Wednesday, October 6, 1999

A Message From Molly - October 6, 1999

Hello! It's been a few months since I've sent my last message. There is quite a bit to update you on.

I've been here a full year. It's said that in another year San Francisco will have multiple phone lines installed in town. That means that any family who can afford it can have a phone in their house. For now Renald continues to make his rounds by bicycle delivering messages. Renald is young, cheerful and flirtatious, stopping along the curb, after delivering a message, to hear the latest gossip. His messages take him to most corners in our small town; so he stays well informed, though not always accurate. He is rumored to have been seeing Silvia - though I don't put much merit in small town gossip. They were seen sitting together on the steps that lead to her cement block house. But then, Renald is at most corners; and, when she isn't at choir practice, Silvia is usually out on her front steps. It only makes sense that the two would talk and that small town eyes would see. Hernan, Silvia's brother, (I wrote of Silvia and Hernan last April) has taken a job in a city somewhere. Now Silvia keeps house, while her other brother tends to the farm. She has survived her father's death last April, and her mother's death before, coming out strong and independent. She joined the choir and, in this month of the rainy season, she carries her umbrella at just the perfect angle to make it a thing of beauty and not the necessity it is. Two days ago, when I visited her front steps, she was consoling a young man crying because his girlfriend had just broken up with him. With a voice that was realistic rather than romantic, and stable rather than harsh, she stated, "Sometimes, in this life, you can't have what you want." It's a calm acceptance to live what is, and not long for what is not.

Estella dropped by the rectory on Sunday before Mass. If you'll recall, I wrote of her last January when her mother was sick. She's fifteen and had to care for her mother and seven younger siblings rather than attend school. I hadn't seen Estella in well over a month; so we hugged and kissed on the cheek, as is Salvadoran custom. She looked good: her clothes were clean, hair down and shoulders back. I asked about her mother. "For the grace of God", Estella responded, "she is in the house but well again." This is wonderful news since the health promoters I traveled with did not predict her recovery. In January, "God willing", Estella will begin the ninth grade. The next January, with the help of sponsors in the US, she might go on to high school in another town.

During my anniversary week, the rains were heavy. That, compounded with El Salvador's severely deforested mountainsides, caused three landslides, blocking the dirt road leading out of (or into, depending on your perspective) San Francisco. When we heard the 5am bus coming into town, there was a quiet sense of relief that the road wasn't blocked from the previous nights rain. I celebrated my anniversary here on August 25th, a day that the road was not blocked. Nor was it blocked the following day. On that day a friend of mine was able to take a bus to the hospital in San Salvador (a luxury most country women do not receive) to deliver a healthy baby girl that evening. She returned to town two days later, claiming the child she held in her arms was not hers. Since she is heavy set, she could keep her pregnancy a complete secret. She is 23. She already has two children. She has no husband, no family, no job, no education, no house. She and the two children share one cot the church gave her. That night she came to Father Rafael and me to tell us the truth: the baby is hers and that she cannot possibly give her the life she deserves. She had heard me tell of the many couples in the United States waiting for years to adopt a baby. She knew that a childless couple, who receives these letters, had written me to say that their house and hearts are open if I should know of a child in need. My friend loves her daughter with an intensity of unconditional, selfless love that I have never seen. I have known the kind of love that wants to be present with, to know, to be proud of and to receive affection. I hope that I can learn the kind of love my friend has for her daughter: a love that lets go.

I contacted the couple in the United States and they are ecstatic. Meanwhile I spent three weeks as a full time foster mom. (loved it) The couple came, as soon as their passports could be in order, to meet the birth mother and their daughter, and to baptize her Maritta Daun. Salvadoran adoptions are difficult. During the war, children in conflicted areas were kidnapped and adopted to foreign couples who thought they were legal adoptions. Only recently has it become evident that the children were taken, often violently, from their rightful parents. (An interesting article on the subject appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Feb. 1999) In order to eliminate any corruption, El Salvador has made its adoption procedures much more complex. Our Salvadoran lawyer has told us the adoption will probably take six months.

We have found a wonderful family in San. Salvador for Maritta Daun to stay with. I will not move back to the United States until the adoption is worked out. I will make a trip to Ohio November 4th - 29th to raise awareness of El Salvador's needs as well as do fundraising for Salvadoran students to attend high school. For anyone in Ohio, or closeby, who has a group who would be interested in hearing about my experience here, I would be happy to share my impressions. Please feel free to call my parents, John and Rita, and they will try to set my schedule in order. Also, anyone and everyone, please feel free to call and chat on the days I'm home. I look forward to making the personal contact.

