The Death of María Angela

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On August 27th, María Angela, the mother of Blanca, passed away at the age of 86. She was a mother to many more people than just her six children, including to all the members of the Pastoral Team. Here is the story, seen through my own inadequate gringa eyes, as best as I can tell it.

You will be missed, María. Que descance en paz y resucite en gloria. Rest in Peace, rise in glory.

We are visiting a rural community, waiting for the mayor to arrive. They are swearing in the new Directiva today. This is a cause for celebration. Children run around in excitement. The air smells of freshly cooked corn and smoke. We sit with a community leader, laughing and talking. The mayor is an hour late. Cecilia and I contemplate leaving before he even gets here. There are more important things to do today than wait and wait and wait, even if they do have freshly cooked elotes here.

The call comes. Cecilia is on her feet, shaking Wifredo’s hand. She somehow walks to the car faster than any man or woman can run. What happened? I ask. But I already know.

“Mayita died just now,” she says. She cries.

There are only two things written about death that have ever made sense to me. Not in a theological or philosophical or logical way—in that sense, many stories that we tell, many things we say, make sense. The resurrection of Jesus makes sense. 1 Thessalonians 4 makes sense. 1 Corinthians 15 makes sense. There are many pieces that fit neatly in to the puzzle of Christian theology when death is a distant problem or an intellectual exercise, a problem to be solved or a question in a classroom.

But when death is closer, when we are staring at the starkness and chaos of it up close, when the puzzle falls apart in our attempt to use it for something other than display purposes, only two things make sense to me.

Yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

So it goes.

The first is an ancient sentence, one largely unpreserved in so many modern rites of death and burial. But it calls to me. We, as Christians, can sing over graves, even unto alleluias, because we know that the eternal song of life is not over for the person in the ground, and nor is it over for us. At the grave, we sing. Maybe in grief or anger or loss or sadness or disappointment or guilt. But we do sing. Alleluia.

The second is newer, but it says everything that needs to be said. This is how it is. This is simply what happens. To everyone, always, eventually. So it goes. And yet it doesn’t. It is darkly true in its simplicity.

The remarkable thing is that, though they seem to contradict one another, I actually believe that both of these things are true, and really True, at once. Even from the grave we make our song. So it goes.

The car crawls slowly uphill. I know Alejandro is driving as fast as he can, but the mountain is fighting our urgency. Not that rushing will change anything.

Cecilia alternates between talking on the phone, making plans, and crying. Talking, crying. Talking, crying. I offer her my water bottle.

“No, Katherine,” she says, in way-too-polite and distant tone. “I have my own water, thank you.”

Dark clouds start to gather, blocking out the sun. We hear thunder.

“It always rains when someone in our family dies,” Alejandro explains.
“Really?” I ask.
“Yes.”
“So people in your family only pass away during the rainy season?”
“No,” he says. “It doesn’t matter what month it is. When someone dies, it rains.”

I come down for breakfast and find the women talking to the men about the grave. They are drinking coffee, like they do every morning.

“How are we supposed to know how big the hole is supposed to be if we haven’t purchased the coffin yet?”
“Aren’t they all about the same size?”
“Yes, but we don’t know what that size actually is. It’s not like we have the basic measurements memorized.”

The Salvadoran period of mourning is nine days long. It is traditional, both on the night before someone is buried and on the final day–the 9th–to stay up all night, singing and praying for the person who has died.

Cecilia and I arrive at Blanca’s house in the pickup truck as the sun is creeping low over the mountain. There is a giant tent outside, borrowed from the mayor’s office. I guess, correctly, that they are expecting lots of people.

I find Blanca and give her a hug. I tell her that I’m sorry. She nods and smiles. “Come and see the flowers,” she says.

The coffin is in the front of their living room, surrounded by long, tapered candles and dozens of flowers. Some people are already there, quietly chatting with one another. I find Blanca’s father and hug him, too.

“How are you?” I ask.

“Por aquí.” Here, he says. Here. What an accurate thing to say, now that his wife no longer is.

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The music blasting from the amp and surprisingly beefed-up microphone and speakers struggles to compete with the sound of rain clobbering the metal roof. It’s flooding under the tent we rented from the mayor. 

While you go through life
you are never alone
With you for the journey
Mary goes.

Come with us walking;
Holy Mary, come.
Come with us walking;
Holy Mary, come.

I should not have worn flip-flops, I realize. The footsteps of several hundred people, mixed with the moisture, have made the earth as slippery as an ice skating rink, and my sandals, though tough, have no traction in this thick, sloppy mud.

“Can you carry that?” seemed like a foolish question 30 seconds ago when Cecilia asked it. I thought that handing out chicken tamales and sweet bread to 20 people sounded relatively simple. Clearly, I was wrong.

I gingerly place my right foot ahead of me, trying to find a place where the mud isn’t quite as deep or as wet. I shift my weight slowly away from my left side, allowing my right foot to slide ahead of me several inches. The outside edge of my sandal is now coated in 1/2 inch of moist, wet earth. I think briefly that it looks like chocolate fudge frosting, sparking a sudden and inexplicable craving for the awfully fake but oh-so-good sweetness that comes out of those wee Betty Crocker tubs in the baking section of Pick-N-Save.

“Careful, amiga,” Cecilia says, clearly doubting my strategy.

My foot has stopped sliding. Quickly but carefully, I swing my left foot from behind me and place it in front of my right with a little hop. I can hear Cecilia’s relieved disapproval for my tactics as I enter the house, but I’m proud of myself anyway. “Tamale?” I ask, handing out plates of food.

