Thursday, July 10, 2008

El Salvador - Day 3

Sunday, 22 June 2008

An amazing day again, combining the tragic side of El Salvador's history with the festive. We started the day at the cathedral in San Salvador, in the crypt below the main sanctuary for a "people's mass." We got there early enough to see Romero's tomb, over which is a huge bronze representation of him lying in state. There are multiple bishops and archbishops buried there in the cathedral basement, but Romero occupies center stage; athough it seems that the current bishop there is resisting the canonization process for Romero, he is definitely already a saint by popular acclaim in the minds of a sizeable part of El Salvador's population. The standard concept of martyrdom for a long time has been that a person dies for his or her faith, but what happens when someone is killed by another person who in theory comes from the same faith tradition? Some people argue that Romero was killed because of his political involvements rather than because of the faith, but I genuinely don't understand how his political concerns can be separated from the implications of the gospel for politics and economics. Vatican II itself says that the Church's sole concern is that the reign of God come, and if the reign of God includes, at a minimum, the will of God being accomplished for the well-being and peace of humanity, then the faith, the Church, is inevitably tied up with the social order.
But I digress...After the mass, which lasted a couple of hours and was presided over by a priest who had worked with Romero, we headed out to a town (can't remember the name right now, it's in my notes somewhere) that was having a cultural festival this weekend. We feasted on shrimp and chocolate-covered strawberries and so on, and the students took the opportunity to look at the usual spate of knickknacks that were being sold. A couple of the more fearless students rented horse rides while the rest of them shopped.
Joe Cistone, the CEO of International Partners in Mission, joined us this morning, and he will be with us for the rest of our time in El Salvador. What an interesting guy -- lived in Rome for 7 years or so, ran a refugee center, now spends half his year traveling all over the world -- Africa, Asia, South America -- with groups like ours. Not a bad job if you can get it (although he says he has caught just about every tropical disease out there in his travels!).

(*NOTE*) I'm still in Klagetoh as I write this, and I spent the day on the Hopi reservation, which is actually landlocked by the Navajo Nation. I spend most of my time on two of the three primary mesas, fittingly enough named First Mesa and Second Mesa. The silence, the view, everything was just amazing. The Hopis don't let people take photographs or video within their reservation, so even when I get back to non-dialup Internet access I won't be able to post any pictures, but take my word, it took my breath away.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

El Salvador Day 2 - Saturday, 21 June 2008

NOTE: As I type this, I am in Klagetoh, AZ, deep in the heart of the Navajo Nation. I'm here for about 10 days, visiting the Brothers out here and retreating in this sacred land. I can't post pictures at the moment because the dial-up Internet access would take until Thanksgiving to upload them, but later...

I can’t believe it’s only 9:20 as I write this – I feel like we did about 3 days worth of stuff today, even though it was actually a very relaxed pace. 7:30 was breakfast, and my kind of breakfast – refried beans, plantains, eggs, juice, while people talked about the day ahead and about the rooster that woke everyone up at 4 am. From there we drove out to Aguilares, then to El Paisnal to visit the church where Rutilio Grande, SJ worked and is now buried. As luck would have it, a new priest was being assigned to the church that day, so what looked like half the town was there cleaning, decorating, and so on to prepare for his arrival. We managed to swing some time to talk with two young men who work as catechists and leaders in the base communities there in El Paisnal. It turned out to be better than one of us adults giving the students a talk on liberation theology, because these men talked about what life actually looks like to the people, and the role of the church in their lives. As excited as they were about their new priest coming, the church there obviously has a strong and very active laity – this is not just a place that people go on Sunday morning. Afterwards, the students peppered me with more “scholarly” questions about liberation theology, its pros and cons, but that was only possible because of what they had seen and heard from those two young men.

