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!


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


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!


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


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


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


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


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.


The children rehearse their Noah’s Ark play.


The delegation plays parachute games with the children. 


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


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


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!


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.


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


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



A kindergartener shows off her bookmarks for the camera.


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


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


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


The children also enjoyed breaking piñatas and eating cake!


Piñatas make great hats. Really.


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.


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


“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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Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church

It’s too bad that these folks only visited Berlín for 24 hours, because they were awesome! It is always such a pleasure to introduce a new church community to La Casa Pastoral and Our Sister Parish, especially when the delegates visiting us are as compassionate, friendly, open-hearted, and inquisitive as these folks are!

Thanks to the community of San Isidro for welcoming strangers into your homes to spend the night with you. Thanks to the Pastoral Team, as always, for taking such good care of the delegation and providing for their every need. And many thanks to the people of Brown Memorial for allowing some of your wonderful young people, and their equally wonderful adult leaders, to get to know the Pastoral Team and one of the many rural communities of Berlín. Please come back and visit us again soon!

The delegation meets with the Directiva and committees of San Isidro.

The delegation meets with the Directiva and committees of San Isidro.


The delegation learns about the importance of seed banks.


Delegates engage in a lively game of fútbol with the community. Blanca eventually made them restart the game because she thought that 20-some people playing at once was just silly. It was quite fun to watch, however.


The delegation enjoys an amazing dinner. Thanks to San Isidro for sharing some of your delicious yuca!


Heroic members of the Pastoral Team get up at 5:30am to start preparing breakfast for the delegates.


The delegates walk back to the church in San Isidro to eat breakfast.


The delegates prepare to leave the community. Apologies for the quality of the image–I think it was so humid that morning that my camera lens fogged up!

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The Central Presbyterian Church Delegation

We had an awesome time with the folks from Central Presbyterian Church this week. We had a lot of important conversations. We learned a lot from the Pastoral Team and the people of Berlín. We had a lot of fun!

Many thanks to the people of Central Presbyterian Church for their support of the Pastoral Team, for the new refrigerator, beds, and fans for the Pastoral House, and for sending us such a wonderful group of delegates. Peace and grace to you, friends.


The delegation visits the giant 3-D map of El Salvador at the Military Museum of San Salvador. 


The groups stops on the way to Berlín to take pictures of Volcán San Vicente.


The delegation visits with the Directiva (Community Board) of Corozal.


The delegation helps to install the refrigerator that Central Presbyterian Church donated to the Pastoral House. That fridge is going to be such a blessing to us!


The band of San Felipe Arriba serenades the delegation with some amazing music.


The delegation tours the water project of the community of Alejandria.

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Drink some coffee. We’ll buy a toilet. (OR: Why you should buy Don Justo Coffee, Reason #2 of 1,000,000)


Recently, the Pastoral Team has been delivering lots concrete seats and floors, as well as corrugated metal siding, to different communities in Berlín so that families that do not have proper toilets can build one for themselves. Most of these toilets were purchased by generous churches or presbyteries.

But did you know that we also purchase toilets with the proceeds from Don Justo Coffee?

Latrines like the ones churches and coffee-drinkers help families to purchase are extremely important; sanitation is a major public health issue here in Berlín, as it is in most of the developing world. At the end of 2013, 2.5 billion people on this planet still did not have access to safe toilets and sanitation. Families that do not have access to a safe, decent toilet are at greater risk for stomach and diarrheal illnesses. These illnesses disproportionately affect children. 2,000 children a day –700,000 a year – die from diarrheal illnesses caused by unsafe water and a lack of proper sanitation.[1]


Children also suffer less grave, but still permanent and damaging, health and social consequences when they lack a proper toilet and sanitation access. As a recent report released by WaterAid states: “During school years, access to a toilet can help children succeed in education. Basic sanitation and hygiene will reduce the number of episodes of diarrhea and worm infections making sure children don’t miss class due to illness. It also contributes to better nutrition, which has a positive impact on attendance, cognitive ability and lifetime earnings.”[2] Children who do not have a proper toilet at home are at greater risk of missing out on valuable days and weeks of their schooling. Lacking a basic education affects not only the future health and economic welfare of these children, but also the future health and economic welfare of their families and communities.


Poor sanitation and inadequate toilet facilities also disproportionately affect female health and dignity. Because of differences in male and female biology, women often feel more pressure to travel greater distances to find a dignified toilet. Doing so costs then valuable time during the day and often exposes them to danger at night: women who walk alone in the dark are at greater risk of harassment and sexual violence. In fact, one in three women around the world risk “shame, disease, harassment, or even attack” due to their lack of access to a toilet, and women and girls spend 97 billion hours each year searching for a place to go. Female menstrual cycles also mean that women are particularly affected by a lack of safe, nearby toilets that help them to properly care for themselves during their period.[3]

Toilets are more than just a place to sit for a few minutes a day. Without safe sanitation and toilet facilities, all human beings are at risk for disease and even death, as well as dire and lasting consequences for our economic and social development. Providing families with a latrine helps them to secure a safer, healthier, and better future for themselves.