Come with us walking;
Holy Mary, come.
Come with us walking;
Holy Mary, come.

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It is 10pm, it is still pouring rain, and we are almost out of pan dulce. This is a serious problem.

“We need to go buy more bread,” Cecilia says.
“At least 150 people showed up. Surely they will understand if we are out of sweet bread?”

The look on Cecilia’s face is enough to tell me that I have crossed some invisible cultural line into unknown territory. Once, a church I attended had a potluck lunch and 70% of us brought a bag of potato chips. We all grumbled but tried every kind, and most of us went out to lunch afterwards. This is not that, I now realize.

“How are you going to get there? Will there be anything open at this hour?”
“We hope so. Someone’s bound to be baking for tomorrow.”
“Can I come?”
Cecilia gives me the kind of look only a mother could give. “It’s too dangerous in the dark, amiga.”

I watch them drive off into the rain in a very-rusty truck with a gentleman that they seem to know. I think of the creek at the bottom of their hill that becomes a rapids in a downpour, of the hill itself, which is slippery in most weather conditions and steep, always. I think about the risk they are taking in this country, at this hour, in this weather. I wonder if it is worth it.

Then, in a moment of both exhaustion and revelation, I realize:

Of course she is.

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The clock ticks on past 3am. Many of us are still awake and still here, though many people left a few hours ago when the band did, clinging desperately to the back of their pickup truck in the still-pouring rain.

Blanca’s brother is telling a story about something. I cannot remember what. What I can remember is almost falling asleep standing up, my eyelids involuntarily shutting, my waning willpower prying them back open as I dizzily tried to orient myself.

One of Blanca’s sisters notices and offers me the hammock hanging in their corridor, suspended under the dryness of the roof but still very much outside. I try to decline both the hammock and the blanket she has brought me from one of their own beds, but I fail. Before I know it, I am lying down and she is tucking me in. I vaguely try to remember the last time someone tucked me into bed, but before I can remember, I am asleep.

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I wake up an hour later, cozy under my blanket despite the tempest. The small channel of impacted dirt between the room that serves as the kitchen and the rest of the house, usually resistant even to this amount of moisture, has slickened into mud. I am vaguely aware of Blanca’s two brothers discussing how to fix this.

“We should get a few concrete blocks and put them in the channel between the kitchen and the house. The water can run through the holes in the blocks and keep everyone’s feet dry.”
“Or we could get a small concrete slab and make a little bridge. It wouldn’t shift around as much.”
“It wouldn’t break?”
“Maybe. Depends on who is walking on it. There are some bigger people in this house, I suppose.” They laugh.

They keep laughing and joking about solutions. Perhaps that was the best thing they can do at 4am two days after their mother’s death: fix something that’s actually fixable.

I wander into the living room, where Blanca, Balmore, and several people from Virginia are, including Elida, the former president. She is trying to talk them all into saying one more rosary before the sun comes up. They all agree, heads nodding in assent, fighting exhaustion.

I join them, saying the parts I know and silently praying, “Lord, I second that,” during the parts I don’t. It’s a weird thing to pray, perhaps, as if Heaven were a congressional body and I need to announce: “The Presbyterian from Wisconsin seconds the motion from these Catholic Salvadorans.” But it seems both a respectful and an appropriately Presbyterian thing to do.

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The very nice gentleman from the Yom Kippur Funeral Parlor shows up right at dawn. I vaguely wonder how a Salvadoran funeraria came to be named after the Jewish Day of Atonement, but I doubt that this loyal employee knows the answer to this question, so I don’t bother to ask.

I turn away to speak to one of Blanca’s nieces, a bright young woman in her early 20s. The conversation finds a pause and I suddenly hear a sound that is both ancient and new to me, something I know from its iterations in shop class and my father’s early Saturday morning construction projects, whose hammering and sawing often interrupted me and my sister’s cartoon watching. We would run to our laundry shoot, which ran from the first floor down into the basement/workshop, and shout “DAD PLEASE C’MON CARDCAPTORS IS ON,” or “DAD PLEASE WE CAN’T SEE DIGIMON BECASE THE SAW IS ON THE SAME FUSE AS THE TV.” Surprisingly, he sometimes did stop.

The sound is a large piece of metal hitting a smaller piece of metal, pounding it into wood. It is slower than the song I heard from the basement on Saturdays, a tune I know turned into a dirge.

The sound is nails being pounded into a coffin.

Blanca told everyone to come at 7am. They are all here, waiting.

The sound of huffing and puffing turns me around.

“This thing is heavy,” Balmore says. This means something significant coming from someone who can carry a 100lb. bag of corn on his back. It looks for a moment like they are going to drop it, but they successfully carry it from the living room to the hearse.

The hearse from the Yom Kippur funeraria is a pickup truck with a glass case mounted on the bed. With less effort than I was expecting, they lift the wood box and slide it gently inside the glass one. One of the funeral parlor employees climbs inside and begins strapping the coffin down. Belt buckles are snapped and pulled across it. One, two, three, another one through the handle, just there. The coffin looks like a patient in an ambulance. Or maybe an astronaut.

The man driving the truck starts the engine. Instantly, Christian music blasts at full volume, the air filled with a jarring electric piano and tenor sax.

Cecilia and Patti are crying. I wonder why at this moment, after a night of prayer, that the full force of everything is hitting them now. Then I realize that we all believe María Angela is leaving home for the last time, and going home for the first time, all at once.

I honestly believe that both of these things are true, and really True, at once.

