Every January at Trinity Episcopal Church (Newtown, CT) each committee contributes a summary of the previous year’s activities to the Church’s Annual Report. This summary of our first south-to-north delegation from San José La Montaña, in the department of Chalatenango, El Salvador, appeared in abbreviated form in our most recent report.
Companion Parish’s biggest project in 2016 was to bring a delegation from San José La Montaña to share with us in worship and cultural exchange. This South-to-North visit was one of our goals from the time we began this relationship at the end of 2013, and was the culmination of three years of work. We are particularly gratified that we were able to bring them because they never got the chance to travel north when they were paired with a previous church. Honoring this commitment that we made to them during our first visit to El Salvador in the spring of 2014 was a great joy.
We learned a great deal from the delegates, but the process of arranging the delegations was an education in itself. Arranging visas for the delegates required much work throughout 2016, especially coordinating letters of invitation not just from Trinity but also from Pat Llodra of the Board of Selectmen in Newtown and Senator Blumenthal’s office in Hartford. The committee invited six delegates to apply for visas but the US Embassy rejected 5 of the 6 applicants, 4 of them without explanation. Two other members of San José La Montaña’s Sister Parish committee already had visas for their family to travel and thus could fill out the delegation. So in the end we could welcome three residents of San José La Montaña plus an employee of Sister Parish, Inc., who accompanied the delegation as a translator and guide.
The delegation took place over the last 10 days of October, and activities included worship with us on two Sundays, a meeting with our Outreach Commission to compare the ministries that our two churches have undertaken, and consultation with Pastor Kathie on the place of women in the Episcopal church. They participated in one of Adult Formation’s Basics of the Faith classes to discuss with the rest of the class the question, “What is God Calling You to Do?” They shared a primer on our labyrinth and its use, after which all participants walked the labyrinth, meeting in the center to pray together. They participated in the Chapel On The Green service with the homeless in New Haven, after which they distributed food and socks. The delegates also enjoyed seeing the youth’s Great Pumpkin Challenge Halloween fundraiser for local youth to attend camp. The discussions taking place during and around those chances to worship, study, reflect, and serve gave both guests and hosts a better understanding of the formal structure and priorities of each other’s churches and helped strengthen our relationship by emphasizing its foundation in walking the path of faith together.
Delegates had also expressed an interest in meetings with social service agencies and politicians in the Danbury area. They particularly enjoyed a presentation by the Women’s Center of Greater Danbury about domestic violence, a topic which two of the delegates have worked on in El Salvador. They also visited the Danbury office of Family and Children’s Aid. They talked about local issues with Pat Llodra of Newtown, and a candidate running to represent Danbury in the state legislature.
Delegates also enjoyed a number of formal and informal cultural activities, hiking in Litchfield County, touring Manhattan, visiting the Mashantucket Pequot Museum, and a barbecue dinner and social gathering at Sue Roman’s house that many parishioners attended. The delegates also received a visit from professor José Gonzalez, a literature professor from the US Coast Guard Academy whose family emigrated from El Salvador to the US when he was a child. They discussed his family’s experience in both countries and their lives in contemporary in San José La Montaña. Dr. Gonzalez presented a book of his poetry and the delegates presented a book telling the stories of women from their region of El Salvador. Two members of the delegation had worked on that book.
San José is very committed to education and youth development, and the delegates, one of whom is a school principal, enjoyed the chance to compare their education system with ours. They visited Newtown High School, where Michelle Toby arranged for them to talk with some classes; the newly rebuilt Sandy Hook Elementary School, where principal Tim Napolitano led a tour; and Trinity’s church school classes, where the children eagerly told them what is on their minds these days.
On the final evening of the visit, we sat together over dinner and discussed how we would like our relationship to proceed in the coming year. We agreed that it should include more frequent communication, even though the internet connection in San José is not always reliable, especially during their rainy season (roughly our winter months). We have since established a group texting circle so that members of both communities can easily and quickly exchange greetings, share news, and make prayer requests. Sister Parish established a closed Facebook group for much the same purpose, and we would like to expand that so that more of the both communities can remain in touch with each other.
We also started to discuss the idea of taking on a joint project to help the youth of San José La Montaña by establishing a scholarship program to help students who make it as far as university to pay their bills. That discussion will continue in 2017.
The Companion Parish committee would like to thank everyone who helped make the delegation a success by hosting our guests in their homes, presenting or facilitating discussions, visiting with them at various activities, and generally opening our community and our hearts to them. And we would like to invite all interested parishioners to continue to stay in touch with the people of San José La Montaña through letter writing, Bible study, and other shared activities that our two committees are collaborating on for the coming year.