Wednesday, March 28, 2012

A Success Story

Last fall we gave a beca - a scholarship - to Iris Hernandez, daughter of Gumersindo Hernandez, who had been one of our major volunteers in San Juan Opico.  A few days ago Iris called me to say that she needed to meet with me.  We set up a time and place, and I began to think of all the things that could have gone wrong - illness, trouble in school, family problems, etc.

But when we connected Iris was there with her Papi, Gumersindo, to give me the best news - she has just been chosen for a U.S. AID scholarship to study business psychology in Minneapolis, Minnesota for two years.  She was beaming with excitement and delight and Gumersindo, a quiet man, was visibly proud.  Iris is shy about speaking English now, and I imagine she will start off in an intensive class (her scholarship begins in August) and - since she's a very bright and joyful person - will soon be chatting happily.  May these two years be a blessing for her and for her family!

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Meetings and memories

Saturday's procession and Mass commemorating Monseñor Romero was a beautiful event, even though Patti and I only saw the start of it (we knew that walking some miles to El Rosario, the Dominican church, at the slow pace of the procession wouldn't have been a good idea for either one of us, alas).  We did meet a lot of friends at the Plaza of the Americas, where the procession began, among them Sister Peggy, Leslie Schuld, Patty Clausen, and Hernan Merino.  It was wonderful to be part of this large, reverent, and joyful crowd remembering Monseñor. 

Then today I had the honor of meeting Doña Tulia of San Antonio Los Ranchos and her son Toño, two people who lived some of the worst of the horrors of the Civil War.  Doña Tulia, now a beautiful woman in her 80s, lost 9 of her ll children.  Toño, the youngest, told me about his memories of Karla Petitte (very likely I'm not spelling her name correctly), a beloved Maryknoll Sister who drowned when her jeep was caught in a flash flood.  She was with Sr. Ita Ford, who somehow survived the flood only to be murdered in December, 1980.  Hearing this eyewitness of El Salvador's tormented history brought home so powerfully the pain and loss of the years of repression and war.  These are the people Monseñor Romero loved and spoke for and died for.  And now he does live again in the Salvadoran people.

Photos below: Hernan Merino in this year's Romero T-shirt; Patti Moore with monks in the background; part of the crowd.

Friday, March 23, 2012

San Romero of the Americas

Tomorrow in San Salvador Patti Moore and I will join those remembering Oscar Arnulfo Romero Galdamez, San Romero of the Americas, a man who turned toward the beloved people of El Salvador in their struggle for peace and justice, and who did not turn away in the face of all the threats that became reality on March 24, 1980.  Thirty-two years later, my Salvadoran friends still remember listening to his voice on the radio, how everyone tuned in to listen to the Sunday homilies in which he told the truth about the events of the unfolding civil war.

In his last Sunday homily on March 23, 1980, he had spoken to the soldiers: "In the name of God, then, and in the name of this suffering people, whose cries rise to heaven more tumultuously every day, I beg you, I pray you, I order you in the name of God: cease the repression!"

The next day he presided at a family memorial Mass in the small chapel at the Hospitalito Divina Providencia, where he lived in the simple house the Sisters had built for him.  The gospel for his homily was John 12: 23-26: Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit. (John 12:24).  As he came to the end of his homily - when he must have seen the assassin's car driving up to the open door of the chapel, the rifle being aimed - he said: "May this body immolated and this flesh sacrificed for us nourish us also to give our body and our blood to suffering and to pain, like Christ: not for itself, but to give the idea of justice and of peace to our people."  As he turned to begin the Eucharistic prayer, a single shot was fired from the door.

Monseñor, your people of El Salvador will always remember you. 

Monday, March 19, 2012

Feliz dia de San José

Happy St. Joseph's Day!  I've had a great double celebration of our community's patron saint.  Yesterday I took Kathy Garcia and Mitch Costin (they flew in Saturday night) out to San José Villanueva where we handed over twelve special prescription eyeglasses that were organized  by our February mission optician, Heather Downes, and made and donated by an optical lab.  Lots of happy eyeglass-wearing faces!  Then we helped out, a little, while Iris Chacon of San Rafael Cedros did a first workshop for the families who will be receiving one of the water filters we're donating, and we got a chance to exchange hugs with our San José friends.