I hear that there are two theologies in El Salvador. There is one that says that God is in control, that suffering leads to a stronger faith, and that the focus should not be on this world but on that which is eternal. And there is the other that claims that as God's children we should want what is good and pleasant in this world, that suffering is not to be tolerated, and that we need to take control of our lives. One hears what seems to be a hint of the first theology in Silvia's statement. "Sometimes, in this life, you can't have what you want." And one gets a feel for the other in Estella's determination to go to school. But I find that true theology, the one that led Christ to accepting the cross, to be that of my friend. She had done it all by bringing this beautiful child into life. She has taken control of her daughter's future. Letting her go hurts more than all the suffering she has known in her life. And in the final analysis, because her child's future is more important than her own, she knows that sometimes in this life, you can't have what you want.

Please keep my friend and Marita Daun in your prayers. I'm looking forward to seeing and hearing from you in November. Thank you.

Peace and Love,


Thursday, May 6, 1999

A Message From Molly - May 6, 1999

Happy Spring to everyone in the United States! Happy Fall to Mikele in Australia! And Happy Winter to those of us in Central America! What a wonderfully diverse world we all live in!

The dry season has ended. Gracias a Dios! El Salvador has two seasons, wet (winter) and dry (summer). We have not seen rain since early last November. But now, each evening, there is a collective feeling of anticipation of the incoming rain. In the late afternoons, after teaching my seventh grade English class, I usually wander up to el campo, (the field) where the top of a hill has been cleared off. The young men from town are usually playing a serious game of soccer. Last night younger girls had a side game of softball. I join others who sit on large rocks and watch the games. The smaller children get bored with watching and climb trees, picking the pods that the trees produce and throwing them to other children on the ground. The children on the ground use rocks to break the pods open and suck out the sweet juice that surrounds the seeds inside. I've tried the juice. It's really not worth the energy it takes to retrieve, but seed juice really isn't what motivates the children to action. It's got something to do with the unity of our all being there. The wind blowing the dust from the soccer game into our faces. The way we can laugh, for the relief of ... something. For many people here I'm sure that part of it is the sense of peace. Ten years ago there was no way children or young men could play in an open field like they do now. Today children who are too young to remember use sticks to draw hop-scotch in the dust. A little later we feel the few drops of rain and can smile because there is the feeling of something different, something better, in the air.

I teach a lot of English, mostly to children. It's not uncommon for me to walk down the street and have children sing out to me, "Good Morning, Teacher. Good Morning, Teacher. How are you?..." I'm surprised by how quickly my second grade class is learning the days of the week. And my third grade students like me to give a color in Spanish, and they all quickly try to give the color in English - each wanting to be the first to know it. My ninth grade class, a small class which I spend seven hours a week with, are amazing. They understand concepts so quickly that I'm struggling to keep up.

Education is the key for the future of El Salvador. It is through education that we learn to see beyond the next corn or coffee harvest and into long term economic stability. Education is what allows the individual to take ownership of his or her own future.

I'm glad I can have the opportunity to help encourage education to people here. I don't have great hopes of my students all learning English in the next six months (though, like I said, my ninth grade class is pretty spectacular). However, my teaching opens my student's minds to what could be learned. I hope to plant curiosity to motivate them to want to continue their education. However in a country like El Salvador, instilling curiosity is not enough. Here in San Francisco the school only goes as far as the ninth grade. If a student wants to go any farther he or she has to travel to another town. Other towns have public schools as far as the 12th grade. The problem is the traveling expenses. The children of a farm family don't have the extra money it costs to ride the bus to and from other towns. So, with Fr. Rafael's help, I am trying to address the needs these students have. The project we are setting up is a sponsorship where an individual, family, or group in the United States will cover the additional cost it takes for a Salvadoran student in the rural areas to go to high school. A relationship will be set up between the student and the people in the United States who are helping. The idea is to begin the relationship now with letters and pictures. The actual financial contribution will not begin until next January when the next school year begins. The additional cost to send one student to high school is about $30 a month. With that they get transportation and other needs such as food, notebooks and uniform. If anyone is interested in beginning a relationship like this, please contact my parents (John and Rita L.), who can then get in contact with Fr. Rafael and me. I am doing well. I love (and am challenged by) the delicate balance between being motivated to take action, and discovering the peace and beauty that comes from simply being present. I'm living with people who have little control over their lives. There is so much I have to learn still. You hear a lot about the systemic problems of under- developed countries. I don't want to pretend that I have a sense of all that, at least not from the perspective that I'm given of rural Salvadoran farmers. Education empowers, and hopefully those who are educated can work to address the systemic problems found in these countries.

