Thursday, December 16, 2010

an advent reflection.

It just doesn't feel like Christmas to me. Aside from the fact that it is hot enough to make me sweat every single day here, there are so many things that just don’t feel right. Friends and family send me e-cards for Christmas with pictures of dancing snowmen and pictures of their trees all decorated with flashy lights and winter-related ornaments. Right now, to me, that all seems like another world.

So, without all the "normal" Christmas stuff to make me feel like it's "Christmas time!", I have not found myself falling into my normal Christmas feeling of excitement for hot chocolate and Christmas parties with red and green cocktails and presents under the tree and Christmas songs on the radio 24/7 and did I mention hot chocolate? With the tiny marshmallows.

Yeah, there's none of that here. Instead, for me, this time gets to truly be Advent. I have been thinking a lot about what advent means, and as always, life in El Salvador sheds light on so many things I thought I already understood.

Everyone knows advent is about waiting.We are waiting for the day when we celebrate the first coming of Jesus - Christmas. We prepare for God's coming into the world, God made flesh. God was born as a little child on this earth in a stable one day, and we get to celebrate the beauty of that sign and celebrate too what it means to be human because of that.

I have been thinking about what that truth means. First, I think, God's humbling of Godself tells us all a lot about what kind of Savior God wants to be: a human one. God is Everything, and could come into this world and cast out demons and bring the poor to a land of milk and honey and free the oppressed. I often find myself wishing God would do that. There is just so much suffering here, so much need, so much despair. Doesn't God want to lead these people to a better place? But imperialism and unemployment and destruction of our natural resources and the earth has made El Salvador a miserable place for a lot of people. Oh God, won't you come save us from what we have done to one another? But the answer that God gave in the Incarnation was this: don't blame me, you've got two hands, don't you?!

Because part of the "waiting" in advent means we wait not only for Christ's coming as a child 2000 years ago; we wait for Christ's second coming. We wait for the land where there will be no more tears. We hope it's true. We really, really hope.

But do you know what else I am noticing these days? I am thinking about not so much what God's coming says about God, but what God's coming says about me. God could, as Annie Dillard writes, "catch time in it's free fall and stick a nickel's worth of sense into our days." But God chose what kind of Savior God would be - a human one. One like me. One who gets tired and needs nourishment and needs clean air to breathe and is subject to this world just as much as we seek to change it. God's becoming human says to humanity, hey, wake up, you are HOLY, damnit! I am capable of bringing light and hope into this world too. And that just makes me feel really grateful. Really grateful for what I can do with my two holy hands, instead of sitting around waiting God to come.

So now, these days, I am waiting for what we might call the "third coming" of Christ. That is, the coming of Christ into the world today, right now. The coming of Christ to me in the poor, in the eyes of the beggars I pass every day, in the family that digs through the garbage at the end of my street, in the laugh of the little boy I pushed high on the swing, in the kindness of a neighbor who shares a cup of coffee with me, in the sound of Lucy's broom as she sweeps the floor like she does every day even though it will just get dirty again. It's in my work, in my daily work, in the ways I try and try to bring little lights to dark places. In my life, Christ's third coming is in me, in the opening of my heart, in the ways Christ comes to me and nourishes me so I can keep living here with joy and hope despite all the many reasons I should not.

The notion that advent is a "waiting" for Christ to come could suggest that Christ is not already here. It could suggest separation. But separation is not the truth of advent. The truth of advent is in humanity's intimacy with God. It's in our daily hopes and struggles and all the ways Christ is miraculously here among us, for us, in us, Emmanuel! Dear friends, we are the ones we have been waiting for.

Monday, November 29, 2010

A culture of violence.

All of the windows in my house have iron bars on them. At the end of my street, and at the end of every street in my neighborhood, there is always a 24-hour guard on duty. Each time I leave my house, I double lock the door and I prepare myself in the event I should be robbed: I make sure I am carrying some cash but not too much. (If I am going on the bus I have my quarter in my hand so I don’t have to dig through my wallet).

El Salvador is a violent place – one of the most violent countries in the world, actually. The civil war is over, but there are probably more guns floating around here now than there were in the 1980s. During the civil war, Salvadorans who fled to Los Angeles to flee the violence found themselves in the midst of L.A. gang conflicts, and in order to protect themselves from the other gangs, the Salvadorans formed their own gang: the Mara Salvatrucha, MS-13. Violence begets more violence. After the war was over, many of these Salvadorans were deported back here. One war was over, but another began. The 18th Street gang and MS-13 fight for control of this country, and in some places, they have won. Even the police don’t go there. The violence here is a combination of turf wars and random violence which keeps the general population in fear and the government with their hands tied, unable to protect its people.

