Meet Our College Scholarship Students!

As we all know, education can be one of the best routes out of poverty for young people and their families. This is why, for many years, many churches and individuals have provided $75-$100 scholarships for middle school and high school students in Berlín. These scholarships help to pay for school supplies, uniforms, shoes, transportation, and lodging for students so that they can afford to continue their studies. $100 might not seem like much, and it certainly does not cover all the costs of attending school (especially high school), but it’s a huge help to poor families who want to give their children a chance at a 9th grade or high school education.

Last year, however, we decided that we wanted to try to provide college scholarships to former high school scholarship students of ours who achieved the highest academic achievement possible: placing 1st, 2nd, or 3rd in their graduating class section. These young people have worked incredibly hard and overcome insane odds to obtain high grades despite their families’ situation of poverty, so we wanted to help them to achieve their dream of earning a college degree!

Please keep them in your prayers–college is hard enough for students not struggling with poverty–and let us know if you feel called to help these students (or other young people) attend college in future years!

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Name: José Antonio
Community/Neighborbood: Downtown Berlín
Graduating Class Section Rank: 2nd
College Major: Computer Systems and Networks

Why do you want to continue your studies?

“I would like to because with higher studies I can have access to a better job and be a useful person for society.”

What major would you like to study, and why?

“Technical Degree in Computer Systems and Networks. Because it’s what I like best and I am a computer fanatic it is my specialty.”

What is the economic situation of your family?

“We are of few resources and the little that they earn works to continue surviving day to day and for that reason is not enough for us for university studies.”

What is your greatest dream in life?

“My dream is to be a professional and to create a business to in this way be able to help people offering them employment and also help people of few resources in this way like me may have opportunity to continue forward with their studies.”

Do you have anything more to say to the people that want to support your education?

“Many thanks for this support that you want to offer me in this way from the heart I appreciate it and I will not fail you because my dreams will come true I will not waste it.”

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Name: Lorena del Rosario
Community/Neighborhood: Cantón Virginia
Graduating Class Section Rank: 3rd
College Major: Public Accounting

Why do you want to continue your studies?

“Because I want to prepare myself academically and intellectually in that way to be able to work and help my family and people in need.”

What major would you like to study, and why?

“Public Accounting. I like this major because it is to make organized and legal the earnings of a business and said economy to improve it.”

What does your family do to earn a living?

“My family earns a living working hard cultivating the earth planting beans and corn.”

What is your greatest dream in life?

“To become a [4-year college] graduate to work to help my family and in this way as you have helped me to help those people that want to overcome their circumstances. To help with the elderly who need economic help and those that visit them with love and kindness.”

Do you have anything more to say to the people that want to support your education?

“Your help is very valuable, for without your help I will not be able to continue forward with my studies. To encourage them that they may continue supporting the youth. For there are many young people with the desire to overcome their circumstances and they cannot continue because of the poverty in which they live.”

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The Westminster PC Delegation

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Salvadoran Piñata Transportation 101.

I’m a day late and a dollar short on this one, mostly because I spent most of the past two weeks in the USA, but I just wanted to take a post to honor the hard work (and vigorous exercise) done by the Westminster Presbyterian Church delegation earlier this month. They visited every house in their communities of San Francisco, Cimarrón, and Los Yánes. That is no mean feat, and we are grateful for their dedication and energy–as well as the dedication and energy of their three partner communities and the Pastoral Team.

We also thank the delegates for their open hearts and minds. They were incredibly compassionate when listening to the concerns, worries, and sadness of their partner communities as they continue to suffer from a severe drought this year. The subsistence farmers of Berlín may not have a corn or bean harvest at all in 2015–and that means that they are afraid they won’t be able to feed their families. Please pray for rain and that the Salvadoran government declares a state of emergency in eastern El Salvador. This will allow us to seek help from more international organizations that can provide food and agricultural aid to these hardworking farmers who cannot grow food this year (by no fault or mistake of their own). And please pray for a global awakening to the death, disruption, scarcity, and fear caused by climate change. Whenever the environment is degraded, harmed, or disrupted by human activity, it is the poor that suffer first and most.

Finally, if you want to learn in detail about what this delegation did, be sure to check out Alisha’s blog. You can see way more pictures and learn more about their adventures there. Thanks for your hard work, Alisha!