Today was an even more special Dia de San José because I've had the great pleasure of watching while Mitch Costin of Eugene - a great stand-in for the saint - did an amazing lot of plumbing, carpentry, and electrical work to a) stabilize our operating microscope, b) fasten the handwashing sink firmly to the wall, c) install a toilet paper holder, d) put up a new lamp above the dishwashing sink, e) put up the new paper towel holder Donna gave me, f) re-hang all the mirrors at the right height and g) unstick my sticky kitchen table drawer.  This afternoon Mitch and Kathy and I went in and had a two-hour gambol through EPA, the new fancy hardware store here, that will lead to a few more things being done tomorrow.  We also bought a new super-sized toolbox to hold all the new and wonderful tools that Mitch has found for us so that our PazSalud toolbox is no longer a wussy and pathetic sight, full of curtain rods and odd lots of tape, but a proper manly St. Joseph sort of toolbox.  It was great fun!

On top of all that, Mitch took some wonderful photos - the two in this post are his.  Oh yes, and I began the day by teaching a computer class at the Centro Arte para la Paz with the help of Patti Moore and her Spanish teacher Beatriz, where the kids - ranging in age from about 11 to 18 - tore through the material I thought would take up two classes in the first hour.  St. Joseph come to my aid as I try to figure out what we'll do on Wednesday and oh yes, St. Joseph, a special blessing please for Mitch Costin who does your kind of work with such joy.

Thursday, March 15, 2012


I learned that the blissful silence in our next-door disco last Saturday was owing to Sunday's elections for legislative deputies and mayors in El Salvador - no liquor sales are allowed for three days before an election and I gather there's no fun to a disco that can't sell booze. 

It was a beautiful thing to see my friends and neighbors dressed up in their Sunday best - it was Sunday after all - to vote.  Martha said that, after all, it is a fiesta day - and that's what voting should be everywhere where we are privileged to vote in free and open elections - which these mostly were, from all accounts.

The results were cheerful for ARENA, the largest party on the right, and dismal for the FMLN, the main party of the left.  Arena gained some seats in the legislature, the FMLN lost a couple, and lost several important mayoralities as well.  The vote was much lower - at about 50% of eligible voters - than it had been three years ago.   And Suchitoto will continue to have an FMLN Mayor - Pedrina Rivera will be the new Alcaldessa. 

For a fuller analysis, see Tim's El Salvador Blog.

Travelogue with complications

Today began and ended splendidly.  The middle was questionable.

Rose Young and Donna Quaife, (that's Donna in the rocking chair and Patti Moore and Rose with me in the dining room)  both of them sterling members of our 2011 medical mission in San Rafael Cedros, are visiting our Base House here in Suchitoto for a couple of days, and we began the morning happily with pancakes, bacon, and a good long walk down to Lago Suchitlan - about 2 miles, but all downhill.  Had a coke, enjoyed the breezes, took the little shuttle bus back UP to Suchitoto Centro.  Back at the house, we connected with Patti Moore, who'd been studying Spanish while we larked, and made lunch from last night's arroz con pollo - a Rose and Susan joint project - with avocado, tomato and watermelon on the side.

Then we all hopped in the car for a visit to Ilobasco and San Sebastian, two towns famous for their crafts.  I decided it would be fun to go via Cinquera, the next town to the east of Suchitoto, knowing that it would be a slow, but scenic, dirt road.  Slow it was, scenic it was (especially watching cattle crossing this river), and somewhere after Cinquera a bug announced that it had gotten into my digestive tract and wanted to get out PRONTO.  Never before have I had to find a pooping place along the side of the road, but alas, that was necessary.  I don't think too many cars passed and I hope none of them were from Suchitoto.  Ten minutes later, another urgent call - this time we were in a small town, and I pulled over and dashed into a little government office, which - thank you, God - had a very helpful guard and the cleanest bathroom I've ever seen.  Ten minutes later we pulled into Ilobasco and my final port of call in a Pollo Compero (another kindly guard - I must have looked as desperate as I felt).  And then the bug was gone.  I did hobble over to the nearest pharmacy for a Cipro, but I'm pretty sure I didn't really need it. 

And so we all went on - my three most understanding and helpful friends who were only laughing a little and my recovered self - to the Moje shop where we had a great time (Moje is an organization that gives crafts training and employment to youth who would otherwise be likely candidates for gang membership - they sell beautiful crafts in clay and wood).  And we went on to San Sebastian, famous for its weavers, where we visited Nohemy's shop and watched one of the weavers at his hard and demanding and beautiful work.

We drove happily back to Suchitoto (all on paved highway this time) with purchases and photos, headed to La Balanza for pupusas and Salvadoran enchiladas - a great, full day, and somehow even catastrophes are not so bad when you share them with friends.

