feed hope. Then came a response that I hadn’t anticipated; “I don’t want to ‘feed hope.’ I want to fight the injustices; we need to feed people, not feed hope.”

There was that kid at Christmastime feeling flooding over me again, only this time it was the disappointment and frustration of the kid who had just realized that by cutting all the links off the paper chain she could not make Christmas come any sooner.

It is true; Joining Hands is about fighting injustices, transforming the systems that prevent God’s people from rejoicing in the abundant life for which they have been created. It is about working through peaceful means to change local and global conditions. We hear in Mary’s Magnificat that this too is the message of Christmas – to bring down rulers from their thrones and lift up the humble, to fill the hungry with good things and send the rich away empty.

Joining Hands is also about celebrating community, building solidarity, and thoughtfully and patiently participating together in the long, and sometimes slow process of actively expecting with confidence in the Peace, Joy and Love that is to come; the message of Advent. Joining Hands is also about Hope.

Shelley Douglass, in an article for Sojourners Magazine, writes,  
“In Advent, Christians remember that God not only hears the cry of the poor, but God was born one of the oppressed…Jesus lived among suffering people. This was not God enthroned, listening from a distance to wails of suffering. No, God-with-us was with the wailing crowds, healing, comforting -- and challenging…This is our hope.

Hope is not optimism. Advent hope…is not the belief that everything will work out for us if we just believe. Advent hope…is that the power of the empire will be overthrown and the poor will be able to live their lives in peace and plenty. Advent hope is not that a pretty baby will appear in the manger and sales will rise and the economy will resurrect. Advent hope is that empires will fall: all empires, with their idolatry, their gluttony, their pollution, their wars, their intrigue, their murder, and their weapons. Advent hope is that we will transform our minds - which will then require us to transform our world.”
As we prepare to celebrate the long-awaited coming of the Messiah, born into a world filled with violence and greed, hunger and extreme poverty – not so different from the world we live in – we reaffirm our belief that God still wants for us the change God sent Jesus to preach: a world without war, a world without discrimination, a world where the needs of others come before our own interests. Just as Christmas is not the end, rather the beginning of the story, we too must begin our story with hope.

Through this process we were able to embrace a hope that guides us and gives us purpose, a hope that inspires us to work together to build the world in which we would like to live, and a hope that invites us to live for the day when the nations shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; when nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

May the Hope, Peace, Joy and Love of this Advent Season fill your homes and hearts. And as we “fight the injustices” may we always remember to also “feed the hope.”

Sunday, November 21, 2010


(n) reformation: improvement (or an intended improvement) in the existing form or condition of institutions or practices etc.; intended to make a striking change for the better in social, political or religious affairs¹

Left to right: Muslim Imam Dr. Armando Bukele,
Episcopal Father Luis Serrano,
Lutheran Bishop Medardo Gomez

I must confess; I have never celebrated Reformation Day. I did write a paper in high school about the significance of the Reformation, but until this year I was not even aware that such a “holy day” existed. Here in El Salvador the protestant churches take this celebration seriously. And not just the Lutherans, whose church carries the name of the Father of the Reformation, Martin Luther.

Invited to a Reformation Celebration were the Baptists, the Episcopalians, the Reformed Calvinists and Presbyterian (me), hosted by the Lutherans and with a keynote address by the Imam (worship leader) of the Muslim Community in San Salvador. In his powerful and inspiring address, Dr. Bukele shed light on the Reformation from a different perspective. A process that on the outside appears to have irreparably divided the Church forever has also given way to an ecumenical movement that includes and unites people. It is not about institutions. When we make the Reformation about denominations and religious systems we miss the point.

Reformation is making a change for the better, not only in institutions but in our practice of living, not only in the religious arena, but in social and political life as well. When we challenge ourselves and each other, as sisters and brothers, to keeping striving to make a change for the better, to keep reforming, we live into the Reformation. And as Dr. Bukele so passionately shared, “a church committed to social justice, committed to love and concern for neighbor, a church of actions not just words, is a church reformed...Christian or Muslim, that church resembles God, not an institution made by man.”
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Other signs of reformation…

A lesson in permaculture in Lirios, a community outside the city of San Salvador.