Even from the grave, we make our song. So it goes.

And so it went, sounding like Kenny G. or the ending credits of Beauty and the Beast.

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We walk, first steeply downhill and then uphill. The community follows. Some talk. Some laugh.

I foolishly and stupidly step into the creek at the bottom of the slippery hill, regretting for the 100th time my choice of footwear. The slimy, dirty leather slides against my foot, making it hard to walk uphill.

“Stop, stop,” Blanca says. “Let me get a tissue from my bag.”
“No, no.” I say, “I can make it.” I figure my shoes will dry out if I can make it up the hill.
“Why don’t you ride in the car?” she says, pointing to the pickup truck following us.
“I prefer to walk with all of you,” I say.
“Hold on,” she says, rooting through her purse.
“No really,” I say. She feels the need to take care of me. I feel the need to take care of her, to keep her from having to think of or worry about me, as if taking or refusing a tissue could help or hurt anything at this point.

She gives me a look that I cannot read and hands me the tissue. I take it and wipe my feet. Even on the day when her mother is being buried, I am still the helpless one.

We walk, walk, walk, all the way to Berlín.

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The Mass is short and I cannot remember what Father Santos preaches. Something about repentance or conversion or salvation, I’m sure, which is what he preaches about whether someone has died or it’s Easter Sunday.

As he processes out, the people gather around to look into the coffin. Small children peer curiously but without much understanding. Adults weep.

Finally, slowly, the coffin is rolled out of the church and down the ramp. It goes back into the glass case and is strapped in again. The music is switched back on.

We walk down the hill again, cars and other traffic weaving dangerously around our slow procession. There must be at least 200 people with us, perhaps more.

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When we reach the cemetery, I begin to pivot left with the throng that is entering the gates, but Blanca, Cecilia, and Idalia have disappeared. I find them outside the crowd, on the other side of the road, paying a woman I recognize but whose name I do not know for the contents of three giant cardboard boxes, joking and laughing. The look on my face must have asked the question, and Cecilia opens the box.

Sandwiches, hundreds of sandwiches. But Cecilia is already answering that, too.

“Well, it’s lunchtime. We can’t not feed all of these people!”

I wonder suddenly, heretically, if one of Jesus’ great miracles wasn’t actually a miracle at all, or at least not in the way we imagine it. I suddenly imagine myself on a hill in 1st century Roman-occupied Palestine, a young assistant to the army of women who kept Jesus and his followers fed. Jesus, seeing the throng of thousands and realizing they have only a bit of fish and bread, approaches us. He hands Cecilia a few coins and whispers to the three of them, “See what you can do with this.” Without hesitating, they run off in three separate but orderly directions. I give him a skeptical look.

“Well,” he says, “it’s lunchtime. We can’t not feed all of these people!”

The service at the grave is short. Balmore leads it—Salvadoran priests can rarely be bothered with this sort of thing. I stand near the back, on the top of another grave so that I can see.

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It’s impossible not to stand on a grave in this cemetery. It is tiny, disorderly, overcrowded. Some crosses have broken in half and have been glued back together. Some headstones have dirty fake flowers tied to them, their immortality as plastic objects defeated by tropical rain and mud.

I oddly like the place. The straight and even rows of American cemeteries, in their understandable attempt to give it order and sense to something ultimately senseless (so it goes), sanitize the messiness of death and the chaos that surrounds it. This cemetery feels more real.

The women are not with me: they are figuring out how to feed everyone in an orderly way. Blanca, whose mother is being lowered into the ground with ropes (no fancy equipment here—just sheer muscle), walks over. I expect her to watch, to participate. But she simply whispers something in Balmore’s ear, hands him a sheet of paper, and then walks away. He nods and keeps singing.

Come with us walking;
Holy Mary, come.
Come with us walking;
Holy Mary, come.

Bueno,” Balmore announces as the song ends, his tone echoing that of a flee-market announcer or flight attendant—calm and chipper regardless of the circumstances. “We will continue singing, but we will now ask you to proceed to the front gates to receive your lunch, community by community. The first community will be San Isidro, so if you are from San Isidro, please go to the front gate now. Thank you.”

We all have our ways of trying to order death, I suppose. Feeding hundreds of people is, perhaps, the healthiest kind of attempt we can make.

Manuel Muñoz, another Delegate of the Word, strikes up another song in his strong, deep voice. Balmore joins in, glancing at the current length of the line to receive lunch and at the next community on the list.

Even from the grave, we make our song.

Here, at the grave of their matriarch, how could I expect them to sing any other song than the one they always sing, the one made with busy hands and bags of juice tied neatly with the straws used to drink from them?

Epilogue

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The flowers at the final vigil. All were donated by friends of the family. Amazing.

The nine days are over. Everyone from Blanca’s family has come and gone a second time. We stayed up all night on Saturday, the last day of the nine, feeding people hundreds more tamales, sweet bread, and hot coffee, dodging more raindrops and thunderstorms, admiring the hundreds of flowers people brought, shivering and saying rosaries in more cold. More singing, more prayers. Cecilia and I spent Sunday as little more than zombies, crawling into our respective offices and watching television, waiting until after dinner to sleep so that our internal clocks could return to normal.

It is now Monday morning. I find Cecilia in the kitchen, cooking breakfast as always, the sound of fresh egg hitting oil filling the space.

We sit down, not speaking much.

“It didn’t rain last night.”
“No, it didn’t.”
“I am so angry. It rained so hard on Saturday and last Friday.”

We sip more coffee.