I hope all is well in your part of the world. Enjoy the change of seasons. God Bless.

Peace and Love,


Monday, April 5, 1999

A Message From Molly - April 5, 1999

Hello! For everyone who has been at all concerned because it has been two months since I’ve last written, let me thank you for keeping me in mind and reassure you that all is well with me in El Salvador.

I’ve been here over half of the time that I will be here. It has gone by terribly fast. When I think of it I can’t believe it. I’m in my eighth month. My commitment was for one year, which will be up in August. However, I’m the English teacher for nine English classes in three towns. The school year ends in early November. I’ll probably return to the States in late October. That seems so soon.

A young friend of mine, who knows me through these letters, wrote me asking, "Do you ever smile down there or is it all terrible with nothing to smile about?" (Thanks, Bobby) The question caught me off guard and made me consider what I write in these letters. I feel myself wanting to put into words what I cannot. I know that I have said that it is a great privilege to be here. I know I’m repeating myself when I say that an old woman’s dark eyes or a child’s smile are the most real things I’ve ever known. I know that I’m repeating myself when I say that I am more alive than I’ve ever been before. So how can I tell you that the struggle is so real that it can only lead to joy?

I'll try. Today is the day after Christianity celebrates the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. As Christians, we know that even the greatest suffering is overcome by the greater joy of resurrection. On Good Friday morning (three days ago) Don Tonio died of cancer. Parents die of cancer everywhere. In fact, the cancer rate is much lower here since many people die of something else at a younger age. Perhaps here I have learned to sit with pain, to accept the mystery of it, then grow in peace and joy.

Don Tonio had six children. One died in the war, another works to send money from the United States and could not be here. The rest live near by. Two of them, Silvia and Hernando, are my good friends. Since embalming is not customary, and this is the hottest time of year, the funeral, procession and burial were Saturday morning. We were present for the family in the procession from the church to the cemetery, a kilometer along the dusty, unpaved road. Our dark clothes, worn for the funeral, quickly absorbed the heat making us damp so that the dust stuck to us all the more. A barefoot woman, who is slightly out of her mind, with large eyes full of tears, put her arm around me as we walked. Men cried; the sons hugged each other. In the heat and sadness our breathing was deep but short as our heart pushed against our esophagus, wanting so much to hold just some part of their pain.

That night as it was getting dark, I went to visit Silvia and Hernanndo. They were out on the steps to the house with cousins from another town. They had had no sleep since Don Tonio’s death but didn’t seem to want it. Instead they asked about me and how I was. We talked about English and the United States. They told their cousins, with pride, how I planned to stay only a year but I like it here so much that I’m staying until October. Hernando invited us for pupusas, a traditional Salvadoran food sold on street corners in the evenings. We had pupusas and Coke and talked about how unusual it is in this country, that their family has green eyes. We joked and enjoyed each other’s company. There was the slight hint of stability returning to their lives as they looked for the eye contact that I could give.

For Silvia especially, breathing without crying may still have been difficult, but she was doing it and even venturing to smile. And I was glad to be here. No, more than that; I was grateful that their father had loved them and that they loved him. And I was extremely grateful that I could be here for them. The pain that Silvia and Hernando feel has little to do with their living in El Salvador. Parents die of cancer everywhere. Embracing pain and joy is embracing death and resurrection. It’s not a call to look for suffering or even to accept suffering as God’s will, but it is a means to hold firm in the belief that good does overcome. Do I ever smile? I wonder if I ever don’t.

I will not let so much time pass again between my future letters. It is exciting to be this busy. However, writing these letters needs to be a priority. I am grateful for your interest in what I do, and, in turn, in the lives of Salvadorans. Like eye contact giving stability to those who are mourning, your awareness has value. My father, when visiting me in February, used the metaphor of holding hands. As long as we value the common humanity of each other and reach out to hold hands, we will not be lost. It is easy for me. I’m in a situation in which barefoot women put their arms around me, and children just want to be sung to. I don’t have to reach far to hold hands. But you are present too. Your interest is a way to reach out to them.

They know that I have the support of people at home, and it is received with joy. Please don’t underestimate the value of your compassion.I’ll write again soon.

