Wednesday, January 27, 2010

El Salvador II: A Post-Travel Reflection

I am unable to articulate my experiences in El Salvador. In the same way that my photos do not fully portray the scenery which they attempt to display, so also are my words inadequate to express the feelings rooted in the lived experiences during our visit to this incredible country. But the inadequacy of words and photos is a perfect preface to the following reflection. Through my experiences in El Salvador I have begun to grasp the importance of human connection and solidarity in the Kingdom of God. Like photos that cannot replace actually "being there," so too are our words of hope unable to replace our physical presence. And so too are our greatest theologies and prayers unable to take the place of actually living alongside those who suffer. This concept became a theme for me during our week in El Salvador.

Before our trip I wrote a brief reflection in which I hoped that, once in El Salvador, I would be able to affirm the people and listen to their stories. I believe that this approach provided a good way to be open and vulnerable to the ways that God moved and revealed God's Self to us through the people we encountered. The way the schedule was set up was actually very nice. I enjoyed meeting with such a vast group of people who are doing all sorts of work. And although the schedule just came about in the order it did, I think that everything happened in a very timely manner.

The shock of poverty definitely hit me hard. It is one thing to see it in photos or TV, but to be there in person is quite different. This, once again, emphasizes the importance of lived experience. To stand in the dirt where others live, to breathe the air that the Salvadorans breathe, and to walk the roads that many walk - is to live, albeit momentarily, alongside those who are often overlooked. I cannot articulate the feelings I felt in Santa Rosa and standing in the shade of the tree where that community meets for Bible study. And this certainly birthed many frustrations; and so I became very angry.

My frustrations were fueled even further by stories about the war from Lito; and by stories about gangs demanding money from Serena; and by injustices committed by corporations; and by all sorts of stories from every direction. This was all by about Tuesday night that I wanted to scream and start a revolution. I was tired of hearing about the "small" work that the churches are doing and I wanted to actually "do" something about the injustices. This frustration was good because without experiencing it I would not have been prepared for the wisdom that was to come from the latter days of our visit.

When we visited San Martin and Jaime's church I felt as though I had reached low point. I remember after our discussion I just went to the window and stood there looking out, feeling very numb. "Why can't something be done?" I thought. "Why can't people with the power to help do something about this?" That evening I really just wanted to go into a place of hiding; I wanted to go somewhere alone and sulk. (If it had not been for the stop at the mission and the opportunity to play with the children, I probably would have been a depressed young man. But God is good and provided us that beautiful reminder of God's love through the children at the mission)

At the low point of my frustration we were given the opportunity to dialogue with Ramon, a former Baptist pastor who holds some fairly radical views. But it was then that I began to start actually comprehending all that I had been seeing that week. Ramon reminded us of the parables of the mustard seed and the yeast (Matt. 13:31-33) and this brought to life a newfound hope for me. I began to realize that the work of the Kingdom is very small and slow. I began to see that the work that these ministries were doing in El Salvador were exactly what the Reign of God is supposed to be doing: building communities of justice, love, peace, and hope through solidarity.

What is ironic is that, despite my intent to listen to the people and affirm them (as I had expressed in my pre-travel reflection), I held to my North American ideals that I should then go and fix the problem! I became so frustrated and angry during the first few days because I thought, "Why waste time with the church, let's march on Capitol Hill!" But this fruitless passion was born out of my North American pragmatism, not the Gospel. I had forgotten that the Kingdom of God is like a tiny mustard seed. It was only then that I began to make sense out of so much that I had experienced that week.

As I reflected on this I began to see why the work of these church's is so important. And I also began to see why solidarity is at the heart of their work. Yes of course we want to fix the problems, but the Good News isn't about just fixing a problem, it's about building a community. This is what struck me about all of the places that we visited: they were all building communities grounded in real relationships. Yes they all want to conquer injustices, but they're not trying to do it alone. This is something that I have never really experienced until our trip to El Salvador. What I have begun to learn is that the Kingdom of God transforms from the inside out, from the bottom up.

This helped me to understand how Latin Americans are doing their theology as well. It is so refreshing because they are doing their theology in their context. One of the emphases of SEBLA is to train leaders according to their context. This is truly revolutionary because this approach allows for God to continue to move and speak! And it helps us to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit. This was a great theological learning for me. To witness the way that Salvadorans are discovering their theology and sharing it is quite amazing. But what is more amazing is their faithfulness to construct theology that is relevant and contextualized. This is why solidarity must play such a role in the theology of the Salvadoran people.

All in all this was one of the most incredible weeks of my life. The more I reflect upon the trip the more I see God at work and God speaking. The format and methodology was very good in my opinion. I enjoyed hearing from and sharing with so many people. I also enjoyed traveling and seeing a variety of places and peoples. The food was amazing - no complaints there! But ultimately this was a life-transforming experience. To have our last day be spent reflecting on the life of Monsenor Romero was an appropriate end to our trip. It gave me hope. Also very hopeful were the many words of wisdom from Jaime, the dean of the seminary.

In my pre-travel reflection I made a goal to stay connected to El Salvador. I currently have at least three and I'm looking for more! So I hope and pray that God will allow me to keep a connection with my family in El Salvador and partner with them in revealing the Kingdom of God.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Peacemaking & El Salvador

I will be traveling to El Salvador in one week for a class on the Church from a Latin American perspective. I am really excited and I decided to write this pre-travel reflection.