“Someone told me that if it rains, it means that God is going to save that person’s soul?”
“Yes, supposedly. Supposedly, if it rains on the day they are buried, that’s true. It’s not true, though.”
I remember vaguely how hot and dry it was the day that María Angela was actually buried. It was us who had to fight with the rain, not her. So it goes. Another pause.

“Well, we have to work now,” she says.
“Yes, we do,” I say.
And so we do, as if we ever stopped.

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All Lives Are Worth The Same

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Christ and the Canaanite Woman by Germain-Jean Drouais (1784).

21Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” 23But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” 24He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”28Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly. (Matthew 15: 21-28)

Let me tell you a trade secret: we preachers, theologians, and Christian bloggers have no idea what to do with this story. None. We spend hours every week trying to find ways of using the Gospel text to convince you that Jesus is awesome, Jesus loves you and wants you to know that, Jesus is God and worthy of worship and praise and, as much as we sinful little humans are capable of such a thing, emulation.

And then Jesus has to go and do this absolutely jack*ss thing, refusing to help a poor woman with a sick daughter—all because she isn’t an Israelite? Seriously, Jesus?

Honestly, we’ve tried everything to explain Jesus actions in a way that makes him look good—but our logic just comes back to bite us. All our attempts to use theology, what we know of Jesus’ historical or cultural context, or Biblical exegesis fail to explain his dismissive and cruel behavior. At the heart of the problem is that Jesus is God and God is not supposed to be total jerk. But Jesus is unquestionably acting like a jerk here, and behaving in direct contradiction to the teaching he just gave about false words defiling us far more than ignoring rules of ritual cleanliness. Well done, Jesus. We’re stumped.

And quite frankly, during a week when the world is seemingly falling apart and we need a kind, peaceful, justice and fairness-loving God, Jesus has seemingly failed us, too. Gaza is in shambles—again. Another unarmed African-American man was shot to death in his own neighborhood and the protestors rightly angry at his death were met with a show of weapons, artillery, and civil rights violations that would have made a tyrant proud. Thousands of Central American kids and families continue to cross over the US-Mexico border, seeing asylum from grinding poverty and endless violence. Ebola. ISIS. But Jesus turns to a desperate woman whose daughter needs healing—a mother just like the Palestinian mothers whose children are filled with shrapnel, or the African-American mothers whose children are riddled with bullets, or Central American mothers whose children are walking thousands of miles across the desert to escape violent, merciless gangs, or the mothers of Iraq who are fleeing the ISIS with their children in their arms, or the mothers whose children just tested positive for Ebola—and calls her a dog.

This woman may have knelt before Jesus, but did not just sit there and accept Jesus’ insinuation that she and her daughter were not worthy of help because they were not of the house of Israel. She turns the tables on Jesus, cleverly and forcefully suggesting that she may be a dog, but she is the kind of dog that is worthy of respect. Jesus may come out looking like a half-decent guy after healing this woman’s daughter. The real hero of this story, however, is not the Lord and King of the Universe. It is this Canaanite woman whose name has been lost to history.

In fact, this woman is isn’t just a hero—she is a prophet. Like Abraham who argued with God to spare Sodom and Moses who convinced God not to destroy Israel after they forged the golden calf and worshiped it, this woman joins a short but unforgettable list of Biblical figures who had the gumption to stand up to the Ruler of the Universe.

And she is a prophet for us, too, because she points us at the question behind all the questions that we are all asking ourselves this week amidst all this violence, terror, uncertainty, and rage in the world:

Why are some lives more worth more than others?

For as we debate whether Israelis or Palestinians or Iraqis or the ISIS or Central American refugees or Ebola patients deserve our help or do not deserve our help (and what kind of help they deserve),  whether they deserve to die or deserve to live, this brave Canaanite woman forces us to ask, who do we consider human, really? Who do we consider worthy of life, which lives do we rank in value above others, and which of our values or resources do we rank above human lives?

Is national security worth a few lives? The end of ISIS? The end of Hamas? Are these 50,000 Central American lives worth the $3.7 billion dollars President Obama purposed to help them? Less? More? Is an African-American life worth the same as a white person’s life? Less? The same? The same only if the African-American in question has no criminal record and was pursuing a college degree?

This is the conversation we are having, whether we realize we are having it or not.

Jesus perhaps thought that what was at stake in this woman’s request was the reach of his ministry, what it meant to be a Messiah, or his role as a Jewish religious leader in an Roman-occupied territory that contained people groups and faiths other than his own. But this woman pointed out the truth: these are not the real questions, the real issues, the real concerns.

The question is: Who lives and who dies, and who gets to decide? This woman had the courage to answer this question in the most radical way possible, to courageously look Jesus in the eye and say, “My daughter’s life is worth something.”

She had the courage to look Jesus in the eye and say, “All lives are worth the same.”

Israeli and Palestinian lives are worth the same. African-American and Asian-American and Native American and white American lives are all worth the same. Central American and Iraqi and West African lives and North American lives are worth the same. All lives are worth the same.

Let us stare into the abyss of the world, fellow Christians, and face it with the same boldness as this woman who sought her daughter’s healing—and let it help us to find paths to healings our own. Let us declare, once and for all, that all lives are worth the same.

Furthermore, let us sit down and have real conversations about what it would mean to declare all lives to be worth the same, what it would mean for the unjust socioeconomic systems we support, for the systems of racial or gender or national privilege that we benefit from, for our national security and foreign policy, for our churches, for our governments, for our communities. 

