Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Images from Calle Real

Most of these photos need no words: they were taken between 1985 and 1988 at the Calle Real Refugee Camp outside San Salvador, and show children at school, on a walk, at first communion, and at an improvised concert. Some of those children - now adults with children of their own - were hugging Andrea and Margaret Jane today.

The last photo is an image from the memorable day when Archbishop Rivera y Damas, the successor to Archbishop Romero, visited Calle Real, so that he could see with his own eyes and testify to the authorities that it was indeed a refugee camp, and not a place where guerrillas were operating. And, of course, that's Hermana Margarita (Margaret Jane) greeting him.

Just visiting

I picked up Andrea Nenzel, Hermana Andrea, at the airport on Monday, and since then I've been privileged to be part of some wonderful visiting and story-telling.

Andrea and Margaret Jane Kling opened the Calle Real refugee camp in 1985, during the height of the Civil War in El Salvador. The camp, on land owned by the Archdiocese of San Salvador, became a place of refuge for many families displaced by the war; Andrea and Margaret Jane accompanied them, working with the Salvadorans to keep the camp healthy and fed and to keep the community safe. They worked with staff from the Archdiocese, and yesterday one of their favorite colleagues, Gabina Duvon de Garcia, came to lunch. Gabina, or Dina as she's usually called, is one of my favorite colleagues too - she still works for the Archdiocese' Pastoral de Salud office and was my main contact for our mission in San Juan Opico. Her connections with Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace span a quarter century, so it was no challenge to keep the conversation flowing.

Many of the Calle Real refugees resettled rural communities in the Suchitoto area, and today we went to visit two of those communities, Marianela Garcia (named for a human rights advocate who was killed during the Civil War) and El Bario. In each place, Andrea and Margaret Jane found many friends, got abundantly hugged, caught up on children and grandchildren, looked at old photos and remembered stories from the Calle Real days. And I captured a few of those moments on camera. I also photographed a few Calle Real photos, but those are for the next post.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

El Domingo de los Ramos

Here it's the Sunday of the Branches (ramos) not Palm Sunday, but - on the other hand - the palms are freshly cut and abundant. As Margaret Jane and I were waiting for the procession, people came by and handed us big bunches of palms and then a stalk of golden seeds, coyo was the name, I think. Properly be-palmed, we headed for Santa Lucia just far enough ahead of the procession to get a seat.

The church was more than full, as it always is at the big feasts, and when two men carried the image of Jesus up the aisle in a cloud of incense, it was grand to see that Jesus, too, was holding palms. The long and beautiful liturgy followed, and together we all began the celebration of Holy Week.

New voices in Suchitoto

Last night Margaret Jane (newly back from New Jersey) and I went to the Centro Arte para la Paz for the presentation of Voces de los Cerros, Voices of the Hills, a collective theatrical work created by Suchitoto youth working with a group of theatre professionals from the Shakespeare Festival of Stratford, Ontario.

It was a glorious presentation. Using every angle of a simple wooden stage, the actors leapt, danced, talked and sang a saga involving the gods, hunters, tricksters and villagers. Beautifully staged, it showed off the talents and abilities of Suchitoto's young people, polished to production level in only six weeks.

We're promised more to come: Suchitoto Stratford: ESARTES is a new school of theatrical arts here, and will be adding its luster to Suchitoto's reputation as an arts center.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Coffee blossoms

No, I don't mean cherry blossoms, which are glorious now in Seattle, my home town. Here in El Salvador, it's coffee blossom time. Yesterday, as I was driving to the mountain village of Comasagua, a glorious drive along the ridge of the Cordillera del Balsamo, I saw the white flowers everywhere, a cheerful sight at this hottest and driest time of the tropical year.

This photo was taken on my way back from Comasagua to Santa Tecla. On the way back to Comasagua from El Rosario, the colonia where we left the wheelchair, I gave a ride to a woman and boy and a sack full of banana leaves. I assumed they were family, but the woman asked to be set down along the way to the main road, and the boy (and sack) stayed with us until we got to the main road. I took Rosa and the two men with us back into Comasagua, then headed down the road again. There was the boy, just where I'd left him, and the sack. He was delighted to have a ride to Santa Tecla, where he was going to sell his banana leaves in the market (they're used for wrapping tamales).

Along the way, we got to know each other a bit. His name is Daniel, he's 13 years old and just finishing the first grade. He's one of 12 children, and goes down to Santa Tecla once or twice a week to sell the banana leaves - I'm sure to make his contribution to the family. He wanted to know about all the things I had the use of - the car, the car's radio, the iPod. Were they mine? What did they cost? Had I ever been on a plane? Couldn't I drive the car instead? (I said it would take a long time to drive through Mexico and then the United States. He said, two days? I said, more like six days - but in truth, I have no idea.) What did a plane ticket cost? I told him, and he was stunned.