I would never attempt to write a book about Russia. This is because I know virtually nothing about the country save for the fact that it is supposedly cold. Similarly, it strikes me as somewhat fraudulent for someone of my background to spout off about peacemaking and justice. Because I grew up in a small town of WASPs and middle-class comfort, I often feel like a phony when I attempt to preach about peace and justice. What do I know? I have never once encountered a violent situation let alone anything life-threatening. Nor have I ever asked the question, "I wonder if I'll eat today?" The reality is that I have been blessed with a fairly charmed life thus far. And so I find myself often frustrated by the fact that I have read a lot about peacemaking, and yet haven't truly experienced exactly how the Gospel of Peace is lived out in a world of conflict.

But perhaps the first step to peacemaking for someone like me is self-awareness. That is, the ability to recognize my life experience in contrast to others. And, perhaps to realize the great responsibility that comes with the blessings of particular life experiences (e.g. education, economic opportunity, etc.). In this sense, it proves beneficial to consider one's background more closely.

My family has always lived the middle-class, white American life (though my father was fairly poor growing up). Both of my parents, however, come from generations of typical Christian thinking and lifestyle: my mother from a Bible-belt culture in Kentucky, and my father from a Pentecostal culture in Southern Arizona. Thus, it is no big surprise that I too grew up in a small, predominately Christian town, attended the local Wesleyan church and received a Christian-based education. Throughout my upbringing I never had to consider (let alone encounter) the horrors of violence or injustice. Those tragic realities were more like concepts that we would toss around in Sunday school or Bible study; similar to school subjects that were interesting to learn about but not exactly "real."

The sad truth is that I was living amongst social injustice but never knew it. The county where I grew up, for example, is the poorest county in NY State. I now realize that so many of the people who lived around me as a kid suffered from our country's own social injustices (health care or education, for examples). Though I never realized this as a kid, I have begun to learn the ability to see injustice. The ability to recognize injustices, I believe, requires both education and maturity.

Perhaps in addition to education and maturity, realizing the presence of injustice involves interpersonal relationships. My father, who grew up in Tucson, AZ, became acutely aware of the disparity between Northern and Latin Americas as a kid. He witnessed his father adopt a young Mexican man - an illegal migrant - sometime during the 70's (and he is now currently a member of our family, along with is two brothers!). From this my father gained awareness of disparate life experiences and passed on that awareness to me so that I too might be aware of the realities of the social stratification in our world. But as I mentioned above, knowledge about injustice and peacemaking is one thing; true experience of it is a wholly other.

I believe that peacemaking has to combine these two elements: knowledge about and experience of. This is why I am so eager to visit El Salvador. I don't believe for one minute that I can authentically experience what the Salvadoran people experience. But from relating with them and learning from them I will gain perspective that is nearly impossible for me to gain sitting at a desk in Philadelphia. I am hopeful that through this experience I might better understand the injustices that are caused by my own society and that I might learn of the ways that I can become involved in resolving them here in the U.S.

The relational aspect to a trip such as this is, in my opinion, the crux of the Gospel. I dare not presume that I have the capability to change the lives of any Salvadoran person or provide the help that is needed in their situation. But I do, however, have the capability to be a brother to everyone I meet and affirm their value as a child of God. This, I believe, is a critical element to the Gospel of Peace: to hear the stories of other people, to listen to their plight, and offer my "yes" to their existence.

I also believe that peace is not simply the absence of conflict but the presence of justice. Peace is often watered down into some idealistic, metaphysical fluff. It cannot be! Like most theological doctrines (in my opinion), it must be grounded in human experience. Justice, for me, means that human beings are offered the opportunity for well-being, to thrive instead of merely survive. And thus this idea of peacemaking must be holistic and cooperative. It must include elements of economics, education, local government policies, federal government policies, and more. The fact is that these elements from various disciplines or departments are all run by and for people. Thus, it is grounded in human experience.

As a result of this approach to peacemaking dialogue is very necessary. In the past three years I have begun to involve myself in various inter-denominational and inter-religious dialogue. It is there that I see the most hope for our hurting world. In no other setting do I see more potential for peacemaking and justice. I think this is because it involves increased perspectives and is therefore able to reach increased demographics. The other benefit to this approach is that it is founded upon common reaction to the unjust human experiences that it aims to relieve. Once again peacemaking is rooted in human experience (it has little to do with metaphysical religious jargon and everything to do with starving, oppressed peoples).

Though I have been to the Dominican Republic and have seen the experience of some of Latin America, I believe the I am in for further revelation by visiting El Salvador. That is, I am at least preparing myself to be utterly humbled and most likely shaken by what I will see, hear, taste, touch, and smell. Living in West Philadelphia I often feel like I am "rich" when I consider my surroundings. However, I have the feeling that visiting El Salvador is going to have a heavy impact on me. This, I believe, will be the hardest aspect to our trip.

In addition, I think that the language barrier will be both a curse and a blessing. My inability to speak Spanish will no doubt inhibit me from connecting with people, but perhaps it will allow me to engage my other senses in fresh ways. I hope that it will enable me to take in my experience from a unique perspective and notice things that may otherwise be overlooked.

Because a 1-week trip is so brief, I don't want to have unrealistic expectations. Therefore, my hope is to simply make one tangible connection between what is happening in El Salvador and what I am doing here in Philadelphia so that when I return home I will be able to be a part of what God is doing with my sisters and brothers in El Salvador. This could be a personal relationship with someone (or a community); or it could be the involvement with an organization that fights agricultural injustice, etc. I don't know what it will be. But this is my goal. I want to maintain a personal connection with people in El Salvador that will enable the process of peace work. May God show me what that connection may be.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010