If there’s something to emulate about Jesus in this story, it’s the quickness with which he realizes his mistake and does the right thing, offering this woman both her daughter’s healing and something much greater: an acknowledgment that a Canaanite life is worth as much as a Jewish one, or at the very least, is worth a whole lot more than nothing. 

It seems that Jesus learned something from this woman. After meeting her and healing her daughter, Jesus passes along the Sea of Galilee, healing wherever he goes. Those who were healed, it is written, “praised the God of Israel” (v. 31). Could it be that those he healed were not Israelites? That they were of other peoples? That they came to praise the God of Israel because the God of Israel had, with the help of this woman, learned to reach out beyond his own people, having learned that all lives are worth the same?

May we learn from Jesus. And may we learn from this woman, a prophet in her own time—and in ours.

All real change starts with relationship, all real relationship starts with real conversation, an all real conversations regarding systemic violence or injustice start with informed, empathetic people who want to understand the roots these issues.

Ready to have a conversation about #Ferguson and racial justice and reconciliation in America? Search for #Ferguson in Twitter for up-to-date news and read this amazing piece by Black Girl Dangerous.  If you want a longer read that is absolutely worth it, read this piece from The Atlantic. Or just read everything on this list under #Ferguson.

Ready to have a conversation about Central American refugees? Read my previous blog post and the articles cited. 

Ready to have a conversation about Israel/Palestine? Try starting here.

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The Heartland Presbyterian Church Delegation

We had a wonderful delegation visit us from Heartland Presbyterian Church this past week. We visited important historical sites, had some deep and important conversations, and spent time with the communities of Tablón Cerna and Tablón Centro. We were even able to help deliver 98 water tanks that Heartland donated to these two communities!

Many thanks to the people of Heartland for their generosity in donating these tanks so that the people of Tablón can store potable water to drink, to the delegates who were incredibly flexible during a week with lots of scheduling changes, and to the members of the Pastoral Team who helped to arrange this massive tank delivery and a delegation at the same time!

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The delegation visits the Cathedral in San Salvador as the Archbishop and El Salvador’s President honor the nation’s patron, The Divine Savior of the World. We were so lucky to be there for a few minutes of this once-in-a-year Mass!

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The delegation passes by the Chaparrastique volcano on their trip to visit El Mozote. Chaparrastique has experienced several minor eruptions since December 2013.

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Julia and Priscilla, two of the Heartland delegates, offer a blessing for the tanks. Julia read the Biblical story of the Samaritan woman who meets Jesus at the well and asks him for Living Water (John 4). 

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The three delivery trucks that brought 72 tanks to Tablón Centro.

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A woman signs a receipt to receive her tank. Since she cannot read or write her own name, she signs with a fingerprint.

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The tanks for Tablón Cerna are delivered to the Pastoral House by the truck on the right. These large trucks cannot make it out to the communities, so we transfer them unto smaller trucks (like the one on the left) to take them the rest of the way.

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Members of the Pastoral Team, Directiva, and community of Tablón Cerna apply stickers to the tanks. They read: “Donated by the Heartland Church and the Community Pastoral House with the love of God.”

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Members of the delegation take pictures of the families that received tanks.

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The Story of a Seed Bank

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This year, Berlín is experiencing a drought. But three years ago, the farmers of this area had the opposite problem: excessive rain and flooding destroyed most of their bean crop, leaving them with no seeds to plant. The Pastoral Team, recognizing that this was an emergency situation, put out a call for help. The Iowa churches that we work with and many generous individuals responded quickly, and the Team was able to purchase bean seed for the farming families of Berlín!

Everyone was so generous, in fact, that we had funds left over after purchasing all that bean seed. So the Pastoral Team asked Compañeros, the coordinating committee for the churches we work with in Iowa, for permission to build a seed bank in one of the communities we work with. They enthusiastically said yes, and work on the seed bank began.

What is a seed bank, you ask? A seed bank is a small storehouse in which communities can safely store and distribute seeds (in Berlín, usually bean and corn seeds) for future planting. Each family that chooses to participate elects to store a certain number of pounds of seed in the bank so they can use it the following year. Seed banks have many uses and benefits:

1) Seed banks help families preserve their seeds and keep them safe from excessive heat or moisture. Many communities treat the seed stored in the bank with chemicals or organic compounds to help with this preservation.

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These silos protect the seeds from heat, moisture, and animals.

2) Seed banks can help families that run out of bean or corn seed. Families can “borrow” seeds from the bank and pay it back at a small interest rate—in pounds of bean and corn, of course, not in money.

3) Seed banks help farmers diversify their crops. In many communities, different varieties of corn are stored in the different silos within the seed bank, and families participating may elect to exchange their variety or varieties of seeds for those of their neighbors. This crop diversity is good for farmers—it protects them from losing their whole crop should one breed be wiped out by a plague, disease, or certain climatic conditions (seeing as different seeds are better adapted to certain conditions or diseases).

4) Seed banks help communities preserve and continue planting their native seeds. Native seeds are not just an important part of a community and nation’s history and culture—they are often better adapted to the community’s conditions than foreign seeds, which also tend to be more expensive for families to buy.

In other words, seed banks are incredibly important for rural farming communities. They are also highly sustainable projects, helping farmers to help themselves and work together to keep their communities fed and healthy.

In 2013, the community of Santa Cruz was chosen to receive this seed bank project and the construction began. The community built the seed bank themselves—the only thing the Pastoral Team provided was the materials—and in April 2013, the seed bank was dedicated with a ribbon-cutting ceremony.

