The following reflections were shared at an event to celebrate the relationship between First Lutheran Church in Duluth and San Antonio Los Ranchos in El Salvador.
Our trip to El Salvador was one of the most formative experiences of my life. I came back changed, and I remember—and still experience—great “dis-ease” in resuming my place in our culture of privilege and over-consumption. Before the trip, I purchased the very largest duffel bag I could find for my stuff—I believe I could have put a small refrigerator inside! My luggage—my duffel—got lost during the trip and was delivered to me in a very public way after we had been in Los Ranchos four days, by which time I was hoping it would never come; I was embarrassed by my notion of necessity, the things I thought I needed to accompany me on our ten-day trip. In the meantime, my hostess washed out my soiled underwear (I did not know she was going to do this) and hung the items to dry on the barbed wire fence in front of her house. My roommate and I slept on cots in a room with a dirt floor; we showered by pouring dishpans of cold tap water over ourselves outside, in the back of the house, the only running water.
The food and the hospitality! Marvelous! I felt embarrassed—again—that we were eating more than the folks who lived there and who were providing for us.
Who can forget worshiping in the bombed-out church, with holes in the roof and walls, and the strong and compelling faith of the people? And the women who carried on with the leadership of the church?
On a beautiful sunny day, we visited the Sumpul River, the site of the massacre, and basked in the warmth and ate a picnic lunch, trying to imagine the horror of the people desperate to flee the violence. We visited the burial site of Oscar Romero on the 18th anniversary of his assassination, and went to the chapel where he was shot and to his very modest apartment, where his vestments hung in the closet, still bearing the blood-stained hole where the bullet entered his heart.
Joy, faith, and hospitality. These are the gifts of the people that I still carry in my heart.
I participated in several delegations to San Antonio Los Ranchos and later continued to visit El Salvador on my own, returning to study abroad, volunteer, and work there for a period of time. As a young person, my experience in El Salvador affected me significantly and I still remember my participation in the first delegation in 1998. I soaked in the stories of community members as they shared about their experiences during the war, Archbishop Romero, and their current reality. We visited the Sumpul River, which in 1998 was remarkably clean but in the decade prior was often the shade of red because of the massacres. We worshipped in their church which had holes in the walls because of bombs from the war. While we learned about the challenges that continued to impact the community, we listened intently as they spoke. And then we shared as well… the stories of our church, our families, our city, and country….our challenges, our hopes…We also laughed together – they tried to teach me how to milk a cow one year. I also learned how to make pupusas and over the years they’ve become more round and less square…Playing with the kids with my broken Spanish, which improved a little more over time, and building friendships with community members kept me coming back each year. The relationships were what it was and continues to be all about.
Now years later despite many obstacles, there are success stories from the community – of young people rising into leadership roles in Los Ranchos and getting university degrees (some with support from First Lutheran). One of my host brothers now has a prominent position under the Secretariat of Culture and continues to make an impact through the arts and theatre on a national level and, of course, keeps going back to Los Ranchos whenever he can. I am also the proud godmother to a friend’s daughter and in large part because of the impact of these experiences, I am grateful and humbled to have the opportunity through my professional work to continue to engage on human rights and social inclusion issues in the region.
I did want to write a short message reflecting upon how the delegation trip in 2010 has left an impact upon my life. I’ve shared this with many people, including members of my present congregation, but in a big way, the Sister Parish El Salvador trip was one of the deciding factors for my enrollment in seminary to pursue ordained ministry. As we learned about Archbishop Oscar Romero and how God took this relatively soft-spoken, bookish priest—hardly one to rock any boats—and led him to encounter the risen Jesus Christ among the Salvadoran people who were experiencing such hardships, so much that his heart was changed and his heart became one with the heart of the people, I found that if God could take this imperfect man and change the world through him, God could certainly work through me. I enrolled in an online seminary program several months after returning and have often spoken of this delegation trip while discussing with others my call to ordained ministry.
The other big way that it left an impact on me was the experience the hospitality of our host family. Reagan and I stayed with the Serrano family (Miguel Serrano had received a scholarship) and I will forever remember how honored I felt as their guest—honored in ways that I knew they were making a sacrifice on their part to host me—and that they were glad to do that. Their actions taught me about the sacrificial nature of radical hospitality—the kind that Christ has shown us in the cross—making room for us at a real cost. And, yet, despite the cost, joy can be found there. The Serrano family were powerful preachers to me and I thank God for them and for all of your efforts in making that delegation trip possible and maintaining the Sister Parish relationship between First Lutheran and Los Ranchos! It has been a joy to be a part of.
Language barriers, of course, were present, but I remember feeling very much an honored guest along with Reagan. The trip seemed to leave a long lasting impression on the high school students that attended.