Permaculture is the practice of creating agricultural and community systems based on the relationships found in natural ecologies.
Here these practices are being used to restore the soil and the underground water table. By digging ditches to channel rain water the soil retains moisture longer into the dry season, allowing trees and plants to thrive throughout the year. This not only provides a canopy of shade serving to significantly cool the immediate area, but the vegetation also “breathes” fresh, clean air into the atmosphere helping to counteract the effects of heavy air pollution in the nearby city.
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With Pastora Norma and Rev. Jeff Johnson, Chaplain
of University Lutheran Chapel, UC Berkeley at
Cordero de Dios (Lamb of God) Lutheran Church
in Soyapango, one of San Salvador's neighboring cities.
The night before Jeff and I visited Cordero de Dios Lutheran Church, where he was invited to preach and I to translate, there were 7 murders in Soyapango. We were told it was not surprising that so few people (6 adults and 7 children, 3 of whom are the pastors' daughters) had ventured out that Sunday morning to join us in worship. Only months before two of the youth of the church were shot and killed at a sports field just blocks from the church. Soyapango is well known for its high rate of gang violence, and as Pastor Norma puts it, "our young people are fighting for their futures on a daily basis."

Rather than pack up and move the church, or at very least the worship service into a more secure community, Pastors Norma and husband Rafael believe that this is exactly where God needs them the most; where God's presence is most needed. They have embraced the youth of this neighborhood and try to offer them an alternative to the dangerous yet tempting lifestyle of easy money in organized crime. A group of teenagers have started a band, and with Rafael's leadership they are practicing covers and writing their own songs. They also lead rocking praise music on Sundays that rivals any contemporary service I've ever seen!

Two of the band members will be starting university studies next year, one to become a teacher. These youth are thriving in a place where opportunites are few and far between, they have a reason to hope even amidst so much hopelessness. With just the handful of pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters that make it to the offering plate each week, this little church is making a striking change for the better; reforming its community.


Saturday, November 13, 2010

A Taste of Home

I went to Starbucks.

After almost two months in El Salvador I could feel myself moving out of the "honeymoon" stage and beginning to "grieve" leaving home behind. I wasn't feeling full-blown homesick...yet, so I decided a taste of home might do me some good.

I remembered seeing those familiar, green, block letters on a building near one of the hotels that had hosted a conference I attended some weeks back. I remember being shocked that Starbucks had come full circle - returning to its roots, so to speak, in the land of coffee. But today I wasn't in the mood to analyze the arrival of the first Starbucks in Central America in terms of globalization and all its implications. Today, regardless of the fact that it was pushing 90 degrees outside, I just longed to hold that warm, white cup in my hand.

I spent the 30 minute bus ride across town running through the menu in my head: what would I order? A grande caramel macchiato, tall wet cappuccino? Should I get an iced coffee, a frapuccino, or a venti iced chai? It didn't really even matter; this was much more about connecting with home than anything else. And what a connection, I mean I have been to the original store at Pike Place. Starbucks is a Seattle phenomenon gone global! Aside from the apple and the evergreen, Starbucks is about as Washington State as it gets! Now I was feeling quite proud about my cross-town excursion. At this point it was quite clear that it really wasn't about the coffee - this was about me, and wanting to go "where everybody knows your name." Everything here is new and different: tastes, smells, sounds, words. I just wanted something that felt familiar, comfortable, like what I left behind. I wanted to be somewhere I fit, somewhere I could blend in and not feel like I so obviously stand out.