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The men of Santa Cruz, hard at work building the seed bank. Here in rural El Salvador, people have to mix concrete by hand.

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The mission-co worker and community leaders, along with representatives from the mayor’s office, cut the ribbon to dedicate the seed bank.

This story of this seed bank could have ended there, but thanks to some friends from New York State, it continued. In 2012, a delegation from the Presbytery of Long Island visited Santa Cruz for the first time, and in 2013, they decided that they wanted to partner with this community on a long-term basis. As a way of honoring this relationship, they began painting a beautiful mural on the seed bank. Finally, in 2014, the mural was finished. And it is absolutely a work of art!

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Many thanks to anyone who donated money for bean seed in 2011, for everyone who was supportive of the seed bank project, the people of Santa Cruz for building it, the Presbytery of Long Island folks (especially their artist-in-residence, Deb) and the youth of Santa Cruz for painting it, and the Pastoral Team for coordinating everything relating to this project. This project would not have been possible without the work of many hands–Presbyterian hands, evangelical hands, Catholic hands–we all built this together.

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The inscription above is from Psalms 133: 1: “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!”

Indeed, it is good and pleasant to live together in unity–and it’s even more amazing what we can build together in that unity!

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The Presbytery of Long Island Delegation

Another week, another amazing delegation! We just had an amazing visit from the Presbytery of Long Island (and their friends from other churches in Long Island and El Salvador), who both partner with the community of Santa Cruz and lead dental health workshops in Berlín-area schools. They visited community homes in Santa Cruz, taught the children the story of Noah (and had them perform it as a play!), finished painting a mural on the community’s seed bank, and shared their faith, lives, and stories with the people of El Salvador. They also visited El Mozote and learned about the massacre of over 1,000 innocent people that took place there in 1981.

Many thanks to the people of the Presbytery of Long Island (et al.!), the Pastoral Team for their hard work, and the community of Santa Cruz for their hospitality. We can’t wait for you to visit us again next year!

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The delegation is greeted by a lively band upon their arrival at Santa Cruz.

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Members of the delegation and youth from the community work to finish the mural that they started last year. Photos of the completed bank will appear in a future post–stay tuned!

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Members of the delegation and schoolchildren work on a tissue-paper mural for the Noah’s ark play.

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Younger children color and decorate animal masks for the Noah’s Ark play, while Blanca offers her coloring expertise.

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The delegation members present a family in Santa Cruz with a gift.

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The delegation walks down a steep hill to visit a community home.

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The delegation visits the farms of community members to observe the current drought’s impact on the corn crop. Many in Berlín will lose some or all of their harvest this year.

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The children rehearse their Noah’s Ark play.

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The delegation plays parachute games with the children. 

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The community dances with the delegation on their last day in Santa Cruz.

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The delegation visits a replica of a guerrilla encampment in Perquín, Morazan.

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Thanks for your visit, fabulous people of Long Island!

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The Art for El Salvador Delegation

Last week, we had a small but mighty delegation from Art for El Salvador, an Iowa-based grassroots organization that seeks to use art as a means to uplift impoverished communities in rural El Salvador. For the past several years they have been raising funds to build a school, so we offered to connect them to a school in the Berlín area that was in need of their help. We introduced them to the community of Mediagua, where the community has long wanted to renovate their old, crumbling school building and add new classrooms so that children will have access to grades 7-9. Most children in this community, particularly the girls, end their education at 6th grade because their parents feel that it is too far (and too dangerous) to send them to school in downtown Berlín.

After several days of visiting with the teachers, students, and families of Caserío Mediagua, the Art for El Salvador representatives decided that Mediagua was the right place to build the school!

Of course, the community would love for the school construction to begin in late September so that the children finishing 6th grade in November might have a chance to continue their education next year. But that means that the Art for El Salvador folks have their work cut out for them to raise enough money to begin the school construction in two short months!

Be sure to check out the photos below, but more importantly, head over to Art for El Salvador’s own website here. Their organization has an amazing story behind it–learn about it, share it with others, and please consider contributing to their efforts to improve educational access here in Berlín!

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Niah and Maria, two of the sisters who founded Art for El Salvador, meet with the teachers at the school and members of the Directiva about the project.

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Maria reads a book to the children in the Mediagua school. Kids EVERYWHERE love being read to!

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Oscar, the president of the community, helps a first-grader design a custom bookmark. It was a really fun craft!

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A kindergartener shows off her bookmarks for the camera.

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Members of the Pastoral Team and the delegation walk the streets of Mediagua to visit the community’s families.

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Children laugh as they review a photo of themselves from their house visit.

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A boy poses with the friendship bracelet that he learned how to make.

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The children also enjoyed breaking piñatas and eating cake!

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Piñatas make great hats. Really.

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The community’s vice president poses with his daughter. She is finishing 6th grade this year and will not be able to continue on to 7th grade if Mediagua does not have a new school–and a new paid teacher position–by January.

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Niah, Maria, the Pastoral Team, teachers, students, Directiva members, and the project’s construction supervisors all pose together. This is going to make for a wonderful and important project!

Again, be sure to go look at Art for El Salvador’s site and read about their story here.

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The Unaccompanied Children Crisis

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“The Finding of Moses,” Arnold Friberg

Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him three months. When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river. [Exodus 2v1-3]

***

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

[from "The New Colossus" by Emma Lazarus]

Many people have written to me and asked me to provide them with some guidance and information regarding the child refugee crisis at the United States-Mexico border and its relationship to current conditions in El Salvador. I am more than happy to do this—with a few qualifications.