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The chapel of the Divina Providencia Hospital, where Beato Romero was assassinated.

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The delegates sign a Community Covenant with the community of Greater San Francisco. These covenants are a way for the different parties within our mission to make promises and commitments to one another, to ensure that we are all following the same rules, and to prevent further unfairness and injustice in the new power and social systems we are trying to build together!

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San Francisco offers both steep, hard-to-navigate roads and spectacular views!

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The delegates switch cars for the second time in a single day–both the Pastoral House truck and Blanca’s family truck broke down on us! To learn more about why we need a new truck and to contribute to the fund to purchase one, check out our Gofundme page: http://www.gofundme.com/osptruckfund

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The kids of Cimarrón loved this weird-looking piñata!

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The delegates hike to Los Yánes’ water source. It’s a harrowing climb both down to the spring and back up to the community. Right now, it takes TWO HOURS for people from this community to fill one of their water jugs, because the spring is so dry from the lack of rain. TWO HOURS. Can you imagine waiting that long for so little water?

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A child runs through the cornfields near his home. As you can see, the stalks are short and underdeveloped due to the drought. It is likely that the people of Los Yánes, like many people in Berlín, will not have a corn harvest this year.

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The Trinity UPC (& Friends) Delegation

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The delegates visit Joya de Cerén, the site of an ancient Maya village that was buried by a major volcanic eruption around 1,500 years ago. Here, they try squeezing into (and out of) the replica of a steam house that would have been used for ritual purification.

Another week, another delegation! We were so grateful to have some wonderful people here from Trinity UPC (Indianola) and other Iowa churches. We visited our brothers and sisters in Casa de Zinc and Casa de Zacate, learned about how anthropogenic climate change is affecting their work as subsistence farmers, and visited their homes. We also spent an afternoon bringing these two communities together for food, fun, and dancing! Thanks to everyone who made this trip possible, especially the Pastoral Team and the leaders of both Zinc and Zacate.

And please, please, please pray for an end to the drought here in Berlín. We have now had two solid weeks without significant rain. The crops are drying up or being consumed by a plague of corn worms (who thrive in the heat and lack of water). Papa Francisco is absolutely right: it is the poorest and most vulnerable that suffer most from climate change.

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Denise and Cecilia try out the new swing set near the new El Mozote monument. El Mozote was the site of the largest (known) massacre during the Salvadoran Civil War. At least 1,000 people were killed by the American funded and trained Salvadoran military in December of 1981.

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The delegates prepare to meet with the community and governing committee of Casa de Zinc. They made such lovely decorations for their visitors!

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A young man named Misael and his proud father show off his artistic talents for the delegates. This kid can really draw!

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Miguel of Casa de Zacate uses his hand to show the delegates how high the corn SHOULD BE at this time of year. Many farmers in Zinc and Zacate have had to replant their corn twice or even three times–it has not rained enough for the young plants to survive, and the heat and dryness has exacerbated a plague of corn worms that have eaten a significant portion of the crops. More on this in another post.

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The Ankeny Presbyterian Church Delegation

We had an amazing delegation here this past week! Many thanks to the folks from Ankeny Presbyterian Church who came to visit their partner community of Cantón El Corozal. They endured rain, mud, extreme heat, and even a soccer game to build stronger relationships with their Salvadoran brothers and sisters (though I think they had a really great time playing soccer, to be fair). They were all such incredibly good listeners this week and really learned to solidarize with the people. You guys are terrific, and so are all the people back in Ankeny who helped make your trip possible! Many thanks to the Pastoral Team and the community of Corozal for all their hard work, too.

Below, you can see some of the things that we did this past week, and even watch a video of the song that Corozal’s band, The Messengers of the People, wrote for Ankeny PC! It’s awesome!

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The delegation braves a muddy detour to reach the village of El Mozote, where at least 1,000 innocent men, women, and children were murdered by the American-trained soldiers of the Atlacatl Battalion in 1981. Many thanks to our driver, Alfredo, for getting us there safely!

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A former guerrilla soldier gives the delegation a tour of a reconstructed guerrilla encampment.

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The delegates traverse the bridges at the guerrilla encampment.