Peace and Love,


"Tell me how much you know of the sufferings of your fellow men and I will tell you how much you have loved them." -Helmut Thielicke

Thursday, January 21, 1999

A Message From Molly - January 21, 1999
Estella is 15.The oldest of eight. She held the youngest on her hip while we visited. Her mother was inside, sick, most likely dying. Her father hovers close, worried about his wife and this year's small corn crop. She didn't go to school today. Her mother and younger siblings take priority. Her smile wasn't pathetic, or an attempt to reassure us that they were all right . . .She smiled because she honestly saw goodness in our visit. I don't know anything.
Celestina* is 17. Tall (approximately 5 foot 3 inches) with thick black hair that, when down, flows to her waist. She's beautiful but doesn't let it get in her way. Finishing the eighth grade this year is her first priority. She is not from San Francisco, but here we have school up to the eighth grade. Celestina lives with Nina Tila's family during the school year in exchange for housework and helping make cheese (the daily income for the family). Celestina's mother died in an accident when Celestina was three (not war related). Her older brother was recruited by the guerrillas and was killed by a land mine when he was twelve. Celestina's father took her to be raised by her extended family.
The family has had to move a lot; but her home is Las Canitas, a mountain village that had to be deserted during the war. Since the war, a few families have gone back to the land where they now grow coffee. Last weekend, Celestina needed to make a trip home and I went with her. We left San Francisco at 4:45am taking a bus partly up the mountain until there was no longer a road. There we waited for daylight before following a footpath up the mountains. It was an uphill climb and we hiked quickly. When we got to Las Canitas, which was at the top of the mountain, I realized that I'd been paying so much attention to the hike that I hadn't realized the beauty I was passing through. The village is high enough that there are pine trees, and though it's the dry season, they still get rain. All that can be seen for miles are mountains followed by more mountains. Here I'd hiked up the side of one of these mountains, focusing so on my balance and making each step that I didn't stop to take it all in.
I found the village enchanting. Translated "Las Canitas" means, "The Sugar Canes". Sugarcane grows plentifully in the high mountains. While there I tried homemade honey(not from bees but from heating sugarcane), a candy that is crystallized honey, and a sugar drink, as well as simply sucking on sugarcane. All of these things were new experiences for me which I delighted in. The product of Las Canitas is coffee which the families sell. I'm told that the coffee grown in this tiny village will eventually make its way to New York City. Every time I think of it, it throws me into some culture shock. When I left in August, coffee was right up there with bagels as being trendy. Imagine people in NYC, paying god-only-knows how much for NYC coffee, so they can get in their shiny cars and be held up in NYC traffic. And I'm laying in a hammock, sucking sugarcane, looking at mountain after mountain. There is not even a bit of New York City up in Las Canitas. It's so peaceful and I feel as if I've been given a chance to step back in time. It's like the peace that people of New York City must dream of.
It can seem that way from my perspective. I visit Las Canitas with the security that I can leave if I need or want. However, for those who live here, there is no doctor, school or church, no electricity, and the water is brought up daily from a nearby stream. There is no way out; the world has gone on without them. They don't have control over their lives; life happens to them.
On our way to her grandmother's house, Celestina and I were on the high side of a steep ravine. Below was a stream that went around a huge volcanic rock. Celestina pointed below, explaining that when she was two months old, the guerrillas took over their village and the family had to spend the night hiding by the rock in the stream. She said that her father tells her it was amazing she slept the whole night without making a sound. Had she made noise, of course, the guerrillas would have opened fire on the area and the family probably would have been killed. After describing this to me, Celestina simply said, "My family's story is very sad". She smiled; and once again, I don't know anything.
Celestina is remarkable. She has a sense of self worth that will give her options. She explains that school comes first. If a boy really cares about her, he'll wait for her to finish. And if Celestina can find the money, she intends to go to college (secondary school) in San Salvador. I admire her. She sees what few Salvadorans see: a vision of the future. Youth like her could change El Salvador for the better. But still there are many who simply cannot look beyond surviving today. Estella is as strong as Celestina, but she does not have the privilege of thinking of the future. For her, and most Salvadorans, it's an uphill climb. There is no way one could ask them to stop and take in the view of the future. Keeping their balance, climbing, plodding on, surviving takes all they have.
I admire Estella, probably even more than Celestina. The suffering that constitutes her life would crush me. At 15 years old she has to look misery in the face and believe in a power that is greater. She can find goodness, when I want to look away because it hurts to see her pain. Both she and Celestina are teaching me to accept an imperfect world. I'm struggling with the balance between accepting suffering as an instrument of growth, and then wanting to relieve the world of it. I cannot accept it as a good that children lose their mothers, and I know that school is something that every child should have. And so I ask God for serenity, courage and wisdom where I am. I continue to be astounded by what a true privilege it is to live with the people of El Salvador.
Pray for us; we are praying for you.
Love and Peace,

* Name changed for my friend's privacy.