The bus driver kindly dropped me off right in front of the store since the bus had emptied along the route and I was now the last passenger riding. The parking lot was packed. Well, Saturday afternoon, I thought, maybe folks are out enjoying their weekend. As I rounded the corner to the front door it appeared that the parking lot was not the only thing that was packed. There was a line out the door! I had to wait in line to go inside the Starbucks! A million thoughts ran through my mind, most of them beginning with "this would never happen at home." How absurd! There's a Starbucks on every corner at home, I could just go to the one down the street, or at home I would have the option of a walk-up or a drive-thru window. What was worse is that the young man in a green apron, who had definitely reached his quota of coffee for the day judging by his upbeat and overly pleasant demeanor, was sharing stats about the coffee, the company and its beginnings as he VERY slowly ushered the line along. I knew all that stuff, I'M FROM WASHINGTON, I AM STARBUCKS, I wanted to scream.

Twenty minutes later, a little worse for wear and now borderline homesick from the sheer frustration, it was finally my turn to order. I was wishing I had made up my mind on the bus ride, with the same menu (and the same prices) I have the same problem making a drink decision at home. After all it took to get there, I opted for a simple grande latte, no frills, no fuss. "Grande latte para Cristi," they announced, calling my name with Spanish pronunciation even before I finished paying. As I gathered my drink and a sleeve for that oh-so-familiar white cup I couldn't help but notice the clientele; entire families, little kids and adults in shiny shoes, dresses and slacks, several gentlemen in suits and ties, young women all made up and wearing heels that made my feet hurt just looking at them. In my t-shirt and jeans, hair in a messy bun and zero make-up, dirt under my fingernails from my visits to the rural communities, and a sinking feeling in my gut at the thought of spending what some earn after a 10 hour day toiling under the hot sun in the sugar cane fields on one cup of coffee, I most certainly did not fit here!

I left the store in a hurry and made my way to the bus stop recognizing that it was now getting late and I still had at least a half-hour ride home. I wondered to myself if the old adage wasn't true; can you really never go home again? I enjoyed every last drop of what, I must confess, truly was a taste of home, and I came to the conclusion that perhaps it's not that you can't go home again, it's that you can't go home the same.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Prayers for FONDAMA and Haiti

The Joining Hands community has been informed that several FONDAMA (Fondasyon Men Lan Men Ayiti/ Hand in Hand Haiti Foundation) leaders and members have fallen ill due to the cholera epidemic in Haiti. FONDAMA leaders are trying to piece together information and to arrange for the delivery of oral rehydration packets and water sanitation equipment to affected areas.

Hurricane Tomas, on a path for Haiti, weakened to a tropical storm in the early morning hours today, Monday, but is expected to regenerate into a hurricane that could cause further devastation as the country struggles to contain the cholera outbreak. Please keep FONDAMA and all Haitians in your prayers in this challenging time.

Yzméne Elias, from the rural town of
Seramo, with cabbages she grew using
the old tire system she learned in a
FONDAMA workshop.

The FONDAMA network intends to “restore the Haitian environment toward food sovereignty and sustainability.” FONDAMA wants to secure food sovereignty through the promotion of family and cooperative agriculture. An agriculture that is organic and respectful of the environment so that the rights of future generations may be protected.

Loving God, we lift up our sisters and brothers in the Joining Hands family; their struggle is our own. Give us the strength to stand in solidarity with the people of Haiti and with all those who dare to "beat swords into plowshares." Empower us to take action to restore your creation, and to reclaim the just, dignified and abundant life that you desire for all people, everywhere. Amen.


Sunday, October 31, 2010

Don't Miss the Point - Sermon delivered via Skype at Northminster Presbyterian Church, Portland, OR

Luke 18:9-14 CEV
“Jesus told this story to some people who thought they were better than others and who looked down on everyone else: Two men went to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not greedy, dishonest, or unfaithful in marriage like other people. And I am really glad I am not like the tax collector over there. I go without eating for two days a week, and I give you one-tenth of all I earn.’

The tax collector stood at a distance and did not think he was good enough even to look up to heaven. He was so sorry for what he’d done that he pounded his chest and prayed: ‘God, have pity on me! I am such a sinner.’

Then Jesus said, ‘When the two men went home, it was the tax collector and not the Pharisee who was pleasing to God. If you put yourself above others, you’ll be put down. But if you humble yourself, you will be honored.’” 

