Tuesday, December 15, 1998

Message From Molly - December 15th, 1998

It was after dark about a month ago. I had gone with Father Rafael to a parish about a half hour from San Francisco. It was the first time I'd met the congregation. Just before Mass I introduced myself to the congregation and explained that I am here to learn about Salvadoran life and to help Father where I can. I was tired and just realizing how complex he Salvadoran poverty really is. I'd already been to one Mass that day so left to sit on the stone church steps where I cried. The boy, probably about 8 years old, didn't say a word about my tears. He simply plopped next to me and interrupted them. He asked me to teach him how to count in English. He got me laughing right away. There is such goodness here.

It is a flip-flop wearing crowd that we meet every night for the four weeks before Christmas to participate in the posada. We gather outside a different house each night. The house we gather at has statues of Mary and Joseph that were left there the night before. The statues are mounted on a sort of cardboard altar, making them less awkward to carry. The leaders carry the statues into the street to begin a procession to a different house where the statues will "sleep" that night. The procession walks slowly and Spanish Christmas carols are sung that everyone knows, except me. There is that feeling in the air that we are a part of something bigger than ourselves. Even though I don't know the words to the songs, I've gotten to the point that I recognize them and associate them with the anticipation of something great.

Once at the next house, some of the procession goes inside while the statues, and the other half of us, stay outside. The door is shut. We, on the outside, begin a song saying that we are far away from home and need a place to stay. Those on the inside sing that there is no room here. Then we on the outside explain that our wife is pregnant. The song goes back and forth like this, maybe five times, before those on the inside open the door saying they did not realize that it was the Holy Family they were not letting in. We crowd into the house, filling the room. The statue is placed in a corner and one of the women put flowers around it. It's symbolic but powerful that for tonight Mary and Joseph will get to stay at theirhouse. The first time I participated in the posada and walked into the house, I couldn't help but to wonder if a stable wouldn't be better. (However, there are no stables or barns in El Salvador.)

The house we entered was bare and the adobe walls cracking. Water had seeped through the cracks in the adobe, taking some of the mud with it, causing gruesome dark stains seeping down the walls. The beams over our heads were decaying. There were no windows. That was an especially poor house. I don't know that family well. The woman of the house sells tortillas, three for one colon (8 colons to $1) She sells a lot of tortillas. I'm not sure why they remain so poor. My guess would be that her husband is an alcoholic and spends the family's money to finance his habit. Alcoholism is a real problem here in El Salvador. Subsistence farming seems simple and quaint in the United States, but when you have no choice it can seem hopeless. People don't have a vision of a way out of poverty. The only way for a Salvadoran to become rich is to go to work in the United States. One month at a minimum wage job in the States pays more than five months working (that's working, not subsistence farming where no money is made) here in El Salvador. If a family has running water and cheese with every meal, you can bet they have someone in the States sending money. How can a country get out of poverty if the only way out is to leave it?

Cows, dogs, chickens and pigs all roam streets in mountain towns like mine. There are no trash containers and no garbage pick up. The streets are filthy. I quickly learned to walk in the middle of the road. On a good day, during the rainy season, the streets become like shallow rivers so water carries the filth out of town, lower down the mountain. But it's no longer the rainy season. Children will get sick if they go barefoot since the filth spreads disease. Shoes are expensive. The poor can't always afford them. What almost everyone can manage to get is a pair of flip-flops. It is a flip-flop wearing crowd that we meet every night for the four weeks before Christmas to participate in the posada.

We left Mary and Joseph in a house that was not perfect. Jesus doesn't look for perfection; he searches for a welcoming heart to make his residence.

Have a wonderful Holiday. Your interest and caring mean a lot to me.

Love and peace,


Tuesday, November 17, 1998

A Message From Molly - November 17, 1998

I understand that the US news has given good coverage of the effects of Hurricane Mitch. For those who have not already received the word, the part of El Salvador in which I live was not badly affected. We simply had days and days of rain. However, I'm sure you could tell from the news, that the areas of Central America that were hit are suffering badly. There are thousands and thousands of subsistence farmers who have lost their crops. They are displaced with little food, no latrines and a very real threat of an epidemic. The president of El Salvador made a plea, via television, that Salvadorans living in the United States send money. In yesterday's newspaper there was an interview with the president of Honduras in which he identified the most dire needs of Hondurans: basic medicines and milk for the children. Just days following the hurricane, the youth group of my town organized a food and clothing drive to send to those in need. Salvadorans, who barely keep their children clothed and food on the table, came with a small bag of rice for those even more needy right now.