I am lucky. I live in a middle class neighborhood where I feel very safe. I, unlike many of my Salvadoran friends, can afford to live in a neighborhood where the kids play soccer and ride their bikes outside on the streets, and neighbors trust one another and share soda and gossip and live in community. There are no gangs here, and I suspect that there won’t be anytime soon. You see, since the kids from my neighborhood are mostly middle class, they don’t go to bed hungry and they don’t worry about how to afford books for school or how to pay the hospital bills. And since they aren’t so desperate, they don’t have to do desperate things.

How does this “culture of violence,” as it is called, manifest itself in my life, then?

Like this:

On a field trip to the beach with families from Centro Hogar, the pre-school where I work, a grandmother takes off her shoe and uses it to beat her grandson Mario. Hard. She yells and chastises him for not listening to her and he screams and cries in anger and pain and terror. Annie and I stand in shock, watching, wanting her to stop but not really knowing what to do. Everyone else just walks by, as if it were normal and maybe we should just stop staring and pretend it were not happening. Do I have the right to tell her to stop chastising her grandson with violence? Do I have the right to lecture her about how violence does not work as a discipline method? Suddenly, I am aware of the fact that I am a foreigner. Is this one of those “cultural differences”? Are all these Salvadorans just used to seeing this kind of violence? Has it become so normalized that it takes an outsider to be shocked by it? If Mario grows up being beaten, won’t he also learn to use violence to discipline his children, or his wife, or the gang from across the barrio?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Life, in moments.

Moment one:
The day before my birthday I spent the night in Mariona, the community I accompanied as a Casa student. The family there feels very much like my extended family. When I am there, I feel completely at ease and relaxed and supported. And joyful. This moment captures a little bit of that. These two beautiful girls are Maria Jose, five years old, and Jasmin, four. They were blowing up birthday balloons for me, and it turned into a competition to see who could blow up the balloon the biggest. Only problem is, it's hard to blow balloons that big with such tiny lungs, especially when the air keeps escaping. You'll have to watch the video to see who wins.

Moment two:
I am in the back of a pickup truck, surrounded by the staff of Centro Hogar - my wonderful coworkers - as we return from an overnight trip to the finca. It was just a convivio, a bonding trip, a PJ party, if you will. It was one of the most fun times I have ever had here. And I grew even more deeply in love with them and the work we all do.

Moment three:
Same trip to the finca with the staff of Centro Hogar, teaching them about the wonder of s'mores.

Moment four:
I am in Parque Cuscatlan in downtown San Salvador at a fair of sorts, a sort of rally for NGOs working in San Salvador. We are there representing ANADES (I am showing off my sweet new anades "share love, not HIV" tshirt), but Emilia and I escape the booth we are working to enjoy this moment as we sing along to one of our favorite songs from the Revolution, "no basta rezar."

Friday, October 8, 2010


We always have coffee at work - a big, huge coffee-maker full of extra black coffee. And we always have a big container full of sugar next to the coffee. Well, yesterday, as I prepared my 2:00 pm cup of coffee, I noticed the sugar bucket wasn't there. But there was a plastic bag with what I presumed was one of those 1-lb. bags of sugar for the coffee until we got more sugar. (Can you see where this is going?) Yes, friends, it was salt. So for the second time since my return to El Salvador, I have taken a big swallow of really salty coffee. Oooops. (Seriously, who just leaves a bag of salt next to the coffee?!) Lucy, the lady who cleans up the office and makes sure there is always hot coffee, comes around the corner just as I am taking a big gulp, with the bucket of sugar in hand (she had refilled it). She thinks it's hilarious. I think I am going to be famous for doing stuff like this.

Sunday, September 26, 2010


From Eduardo Galeano's "Celebration of the Human Voice" -

"The Uruguayan dictatorship wanted everyone to stand alone. everyone to be no one: in prisons and barracks, and throughout the country, communication was a crime.

Some prisoners spent more than ten years buried in solitary cells the size of coffins, hearing nothing but clanging bars or footsteps in the corridors. . . [They] survived because they could talk to each other by tapping on the wall. In that way they told of dreams and memories, fallings in and out of love; they discussed, embraced, fought; they shared beliefs and beauties, doubts and guilts, and those questions that have no answers.

When it is genuine, when it is born of the need to speak, no one can stop the human voice. When denied a mouth, it speaks with the hands or the eyes, or the pores, or anything at all. Because every single one of us has something to say to the others, something that deserves to be celebrated or forgiven by others."