First, I want to admit that I am not an expert in refugees or immigration: like most people, I am relying on the data provided by the U.N., NGOs and other organizations, journalists, and the U.S. Border Patrol. Second, I will admit that most of my experience has been in El Salvador and not Guatemala, Mexico, or Honduras, so I intend to mostly speak to this issue as it relates to that particular country. Third, I will try to provide a citation where there are particular facts or evidence that lie outside common historical knowledge.

Fourth, I will try to cite articles that present a range of opinions about this issue, but I cannot and will not pretend to be unbiased about it myself. It is my opinion as a mission co-worker and ordained pastor that the most Christian way to address this crisis is to help these desperate children however we can—both before they leave their home countries and after they cross the border—including encouraging the government of the United States to provide refugee status to those children who face real danger and violence in their countries of origin.

Lastly, I will gladly welcome a range of opinions, questions, and sources of information about this issue in the comments. But I reserve the right to delete anything I find disrespectful or lacking in basic human compassion and common courtesy.

What is going on at the border?

In the past few years, the United States has seen a rapid increase in the number of children—some of them quite young—crossing the U.S.-Mexico border unaccompanied by parents or other adult family members. If this pattern continues, Border Control agents will apprehend 87,000 unaccompanied children in the fiscal year 2014. This is twice as many as last year. Tens of thousands of parents have also been crossing the border with their young children.

What is causing this immigration crisis?

First of all, it is not immigration crisis. Some have called it a “humanitarian situation” and others have labeled it a refugee crisis. In fact, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has indicated that many of these children may qualify for international protection needs. Whatever you want to call it, this situation has more in common with the refugee crisis in southern Sudan and surrounding countries than it does with other patterns of northern immigration within the Americas. Since 1983, approximately 20,000 children, often referred to as “the Lost Boys,” have walked across the Sudanese wilderness and into neighboring countries to flee a violent and seemingly endless civil war. Would you say that the Lost Boys of Sudan were (and are) immigrants? Maybe. But they were first and foremost refugees, and so are these Central American children. Largely, these children are fleeing violence at home, not simply seeking better economic and employment opportunities in the USA (though economic issues in Central America are certainly a contributing factor).

How many children who are crossing the border feel that their lives are at risk back home? And what kind of violence are they fleeing?

The UN High Commission on Refugees report on this crisis estimates that overall, 58% of these children from Central America potentially qualify for international protection because they have “suffered or faced harms that indicated a potential or actual need for international protection.” But the percentage of Salvadoran children that may qualify for this international protection is much higher. In fact, “72% of the Salvadoran children [interviewed] provided responses that raised potential international protection needs,” and “sixty-six percent of the children cited violence by organized armed criminal actors as a primary motivator for leaving.”

What kinds of threats are they facing?  The Salvadoran children interviewed stated that their daily lives were plagued by, challenges of evading extortion; witnessing murders; and navigating threats to themselves and their families, friends and neighborsThe girls shared their fears of sexual violence.”

In El Salvador (and other parts of Central America, as well), many of these “organized criminal actors” are gangs such as Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Calle 18.

But seriously, what is the root cause of all this? Where did these gangs come from?

Bear with me. It’s a long story. But you really, really need to know.

There are many, many complicated interlocking causes driving this crisis. Some, which experts call “pull factors,” include a desire to seek out better economic opportunities in the United States or to reunite with family members who live there. Some also see recent immigration policy changes as another “pull factor” in this crisis, but there is little evidence to suggest that this is a significant issue.

However, it seems that the majority of these children (especially those from El Salvador) are primarily driven by “push factors” to flee their homes, including dramatic increases in gang-related violence. In El Salvador and Honduras, gangs such as Mara Salvatrucha (a gang that the Obama administration has labeled as an “international criminal organization”) are recruiting children as young kindergarden—usually by force. Those that refuse to join a gang are threatened with violence or even killed. Young women are often threatened with sexual violence.

But what is the root cause? Fundamentally, it is 100 years or more of bad economic, foreign, and immigration policy on the part of the United States government with regards to Central America.

This is particularly true in El Salvador. From 1980-1992, El Salvador was gripped by an incredibly violent civil war. At least 75,000 people (and probably closer to 100,000 or 150,000 people) were killed, and 1,000,000 were displaced. This is an astounding amount of violence by any measure, but it is particularly shocking in a country with a population of just 5-6 million people.

During this conflict, the United States backed the highly oppressive, undemocratic Salvadoran government whose military forces were responsible for 85% of the war crimes committed during the conflict.  This was part of the United States’ Cold War policy of “containment”: supporting governments around the world, no matter how oppressive, that claimed to be fighting socialist or leftist rebels within their own countries in order to prevent the spread of communism. Towards the end of the war, the USA was sending the Salvadoran government over $1,000,000/day in military aid.

As a result of this American money-fueled conflict, many fled El Salvador and immigrated—either with a valid visa or not—to the United States. There, many settled in Los Angeles and other large cities with large Latino and Salvadoran populations. They quickly discovered, however, that they needed a means to defend the incoming Salvadoran population from already-established area gangs. It was on the streets of Los Angeles and other cities that Mara Salvatrucha and other now-infamous gangs were formed.

After the Civil War, the US government began deporting gang members back to their countries of origin in large numbers. Some gang members were so young when they left El Salvador for the USA that they knew no family in their home country—except those people who were part of their gang. This strengthened ties between deported gang members in El Salvador and allowed gang activity to take hold in the larger cities such as San Salvador and San Miguel, where jobs were (and are) few and poorly paid and poverty and desperation created a perfect environment for gangs to embed themselves in the social and economic landscape.