I just looked through all my slides from both years to jog my memory. I had many good memories that could be on a highlight film and a few that may be exceedingly memorable. I enjoyed the company of my fellow delegates on both trips. I enjoyed our hosts John and Walter. On the first trip we arrived at Los Ranchos in time to join walking the Way of the Cross (stations ?). We learned about the history of the area, the suffering, and about the role the U.S. government had in aiding the government against the guerrillas. Other memories were; horseback to El Alto, UCA and Romero, the church where Romero was assassinated, and mingling with the people and their donkeys, pigs, chickens, cattle, and all those dogs.
On the 2nd trip I brought along my guitar and listened to Walter sing all those folk songs. I ordered my 4 foot table cloth from the Women’s Committee and it remains my favorite souvenir. We learned more about the structure of groups within the community. The groups were linked like the 5 Olympic circles (my observation), including the church. Not like in the U.S. where we have such a strict (mis-) interpretation of separation of church and state. I am glad to see that the relationship with Los Ranchos has continued with numerous delegations in the last 10 years.
My first and only experience has now been 12 years ago but I still remember many experiences from it vividly.
While I remember the people, the places, the church, the language, the food, more importantly I remember the feelings. I remember experiencing generosity of a different level. From people who did not have much to offer, but who offered whatever they had. I remember happiness and family closeness. But I also remember the absence of people – of family members moved across borders and of others lost to the bloody civil war of the 80s. People shared their memories of this war, always extremely painful, but they desired for their struggle, reasons, heroes and martyrs, to not be forgotten. And despite this pain, they did not blame us or harbor animosity. They were kind and forgiving, and lived with the understanding of how powerless people can sometimes be in their own country. These were all values that deeply touched me, inspired me and helped propel me to what I do today and hope to do in the future.
During my senior year of high school, I went on my second trip to visit our sister congregation in Los Ranchos, El Salvador. This trip, like the first one, was much different than what I expected of a so-called “mission trip”. When one thinks of a mission trip, most envision building a home and following the general format of a Habitat for Humanity volunteer experience. While those endeavors are necessary and beneficial, the Los Ranchos trip is unique in its approach, making it all the more valuable and important.
While in Los Ranchos, we each stayed with a host family, often in only one or sometimes two room homes where the whole family slept together. Instead of going there to “do” something, we went there first and foremost to learn: to exchange ideas, cultures, and dreams. Rather than simply implementing a project, this process of exchange enabled us to find our shared humanity. Even though I stayed with people with whom, by my initial impression, I had nothing in common, we ended up finding that we were all more similar than we thought. Like me, other kids my age wanted to go to college or find jobs that would enable them to support themselves and perhaps start a family. However, unlike me, they encountered much higher barriers to these things that many Americans take for granted. Every family had a relative directly affected by the drawn out civil war during the 1980s and into the 90’s. Every family had a family member who was in the U.S., illegally or very rarely legally, working just so that they could support their families back in Los Ranchos. Most had left not wanting to work illegally in the U.S., but had felt they had no other option. Kids my age remaining in the community wanted to go to college, but most lacked the financial means to do so. From all of this, we learned that many of the biggest problems the community faced were economic barriers to education and resulting barriers to employment. Rather than going in to fix something in the community without proper knowledge of the key problems beforehand, we were able to find out directly from the community what they needed most. As a result, First Lutheran established a scholarship fund to support bright college students from Los Ranchos who are committed to staying in El Salvador and investing in making the future of Los Ranchos more vibrant.
I most recently worked on an international development project implemented in Southern Syria. Our project assesses and repairs essential infrastructure in war torn communities. Damaged infrastructure includes damaged municipal water supply, shelled schools and hospitals, and destroyed electrical infrastructure. Before even designing or implementing a project, our Syrian engineers go to a community to speak with the community members in order to get an accurate view of the community’s most needed projects. The Los Ranchos trip first opened my eyes to the importance of directly engaging with people, finding our shared humanity, and then working to improve each other’s lives from there. While I like to think that we were able to make an impact on people’s lives in Los Ranchos, what I know for sure is that my experience with them deeply affected my life, enriched it, and set me on the path where I am now.
It was a great treat to hear that the Sister Parish Board meeting last month (April 2015) was at First Lutheran Church in Duluth. It has been nine years since I moved from Duluth, but fortunately for me, visitors from our partners in ministry from San Antonio Los Ranchos were able to make the additional trip about 4 years ago to the small town along Lake Superior’s north shore where I am now a pastor (Trinity Lutheran Church in Hovland, MN). The reconnection was joyful for me!