Recently, we held a workshop for parents involved in Programa Velasco. These monthly meetings are a requirement for families involved in the scholarship program, but it is my hope that these workshops are a space where parents can enjoy themselves, feel themselves part of a community, and just let their stresses and anxieties go for a few hours. The workshops focus on personal formation and development; they get to think about who they are, what dreams they have for themselves and their families, their strengths, and the things they struggle with. I think it's so important that people have those kinds of spaces - especially the poor, who are too-often dehumanized or exploited in their work, or mistreated and abused at home. I think there is something really humanizing about simply being able to speak your truth.

This month, the theme for our personal formation and development workshop was a tough one: what are the things in your life that bind you? what chains you down? what silences you?

It all just felt really heavy. The reality that people live in. Violence all around. Fear, above all else. Not knowing how you'll find a job. Violence in the home. Rape. Things that they cannot talk about, mostly because they do not have the spaces to talk or the people who will listen.

So, while it felt really heavy to hear story after story of being chained down by the reality, it also felt a little bit like this:

In simply being able to share their stories, there is a little bit of liberation. If not from the violence, the poverty, the exploitation, at least there is liberation from one thing: the silence.

"When it is genuine, when it is born of the need to speak, no one can stop the human voice. When denied a mouth, it speaks with the hands or the eyes, or the pores, or anything at all. Because everyone of us has something to say to the others, something that deserves to be celebrated or forgiven by others."

Friday, September 24, 2010

check it out

Look, friends, I am VMM's mission of the season, featured on VMM's homepage!

If you are able, I still really need your support to stay in El Salvador. You can support me and my work here by donating on VMM's Missioner/Project Support Page.

Me and the new missioners are also featured in the latest issue of VMM's newsletter, Bridges. You can check out the latest one here!

At a time in the
history of the Church
when passive obedience and
reception of the sacraments
was generally accepted
by the laity
as what being Church
was all about,
the VMM emerged as a
new and challenging movement
calling Christian men and women
to respond to Vatican II's call
for full and active involvement
in the Church's life and mission.

This involvement has a
double thrust:
to witness to God's action
through Jesus Christ
in our world today,
to respond to the
material and human needs of
the marginalized and the
dispossessed of our world.

We are first called and
moved by the very Love that
lives within us:
"The love of Christ overwhelms us..."
(2 Cor. 5:14)

- exerpt from the VMM Spirit & Lifestyle, Edwina Gately

Monday, September 13, 2010

Thursday, September 9, 2010


Spanish lesson for the day:
finca - farm.
reverdecer - to grow green again.

ANADES has this amazing finca in Sonsonate, a few hours outside of San Salvador, way up in the mountains where the weather is cooler, the clouds feel lower, and the people live a different type of poverty than in the city. Here, people struggle with gang violence, delinquency, unemployment, pollution, and the locura that is this city. (Take, for example, the chaos that has been the past few days as gang threats have led to a bus strike, leaving the city at a standstill). In the countryside, though, the poverty looks a little different. There is still machismo, of course, but there, at least, people aren´t afraid to talk to their neighbor. Kids aren´t afraid to run around outside and play. But the opportunities are few - there are virtually no jobs to be found, outside of the agricultural sector, and if you want to make it to high school, you´ll have to find a way to travel for hours on a bus every day. Forget about university, unless you can somehow find a scholarship that will pay for tuition, transportation costs, books, and maybe even living costs in the city. The mountains protect the people, perhaps, from the chaos and violence of the city, but they also entrap, as the isolated communities are starving for economic development, hospitals, running water and opportunity.

I digress.

ANADES has this awesome finca in Sonsonate, Finca San Jorge. It supplies each of their five education centers around the country with organic food for the kids, and what is leftover is sold. There, everything from coffee to corn, beans, fruits, lots of veggies, and herbs are grown. Livestock are raised, and a couple of huge henhouses provide tons of eggs. The money ANADES makes from the sale of food from the finca (especially the delicious coffee) and the ecotourism project there (there are some cabins, a cafeteria, and some amazing waterfalls and trails to explore) almost pays for the operating budget for the whole NGO every year. It´s an amazing lesson in sustainability, not only for the environment (yay organic agriculture!) but also in the operation of a self-sustaining NGO.