It's difficult to know how to live and interact with the people of El Salvador. My sense of reality, and what life is, is different from theirs - my not having had the day to day struggle of getting food. Even those who do have food have lived with the reality of a war in their own yard. I interact especially with one family here: the family of Nina Tila. ("Nina" is a title of respect for an adult woman in Salvadoran Spanish, like "Senora" in Mexican Spanish.) Nina Tila made me feel a part of their lives right off. When I became sick one night, Nina Tila and her husband gave up their bed for me and slept on the floor. One of the daughters kept my fever down with cold cloths on my forehead. Nina Tila got up with me in the night when I became sick in their yard (They don't have a bathroom and the latrine was too far that night). Nina Tila will tell you, life is difficult in El Salvador. The fear, the struggle, the lack of control, all remain outside of my comprehension. However I get a glimpse of it in some of the people and their stories, like the story of Nina Tila's family.

It was late one night, about 9PM so most of the family had gone to bed. Israel (His real name, though the parallels are uncanny), the only son who lives at home, and I were talking. That day, twelve years ago, was already a bit out of the ordinary since Israel, then 15, managed to cut his foot rather badly the day before. Israel couldn't go out, as he did most days, with his brother, then 13, their cousins and friends. So while Israel nursed his foot at home, the others went to swim in the river. The boys separated from the girls, out of necessity since bathing suits are unheard of. Therefore, it was just Israel's brother, a cousin and a friend that the military soldiers came across while the boys were breaking for lunch. The war was between the military and the rebels. It was not uncommon for a 13 year old, or younger, to be one of the rebels; but those rebel 13 year olds didn't play in the river in broad daylight. The military began to give the boys a hard time, raising enough fuss that it got the girls' attention. So, with the girls watching, for a reason that cannot possibly be justified, the soldiers shot all three of the boys dead.

The loss in Nina Tila's family is not any different from that of any other Salvadoran family. Everyone lost someone in the war; it's just part of reality and the struggle for survival. I didn't know how to react. I could see the pain in Israel's eyes as he talked of the gash in his foot that kept him from the river that day. It didn't seem right that I should hurt from this story, since I know I can't even fathom the pain of Israel and his family. It took me two days to even allow myself to cry. As I wrote in my journal that night, "It's not right that I, someone who has had everything given to me, should pretend, or think, that I could feel pain at all. Have we, in the States, ever even lived?" Not that pain is something that only El Salvador knows. But here I can't separate myself from it, the way I can inner-city violence. It's simply part of the way things are.

Today, November 16, 1998, marks the ninth anniversary of the killings of the six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her teenage daughter at the UCA (the Jesuit University in San Salvador). There was a vigil beginning Saturday at 2 PM and continuing until 5AM Sunday, which I attended. The vigil was to commemorate the deaths of the six Jesuits and the approximately 80,000 others who were killed in El Salvador's war. There was a procession followed by Mass. The gospel reading was the Beatitudes, with a homily that spoke of Jesus' emphasis of the importance of the victim: victims of war, hurricanes or simply those forgotten in society. Following communion a letter was read, written by Jon Sobrino on behalf of the UCA community, to be sent to the United States asking that the School of the Americas be closed. The School of the Americas is a military school located in Fr. Benning, Georgia which trains military personnel of Latin America. The SOA was established with the intention of improving relations between the Latin American militaries and the US, and to promote democratic values. Somehow the graduates managed to miss the democratic value training part, opting instead to use what they learned in the US for counterinsurgency - with a rather broad understanding of who the insurgents were. The UN Truth Report, issued in 1993 as a product of the peace accords, identified 65 Salvadoran officers who committed atrocities in the war. Of them 49 were trained at the SOA - and that's just in El Salvador. With the exception of the removal of texts that encouraged torture techniques, used 1982 - 1991, the school itself has done nothing to acknowledge the horrors committed by its graduates. I find the School of the Americas alarming, not because 2 of the 3 officers responsible for Archbishop Romero's death, or 3 of the 5 who raped and murdered the US churchwomen, or 19 of the 26 who killed the Jesuits were trained there; but because my tax dollars paid for the training and arming of the military who did not respect the right to life of a 13 year old playing in a river.

