El Salvador Day 04 – Winding Roads, Being Amongst the People, and a Question of Theology

Hola, dear reader, and welcome to Day Four’s wrap-up. Today saw more opportunities for interacting with the people, more free time to explore cities, and talk of how our experiences effect our personal theologies. Here’s the scoop…

On the Road (to Victoria)

For the first time, our group was outside and in the street before the bus arrived and I think we were all pleased and excited that we managed to be on time (moving a diverse group of twenty-four from place to place takes time). That said, I’m pretty sure the bus was a little late because Christina accidentally left her cell phone at the guest house last night and while Don entrusted it to me for the night in case she called it while I was up in the wee hours blogging, there wasn’t a peep. Then this morning, Christina called during breakfast and then said she would be on her way. So were we really ready before the bus got there? Eh, as a wiser man than myself once said, you’ll find that things all depend on a certain point of view.

Loaded up in the bus, we headed out of San Salvador for the small town Victoria. We picked up a traveler, too, a young reporter who is a friend of Cristina’s. Through translation from Luis, she explained to a handful of us at the front of the bus what “GANA” means. See, we saw GANA painted in white, blue, and orange on nearly every telephone poll and flat rock surface from the airport to San Salvador on our first day in country and we wanted to know what it meant.

The reporter (and I’m sorry, I missed her name) explained that when Funes won the presidency last year, putting the FLMN party in power, the Arena [sic] party which had dominated for over twenty years split as blame between the “cronies” shifted back and forth and finally landed on the former president. GANA is “Great Alliance for National Unity,” a proposed new party which is a conservative party with “modern” viewpoints. However, they need 50,000 signatures to be considered a real party and they use the painted logos in small towns and rural areas as they are “still getting to know the people.” When it comes to the right-wing parties who had been in power for so long, there was more than a touch of controversy regarding what parties were allowed to operate. In each election, if a party doesn’t get enough votes it ceases to exist. However, the Arena party illegally allowed some parties to continue anyway as a strategic move. This ties into how GANA is hoping to rise up as a party since the question of their signatures to become a legitimate party is on the table.

That paragraph took nearly a half-hour of back-and-forth translation. Afterward, we granted our young reporter a reprieve and let her take a nap. She explained she’s young and was up until 2:00am. I explained I was up blogging until 1:30am so I understood what she meant and I took a nap on the bus, too.

More after the jump. For you newbies out there, that’s blog talk for click “continue reading” to see the rest of the post, photos, and comment box. 🙂

Halfway on our journey, which I didn’t time but was at least an hour, we got slowed up by a truck overflowing with people. There was a sort of scaffolding rig lining the pickup bed and holding on for dear life was an assortment of men, women, and children of all ages. Many of them were holding Romero posters and other memorabilia, meaning they clung to these bars with one hand, standing, for at least a full hour as the truck took the twisting mountain roads. It reminded me of photos my friend Ryan showed me from his mission trips to Haiti in which, if you’ve got a truck, you’ve got a taxi service. But there’s something more, because these people were traveling a long way to be a part of the Radio Victoria celebration commemorating Romero and denouncing mining practices.

In short, they risked their lives for something important and many of us were touched by this. Shelley later explained to me how she felt when we reached a turn in the road and found that we weren’t following one truck, but a caravan of at least three or four, all overflowing with people. Shelley said she was struck by the solidarity these people showed, that having courage to travel such a long distance and at such risk was overwhelming. She wondered of the old men she saw, both on the trucks and eventually at the celebration, how many of them had been in the army, how many had been guerillas, and what it took to make such a difficult choice. She also said, in her personal observance, she hasn’t seen many older men at all, to which I replied war can erase an entire generation if it goes on too long.

Speaking of risking lives, Kitke is a competent driver and yet I must say the traffic scene in El Salvador is nerve-racking. Like yesterday’s near-hit while Kathryn and I searched for wifi access, we had several moments of what appeared to be close calls. At one point, I said, “Whooooah!” or something to that effect, to which Christina said not to worry, Kitke knows what he’s doing. I mention most of this particular paragraph for a reader in particular – my pastor, Kent, who has turned full-length school buses in tighter corners than anyone… until today. I think the Salvadorians may have you beat, Kent, they can put huge vehicles anywhere without a scratch!