Twenty years later, these gangs have only grown in size and power, strengthened by ties with gang chapters in the U.S.A. The U.S. policy of continuously deporting gang members back to their home countries does little to help the problem. The Salvadoran government, already weakened by poverty, a shrinking coffee industry, and international trade and aid agreements that do little more than extract wealth and resources from their already-poor country for the benefit of private businesses and wealthier nations, does not have the money or resources to battle these gangs. So children are fleeing for their lives from the gang-related violence, hoping to reach the safety of the United States as their parents or grandparents’ generation did during the war.

In other words, we must be clear here: this refugee crisis is the fault of the United States government and its foolish and outdated foreign and immigration policies—policies that began decades ago. We helped the Salvadoran government tear their country to pieces in the name of “containing the communist threat,” and when Salvadorans fled to the States and formed gangs, we shipped those gangs back here, along with all the violence, crime, and trauma that they carried with them. Now, children are fleeing from these gangs. If Americans want to know where this problem is coming from, we have only to look in the mirror.

What kind of parents would send their kids over the border alone?

Desperate parents who feel that their children’s lives are in danger. Many families are too poor to pay for everyone in their family to cross the border together or to seek out legal help so that their children can travel to the U.S.A. legally, so they send their children alone. It costs thousands of dollars—at least $4,000, one local woman told me—to send someone across the border with a coyote. This is what many families here earn in one year. The process for seeking out legal refugee or immigration status is almost as expensive—and much more involved–with almost no hope of success.

Also, fellow Christians, we know this story. What kind of mother would throw her young child at the mercy of God, natural elements, and strangers in the face of his certain death? Moses’ mother. What kind of parents would carry their young child across an international border in order to protect him? Jesus’ parents. As Christians, we cannot judge these children and their families. Faced with two absolutely insane options, families everywhere will choose the option that they find slightly less insane. We must try to understand this. 

Is it safe to visit El Salvador for mission trips (especially with Our Sister Parish)?

It is as safe as taking a mission trip to Chicago or Los Angeles. Groups that visit San Salvador stay in tourist-friendly areas and only travel with drivers who to stay away from dangerous neighborhoods. San Salvador is a large city, and some areas are safer than others, as is true with all large cities in the U.S.A. If there were gang activity going on in East Garfield Park in Chicago, would you be afraid to visit the Bean and the Art Institute downtown? Probably not. As Americans, we expect other countries to be more violent and unsafe than ours is. But how unsafe you are often depends more on where you are in a country than what country you are in.

Our rural town itself has its share of crime, and there are certainly areas that we avoid visiting, particularly at night. But there is no organized gang violence here (thank God) and there are plenty of people and institutions (including the Pastoral House/Our Sister Parish) who are working to make sure gangs do not take hold here.

Also, as Blanca (a member of the Pastoral Team) reminded me, “They [the gangs] never kill foreigners. [People] didn’t even kill foreigners during the war, except nuns and priests—and that was the armed forces.” The gangs rarely if ever hurt non-Salvadorans. They know that doing so is not to their political advantage.

What can we/I do?

Continue supporting the Pastoral Team and other organizations who seek to end the root causes of violence and poverty in Central America and give people a sense of hope and community outside gang activity. If you are not familiar with Our Sister Parish, you can learn more about our work here.

Learn about what the PCUSA and other faith leaders across the political and theological spectrum are doing to address the crisis.

Learn about what happens to these children when they reach the U.S.A.

Call President Obama and your Congressmen/women and tell them that instead of making it easier to send these children home to places where they might be in real danger (as they are considering doing), they should make it easier for them to have a fair legal hearing for refugee status and to apply for asylum or refugee status from within their home countries. Tell them that, as a person of faith and a follower of Christ, you support sane and fair refugee assistance policies that protect children seeking sanctuary from violence. Not all these children need or qualify for international protection, but those that do should have a fair chance at obtaining it.

While you are on the phone with your Congressman/woman’s overworked and underpaid intern, please tell them you also support immigration reform that makes it easier for Central/Latin Americans (and other immigrants, as well) to travel to the U.S.A. to work and to study. Doing so will allow them to help their families and nations break the cycle of poverty and desperation that make them so susceptible to gang violence–violence that is driving them across the border. The answer to undocumented immigration isn’t less immigration–it is an easier, cheaper, and saner process for legal immigration. 

Finally, if you hear a fellow Christian say, “Those kids are illegal immigrants and we should send them home ASAP,” kindly remind them that Jesus and Moses also fled violent regimes as young children. Also remind them that these are children, for goodness’ sake, and if the greatest nation on earth no longer has room for the tired, the poor, the huddling masses yearning to breathe free, then we should demolish that incredibly hypocritical statue and its accompanying bronze plaque. Because protesting outside overcrowded detention centers and welcoming desperate children to the U.S.A. with chants of, “Nobody wants you,” does not just make us bad Christians. It makes us bad Americans.

Please pray for these children and their families. Could you walk for a hundred miles across a burning hot desert, even if you knew you were doing so to save your own life? As a young woman, could you risk being sexually assaulted every day on a several-thousand-mile journey to escape the same kind of violence at home? Could you do that at 10, 12, or 14 years of age? I don’t think I could do it now.

Jesus was thirsty on the cross—these children are dying of dehydration. Jesus’ feet were pierced—these children’s feet are blistered. Their broken bodies are His broken body. So let’s do what Jesus would do: meet them with lifted lamps at the door.

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