How would I describe any of the four Sister Parish trips to Los Ranchos that I was able to participate in? All were filled with learning, with being mentored, with shock and surprise and rejoicing, with learning of history, agriculture, culture, climate, language, and the complexities of one set of circumstances (those of the people of Los Ranchos / those of the people of Duluth), and how there is added complexity when groups from “complexities” come together. Our trips weren’t travel excursions, they were immersion in the life of a people with great dignity whose livelihoods and families structures had been hard-hit by oppression, war, poverty, and a larger world that was pretty content to pass them by. However, the people of Los Ranchos and of El Salvador continued to find ways to rise through the circumstances arrayed against them—especially important was the leadership and shepherding of Archbishop Oscar Romero. His assassination in 1980 was no doubt intended to end his voice telling the people they are valued and cared about, but the people continued to defend their right to exist and to have occupations, income, health care, education, and hope. Writing this reflection, so many memories come flooding to mind, and I realize again that El Salvador is a place where God shows us the actual face of Isaiah 58:11 “And the LORD will continually guide you, And satisfy your desire in scorched places, And give strength to your bones; And you will be like a watered garden, And like a spring of water whose waters do not fail.”
One story that encapsulates much is what I call the “the Samaritan woman at the well.” We were on the far edge of Los Ranchos, walking a dusty road, when we saw, off to the side, a water-well with bucket and rope. Coming down a steep path to the well was an older woman, and our hosts told us she had no doubt seen us walking, and was curious. Our Los Ranchos leaders then offered to carry water for her, and we filled containers and carried them up the steep path to her home. After visiting and seeing her small and far less than solid home, we walked back down the path. Back on the road, our hosts told us that the woman and her family had been on the opposite side in the disastrous war—yet they made sure she had water and rice and checked in with her at times. Jesus at the well in Samaria told the woman who would have been an outcast to his own people, “go and tell others…the water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing….” Those leaders in Los Ranchos, share with us in imperfection, yet also find themselves obeying the call of Christ to be “a spring of water gushing” as they show compassion to the least likely to receive it. She could have been beyond their sympathy, but she was one they still cared for.
Sister Parish was a vital starting point for First Lutheran. When our initially small group at First Lutheran was struck by what seemed an impossible wish, to establish a long-term relationship with a community in Central America to be partners in learning with, we sought advice. And we kept being told by ELCA leaders “you really need to talk to Sister Parish”. How can we thank God enough for the gifts of Sister Parish and Los Ranchos, to First Lutheran, and to all who have been touched by our partnership? One way is to do as First Lutheran is doing: Continuing the connection, and continuing to reflect on the importance of learning from and with those whose lives vary so greatly from our own.
The time spent with simple meals, drinking café or cerveza con amigos in the small tiendas and “comedors” of Los Ranchos and neighboring villages was pleasant; the mountain hikes in high temperatures, to arrive at a home and be served hot chicken soup (think of the sacrifice made for us—scarce meat and a hot meal prepared on a hot day) were a struggle. The reliance on interpreters for us North Americans was humbling, for it showed us our lack of education in other languages. One trip made within a month after Hurricane Mitch, when interpreters were serving disaster relief agencies in villages hit harder than our Los Ranchos, was doubly challenging. For most of the trip we had no interpreter. So our poor Spanish, the Salvadorans’ limited English, and an unlikely but necessary combination (one of us fluent in Norwegian, one from Los Ranchos knew some Swedish from time there at a Trauma Recovery Center) had to see us through. With this at times ungainly and always humorous interaction, we saw the sorrow the hurricane had brought heightened (and perhaps exceeded) by the lack of response from the Salvadoran Government (or in the region of Los Ranchos, by international agencies). And we learned deeply of the care the people gave to us, even in their time of severe need.
People ask me at times, when my encounter with God through the people of El Salvador shows up in conversations or sermons, something like, “what was it exactly that you saw?…” Many stories come to mind, including this: Walking with a small group in an area on the outskirts of Los Ranchos, where a man sat down and visited with me as others in the group went on to another home. And in the conversation, this man with eyes that I must describe as the eyes of Jesus, gave thanks to God for us visiting, and for us bringing the gift of a liturgical banner for their Church. The banner showed a church that had been destroyed, as the church of Los Ranchos had been by the army. But the people are running towards it in joy, with the words “we God’s people will arise and build” (from Nehemiah in the Bible) beneath the people. This wonderful sweet-potato farmer told me, “your gift helps us know that God is with us, and that we will rebuild church building and our lives.” Our simple trip, heartening people in ways we could not have expected; and building faith and hope within our lives.
Thanks to Sister Parish, and to all at First Lutheran who continue to be with the people of Los Ranchos as they rise, and build.