I have a new found respect for parables. One of the many cultural adjustments that I am having to make is trying to adapt to a much more direct form of communication. In my experience, Salvadorans tend to get right to the point and do not shy away from speaking exactly what is on their mind. Communication in Guatemala falls on the opposite end of the spectrum; almost overly courteous, fraught with subtleties and very indirect. Perhaps, after finally embracing the Guatemalan model this leap to the Salvadoran style at the other extreme is proving to be quite a challenge.

Stories that convey meaning indirectly through comparison or analogy feel accessible, even comfortable; easier to swallow. That’s probably why Jesus liked to use parables so much. However, as is sometimes the case with indirect forms of communication, parables leave the story open for misunderstanding, or simply missing the point. And today’s parable is a classic case.

First we meet the Pharisee. You might remember that Pharisee’s had quite the reputation back in the day. They were considered by many to be hypocrites, yet considered themselves to be the epitome of righteousness as meticulous followers of religious law. As part of society’s elite, the Pharisees enjoyed much wealth and many comforts; in other words, the means to comply with requisite Temple offerings and an abundance of blessings for which to give thanks. It is not surprising that we encounter the Pharisee, touting his commitment to fasting and tithing, from a standing position front and center, certain to draw attention to himself as he prayed.

The stereotypical teacher’s pet, the Rachel Barry character (for our Glee fanatics out there) we’re told, “stood apart by himself and prayed,” or some versions read, “stood up and prayed to himself.” This could mean prayed silently, but it would not seem out of character for the Pharisee to be praying not necessarily to God but rather to hear himself pray, Thank God I am not like all the other, lesser people. But how much easier must it be to fast two days a week when going hungry is not a familiar feeling, and how much more feasible is a ten% tithe when it doesn’t imply not being able to make rent? The text is kind of leading as to who is in the wrong in this story. Is that the point?

Well, let’s meet the other man who went up to the Temple to pray, a tax collector. Tax collectors, or publicans in that day and age, had a reputation of their own. Known to be greedy, corrupt and always willing to take advantage of hardworking tax payers in the interest of making a buck, a tax collector was a traitor (a fellow Jew working for Rome) and thus considered the lowest of the low in Jewish society. So one might expect the tax collector to slink into the Temple and take a place near the back, in an attempt to go unnoticed. By his posture and his prayer we can tell that he clearly feels unworthy, and is not proud of the life he lives. Pounding his chest, guilt-ridden and ashamed, he utters a plea that God might take pity on him.

Normally, the story would close with some ambiguous statement like, “go and do the same.” But in what would appear to be a very non-parable-like fashion, Jesus wraps it all up for us. “When the two men went home, it was the tax collector and not the Pharisee who was pleasing to God.” Well, okay then. That seems simple enough. So if I take the Facebook quiz, “Which parable character are you?” I should be hoping for tax collector. I mean, I’m not arrogant and pretentious like the Pharisee…thank God! That’s the point, right?

It’s easy to get caught up in the labels and assumptions that we have about such typecast characters as a Pharisee and a tax collector, and come to this story ready to judge one or both. What if we alter the cast? What if we write ourselves into the story? I bet if we are honest, each and every one of us at one time or another has prayed the Pharisee’s prayer, or something like it. Passing a car accident on the freeway we might think: Thank God, thank you that it wasn’t me. Upon hearing news of a catastrophe or natural disaster we might be tempted to say: Thank you God that my family was not involved. Without any bad intentions whatsoever, this is still just one step away from: Thank God it was them and not us. Or we come to God like the tax collector, embarrassed and broken and in desperate need of forgiveness, but with little if any intent to make a change; to live differently. Haven’t we still missed the point?

Thursday morning I sat in my office waiting for the appointment I had scheduled for 9 o’clock. I was waiting for the woman who had offered to help me in the process of soliciting temporary residency as a religious worker in the country. She had mentioned several times that she lived just four bus stops from the office, but yet it was pushing ten and there was still no sign of her. I was getting a little frustrated even though I know all about the umm…different concept of time and punctuality that is practiced in Latin America. I could feel my mood souring and I found myself thinking about how my office space is really less than adequate; the bird cage full of parakeets just outside the window next to me, some kind of invisible bugs that bite me unaware all day long, one bar of wireless internet signal if I’m lucky, and most nights it doubles as a living space for the woman with whom I share it. To top it off, the office is located near the entrance on the first level of the Lutheran Synod, so it is also an office that receives lots of visitors.