Photos by Rose Young

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Blissful silence

I'm back in Suchitoto and my friend Patti Moore is visiting here for some weeks while she studies Spanish at the Pajaro Flor school.  Since we got off the plane on Thursday, and maybe before, I've been warning her about how awful Saturday night would be - disco night, when the music gets cranked to the max and people shout over the loudspeakers.  I talked about ways to survive the 5 hours of sheer noise, and how one of us could camp out in the interior bedroom, the other in the study - rooms furthest from the disco - with iPods on, and, and, and....

And here it is 10 pm on Saturday night and there's nothing at all going on next door.  No noise.  Nada.  I almost don't know what to do....  Sleep?  ah yes, perhaps.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012


I am taking the usual motley variety back with me to El Salvador:
eyeglasses for people from our February medical mission who needed special prescriptions;
a wheelchair for a 9-year old boy with muscular dystrophy;
a netbook computer for one of the students on scholarship;
candy for friends and neighbors;
and things I can't get in El Salvador like
almond butter;
organic oatmeal;
Ricola cough drops;
cinnamon chewing gum;
Trader Joe's pop-up sponges -
all held together with odds and ends of clothing, various toiletries, some medications and a book or two.
I'll be meeting Patti Moore at the airport - she's flying down with me and is going to spend a few weeks in Suchitoto studying Spanish and hanging out.  I'm looking forward to the company and to being back in the heat.  But I'll miss the beautiful Northwest and my sister and my Sisters (and Associates and friends and colleagues). 

The view from my window

Here's the view from my window in Cusack Hall lately:
The new Gaffney Hall - it will be our home health center for Sisters who need some assistance in their daily living - is going up right across from my room, and it's been illuminating and fun to watch the men at work.  An astonishing level of planning and coordination and complex ordering are required for even a simple building like this one: for us, watching the assurance with which the tasks are done and the pieces come together is a joy.  I think our workers are having a good time, too.  Aside from having a first class view of Lake Washington while they work, they're being treated to coffee and Joan Holiday's cookies - and, of course and most important, earning a good wage. 

By now, as I prepare to head to the airport and to El Salvador, the building has progressed quite a bit: almost all the siding is up, the roofing is being completed, and interior walls are beginning to be formed.  The promise is that when I return in June, it'll be almost ready for the move-in. 

Monday, March 5, 2012

An El Salvador light on the scriptures

Yesterday I was invited by my Seattle parish, St. Patrick's, to reflect on the readings for the 2nd Sunday in Lent in light of my experience in El Salvador.  The readings were the sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22, 1-18); the passage from Romans that asks "if God is for us, who can be against us"; and the Transfiguration (Mark 9, 2-10).  Here's what I said:

God put Abraham to the test.  How can we bear to hear this passage from Genesis, this terrible story of child sacrifice required by God?  We can look at it from a distance and say that yes, it’s a story about leaving behind an ancient and horrible tradition of sacrificing the first born son, leaving behind the image of a God who would require that sacrifice.  But we’re still faced with the unimaginable horror of that moment when Abraham turns to bind his son and lay him on the altar in his obedience to a bloodthirsty God.

But at that awful moment on the mountaintop there’s a pause, then a shift,  the light changes and the angel says NO, no, put down that sword, here is your beloved son, here is your future.  Who could bear such a moment? 

We are all put to the test in our lives, facing questions of who we are and who we’re called to be, facing into grief and loss, or finding ourselves in a moment when what’s asked of us – going with someone we love through a terrible crisis or caring for someone we love who is dying – seems far beyond our power to give.  This happens often enough to those of us who live in the rich world of North America, but how much more often are our brothers and sisters in the poor world, in countries like Haiti, Somalia, El Salvador faced with tests that you would think no one could pass

Many of you know that I have been living in El Salvador for three years now, coordinating PeaceHealth’s medical mission program and getting to know the people and the tragic history of this small Central American country.  El Salvador means “the savior,” of course, “el Salvador del mundo,” the Savior of the World.  And the feast of the Savior of the World is the feast of the Transfiguration, an event celebrated with a week of vacations and celebrations and processions every August.  …So as I reflected on today’s readings I began to ask myself what my Salvadoran friends and neighbors will be making of them.