For me, the finca is literally the most beautiful place on earth. Not only are the mountain views and waterfalls and hiking paths beautiful, but the people who live and work there are super welcoming and friendly. For me, it´s also very spiritual. Last year, as a student at the Casa, we made a silent retreat there, and I remember finding such healing and redemption there, watching the rain roll in over the mountains and meditating in the maizales, or corn fields. I think corn, especially in El Salvador, is a powerful symbol of resurrection. Only when the old crops are burned to dust can the new crops grow again. ¨Pues, cuando ardió la pérdida, reverdecieron sus maizales.¨ That´s what El Salvador is for me. Sometimes there is so much suffering and injustice I feel like the whole world is burning. But then, miraculously, beauty springs forth from the ashes. A child goes to school. Two people in love get married. An old lady gives me directions on the bus.

There is also this tree. This seriously sacred tree. It´s an amate tree. It is huge and ancient, and you have to hike up and down mountainous, rocky, muddy paths and through the corn fields, eventually crossing a makeshift bridge before you finally arrive. But when you get there, you get it. The pilgrimage was totally worth it. Her roots do not dig deeper into the ground, but grow out, covering everything around, wrapping around this huge boulder. Sitting under the immense shade, being sheltered by the tree, supported by her roots, I feel held, protected. And there is this unbelievable view. The tree watches over this expansive valley in between two mountain ranges, river running through the valley below, and on a clear day you can see all the way to the sea. The sky is expansive. The ocean meets the sky and the land and me and there is grace, grace, grace.

Friday, September 3, 2010


I've been working now for 2 weeks, and am starting to find my place at Centro Hogar. It has been a whirlwind orientation, meeting my coworkers, traveling to other ANADES projects in different parts of the country (including the beloved finca), meeting parents, meeting kids, trying to remember names, drinking a lot of coffee, visiting homes, learning my way around the office, learning my way around the files. But, poco a poco. Here I go. I feel very grateful to be here, and I feel that there is really no other job I want to be doing right now.

This past week, Anita and I have had the pleasure to welcome Juan Velasco to El Salvador and reconnect him with the families in Programa Velasco. Three years ago, Anita and Juan were both on staff at the Casa, and Anita was working part time as a social worker at Centro Hogar. She came home one day, overwhelmed, and told Juan that they didn't know what they would do, but there were about 30 families who might have to drop out because they can't afford to pay the $30 tuition every month. And Juan said, well, can I sponsor a child? Can I pay for one child? And Anita said, I think so. Let's figure out how that might work.

They spread the word to their families and friends, and slowly, organically, Programa Velasco began. It was just a group of people responding to a need. I like that.

Now, three years later, we are growing. And I get to be part of that.

It was great to have Juan here this week. Anita, Juan, and I got lots of time to connect and reflect about where we are, how we got here, and our dreams for the future. When Anita goes to the States in a few months, I will be the person on the ground here in El Salvador, directing the program at Centro Hogar, but they will be integral parts of Programa Velasco in the States - raising funds, spreading the word, and helping me feel connected and supported.

Juan and the kids from Centro Hogar at the Monday morning assembly

Monday, August 23, 2010


Confianza. It is a little Spanish word that is hard to translate. Roughly speaking, it means ¨trust.¨ But that does not quite cut it. As a student at the Casa de la Solidaridad, we used to talk about confianza as ¨a willingness to share yourself with someone.¨ The Salvadorans with whom I have confianza are those who have shared their life stories - their joys and their struggles - and with whom I feel safe. So, trust doesn´t quite cut it. I trust my dentist, but would I sit with him, sharing a coffee and a piece of pan dulce as he tells me about how proud he is of his daughter, about his sick father, about his difficulties finding a job? That´s confianza, and that is what so many Salvadorans give so easily.

For the past week I have been living with a homestay family in Mejicanos, an urban neighborhood in San Salvador, not far from San Ramon, where I work. They are great. I live with Ana Miriam, the executive director of ANADES (it´s kind of a big deal), and her husband, Miguel, who works as Hospital Rosales. Her mother Ilda also lives with the family, and she has been great - taking care of me like any abuelita should. She shows me where the buses are and tells me where I shouldn´t go, and makes sure I am well fed and always leave the house with an umbrella (because, fijate bien, we are in the rainy season). There is also Karla, a university student my age who speaks English very well and enjoys watching all my favorite shows. (We also bonded over Twilight. She said she´d lend me Breaking Dawn in Spanish. Meg, you´d be so proud). And then there are two six year old twins, Ana Belen and Miguel, who are both a handful, but very sweet and loving. Ana Belen loves her food, and she is very creative, making up stories to tell me before I go to bed and coloring some beautiful pictures from my Disney Princesses coloring book. (Don´t worry, roomies, I wouldn´t let her rip out the ones you´ve colored for me). And Miguel, though much smaller than Belen, doesn´t let anyone push him around. He has so much energy, which somtimes manifests iteself in tantrums, but they pass quickly, and when he goes around calling everyone ¨mi amor¨and pretending to be a little kitten licking my toes, it´s hard to be angry with him. They both remind me so much of my nephews, it makes me miss them like crazy. They too fight over who is going to take a bath first, and they go to McDonalds just for the toys. This week, Bakugan. SCORE!