After getting a call that she had gotten tied up and was on her way (at ten minutes to ten) I began sorting through my documents, passport, birth certificate, criminal history clearance, letter from the church verifying my position and proof of financial support, etc. What a process! All this paperwork I had to prepare ahead of time and the certifications are not cheap. Just thinking about the estimated budget that the woman had sent me ahead of time was making my bad mood worse. How could the church be expected to pay over $700 to formalize my immigration status? Are we getting scammed? Could it possibly cost that much? And if so, what a waste of funds! Even in the short time that I have been here I have already seen firsthand endless ways that that money could make much more of a difference.

Now I was really upset, and in the middle of my argument with myself a gentleman came into the office with a folder in hand. He greeted both of us with a smile and a pleasant good morning, buenos dias, before starting a conversation with Pastora Cecilia, my officemate. I’ll admit I was relieved, I just wasn’t in the mood for small talk and my appointment would be arriving any minute, my mind was definitely elsewhere. Before I knew it, the visitor was standing at my desk introducing himself as Juan and spreading the contents of the folder over all my legal documents. Couldn’t he see that I was busy and that these were important papers that I couldn’t afford to mess up? If he only knew that this was a several hundred dollar process he was interrupting...

              ...I sat there mortified, completely speechless, as he began to share the details of how he and his family arrived as refugees to the Casa Concordia, a shelter run by the Lutheran Church. Juan, his wife, two daughters, 20 and 24, and their eight-year-old son fled Honduras after their older son was abducted and murdered in late July. Juan is a member of a workers’ union that has been speaking out against unfair treatment of skilled workers and a general unwillingness to hire tradesmen with decades of experience because young, inexperienced, engineering graduates will work for less. As if the murder of his son were not tragic enough, when his partner from the union was also found dead he knew for certain that he and his family were no longer safe.

He leaned over my desk and showed me the most recent photo of his son and the newspaper clippings with the story and picture of where his son’s body was found. He showed me the prescriptions for medicine and fortified baby formula for his eldest daughter and her new baby who have contracted hepatitis. The baby was born on October 8th at the home of a family member just this side of the Honduras/El Salvador border where Juan’s family slept on the dirt floor and was later asked to leave so as not to put the family member at risk. And he showed me his formal documents; a copy of his passport and the rumpled pages from the Department of Human Rights in Honduras validating their refugee status. He explained that as refugees they can stay at the Casa Concordia indefinitely, but the food basket they were given initially is quickly running out and food donations are not easy to come by. In order to work legally Juan would have to go through the immigration process to get the necessary permits and not only is it too expensive, but settling this close to Honduras his family would still be in danger. “The same gangs and hitmen operate here in El Salvador too,” he tells me. They are hoping to apply for asylum in Canada or Australia, but the process is long and tedious, and there are no guarantees.

When I could finally muster words I realized that in that moment all I could do for him was to offer him a seat and a glass of water, and just listen.

What could I possibly do faced with this situation? Should I stand up and say Thank God that I am fully prepared for the residency process? Thank you, God that I have resources enough to cover my needs. And thank God that if worse came to worst and things didn’t work out, I could always just pick up and go home. That would certainly be missing the point. So then should I throw up my hands and give in, obviously I'm not worthy to be serving in this capacity? Maybe pound my chest and ask to be shown mercy for failing to help. Not the point either.

Juan and family literally have nothing but the clothes on their backs, they are putting their faith in a process that may or may not pan out, and they can no longer return home, out of fear for their lives; for them worse has already come to worst. I spent the rest of the day, who am I kidding, the rest of the week really wrestling with the question, Where is God in all of this? And it dawned on me…THAT is the point.