They won’t, I think, find the sacrifice of Isaac as strange, as horrifying, as archaic as we do.  It’s going to remind them too clearly of the realities of their history and of their lives – and of the way their lives are part of God’s story.  It will remind my friend Lita of watching from a refugee camp in Honduras as villagers fleeing Chalatenango were mowed down by Salvadoran and Honduran troops.  It will remind Doña Licha of the nights she spent huddled hungry and terrified with her children in what’s now our pleasant little tourist town, Suchitoto, listening to rockets and bombs and gunfire.  It will remind Doña Mercedes of the day she found the headless body of her son in a Suchitoto park. It will remind Doña Tulia of San Antonio Los Ranchos that she lost nine of her eleven children during the Civil War. 

Rogelio will remember, as he does every day of his life, that he witnessed the massacre of his family and his village, Copapayo, escaping only because he – a 10-year-old boy - fell back among high grasses and played dead. 

it will remind them all of the story of their beloved pastor, prophet and martyr, Monseñor Oscar Romero, who knew he was marked for death in 1980 and asked only that his blood become a seed of liberty for his people.

The sacrifice of Isaac might also remind my Salvadoran friends of the terrible choices and realities they often face in the present moment: to know that your child’s life could be saved with a new heart valve that you cannot possibly afford; to love and raise children who may well grow up and join a gang; to pay protection money to the gang so you can keep your little store open; to save money so you can send a family member north for the hope of remittances. 

But in their terrible experiences – in the past of the civil war, in the present of poverty and violence and limitation – they know God who stands with them, God who is for them.  “If God is for us, who can be against us?” asks Paul.  This is not the God who demands sacrifice, but the God who loves and saves – the God of the Transfiguration, who saves Isaac, who loves and reveals Jesus, who leads us up the mountaintop to the place where truth can be known. 

The God revealed to us all in the Transfiguration is not a God who saves us by keeping us from suffering.  Just before this passage in Mark’s Gospel Jesus says, “whoever wishes to save her life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it.” And coming down the mountain, he reminds them that the story leads to resurrection – but only through death.  Still the disciples are allowed to see what my Salvadoran friends know in their hearts and souls: here is the Beloved.  Through Jesus we are all the Beloved.

I find it hopeful that Peter, the Rock on whom our church is built, is such a bumbler.  He’s been taken up to the mountaintop with James and John and he sees the reality revealed, the dazzling white clothes, the conversation with Moses and Elijah (and what would be the sound of that conversation – birdsong, falling water, fire?) and he’s terrified – they are all terrified – at this fearful reality.  Peter, it seems, can’t just fall on the ground in silence before this Jesus, he has to do something – let’s keep this going, let’s make some tents, let’s have a party, he says. 

But then they are overshadowed, Peter and all, by the truth within the truth: “This is my beloved son.  Listen to him.”  And suddenly there’s nothing to be seen anymore but Jesus alone with them, the truth within the truth on the mountaintop. 

I believe that’s the Jesús my Salvadoran friends know, the beloved one, the one who loves them even though AND BECAUSE they’re bumblers too, as are we all, who loves them even though AND BECAUSE their lives are lived at the margins of the world’s great events, who loves them even though AND BECAUSE, like the disciples, they don’t understand theology and don’t know how to make a liturgically correct response to the Transfiguration.

Instead, like Peter, they make a party, a fiesta.  No one makes fiesta like my neighbors in El Salvador, with costumes and firecrackers and processions and speeches and dances and food and drink.  They celebrate being alive, even though it’s hard, this life.  They celebrate the truth within the truth, that they are seen and known and loved, just as they are.

My friend Lita – the woman who witnessed the massacre at the Rio Sumpul - comes to visit Margaret Jane and me most Thursdays.  Lita got to know our Sisters Andrea and Margaret Jane when she lived in the Calle Real refugee camp during the civil war and they were providing some safety by being an international presence.  Now she’s a health promoter, a pillar of life in her El Bario community, a woman who, given half a chance, could manage the world.  When she comes to call we have lemonade and cookies and talk about her disabled granddaughter, about the trouble she’s been having for months with a sinus infection, about the hard work. 

La vida no es facil, she says, life isn’t easy, la vida no es facil.  And then she laughs and lets down her beautiful long hair, black streaked with white, and she gives us a great hug and maybe some mangoes or tamales and says “Primero Dios nos vemos el otro jueves” – God first, we’ll see each other next Thursday.  Primero Dios, God first: that’s what Lita and my Salvadoran neighbors get right, what we gringos often get wrong.  We want to think it depends on us whether we’ll meet on Thursday.  Lita knows that our meeting, everything, depends on God.  And then we laugh together because we know that la vida no es facil, but it is transfigured by love and laughter, by the truth within the truth and, primero Dios, we will meet.