It still feels a little awkward living in someone else´s home, using their bathroom, having them insist on serving me my meals and even cleaning my dishes. But poco a poco, I have been trying to develop a little confianza with the family, so we can all feel a little more at home.

This is how it goes:

Ilda, will you take me to mass with you Sunday? Can you show me how you make those pupusas? Karla, does this skirt looks good on me? Miguelito, do you want to play catch? Want to see photos of my family? Can I help you tie those shoes, Belencita linda?

Thursday, August 19, 2010


I made it!

I'm currently getting settled in and spending this first week getting to know the area where I'm living, visiting friends, and getting to know my host family.

If you want to send me goodies, such as letters, photos, coloring books or other fun things, mail to

Asociacion Nuevo Amanecer de El Salvador
Col. El Triunfo Final Pasaje Molina #14, San Ramon
Mejicanos, Apartado Postal 567
Departamento de San Salvador
El Salvador, Central America.

Also, fun fact: I clearly have not learned my way around the kitchen yet, and on my first day with my new family I put salt in my coffee instead of sugar. Ooooops.

Real update soon.


Wednesday, July 28, 2010

please help me get to el salvador

Dear friends,


This is the place where you can keep up with me during my time in El Salvador over the next two years. I'll periodically write reflections, news, updates, and share pictures about my life and work.

But first, I need to ask for a little help.

As you may already know, in August I will begin my work in San Ramon, an urban community on the outskirts of San Salvador. I will be working for an organization called Asociacion Nuevo Amanecer El Salvador (ANADES), or New Dawn Association. They are a certified 501(c)3 non-profit, formed during the Salvadoran civil war to provide services for children who had become orphans. Now, they have services across the country ranging from mental health clinics to an organic farm, but I will be working for their kindergarten program in San Ramon - Centro Hogar, or the Home Center. I will be the director of a scholarship program, Programa Velasco, which connects sponsors in the US and Europe with kids whose families cannot afford the school's tuition. In addition to raising money and coordinating the scholarships, I will also work closely with the families in the community through Programa Velasco's personal formation and development program, as well as a new micro-loan program for women to start small businesses.

Click on any of the links above if you want to learn more about ANADES, Programa Velasco, and the people I will be working with!

When I go to El Salvador on August 17th (start your countdowns!), I will be joining several other lay missioners as part of the Volunteer Missionary Movement (VMM). VMM is an international lay mission organization, with missioners from Europe and the United States serving in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Its roots are in the Catholic social justice tradition, but VMM is a truly ecumenical organization. There are already several VMM missioners working and living in El Salvador, so I will have a lot of support from them as well as the whole VMM community.

In addition to the spiritual, emotional, and personal support I receive from the VMM community, VMM supports me financially - for everything from health insurance to the cost of my personal expenses like rent, food, and transportation. On average, VMM spends $18,000/year for each missioner. I am asked to raise $5000 to help defray some of those costs.

If you would be willing to donate, I would certainly appreciate every cent. Even small donations add up!

You can donate online by going to VMM's Donate Now page and pay with a credit card or PayPal account. *Just please make sure to include a note that your donation is to be contributed toward my total! If you don't know how to do that or donated without mentioning my name, just shoot me an email ( and I can make sure your donation is counted toward my goal.*

You can also send VMM a check. Just download VMM's donor form, make sure that you've written my name in the "in honor of" line, and send everything to

Volunteer Missionary Movement (VMM)
Attn: Development Office
5980 W. Loomis Road
Greendale, WI 53129

If you would like to contribute a small donation on an automatic monthly basis, you can become a Covenant Partner. Just click here to learn more!

Even if you cannot donate, thanks for the joy you all bring to my life! Please send prayers and emails while I'm gone, and come visit if you can.


about the title

The birds' favorite songs
You do not hear,

For their most flamboyant music takes place
When their wings are stretched
Above the trees

And they are smoking the opium
Of pure freedom.

It is healthy for the prisoner
To have faith

The one day she will again move about
Wherever she wants,
Feel the wondrous grit of life-
Less structured,

Find all wounds, debt, stamped canceled,

I once asked a bird,
"How is it that you fly in this gravity
Of darkness?"

She responded,
"Love lifts

- Hafiz
from The Gift, translated by Daniel Ladinsky