God is in all of this, whether I can do anything about it or not! It’s not about me! It is not about what I can or can’t do! I am the Pharisee, proud and boastful. At times we all are. And I am the tax collector; I do fall short and need God’s mercy. We all do. But we miss the point when we focus on who is the better person, more righteous, or who can be more humble. This parable reminds us that we should focus on the generosity, love, mercy and mystery of God, and what God empowers us to do with God, even if sometimes that simply means listen. Amen.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Christmas come early??

It is October 23rd and construction is underway on the large, lit Christmas tree display at MetroCentro, the shopping mall on the north side of San Salvador. As you can see, it is quite the process with all the scaffolding and several workers. I have to chuckle at the contrast between this big artificial pine tree being errected just across the courtyard from a giant natural palm.

The shop facing the immense tree display is stocked and ready for holiday decorating as well. You can bet that department stores, even grocery stores are
marketing gifts and lining the shelves with holiday treats.

October 23rd. I think that's a record. I mean, decorating and tree-triming on Thanksgiving weekend is pushing it, in my opinion. The second to last weekend in October is just plain ridiculous! The leaves haven't even changed color or started to fall, we haven't turned our clocks back. And what about Halloween, Veterans' Day, Turkey? It hasn't frozen overnight yet, I can't even see my breath...

Perhaps without all the signs and stages of Autumn and the coming of Winter leading up to it, Christmas comes early here. It couldn't be to take advantage of a few more shopping days, could it?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Credit: Friend or Foe

Many of us, myself included, experience a love/hate relationship with credit. At first, hard to attain, then hard to restrain, and finally hard to maintain. Credit, especially in the form of credit cards, seems to have permeated North American culture. Applications arrive by mail daily, one can't escape the advertisements on TV, and the promise of a few cents off at the pump or the accumulation of frequent flier miles is too tempting...errrr, practical to pass up. Even our classic cartoons encouraged the use of credit to meet our most basic needs; "I'll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today."

The concept of credit is not inherently bad. In fact, in its truest form one might even say that the exercise of lending and borrowing on credit is an exercise of virtue, requiring integrity, trust, discipline. The transaction implies a relationship, a community that is to be respected. But the harsh reality, and the hang up for most, is that credit also requires means.

This is the primary challenge facing Don Carlos as he struggles to make a living as a mechanic with his own small shop, run out of his home. Our conversation actually took place as he was exercising one of his OTHER occupations as a driver-for-hire. His third, and perhaps his passion, is intricate iron work for doors and windows, etc. Unfortunately, he finds himself having to practice, even juggle, all three to try and make ends meet. Carlos shared that there is plenty of work for a mechanic, and many people enjoy the convenience and confidence of a neighborhood shop.

"There is plenty of work, but everybody," he says, "wants the work done on credit. The big shops are able to offer credit, but one has to qualify and be willing to sign legal contracts and pay high interests. Some people even lose their cars when they can't pay. What can I do if a person can't pay, or does not pay on time? My family can't eat."

Carlos understands all too well the challenges of doing business on credit, but as a small business owner he also wants to keep clients. "Some say, I can give you this much today and I'll pay you the rest when I get my check at the end of the month. They forget that I do all the work, then I still have to use credit for my bills until the end of the month. And if he still can't pay..."

It's a vicious circle, and sadly, a way of life. But this is not about living beyond one's means, it is a necessary stopgap: the difference between food on the table or going hungry. Monseñor Romero reminds us, “No es voluntad de Dios que unos tengan todo y otros no tengan nada.” It is not God's will that some should have everything and others should have none.

I felt helpless to respond to Carlos' needs. Nothing I could do, not even what he would receive for his service as driver would make a meaningful difference to him or his family. But I am learning along this journey of accompaniment, that living in solidarity does make a difference. It means living differently, allowing myself to go out and not come back the same. I pray that we can stop and think about the cycle of credit before we make that next purchase, and not just reflect upon can I afford this but do I really need it! I invite you to join me in living differently, and we might begin by pondering the question, "what's in your wallet?"