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Members of the Corozal Directiva welcome the delegates to their community center.

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An older member of the community smiles as the delegates show him a photo they took of him.

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A banner of Beato Romero, hung from the beams of a soon-to-be house in Corozal.

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Some of the delegates learn how to weed the community members’ cornfields. “We’re going to hire some of you out for the season!” they joked.

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The delegates dance with members of the community at the party on the last day.

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The delegates pose after playing a game of soccer with the community. It was a ton of fun to watch!

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The hand-written lyrics to the song that the “Messengers of the People,” Corozal’s band, wrote for Ankeny. The video and a translation of the lyrics can be found below!

Today I want to sing to you
With great joy
To welcome to all the brothers and sisters
Of the Presbyterian Church.

We feel very happy
To have you in the community
Because for so long
You have helped here in Corozal.

We built the school, and also the church
And other projects thanks to your help
For our children that they may have good studies
And have a good education in the community.

With the organization and the coordination
Of the Pastoral House
We have obtained great benefits
In the community

With great sacrifice
The delegation arrives in El Salvador to help
The communities of the department of Usulután
Municipality of Berlín

Well now we are here with great joy
Together with the American brothers and sisters
For this reason we sing this humble song to you
To welcome the delegation.

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The Beatification of Monseñor Romero

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We wake before the dawn bodies
Brushing off sleep like dust off coffins
Shaking with the chill of dark and yet
Knowing this is the price of pilgrimage.

We wake again
Backs stiff from the jostling of the road
Sunrise coloring the sky, a constant background
Against the countryside rushing past so fast

We have waited so long

And the car is so fast
The streets still empty
No hay nadie we exclaim
Wondering if we are the only faithful ones

The first of us arrived at our house last night
Wrapped in already-used garbage bags
Still soaking from the drenching rain that
We pray will give life to the fields

But now it just clings and makes shiver
Those bodies who already braved the wet for hours
Caminaron hasta allá? No había carro?!
They laugh. No! No cars at this hour!

I ask myself if my body has ever wanted
Something so badly.

To be somewhere so badly.

To celebrate so badly.

These dried bodies now cruise through the streets
Guarded by quiet and police
An old AR-15 here, an ancient sidearm there
I wonder if my government bought those

Along with the exacting weapon
Long and thin like Achilles’ spear
.22 caliber with sight attached
Used to kill the man whose body fell

Behind the altar in a hospital
And was caught in the arms of his people.

We are close now, a block from the barricade
That tells us me must walk from here
Past the port-a-potties whose gender signs no one obeys
And the woman selling homemade Romero dolls

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Stitched by hand from felt.
I wonder if he would hate the fuss or laugh at it.

We stop just blocks from the altar
Where the women sell us pupusas and coffee and chocolate
Quiero café amargo! Blanca says

Knowing I hate sugary coffee too
But we laugh, knowing that there is nothing to complain about today.

We squeeze our way through the crowd, strategizing
Pupusas balanced carefully on top of our coffee cups
That runneth over onto our hands and feet
Acá! Closer to the altar. Allá! Better views.

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In the end, we opt to push through the crowd
Over the old women sleeping on cardboard
And the children wrapped in blankets
Grasping tiny pink rosaries

We find our corner, near the woman selling fans
To wait patiently as the crowd shifts around us
Like a giant animal come alive
Benevolent even in its insistence.

A train of young men passes by
Clinging to one another by the shoulders
Pressing by as politely as one can
Yelling disculpe! Permiso! in lieu of a whistle.

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Sorry! Says one, with hip glasses and gel in his hair
A seminarian from Honduras, his T-shirt tells me
Pase! I yell, and Welcome!
Thanks, you too, and a smile

A female foreign Protestant welcoming
A future priest to a Mass would
Be absurd in any other crowd
But not here, where the priest that fell is

Mysteriously no one’s and everyone’s at once.

We get tired of waiting in the sun
And retreat to a side street
Stepping once again over the faithful
Crowding themselves onto thin curbs

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One man carries a flat of water bottles on his head
Water from the Vatican! He yells.
When we laugh, it is not at him but at his bravery
The courage of a people who have survived everything

Who hid themselves on mountainsides
For weeks on end, covering the mouths of
Their children who were weeping in hunger
And in thirst, crying out for help

To a God that seemed not to hear them.
God, perhaps no. But their fallen priest, yes.
Many say new wells opened on those lonely hills
Filled with living water when they begged for his help.