The Central Plaza of Victoria

The plaza of Victoria is wide open with statues, short fences and benches, and old, magnificent trees. Two large tents shadowed a sea of plastic lawn chairs for people of all ages listening to a band, speakers, and youth from the radio station putting on a comedy play about a trial. We were given the freedom to move about and many of us took this to heart. Some went into the chapel and watched the Sunday morning mass. Others wandered the marketplace for goods. Still others took time to speak with Salvadorians as best they could with what Spanish they had. This last action has been a magical treat on the trip.

A quick note about the mass: families’ children behaved in a range from model child to loud cryer. And you know what? No one took their kid out of the service. No one shushed the kids or gave a rage face to their parents. Instead, children are children and all are welcome to come to church as they are. I thought about this last night, too, the way parents brought their young children to the march and in a way that felt like they were creating a situation for their child to be open to the impact of Romero. They weren’t forcing the message down the kids’ throats, weren’t using them to gain political leverage. They were merely a part of the people. This is also the impression I got from the mass and I wonder how many US churches approach children this way.

Someone in the group, I’m sorry but I cannot remember who, mentioned today that while the first two days saw us meeting with speakers in order to get context, last night’s Romero march and today’s time at the plaza in Victoria has finally given us a chance to be at an event where we were not the focus. We are now among the people and many of us are hoping this trend continues as our time in El Salvador nears the halfway mark.

Okay, that’s all emotionally fulfilling and that’s why were here, but let me break with a humorous moment. The celebration was funded by Radio Victoria but unfortunately they didn’t find out until the day before that the park bathrooms weren’t part of their contract and would be an extra $400 per bathroom. Instead, they opened their one bano in their building and asked businesses and neighbors to be kind to people needing a break. However, Cristina knows how to be practical and she grabbed a few roles of toilet paper, gave them to a small portion of our group, and led them into the woods to do their business. It wasn’t ideal but neither is waiting a half-hour in line. Of course, it would have been just fine… if they hadn’t of looked up to see people on the radio station balcony with a grand view of the woods below. Were they seen? Hard to tell. But this humorous anecdote is brought to you by the Anonymity Association of Seminarians: keeping the identity of people in this story safe for over twenty-five years.

Viva Victoria Radio

We checked out the radio station in small groups, depending on whether we could get there before or after lunch which was a filling plate of spiced rice, frijoles, tortillas, and cheese. Briefly, I’ll mention the tortillas are not like any I’ve ever had. They’re small, maybe four to five inches in diameter and nearly half an inch thick. And when I say thick I mean it; this is no airy pocket pita to be stuffed but a hot bread that’s a little tough on the outside with a substantial middle. I took a photo of my lunch plate, mostly to prove to my wife I’m eating my beans (I don’t like beans but when in El Salvador…) and you can see the tortilla on my plate. These are also the tortillas used for papousas, by the way.

Anyway, let’s set lunch aside because the radio station is important to the freedom of many in the area and its ramifications affect the entire country. Radio Victoria began between 1991 and 1992 and was the first radio signal in that part of the country. Service was sketchy and finally they purchased a national frequency, 92.1FM, so the people could listen without interruption. It’s always been run by youth, and as testament to that we met today’s DJ, Elvis (Ehl-vees), who started back when he was fifteen years old nearly thirteen years ago. The radio is run as a school to learn broadcast journalism and many like Elvis go on to do radio and journalism professionally.

Radio Victoria openly speaks out against the very mining practices we learned about yesterday. It’s on air eighteen hours a day and do their best to stay above water. One mining company offered them $8000 per month in advertising if they stopped talking about their policies only to have this peoples’ radio station turn them down. That’s quite a brave move by a station which pulls in $1500 in a good month. They were lucky to get their current building through a government project and the best room, I must say, is the actual DJ chamber with a coveted, powerful air conditioner.