This particular newsletter has outlined a lot of the past. The horrors of the past are the reality to the people of El Salvador. To understand this culture I need to have some understanding of the past. In future letters I'll try to write about the issues of today and how they might be addressed. However, that's not an easy task. I spend my time listening to where Salvadorans consider themselves to be; and right now those I talk to aren't thinking much beyond keeping food on the table.

I hope this letter finds you well. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving and God Bless.

Peace & Love,


Wednesday, October 14, 1998

A Message From Molly - October 14, 1998

"Civilization is a stream with banks. The stream is sometimes filled with blood from people killing, shouting and doing things historians usually record. While on the banks, unnoticed, people build homes, make love, raise children, sing songs, write poetry and even whittle statues. The story of civilization is the story of what happens on the banks." -Will Durant

Across from the church there is a newly painted cement building with a tin roof. On a plastic sign, very much like you would see in the States, the word "Antel" is printed in blue on white. I think it's the only plastic sign in my town. The Antel is the town phone. From my seat on the curb I watched as Renal, one of the two Antel workers, rode by on his bike. When a call is made into town, a message is taken. Then Renal gets on his bike and rides to the house for whom the message is intended. Usually the message just says to return the call. In other words, someone is at another Antel in another town waiting for a return call. And do you know what? It works. Communication takes place.

I want to let everyone know that I"ve made it here safely and that I'm happy. One the challenges, for me, of writing to the US is finding a starting point to tell anyone what my experience is like. I wanted to have one common theme to write in this, my first newsletter to the States. So for the past few weeks I've been keeping my eyes open for that one thing that somehow represents my experience here so far. But it's getting late. So this morning I sat on the steps of the rectory thinking I'd describe whatever I saw. I saw Renal come out of Antel on his bike. So that's what you heard about.

So what am I doing here? There is a good question. The term (in service language) for what I do is "accompaniment". Accompaniment simply means that I live with the people of El Salvador. I converse with my neighbors and listen to their stories. Everyone knows suffering here. But most of the suffering they know is of the past. The people of El Salvador recognize the incredible blessing peace is. I'm learning to appreciate peace as well. As a citizen of the United States, my listening to their stories authenticates their reality. The people of El Salvador know that they are poor in the eyes of the world. They feel themselves to be of less value. My being here, and the support I have coming from you in the United States, lets the Salvadorians know that their lives are of value.

My being here is a wonderful honor. I'm the only person from the US, or any other non-Latin country, who lives in this town. Everyone knows me and I have felt very welcome. I also feel safe. El Salvador has a reputation for violence and it's rightfully merited. San Salvador, the capital city, is huge and filthy and dangerous. Crime is expected and a part of life. Rape is common. So I avoid the city. San Francisco is two hours from San Salvador. We are in the mountains, though not far enough in the mountains to be where the rebels camped during the war. The way it was described to me was: some rebels might come down here and be seen, so the military would come along and kill some people, to let the rebels know they were serious. Then the rebels would come back and they might hijack a bus and kill some people, to let the army know they weren't really scared. Then the army would come back, rape some women and kill some children, just to make it clear that they weren't going to be controlled. And so went the war for twelve years until the peace accords six years ago. Much has improved. People don't talk about the war unless you ask them. Those with vision focus on improving the roads, getting electricity and running water.

I fear that after only eight weeks here I can't very well make any blanket statements about El Salvador. Language is a barrier to really knowing people, and my cultural perspective is very different from this culture. As I said, I'm honored to be here. I'm truly enjoying myself. I feel very alive.

Please know that your role as a person who cares what I do here is important. Not just to me (though I personally appreciate it greatly) but also to the Salvadorians who know that I have such support in the States. Your interest in me and my work here gives value to people who perceive themselves as valueless. I believe that as I listen to their stories and you listen to mine, we can get somewhere. We can value each other as children of God. Thanks.

Please keep me in your prayers and know that you are in mine.

Peace and Love,