The Vatican may never believe them.
I do.

I believe because I have stood there with them
As the words were read:
EPISCOPUS ET MARTYR,
PASTOR SECUNDUM COR CHRISTI,
EVANGELIZATOR ET PATER PAUPERUM,
TESTIS HEROICUS REGNI DEI.

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And above us appeared the halo of the priest that fell
As clear as the sun, encircling us
Embracing us
Holding us

I will confess right now that I did not see it as it happened.
My eyes did notice, of course
“Ah, a solar halo!” I thought. But my mind, trained not to see
miracles but just cool natural phenomenon

Coincidence and chance
Did not realize until later
That a miracle happened above me.
But I think it is better this way.

In knowing that I saw but did not see,
I learned how much I have to learn.

For there is seeing and there is seeing. 

The Mass proceeds and the phone rings,
“We’re hungry!” says one of our compatriots
Who retreated an hour ago to the shade
And the man selling Vatican water

The fact that they call as the Eucharist begins
Makes me smile
And so we push through the crowd
Throwing in the ancient words as we dodge more feet and hands 

And also with you
We lift them up to the Lord
Es justo y necessario.

Today indeed is just and necessary
For the fallen priest never made it this far
His sermon barely finished
His Mass never ended

At least, until now
With us inching forward like spelunkers
Seeking not God but one another
As if there were any real difference.

Seeing a way out, we push forward
Crossing side streets and over barracades
We traverse the McDonald’s parking lot
Where many of the priests wait to distribute the Meal

That means infinitely more than prefab hamburgers.
The fallen priest knew that all too well.

We squeeze onto a wider street,
Crowded with makeshift tiendas
Smoke from wood fires
Cooking smells from propane-tank powered grills

Swirl around us
And at the center of the street are the priests
Patens carefully in hand
The faithful lined before them

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Jesus belongs here on this street
Where hungry people came seeking
In the noise
In the loud, chaotic, fleshy realness of it all.

If I had trouble believing in His bodily presence
At a Table lined by only men in delicate robes
To which sometimes too few are invited
I have no trouble believing it now

Believing it here
Where the smell of food meets flesh and Flesh
Where hunger meets Hunger.

Romero, the now-Blessed Bishop
Belongs here too
Is here, too.
This is his people, and this is their song.

This is how he appeared to us:
In that sunrise
In that halo

But also in the man selling Vatican water
Bought from SuperSelectos, I imagine
In the pink rosaries and the homemade signs
In the thousands of voices lifted in song
(Mostly in the same key, even)
In the chaos made whole with love
And in the t-shirts that read,
“If I am killed, I will rise in the Salvadoran people.”

And so he has.

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The Art for El Salvador Delegation

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The (almost) completed mural of Sarah’s School. The delegation left the rest of the painting to the community–a great reminder that our work is never done and that it is our Salvadoran partners, and not ourselves, who finish and continue our efforts in solidarity with us when we aren’t here with them.. The quote at the bottom (from global education activist Malala Yousafzai) says, “One child, one teacher, one book, and one pen can change the world.”

We were so overjoyed to have 17 enthusiastic, compassionate, solidarizing people from Art for El Salvador visiting us last week. This organization, if you remember, is dedicated to using all forms of art as a means of lifting up impoverished communities in El Salvador.

The story of how this school came to be built is deeply beautiful–and deeply personal. The organization began in 2010 when three sisters, Niah, Maria, and Sarah, started creating and selling art in their hometown as a way to raise funds for their church’s partner community in Berlín, El Salvador. At the end of that summer, all three sisters were in a tragic car accident, and Sarah did not survive. In 2011, Niah suggested that the best way of honoring Sarah–a girl who loved school, especially reading and writing–was to build a school in her name.

Last year, Niah and Maria came to investigate the possibility of building a 7th-9th grade school in Mediagua: a community where most people, especially most girls, end their formal schooling at 6th grade because their families feel that it is unsafe for them to walk to the nearest middle school. They were surprised when the community was not only invested in having a school–and absolutely willing to build it with their own hands–but also invested in building before the next school year began so that their children who were graduating from 6th grade wouldn’t have to wait another year to continue their studies. We calculated that between the timing of the agricultural seasons and rhythm of the Salvadoran school year, Art for El Salvador had to raise $5000 in 5 weeks to have enough funds to build the school on time.