From there we went for lunch at a place way up in the mountains called Suchitoto, to a restaurant overlooking a huge artificial lake. Again, we took our time and had a wonderful, relaxed meal – the folks from IPM seemed to have no need to herd us along too quickly, and I like their flexibility in giving us input about the whens and wheres of our day. The students asked if we could walk down to the lake, and no problem, then a few of them asked if we could take a boat ride around the lake, and again, no problem. After that, our guide, Julieta, insisted it was time for coffee; never mind that it was 90 degrees out – the local custom is to drink hot beverages in hot weather because it makes you sweat more, so you stay cooler. Whatever you say… Anyway, we went back to Suchitoto and were able to walk around the plaza for a good long time, checking out the vendors’ booths, sampling the foods and beverages, and so on. Of course, some of the more caffeine-addicted students got their coffee, but then went looking for Salvadoran coffee beans because they like the local coffee so much that they want to take it back with them. For dinner that evening we went to another pupuseria, and a few of the students actually asked the women making the pupusas if they could try making a few, and they managed to do a pretty good job, at least to my untrained eye. People were pretty wiped out by the time we got back to the house at 8:30, but I wanted to get them to reflect on the day, so I just asked them about what they had seen that was sticking with them, and they ran with it for 45 minutes. They are coming to appreciate that even though we aren’t “working” like we would have if we had gone to Haiti, immersion is an important task for us, to be present, to listen, to hear about what is going on here without the need to rush in and assume that we can fix everything (or anything) with a week’s worth of unskilled labor. On a side note, the one student who had been in the theology 100 class I taught in the spring kept bringing up things we talked about in class; it gives me a new gratitude for the kind of formation that is possible in that kind of class.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Notes from El Salvador - part 1

Hi everyone,
A group of 6 SLU students and I just got back from a trip to El Salvador, sponsored by campus ministry and hosted by International Partners in Mission, a group that partners with local businesses around the world.

Friday, June 20

In a way quite different from when I arrived in Haiti last summer, I am again confronted by a myriad of responses to this first day in El Salvador. Different, because I don’t have to worry about the “sink or swim” stakes with the language, but now, instead of the constant effort of working in a second language, being the adult in charge of a group of students brings a certain constant low-level awareness of all of the things that could go wrong.
Everyone met in Miami without incident, although the last member of our group showed up at the gate during boarding for the flight to San Salvador, so I had sufficient time to wonder what I would have done if one (or more) of the students’ flights had been delayed. Nevertheless, everything went off without a hitch until we landed in San Salvador. I expected that our guides would have a sign saying “IPM” on it or something, but no luck, and of course I, being the poor planner that I am, realized that I had the number for IPM in the United States, but not for our contact person in San Salvador. Of course, my cell phone didn’t work in El Salvador, so I couldn’t even use it to call the number I did have. Long story short, I was able to find a phone booth that let me connect to the United States, and the IPM representative got me through to one of their people in El Salvador, but by the time she could put a call in to find out where the people who were supposed to meet us were, they met up with the students. It turned out that they had been there the whole time, and they even had a sign with them, but they just didn’t have it out. (*In hindsight, that was the biggest problem we had to deal with all week. After that, IPM was completely on the ball.*) Halfway to the guest house, we stopped for a late lunch at a little roadside restaurant that served pupusas, the local Salvadoran staple, which are like small tortillas stuffed with anything from meat to cheese to beans to vegetables to all of the above. Every table in this place (and in every pupusa restaurant in El Salvador, it seems) had a gigantic glass jar full of spicy pickled cabbage that goes with the pupusas.

From there to the guest house and a brief orientation to the place and the trip before heading back out, this time to a nearby park to see a memorial to those who were killed or disappeared during the civil war. In some ways it reminded me of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington: a long black stone wall with thousands of names inscribed in it. On one hand, I appreciated it because it acknowledges what happened, but the danger is that there are so many names, it can cause a kind of sensory overload, with all those names blurring into a massive background of death and missing the point that each of those names was a real person, not just part of a statistic.

From there we drove up into the mountains and got a panoramic view of the city before hitting another local restaurant and heading back to the guest house to collapse.

I was very surprised at how “Americanized” much of the city is – Burger King, Subway, road crews using the same equipment they would in the United States. I guess I expected it to be more like Port-au-Prince, where I saw NO American franchises and only the shoddiest of upkeep. Our guides tell us that the gap between the wealthy and the poor will be wildly evident when we go out of the city, but at least from what we have seen, globalization is in full swing here.