Interesting note in terms of the evolution of Radio Victoria and another way to c0nsider the privilege we take for granted in the US: Radio Victoria was in Victoria before telephone lines. That means in its infancy, much of its programming was like a community announcement system in which a man may say to family listening that he will be back in town at 4:00pm with a truck full of chairs and he’ll need help unloading them. Consider that next time you text someone about how you wish it was pay day already.

Haggling for Crafts

On the way back to San Salvador, we made a pit stop in a small town which is known for creating various crafts out of clay. I can’t say everything I bought because some of the items are for a certain someone reading back home (not to get everyone’s hopes up, they’re for my wife, though if you tell me what you want in the comments and have cash waiting upon my return…). One craft the town specializes in is a surpresa, a small egg-shaped vessel that you pop open to reveal a little scene like a market place or bar, hand-sculpted in clay and hand-painted. They also had an, ahem, naughty version referred to as a picora, which revealed an “adult scene” when opened. I’m not saying anyone bought one of these as a gag gift for friends back home. Or at least, I wouldn’t mention any names… Is it appropriate to even write about this on the blog? Well, this was right there as part of our experience, so what else can I say?

I will tell you about a neat craft I bought today, though I don’t have a photo because it’s all nicely-wrapped for the trip home and I neglected to take a photo in the store. I bought a three-dimensional wall hanging just over a foot long depicting the front porch of a typical Salvadorian home. There’s an iguana and rabbit on the front steps and when you plug it in and flip the switch, the two windows on either side light up as if someone’s home. I told myself I wouldn’t get anything else for the walls in our apartment or my office at church but it was muoy bonita. Plus, I got a deal. I said I was interested but with it being $20 I wanted to look around the store a little more. Tim and Sarah did some translating for me and the shopkeeping couple took that to mean we wanted to go look at other stores for the same item, to which they replied no one else has it, they guarantee. I started looking at other smaller items and the woman shopkeeper said she’d go $19. I kept looking maybe one minute more and the man said $18. I said sold.

I didn’t mean to haggle and really, what is $2 to me compared to what it could mean to them? Still, I got a beautiful craft and I hope that $18 goes far for their family. The man had an odd limp, his left toe pointed straight to the floor and his leg sticking out from his body like the leg of a capital A. Was this to do with anything political? I don’t know. To be honest that was my first thought, as if anyone who suffers any ailment in El Salvador it is because of war. But really, it could have been anything. I don’t really have a point to this particular part of the story save to give you a little more picture into my thought process at the time.

Swindled

Because it was Sunday there wasn’t as much traffic and so we took a more direct route through El Salvador. This took us past a shanty town that looked big until we were taken past the largest one in the country. A swath of tiny shacks dotted the hills, each made of sticks, rocks, plastic and aluminum sheeting, all tied together with twine and branches. These are people’s homes. Have been for years. Many of the inhabitants are laborers from the country who came to the city looking for work. At the largest shanty town, they were swindled into putting a down payment on some land only to arrive and find they had nothing and were forced to live in this desolate place built on a dump.

I’ve been able to hold back my tears pretty well throughout the trip, though really I don’t know why I even bother. Today on the bus, I let go and although I don’t know that anyone but Sarah saw me I openly wept at the squalor these people live in. You see photos of these sorts of places, footage on “donate today and feed a child” TV commercials. But then you see it and it’s absolutely horrifying. I’m reminded of a young man in my youth group, Haydn, and his comment to me when I took the Confirmation class to serve food at Simpson UMC Men’s Shelter two weeks ago. He said, “I’ve never seen anything like this, Nate. I had no idea.” I was glad to give him the opportunity to witness and be affected. Now, on this trip, I’m the participant and it’s given me the opportunity to witness and be affected. Because really, I’m just like Haydn. I have never seen anything like this. I had no idea.

Who’s Theology Is It, Anyway?

