Power Is Not a Four-Letter Word


Ciseri, Ecce Home, 1871. Never forget that Pilate had power–and so did Jesus. Having power is not a good thing or a bad thing. It depends on who wields that power, and how.

“Power…has become an evil word, with overtones and undertones that suggest the sinister, the unhealthy, the Machiavellian. It suggests a phantasmagoria of the nether regions. The moment the world power is mentioned it is though hell has been opened, exuding the stench of the devil’s cesspool of corruption. It evokes images of cruelty, dishonesty, selfishness, arrogance, dictatorship, and abject suffering. The word power is associated with conflict; it is unacceptable in our present Madison Avenue deodorized hygiene, where controversy is blasphemous and the value is being liked and not offending others.”

In recent weeks, many people have reminded me of something that I learned in my early days of community organizing: lots of people seem to think that power is always a bad thing, even though it isn’t.

This assumption—that power is necessarily bad, evil, or corrupt—is false. Dangerously so. You cannot have real conversations about why some people are poor and systematically oppressed without talking about power. Nor can you discuss how to help those who are poor and systematically oppressed overcome their oppression without discussing how they might build their own bases of power.

In other words, our failure to talk about power actually just gives the privileged, wealthy, and powerful of the world more power; it excuses them from confronting those systems in the world that benefit them, that give them more power and privilege—and that keep others poor, oppressed, and underprivileged. Our dismissal of power as a concept is in itself a form of oppression because it allows us to avoid discussing the ultimate root of oppression: the fact that some people in the world have more power than others over what happens in their own lives.

Not talking about power is in itself an exercise of power—an oppressive one that never benefits the powerless in their struggle for freedom, dignity, and liberation.

One of my favorite thinkers when it comes to power is Saul Alinsky. Alinsky, a community organizer who was dedicated to improving the lives of poor communities in the USA, defines power quite simply and classically as, “ability, whether physical, mental, or moral to act” (50). But he also offers this other, more detailed definition:

“Power is the very essence, the dynamo of life. It is the power of the heart pumping blood and sustaining life in the body. It is the power of active citizen participation pulsing upward, providing a unified strength for a common purpose. Power is an essential life force always in operation, either changing the world or opposing change. Power, or organized energy, may be a man-killing explosive or a life-saving drug.”

Power, in other words, is not necessarily a bad thing. It is the ability to get something done—whether that thing you want to get done is morally or ethically acceptable or not. Adolf Hitler had power—and so did the President Franklin Roosevelt. The repressive, oligarchic government that governed El Salvador during the war had power—and so did Blessed Monseñor Romero. Pontius Pilate had power—and so did Jesus.

Power isn’t good or bad. It’s a tool, like fire, that can either heat or consume depending on who wields itand that works best when shared. 

So let’s not be afraid to talk about it.

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The First United Presbyterian Church of Atlantic

We had a lovely group of people here this past week from Atlantic, IA, most of whom were visiting us for the first time. We really appreciated your willingness to listen to and learn from the people, to hear about the tragic history of El Salvador (and the American government’s culpability in that tragic history). Many thanks to the communities of El Rescate and Colón for their hospitality and willingness to teach all of us!


The delegates visit El Mozote, the cite of the worst massacre to ever occur in our hemisphere. At least 1,000 innocent men, women, and children were killed by the American-trained and equipped soldiers of the Atlacatl Battalion of the Salvadoran military in 1981.


The delegates visit Colón. For most of the people in this group, it was their first visit to a rural Salvadoran community. The Directiva had a lot to teach them about Salvadoran life–both the joys and the challenges.


Some of the dried-up cornfields of Colón’s community members. Most of Berlín looks like this! Most farmers have pulled up their corn and are selling what remains of it for animal feed.


The delegates and Pastoral Team visited community homes in Colón that received water tanks from their church. These tanks help families to store clean, fresh water that they can use for drinking and cooking.


The delegates visit El Rescate, a small community that also received tanks from their church. They have no source of potable water and use the tanks to collect rainwater–when the rain actually comes! When there is no rain, they have to buy water from the city. Either way, the tanks are a huge help to families there. 


The delegates gave each child a coloring book and crayons. It was fun for them to learn a little about farming in Iowa and to have an opportunity to be creative!

