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.

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