Sarah and I had a long conversation about youth ministry and I gained some insight into a large contemporary worship church in the metro area which is outside my experience. Our talk was about ministry, seminary, relationships, family, and how we met our respective spouses. In terms of connecting with other people on the trip, I hold this conversation high in regard as, while most of us are UTS students, Sarah is from Bethel. On paper, our theology and approach to ministry and church overall is quite divergent, plenty of reason not to socialize beyond debate if that were to be our choice. Instead, we both learned a great deal about one another’s faith, why we approach it the way we do, and so on. This is so important to me as the Church is changing (that’s Big-C Church) and opinions appear to be becoming more and more polarized. I’m telling you two young seminarians from two different seminaries, denominations, and backgrounds, were able to dismiss assumptions and learn a great deal about each other. Basically, we both made a new friend and God was present the whole time.

I heard various conversations like our own sprinkled throughout the bus on that ride home and am glad to report this trip is getting everyone, and I mean everyone, thinking about their personal theology and denominational theology. And really, these conversations have sprung up over the entire trip. For example, Diane, as the one non-Christian Unitarian Universalist in the group, has remarked how welcomed she feels on this whole trip, furthering the conversation of different forms of belief. Glen has been to the Philippines and offers perspective on how theology works there and Chris and Don chime in about their experience exploring theology in Guatemala and Chiapas, Mexico. These are just a few tiny examples of how people of different denominations are generous with insight and gracious in understanding each other. In essence, we are united. Even Richard and my conversation regarding the “resurrection” language of Jesus being granted to Romero during last night’s march has spilled over into more and more conversations about this topic, leading to big questions after worship.

We had quite a discussion regarding how we tell people of the theology we’re learning about in El Salvador without them dismissing it outright because of its language. Does “resurrection” apply only to Christ or can it apply to Romero? Likewise, is “crucified” only for Christ or are the people of El Salvador crucified in their suffering? Many in the group are compelled to say this language is not exclusive to Jesus, that by opening it up the Church allows Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection to expand to so many more people.

While many of us are open to expanding the meaning of these terms, one thing I’m taking with me from this trip is giving strength back to some words by not using them to exaggerate. Earlier today, Jenn and I said to each other how we were “starving,” were silent a moment, and said, “Well, no, not starving. Hungry.” How can we be starving in a land of the starving? The word I will lend more strength by not misusing it is “martyr.” After the Romero march and seeing the red books of the Jesuits and learning that Caesar, the Salvadorian liaison for the St. Thomas group in-country, a man who stood right in front of me, had his father martyred years ago, I simply cannot think of that word in any other terms. So when it comes up in conversation, when someone uses it as a joke, I must do my best to explain why I think that’s not the best use of the word, to give them a taste of the context we’ve been immersed in for the last four days and have an “educational moment.” It’s these educational moments back home which can help the Salvadorian people.

There’s a lot about this conversation which isn’t here but rest assured, these are ideas and questions we will be pondering upon our return and invite you to be a part of the conversation, dear reader.

Hop on Pop’s Ice Cream

After worship and reflection, we split up. Some went right to bed, some stayed up to chat. I put aside the blog for a half-hour so I could walk down to Pop’s Ice Cream with about half of our group to see what all the fuss was about. I had probably one of the best vanilla milk shakes I’ve ever had in my life. Oh, and apparently, “milk shake” en Espanol is “milk shake.”

Spanish I Learned and Spoke Today

I found myself speaking with several young children, as they tend to be the ones who stare at this red-headed gringo. I asked Luis and Tim to give me more phrases to use with them and I actually had a few conversations. Pay no attention to the spelling, please. “Igyla mente” = “the feeling’s mutual.” “Quantos anyos tiene?” = “How old are you?” “Eustey muoy simpatico.” = “You are handsome/beautiful.” “Estas de Victoria?” “Are you from Victoria?” “Cuales juego te gusta?” = “What games do you like to play?” “Comment ti amos?” = “What is your name?” “May amo Nate.” = “They call me Nate.”