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The Presbytery of Long Island Delegation

We’ve been so busy here the past couple of weeks that I haven’t had time to report on everything that’s been going on. Apologies to the wonderful delegation from the Presbytery of Long Island, who were here earlier in August for the delayed blog post! Here are some pictures from their delegation, which came to visit their partner community of Santa Cruz. Thanks to all of them for solidarizing with these people in a time of great crisis. Your presence was a huge gift. And thanks to the community of Santa Cruz and the Pastoral Team for their hard work and hospitality.


The community of Santa Cruz welcomes the delegation with lots of music and joy!


The delegation listens to the community leaders of Santa Cruz. They explained how the drought is affecting not just their crops and their economy, but every aspect of their lives. They also spoke about their hopes for the future.


A community leader shows the delegation how corn looks when it is underdeveloped due to the lack of rain.


The children of Santa Cruz listen attentively as Kristi (Mission Co-Worker with Joining Hands El Salvador) reads them a story. It was good for the kids to have a fun thing to do that also taught them about the importance of reading, storytelling, and education!


The children of Santa Cruz work on a craft activity. They had a lot of fun making these crosses!

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The Drought

MAPA_Sequia 15

This is a map taken from one of El Salvador’s major newspapers this past week. Even though it is raining more this week, this moisture arrived far too late to save the corn and bean crops that were lost due to the extended periods of drought. (Image from: El Diario de Hoy, August 9th, 2015.)

“Perhaps God has already said that we will be the first people to die from [climate change].”
Mercedes, President of Casa de Zacate’s ADESCO, June 2015.

How bad is the drought in Berlín?


The drought in Berlín, which is also affecting most of eastern El Salvador, is quite severe. Before it started raining a bit more over the past week or so, most of this region suffered at least 50 consecutive days without significant rain.

What affects has this drought had on corn and bean crops?


This is one farmer’s entire corn harvest for this year. He was lucky to harvest this much: most of his neighbors lost everything.

The effect has been devastating. Most farmers in Berlín tell us that they have lost 80-100% of their corn crop and 100% of their bean crop (for those who planted an early crop of beans). Some of them re-planted their corn several times in the hopes that the rains would come later in the season. However, other than the rain we have had off and on for the past week, it has remained extremely dry and hot. People are telling us that they will not be able to harvest corn at all this year, and are worried that they might not be able to plant or harvest beans, either.

What is causing this drought?

There is strong evidence that a “monster” El Niño is forming in the Pacific Ocean. In 1997, the last time an El Niño event of this strength occurred, El Salvador also suffered from severe droughts. On a long-term scale, many climatologists indicate that anthropogenic climate change has strengthened the El Niño phenomena and will continue to do so in the future.[1] They also indicate that climate change will continue to reduce levels of precipitation across Central America and the Caribbean[2] even in years where El Niño is not a factor. This could have a devastating effect on crop production in Central America and elsewhere.

Is there any possibility that it may rain from August-November?

Yes, it is possible that it may rain at least from August through October and the farmers may be able to plant a corn crop, or at least a bean crop. If the farmers are able plant a bean crop and harvest it, they can sell those beans to purchase corn to eat for the next year. However, meteorologists and climatologists are saying that the drought is likely to continue and it may not rain again in significant amounts until March or April 2016.

What are the communities and the Pastoral Team doing to confront this crisis?

1) Requesting help from the Ministry of Agriculture.

The communities of Berlín came together last month to deliver their requests for help to the Department of Agriculture and the Ministry of Governance. An office within the Department of Agriculture will revise this paperwork, visit the fields of affected farmers, and help the larger Department of Agriculture and the Salvadoran government as a whole figure out what to do to help agriculturalists affected by the drought.

2) Requesting help from the World Food Program (and other non-governmental organizations).

This NGO has helped the communities of Berlín in previous years (including last year) when farmers suffered crop losses from moderate to severe droughts. Sadly, in past years, the WFP has worked with partisan organizations in Berlín to disburse this food aid—which means that certain families have not been included on their list. We brought the communities of Berlín together and presented a request to the WFP from all the farming families in all the communities we work with, regardless of party of religious affiliation. We are planning seek help from other organizations, as well.