Monday, October 11, 2010

Time to Join Hands

October 8, 2010

The bright sunlight is pouring in through the open window and the cool breezes that have blown in with October are heaven sent. A much needed change from the stormy weather that wreaked havoc throughout Central America just two short weeks ago. This break in the action is allowing some to put pieces back together as best they can, as others are advised or choose to wait to rebuild until the rainy season comes to an end. Looking outside today, it seems ludicrous to even suggest that bad weather was on the horizon. However, another stronger and potentially more devastating storm off the Atlantic is in the forecast for the end of the month. Preventative measures are being encouraged, especially in the most vulnerable communities and those most affected by Tropical Storm Matthew, but for most families money barely stretches far enough week to week and stockpiling food or water in preparation for a storm is simply an impossible task.

Posters at the Museum AJA refer to climate
change and living in peace with the planet,
"without corn there is no country"
 In these times of crisis it becomes even more evident that war has left a terrible scar on this country and its people. Violence continues to maim its struggling economy and wound, literally and figuratively, the women, men and children determined to thrive even in the midst of such a difficult reality. Reminders of El Salvador’s vulnerabilities are everywhere; some as benign as the overpriced food at the supermarket and others as ominous as the fear for personal safety experienced upon boarding a public bus. The floods and mudslides provoked by Matthew´s heavy rains made it impossible to ignore the precarious conditions in which more than 80% of the population lives.

Given these realities, representatives from different churches and religious groups, professional unions and community groups are coming together to create the Joining Hands Network, to stand in solidarity with the people of El Salvador to combat the injustices that lead to impoverishment and hunger. Joining Hands is collaborating to create positive change at all levels by promoting food sovereignty and security in the face of genetically modified seeds and produce, by denouncing the destruction of El Salvador´s natural water sources through the indiscriminate construction of dams, and by shedding light on the exploitation by transnational companies, particularly mining, that contaminate the country and violate human rights.

In the short time that I have been in El Salvador, seeking to discover the vision and purpose of Joining Hands through the perspectives of the network participants, I am amazed and encouraged by the presence of Archbishop Oscar Romero´s prophetic vision of justice and dignified conditions for all God´s children. Theologically orthodox, even conservative, Oscar Romero was selected to serve as Archbishop of San Salvador in February 1977, much to the dismay of progressive liberation theology clergy who continued to stand and struggle with the rural poor. Shocked and saddened by the murder of a close friend and fellow priest just three weeks after his appointment, Romero was transformed by a silent call to unite in solidarity and to accompany of the impoverished in their struggle to defend their rights. Archbishop Romero became an outspoken advocate for God´s justice and peace in El Salvador until his murder at the hands of a sniper while celebrating mass on March 24, 1980. A prophet of our time, his memory lives strong in hearts of the people of El Salvador, and his message still calls to us today.

"God needs the people themselves to save the world. . . The world of the poor teaches us that liberation will arrive only when the poor are not simply on the receiving end of hand-outs from governments or from the churches, but when they themselves are the masters and protagonists of their own struggle for liberation." Archbishop Oscar Romero
The Joining Hands Network in El Salvador is striving to live into the words and actions of those, such as Archbishop Romero, who have walked this path before us. United in a vision of God’s justice, we join hands in solidarity to accompany and empower “the people themselves” to work for a lasting peace and holistic development in El Salvador.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Tropical Storm Matthew's Mess

Photo from today’s paper with caption that reads,
“Climatic conditions return to those typi­cal of the
rainy season; the un­seasonable situation has ended.”

Well friends, here we are again. I know some of you are probably scratching your heads and saying, “I think I’ve seen these pictures before, in fact, I think Kristi sent them to me!” I’m sure that many of you did receive very similar photos of the devastation in Guatemala caused by Hurricane Stan in October 2005. Unfortunately, the “view from the hammock” has changed completely over the course of one week!