And you know what? They did it. The dream of Sarah’s School dream is now a reality. So the people of Art for El Salvador came to see it for themselves! It’s not just a great story about how well a community can work together to accomplish something incredible, or how USA-based churches and organizations can best serve impoverished communities by listening to the communities’ own hopes and dreams, but also about the power of love and solidarity transforming tragedy.

In other words (for me, at least), it’s a story about death and resurrection.

Many thanks to the community of Mediagua (and some of the families of El Zapote and nearby communities, as well) for all their hard work in building the school and incredible hospitality this past week. To the teachers of the Central Escolar of Caserío Hacienda Mediagua, thanks for all your hard work to educate these kids and for welcoming us to your school. To the Salvadorans of Pastoral Team of Berlín, thanks for all your amazing work in coordinating the construction of the school–and keeping 17 people fed and well cared for throughout last week, too!

I will start by sharing just a few of the pictures I took last week, but stay tuned for updates. With the permission of some of the delegates, I plan to share some of their photos, too!

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Sarah’s School, when the construction project began (Sept. 2014).

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Sarah’s School today (Photo via Kathy B.)

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The delegates visit the tomb of NOW BLESSED Oscar A. Romero just a few days before his beatification.

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The delegates receive a tour of the UCA, where six Jesuits and their two housekeepers were murdered in cold blood by the American-armed and trailed Altacatl battalion of the Salvadoran military in 1989.

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The delegates have a meeting with the community board and teachers of Caserío Mediagua.

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The delegates visit the homes of Mediagua students and present them with books and art supplies. These children do not even have enough books in their own school, much less in their own home, so this gift was an incredibly big deal for them.

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The delegates worked with the young people and Directiva members of Mediagua to paint a beautiful mural to honor Sarah, the relationship between Art for El Salvador and the community, and the importance of education.

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The delegates played games with some of the children in Mediagua and other local schools. The parachute games were a huge hit!

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The water did not run for the last several days while the delegation was here, so the Pastoral Team had to go to neighboring towns to look for water! Here, the delegates help to carry water up the stairs and dump it into one of our cisterns.

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The delegates celebrate the dedication of Sarah’s School with a party. And you can’t have a Salvadoran party without piñatas!

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On Doing Good and Feeling Good

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Rembrandt, “Christ Crucified between the Two Thieves: The Three Crosses,” 1653.

“I might try to tell a story here about what I am feeling, but it would have to be a story in which the very “I” who seeks to tell the story is stopped in the midst of the telling; the very “I” is called into question by its relation to the Other, a relation that does not precisely reduce me to speechlessness, but does nevertheless clutter my speech with signs of its undoing. I tell a story about the relations I choose, only to expose, somewhere along the way, the way I am gripped and undone by these very relations. My narrative falters, as it must.

Let’s face it. We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something.”

Judith Butler, “Violence, Mourning, Politics,” in Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence.

In a mission-related meeting that occurred not too long ago, in the midst of a tense discussion about old conflicts and current, difficult issues, one of my colleagues blurted out, “I’m sorry, but this just doesn’t feel good.

I hear some version of this at least once a day.

“These discussions of privilege make me feel accused.”
“Talking about power makes me feel uncomfortable.”
“I don’t like conflict. The Church should be a place of peace.”
“This doesn’t feel good.”

In all of these situations, a relatively privileged American was explaining how being involved in our mission as a delegate to El Salvador or a volunteer in the USA sometimes makes one feel uncomfortable, sad, angry, out of place, discouraged, hurt, ignored, or any number of other negative emotions.

Don’t get me wrong: no one ever wants to feel bad, and it is never my or my Salvadoran colleagues’ intention to make people feel bad. Feeling sad, hurt, or just generally uncomfortable because there are religious, cultural or linguistic differences and differentials in power and privilege in our relationships as Christians is never pleasant. Feeling sad, hurt, or generally uncomfortable when we have relational issues, communication problems, or conflict (as any organization does) is never pleasant, either.