Final Notes and Highlights

Highlights from today include: Diane recalling the priest at last night’s rally saying Romero didn’t talk about Jesus, he talked like Jesus and that you, the people, don’t need to come to me for a blessing because you are the blessing, you are Jesus, having a chat with a local police officer and a military infantryman about crime (they said Victoria is quiet but felt San Salvador is rife with “delinquency”), the infantryman also informed us his M-16 is only seven pounds and not too bad though it’s lighter without a full magazine, worship first interrupted by a ringing telephone and later by a tiny lizard crawling the walls, Richard reflecting that “I have never seen such vital Christianity” in reference to how Christianity appears to be the central thread in everyday Salvadorian life, singing an uplifting Cuban liberation song in worship introduced by Glen and Tim, and Chris, in a wonderful moment of wit, referring to herself as a “the privileged Grand Poobah” when discussing globalization. And last, when the caravan in front of us turned to take another road to Victoria, our driver Kitke was free to drive much faster and we all cheered and thanked him. He had no idea what we were saying, looking confused, until Christina translated. So basically, about ten seconds after everyone cheered for him, he left and said “De nada.” The translation factor in terms of real-time conversation remains fascinating to me.

Tomorrow we head out for an overnight field trip to La Palma. We’re hoping to squeeze some luggage in with us and it’s already a tight squeeze. I’m debating whether to bring the laptop as I don’t know 1.) if I’ll have time to blog, 2.) if I’ll have internet access, or 3.) if lugging it around is just too much hassle and not worth the risk. Then again, I have lugged it a few thousand miles down here already, so…

Anyway, you may not hear from us until Tuesday evening or Wednesday morning. Ironically, I figured out how to hook my laptop up not to the wifi signal but to the router itself and am now, in theory, able to blog without the extra work of the old, slow guesthouse computer (thanks, retractable Belkin Ethernet cable on clearance at Target for $2 three years ago; I knew you’d come in handy someday if I just kept you in my backpack long enough). And yet, joking aside, I am once again reminded of my privilege and expectations based on said privileged living.

In the meantime, take a look at today’s photos and please, please leave us your comments! They have meant so much to our group when we gather for worship.

-nm

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5 thoughts on “El Salvador Day 04 – Winding Roads, Being Amongst the People, and a Question of Theology

  1. Nate – thanks so much for blogging. I feel like I’m right there -along on the trip.
    The ‘word pictures’ and real pictures are great.
    To Jackie – You are getting sunburned. Put on some sunblock, girl!
    To Donna – How’s it going?
    To Donna, Shelley, Diane – can’t wait until you get back to small group!

    Shalom to all-

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  2. Greetings and blessings to the whole group. We are saving up some beautifully cool 50 degree days for your return. It was been so wonderful and moving to read of your experiences in such detail that I am having trouble getting my work done! Keep up your good work.

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  3. Your talk of food reminds me of Johnny Depp:
    “El, you really must try this because it’s puerco pibil. It’s a slow-roasted pork, nothing fancy.”

    I LOVE that radio Victoria is GLBT friendly! Talk about progressives among the oppressed!

    I also love the discussion of divergent theologies. I’m sick and tired of polarization right now, given the health-care silliness here! WTG, students!

    Love the photos, love the blog, get reconnected soon, please.

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  4. Thanks so much for sharing about your experiences! I’m still catching up with all the details from day 4, but “fast forwarded” to the pictures and beyond so that I could comment before leaving for work at the UTS bookstore. 🙂 It’s awfully quiet there during reading week, but we’re getting inventory taken care of so that we’ll be all ready to go when you get back on campus…

    Congratulations to all of you on the trip for undertaking the adventure and know that there are many of us back home that are keeping you in our thoughts and prayers…and hoping to plan for our own trips someday! “The Otro Mundo es Posible” fundraiser is a “go” for April 17th and the advertising and invitations are in full swing. Hopefully, lots of folks will turn out and make it possible for even more people to attend the kind of trip you’re on right now.

    Blessings and peace to you all,

    Karen Evenson

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  5. Your Anonymity Association should have been a Society…. 🙂 Sorry I haven’t been able to stay up to date as you post, but I’m chugging along, and I hope to finish before Monday. But either way, I am so very grateful you decided to do this.

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