What can the larger Our Sister Parish organization do to help the rural farmers in Berlín?


Let us first be clear about what we cannot do: we cannot give all the families in Berlín food for an entire year until they can hope to harvest again. We are simply not designed to deal with crises of this scale: our focus is on longer-term accompaniment and small, concentrated steps towards greater organization, better, healthier lives, and mutual liberation. We love these people, but we have neither the budget nor the manpower to feed them. We must rely on other NGOs (and hopefully the Salvadoran government) to step in.

Here is what we can do: listen to the communities and their leaders to discern ways that we might be able to accompany them through this crisis. Our next All-Community Meeting will be on September 10th. We will spend that meeting continuing to look for solutions to the impending food crisis and also find ways for OSP-connected churches to help!

What can I do as a person?

First, please pray that it keeps raining!

Second, please pray for the kind of global awakening it will take to protect all of humanity, but particularly subsistence farmers around the world who live in extreme rural poverty, from the worst affects of the environmental degradation and climate change. It’s the only thing that will ultimately save the poor—indeed, save all of us—long term.

A prayer for our earth
(taken from “Laudato Si,” Pope Francis’ latest encyclical)

All-powerful God, you are present in the whole universe
and in the smallest of your creatures.
You embrace with your tenderness all that exists.

Pour out upon us the power of your love,
that we may protect life and beauty.
Fill us with peace, that we may live
as brothers and sisters, harming no one.

O God of the poor,
help us to rescue the abandoned and forgotten of this earth,
so precious in your eyes.
Bring healing to our lives,
that we may protect the world and not prey on it,
that we may sow beauty, not pollution and destruction.

Touch the hearts
of those who look only for gain
at the expense of the poor and the earth.
Teach us to discover the worth of each thing,
to be filled with awe and contemplation,
to recognize that we are profoundly united
with every creature
as we journey towards your infinite light.

We thank you for being with us each day.
Encourage us, we pray, in our struggle
for justice, love and peace.

[1] Johnson, M.C. Nature Climate Change 4, 90–91 (2014). Found at: http://www.nature.com/nclimate/journal/v4/n2/full/nclimate2108.html

[2] http://350.org/the-realities-of-climate-change-in-latin-america/

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The FPC Dallas Center Delegation

[UPDATE: If you want to read the delegation’s own reflections about their experience, check out their blog here!]


A major shout-out and thank you to the delegates from First Presbyterian Church in Dallas Center, IA. Not only did they endure a night sleeping in the Houston airport, a late arrival, and lost luggage, they also did a incredible amount of walking in a crazy amount of heat and dust (and some rain and mud, for good measure) across Cantón Virginia, which is arguably one of the largest and most difficult communities to navigate. All in the name of love, deeper relationships, and solidarity with their Salvadoran brothers and sisters.

As always, thanks to everyone in Cantón Virginia, the Pastoral Team, and other members of FPC Dallas Center who were able to make this trip possible!

As the picture below shows, it did rain when the delegation was here. But we still need more rain. Much more. If it starts raining now and keeps raining, the farmers may be able to replant their corn, or at the very least plant a crop of beans. Right now, farmers are trying to sell what’s left of their corn plants as feed for animals. Please keep praying that the weather changes and that some NGOs step in,  or people here may go hungry next year.


Delegates have fun visiting the guerrilla encampment in Morazán.


Delegates deliver chairs to the families in Cantón Virginia. Many families in this community have nowhere to sit in their homes other than on the floor.


The corn crop in Virginia has been almost completely decimated by the drought. Farmers are selling what remains of their corn plants as animal feed.


The delegates visit families in Cantón Virginia. This woman was happy to see us, but she is also worried. She was told by doctors that her young son might be suffering from parasites. He just spent several days in the hospital.


The Virginia community says goodbye to the delegation by giving them lots of hugs!


The delegates were happy to get soaked so that the people of Berlín could have some rain. (Photo via Nancy, the delegation leader.)


Of course, we had to take a group picture!


The delegates visited the tomb of Monseñor Romero on their final afternoon in El Salvador.

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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!


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.”


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


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!


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


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!


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


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


The kids of Cimarrón loved this weird-looking piñata!


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?


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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