As someone who believes that God has created us for happiness, I agree that we are not meant to feel bad all the time. As a liberationist, I am weary about glorifying sadness, discomfort, and suffering.

But you know what? It’s not always a bad thing to feel so-called negative emotions, either.

Somehow, at some point, we mainline Protestants became a little too comfortable with ourselves, didn’t we? We came to expect that we would go to church on Sunday, hear an inspiring sermon that would apply to our largely white, wealthy, suburban or small-town lives, and then ponder it with our friends and neighbors—largely people who identify with us in terms of race, class, and culture—over a cup of coffee in the basement. We show up expecting to be made comfortable by the familiarity of the experience and the content of the message. We expect any challenge to be of the relatively light, inspirational, and personal variety. We do not expect a challenge to the very social, cultural, or economic systems that our privileges are built upon, because church is not a place we go to discuss things that bother us.

We expect that being involved with church will generally make us feel good.

We especially expect this to be true when we are doing more than simply showing up on Sunday mornings. Helping with Sunday school. Brewing the coffee. Volunteering at the homeless shelter or soup kitchen. We expect that doing these good things will make us feel good.

We expect the same when we participate in foreign missions, whether we are volunteering in the USA to help the mission stay organized and financially viable or spending our own time and money to visit a far-away place. We spent all this time and all this money to come here and be with these people, we think. It should feel good. It should feel fulfilling. It should feel fun. We are doing good, and doing good should feel good, right? We should feel comfortable. It should never involve difficult conversations about privilege or power. Things only feel bad if we are doing something wrong, right?

Wrong.

I was having a very hard time (psychologically, emotionally, spiritually) a few weeks ago. Blanca and I had a long conversation about why I was feeling so bad and what might be done—as my American, privileged, mainline-Protestant mind always thinks—to fix that.

“Katherine,” she said, “Christ has chosen you to suffer with Him for his work. You should feel honored.”

Blanca did not mean to say that I am particularly important, my situation is particularly important, or my personal suffering is particularly important. Quite the opposite. She was pointing me to a truth that many Christians like me who live privileged lives have forgotten: following Christ should not feel good all the time, and if it does, we are probably not actually following Christ.

If what we are doing is really solidarity and not charity, empathy and not empty sympathy, real love and not transitory affection, real relationship and not cursory familiarity, we need to feel the pain that our brothers and sisters here feel because of their systemic poverty and oppression. When something is causing conflict, gets relationally messy, or makes us feel bad, we should not run away from those feelings, from the mission, or from these relationships to seek a more pleasurable experience.

Instead, we should lean into and feel their pain with our whole hearts. We should get stuck up to our noses in their mess—or, when we are truly embracing solidarity—our mess. We should confront the ways in which the world gives us more power, privilege, and opportunity than our Salvadoran brothers and sisters in Christ. We should examine why our Christian relationships expose how we are ultimately vulnerable to and dependent on the Other—both when these relationships are working well and perhaps especially when they are not.

We should be undone by each other. This is the price of love, vulnerability, and connection.

To ignore the pain, the discomfort, the awkwardness, the “bad” feelings that we are taught to avoid at all costs in our own American culture, whether those feelings arise due to challenges to our privilege or the general mess that is living with and trying to care about other people, is to lose an opportunity to draw closer to the heart of Christ, to kneel at the foot of the Cross.

When our sisters and brothers living in extreme poverty and oppression suffer, Christ suffers. When we suffer for Christ’s work to right a world gone wrong, we push ourselves past our customary discomfort with the uncomfortable and find something beyond price: the place where the Cross meets the ground.

And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’

After all, the Cross is where God and humanity undo one another. We find that place in the messy complexity of grief, suffering, joy, conflict, sadness, anger, grief, happiness, and grace that comes from really knowing and loving the people our mission experiences connect us with. We find that place when we realize that the systems of privilege and power that benefit us and damage others’ lives in the process are the nails that hold the Crucified God and his Crucified People in a suspended state of agony.

We find that place when we stop trying to be comfortable and start trying to be Christians.

Friends, someone bled and suffocated to death for us. If we think that should make us feel comfortable all the time, we’re doing it wrong.

And let’s face it: we’re probably missing something, too.

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