While the rain has let up, the temperatures are still low and the sun is barely peeking through the dense clouds. Things are just beginning to dry out, but 171 communities remain on Red Alert due to the level of ground saturation and several of those are under water (above). More than 3,100 people have been moved to temporary shelter in 11 of the 14 departments across El Salvador. Many have no choice but to simply wait and see if their homes and belongings have weathered the storm. Others, like the families who live in the homes pictured here, could not be evacuated due to space limitations in the shelters. Beth Tellman, a Fulbright Scholar with CEIBA El Salvador wrote of this family on Tuesday, “The children sleep on the floor by the door out of fear that they might need to get themselves out.”
An estimated 45% of the bean crop and 40% of corn
has be ruined by the heavy rains and flooding,
result of Tropical Storm Matthew.
The immediate needs are great, and widespread. The people of El Salvador are struggling along with their sisters and brothers throughout Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua. Three out of the four major border crossings with Guatemala are currently closed due to massive mudslides and bridge washouts, and since much of the countries vegetables come from Guatemala, and crops have been devastated throughout the region this will certainly limit availability and result in a cost hike. El Salvador already suffers from inflated food costs and with an estimated loss of almost HALF of this year’s bean and corn crops, scarcity leading to an increase in imports will undoubtedly make next year’s prices unbearable, and for the most vulnerable populations, simply impossible. 

Naively, I assumed that having lived this once before, and coming prepared with rain gear and rubber boots, I would be ready, equipped. Rubber boots can’t fill empty bellies.

Weeping with those who weep…  

    Romans 12:15

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Late for Church

So I missed church this morning. Several folks had reminded throughout the week that I was welcome to join them at the Iglesia Reformada Juan Calvino, John Calvin Reformed Church service at 10am. As I was preparing to eat a quick breakfast and head down the block to the church I was informed that I was already late, and everyone knows,  lo que está hecho, hecho está, what's done is done and there is always next week. I didn't receive the message that service had been moved up to 9am to accomodate a baptism. I guess I haven't made it on the phone tree yet.

As the rain pourded down (as it did all last night, and is said to continue to do through Tuesday) rather than grab a quick bite, Carmencita prepared me some comfort food; beans, fried bananas, warm tortillas and strong coffee! While I can blame it on the rain (sorry for the Milli Vanilli reference, couldn't resist) or the schedule change, I think secretly the food is what kept me home this morning. I have a feeling it will become easier to get to church when I have to prepare my own meals.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

San Salvador, “Valley of Hammocks”

Upon my arrival in El Salvador, thankfully I was not greeted by any of the “constant trembling of the earth” that led the 16th century Spaniards to call this region valle de las hamacas, “valley of hammocks.” I was, however, met at the airport by a small delegation of Joining Hands Network members who graciously helped heave my luggage into the van, and through our conversation began to weave for me a very complex and exceedingly beautiful tapestry from the threads of Salvadoran politics, society and spirituality.

I settled in, quite comfortably you can see, at the guest house Popol Na (Casa del Pueblo), “the people’s house,” operated by the Calvinist Reformed Church in El Salvador. I must admit, it feels a bit like vacation at this point. I look out my window onto hammocks on a patio that extends into a garden complete with lime, orange and banana trees, eat papaya at every meal, take quick cold showers and have traded in perfume for eau de bug repellent.

We are in the height of the rainy season which certainly makes for exciting weather patterns. As I write, with the sliding doors wide open to the patio, a cool breeze is blowing and I can scarcely hear myself think over the thunder claps and the pouring rain. Though shortly the rain will let up and the sun will burst through the clouds, the garden will soak up all that it can and the rest of the moisture will begin to steam away. Rinse and repeat.

My emotions seem to be following a similar pattern in these first days filled with transition. I am bright and sunny one minute then things turn gray, maybe some rain before the sun comes out again. I’m doing my best to balance alone time with time spent in the company of new friends with calls made to family at home. Not having constant access to internet, while a little frustrating at first, has proven to be a blessing. I am finding different, perhaps more appropriate ways to cope with/adapt to my new surroundings. Writing seems to be the most beneficial; I hope to make a habit of it.

Well, this feels like a good place to close because in the infamous words of the Beatles, “here comes the sun, doot n doodoo.”