by Greg Huang-Dale
Traveling is great fun and one of the best learning experiences I can think of. But why would anyone choose to travel to Guatemala and El Salvador, two countries still struggling to recover from violence and poverty? In 2000, I first went on my delegation to visit friends Jose and Maria (Joe and Mary!) in the highlands of the Ixil region in rural Guatemala. The country was so beautiful and the people were so generous, I knew I had to visit again. Sister Parish is about going again, learning more, finding common ground and building long term relationships.
Jose was my first Guatemalan teacher. He let me sleep in the only bed in their home. He taught me how to say “Chuu” and how to use it! The Chuu is a traditional Ixil sauna that I had to crawl into to enjoy. Jose also brought me to his corn fields and suddenly I was transported to my own home garden. There together Jose and I were no longer distant foreigners, we were neighbor farmers looking after each others’ crops.
Sometimes the walk with Sister Parish has been joyous and celebratory, sometimes frightfully tragic, but always a walk together in solidarity.
Today I want to invite you to walk with me in the rose garden at the University of Central America (UCA) in San Salvador, El Salvador. It is a beautiful stroll through red and pink blooms opening in the sunshine, though beneath fragrant petals is a memory of thorns and sorrow.
It’s November and the trees have shed their leaves in Maine. Days are shorter and Thanksgiving will arrive soon, but in El Salvador it is warm and sunny and students walk about the campus on their way to classes. I’m wearing a hat and sun glasses, but not shorts. I have on long pants because shorts are too casual in this strongly Catholic country. We’ve come to a museum at the UCA to see the memorial to 6 Jesuit priests and their housekeepers. Eight people summarily executed by the Army for speaking out against the repressive government in 1989. They were teachers like me, trying to help their students understand a complex and confounding world. They had no defense but their books and their faith. They are remembered with a rose garden – a cemetery and a living memorial of their convictions in the face of violence. I wonder where I was on Nov. 16, 1989; probably sitting in a college classroom analyzing Russian classics or arranging music for our band, not at all worrying about safety and security for myself or my professors. 25 years later, I walk with Marleny, Carlos and Salvadoran friends through this garden and I know that pain and hope are intertwined.
We share a deep connection and need for our Sister Parish family in times of violence. We share their sorrow and they ours. Our Central American sisters and brothers also walk with us as we survive and process the violence of Newtown and Orlando. They know our loss, confusion and pain, and they know that recovery is a process of communal healing. Let us keep planting gardens and keep learning together.
The sky darkens and evening may leave us before dinner is finished. The day was long and filled with meaningful moments of looks, laughs, and words of encouragement. Under an open air pavilion outside San Antonio Los Ranchos, El Salvador, community members from the US, Guatemala, and El Salvador have been meeting for our 25th Anniversary. We’re looking forward to celebration later this weekend, but today was for listening. I was reminded frequently today of the gift our staff gives us as we navigate a maze of language and cultural differences to arrive at a common destination and understanding of our relationships, our history, and our future together.
We sit down to eat under dim electric lights. Members of the 3 country boards sit to share our thoughts on strengthening our partnership as organizational leaders. I realize that I am here to listen. I’m here to include all as we envision a future. A future in which our 3 boards continue this conversation through calls, letters, and prayers. A future which counts the people around this table as a linkage committed to one another. A future which broadens our board membership and invites all voices to the table. As I listen in the darkness, I hear a voice, a soft voice of truth, of passion, of love. It is God’s voice in my ears and in my heart.