Drink some coffee. Give someone a toilet.

Just one more reason to buy Don Justo Coffee. Buy some here.


[1] “We Can’t Wait: A Report on Sanitation and Hygiene for Women and Girls.”

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.


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Are The Poor Happy?


Cecilia looks really happy in this photo. But is it fair to say that poor Salvadorans are “happy” as a rule?

As part of the two-week “itineration period” that I spend in Iowa twice each year, I spend a considerable amount of time speaking with churches, Bible studies, civic groups, high-school students, and pretty much anyone who wants to hear about life in El Salvador and the work of Our Sister Parish. I really do enjoy this part of my job.

But these itinerations are also the most challenging part of my job, by far.

A few weeks ago, I appeared before a (very nice, very welcoming) group of people to speak to them about extreme poverty in El Salvador, particularly regarding issues related to water, food, and education. I was received mostly positively.

One woman, however, who I’m sure thought she was giving me constructive criticism, said to me, “You know, I really feel that you should have mentioned in your speech how happy the poor are. You know, you go to these places where people are poor, and they are always so happy!” Her statement was met with nods of affirmation from around the table.

There are so many things wrong with this.

1. Yes, I know some people who are poor and who are very happy. I also know many poor people who are quite miserable, and understandably so.

2. Do you know the impoverished people with whom I serve? Oh, you’ve never been to El Salvador? Then, pray tell, how do you know that they are happy? Do you know all the people I know who are traumatized by the Civil War that tore their world apart for 12 long and violent years? Do you know the young man I met whose mental health issues are so severe that he recently beat his mother and attempted to burn down their house? Do you know all the women I know who have suffered partner or spousal abuse and do not feel comfortable reporting these incidents to the police, knowing that little to nothing will ever be done to stop the abuse from happening again?

We should never, ever assume that we know how the poor feel about their lives or communities without asking them first and listening attentively to their answers. Even then, we need to remember that our presence in a foreign, impoverished community might affect the answers people are willing to give us, and that the very definition of “happy” is contextual and culturally dependent.

3. Yes, many poor people are happy, but many of them are happy because they have been kept ignorant and uneducated about the systems of power that keep them poor and disenfranchised–and others rich and powerful. This ignorance is an injustice in the world that needs to be corrected. Allowing the poor to remain ignorant and “happy” is keeping those destructive systems in place. This ignorance might help people who benefit from those destructive systems, but it is certainly not benefiting the poor. Au contraire, it is preventing them from building a more just and fair world for themselves and working for long-term, sustainable development in their communities.

4. Yes, I hear you say, but why help people to overcome their ignorance if it is just going to make them unhappy?

Since when did happiness become the be-all and end-all of all human existence? I’m sorry, but did Jesus ever proclaim that the Kingdom of God could be recognized by the happiness it brought to people? He said no such thing, ever. He did say that he came to “bring good news to the poor…to proclaim release to the captives…recovery of sight to the blind…[and] to let the oppressed go free” [Luke 4]. Jesus came to redeem and heal the world and to make it a more just place–not to make it a happier place. Nowhere does Jesus say that he has come to make the world a happier place. Really. Go read the Gospels again.

5. If we in the developed world can convince ourselves that people in the developing world are happy, or even “happier than we are,” then we can convince ourselves that we don’t really need to fight for a better life for them. In this way, the belief that the poor are happy becomes another form of oppression, absolving us from feeling the weight of our privilege and relieving us of responsibility to do something. In other words, happiness becomes a form of emotional colonialism.

6. Convincing ourselves that the poor are better off happy and ignorant is also just one more way in which we inadvertently impose our own value systems on the people of the developing world. Who says that happiness is the most important thing in life? Us. Our happiness-obsessed American culture. Our value systems. Just because a privileged American would choose ignorance over knowledge about their situation in order to be happier about it doesn’t mean a poor Salvadoran or Kenyan or Indonesian would choose the same thing. Who are we to make that choice for them?

Are the poor happy? Some of them are. Some of them aren’t. But we don’t serve with them, accompany them, and empower them with the purpose of making them happier. We do these things because we want to right some serious wrongs, to undo some serious injustices. We do these things because that’s what Jesus told us to do [Matthew 25, Luke 4...shall I go on?]. We do these things because we love them and want them to have a better life.

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