by Alejandro Alfaro and Maria Van Der Maaten
“This experience changed my life” or “It’s a life changing experience” are common phrases that I do believe are overused. However, I do not hesitate to say that Sister Parish changed my life for the better.
There are many ways in which Sister Parish had a big influence in my life, one of those influences had to do with my calling as a pastor. Sister Parish taught me that it is possible to be a person of faith and be progressive. It is because of Sister Parish that I ended up attending the Iliff School of Theology and I’m seeking ordination as an elder in the United Methodist Church.
Long story short, I went from being an anthropologist working on development and human rights projects in Guatemala to being a United Methodist pastor working in a multicultural congregation in Iowa and the United Methodist Church worldwide. I went from being a former Christian (Catholic and then non-denominational) who had been hurt by the church’s actions towards poor people, indigenous people, LGBTQI people, etc, and who was very vocal about these wrongs, to a newly committed Christian (United Methodist) who works from within the church to help the world, and the church itself (i.e. LGBTQI acceptance). I used to like Jesus, but I did not so much like organized religion. Sister Parish taught me about the importance of community. While organized religion is not perfect it is capable of doing a lot of good, yet it needs to do some things better.
Sister Parish taught me to work WITH the people instead of FOR the people and that I will only be free when ALL people are free. Working to make the world a better place for every being is a slow, difficult, but rewarding and a process worth engaging in. So, Sister Parish changed my life and I want to invite you to collaborate in making the world a better place by making sure Sister Parish continues spreading understanding, solidarity, and love.
To lead delegations where everyone stays in people’s houses and eats the same food that people eat daily, where the things that you built are relationships instead of buildings, where the only thing painted are smiles on people’s faces instead of paint on buildings is something truly remarkable. Instead of charity and paternalism, Sister Parish promotes solidarity and equality. It is a slow, but very necessary process in order to foster understanding between people from the global North and global South. That’s why today I invite you to help this movement grow by donating whatever is in your possibility, that cup of coffee you were going to buy tomorrow or that meal out, Maria and I did! Every dollar counts, because there are no grants for building relationships or for love, but that’s exactly what the world needs.
I traveled as a Sister Parish delegate for the first time when I was 17, as part of the first youth delegation from my church. While I don’t remember feeling unprepared for travel or overwhelmed, I remember being in awe of the differences between life in rural Iowa and life in rural Guatemala. I was transformed, by the experience, the opportunity, and more importantly, the people. I started my senior year of high school confident that I would study Spanish in college (which I did).
During my second year of college, Decorah First UMC traveled to Potrerillos, El Salvador for the first time and I had the opportunity to join the delegation, which included my dad. The delegation was amazing; we were so welcomed and immediately adopted into the community and households. We’d gone together to the river, hiked to a cave, visited the local compost project (which was then still in its infancy), shared meals, and shared stories. I returned from this delegation interested in development work.
My dad surprised me a few weeks later having found a study abroad program based in El Salvador. In spite of stereotypical negative news about Central America, my dad felt safe knowing I’d finish my Spanish degree near family! During my masters work (in international development) I had the chance to spend significant time in the SP community for my thesis fieldwork. It was fantastic to have more than a week with the friends and family I’ve developed relationships with and, while difficult, wonderful to learn more about the details and history of Potrerillos, especially as a strategic location during the armed conflict. During one of my interviews my friend, Herberth, introduced me to his new vegetable and produce farm, which helped me make my latest professional leap: rural and agricultural development through agroecological farming practices.
Since starting my PhD program I haven’t had the flexibility I previously did to visit often outside of scheduled delegations, but thanks to globalization and social media, I’ve been able to stay in better contact with my Salvadoran friends and family… I’m anxious to celebrate the end of my schooling with them soon, they definitely deserve a lot of credit for their encouragement and role, even if they weren’t aware of it at the time!
I have so many important relationships that formed as a result of my experiences with Sister Parish. If you were to ask me I would say my giant Salvadoran family is my favorite part of the organization. But it’s not just the relationships I’ve formed with people in Potrerillos, El Salvador, this is true among my relationships with other members of First UMC in Decorah, my Sister Parish colleagues…, and the larger Sister Parish community. Because I’ve attended regional meetings, I have friends from Maine to California and everywhere in between, all because of Sister Parish! While the relationships we might most promote or describe are North-South relationships, Sister Parish supports relationships in all directions and at all levels!
Solidarity is a value we both have embraced in our work and our lives and when I saw this quote by Archbishop Romero of El Salvador, it resonated with me all of the reasons why Sister Parish is important to me. Romero said, “Peace is a product of justice, but justice is not enough. Love is necessary, the love that makes us feel that we are brothers and sisters is properly what makes for true peace.”
As a result of the relationships we form through Sister Parish, we are able to be in solidarity with one another; charity supports justice, but solidarity stems from love and supports true peace.