When I saw some blossoming coffee ahead, I told Daniel I wanted to take a photo and asked him if he would hold the coffee blossom for me. He wasn't altogether sure about this, but he cooperated, and here he is. Our conversation brought home for me, once again, the outrageous richness that I can make use of, and the depth of poverty and limitation that is still the overwhelming experience of most people in El Salvador. I wonder if Daniel will ever be able to drive a car or get on a plane. I hope he will, but only if he can have those possibilities without losing what's precious in his world - family and community closeness, shared responsibility, trust.

Friday, March 26, 2010

What I do....

I'm often asked by people in our mission teams just what I do when they're not around. There's no predictable pattern to my days, but this week is a good example of the mix.

Monday Peggy O'Neill picked me up at the airport. I went home and unpacked and slept long and late.

Tuesday I made up a depressingly long to-do list for the week and wrote a formal report about our mission in San Juan Opico for the Medical Board (Junta Vigilancia de la Profesión Médica) and a formal request for permission to hold our cataract surgery week at San Rafael Hospital in May. Sounds simple, but because it all had to be written in Spanish - and, it's to be hoped, in proper Spanish - it took all the morning. In the afternoon I drove to the little community of Huisisilapa, about an hour east from Suchitoto, to give a pass-through donation to Ylda and her family, and then drove west and north to El Paraiso, where I talked with Rosita, who receives a regular donation from friends in PeaceHealth.

Wednesday I got up early to get to the Mass for Archbishop Romero in San Salvador, which was supposed to start at 7 AM. I took a wrong turn on the way and got outrageously lost, didn't arrive until almost 8 AM, but the liturgical readings were just beginning, so I was there for most of the Mass and part of the march. After that I went to the Loyola Center, a Jesuit retreat house, to make reservations for our May eye surgery group during the week, and to the Hotel Novo to make reservations for the weekend. I drove out to Santa Tecla to visit with Doctora Ana Vilma de Burgos, an ophthalmologist and our sponsor for the eye surgery group. Asked her to write the formal sponsorship letter for SEE, International, the group that provides the inter-ocular lenses and all the surgery materials for us. I also showed her our cataract surgery video, in which she stars. Somewhere in there, I managed to eat lunch, pay the internet/phone/cable bill and get a haircut.

Thursday I worked at our office at the Centro Arte para la Paz in the morning, catching up on e-mails and on everyone's goings-on. In the afternoon I had a visit from Maira, who was our major coordinator for a mission three years ago in Tamanique, and Mercedes who coordinated our Comasagua mission last year. Maira had asked me if PazSalud could help a man in her community who had lost his leg in an accident and needed a prosthesis to keep on working. Half of the cost will be carried by FUNTER, La Fundación Teletón Pro Rehabilitación, but he had to find the other half, and that was difficult, because he was out of work. We agreed to contribute a part of his cost, and he was able to put together the rest. Maira and Mercedes were here to get our check for FUNTER. Next week I'll be able to meet Alex and his new leg - I'm looking forward to it.

Thursday was the Feast of the Annunciation - and in addition to attending Mass at Santa Lucia at 5 PM, I watched the video of Oscar Alvaro's ordination as a priest, which his sister Martha left for me. Both were beautiful celebrations.

Today I drove up to Comasagua, almost two hours from Suchitoto, where I met with Nubia to deliver some assistance to her very poor family and then with Rosa, our great local volunteer during our missions in Comasagua and San Juan Opico (Rosa is now our best expert on organizing the eyes clinic). Rosa had asked me to bring back a wheelchair for a woman in the small Comasagua community of El Rosario, and thanks to the Bellingham Lions Club, it was part of my baggage on the flight to El Salvador. Rosa and two helpers from the Alcaldia in Comasagua and I bumped very slowly down about 10 kilometers of rocky road to El Rosario and delivered the wheelchair to Rosa Anelida, who has been bed bound for some time. The chair is going to allow her to get around in her small house and to sit on on the veranda where she can watch what's going on in her world. Then we bounced slowly back to Comasagua, giving Daniel and his mother a ride (that's a story for another post...tomorrow). I drove back down the gorgeous mountain road from Comasagua to Santa Tecla, where I had an errand in Hospital San Rafael. The Director's secretary was supposed to have Dra. de Burgos' sponsorship letter ready for me - but she hadn't been able to find last year's letter, and I hadn't thought to bring a copy. That letter is a key part of the application to the Medical Board for the cataract surgery mission. So instead of taking them the report on the medical mission and the application, I just took the report. Since the Medical Board is located on one of the most impossibly complicated corners in San Salvador, that took a bit of time. And the office was filled with doctors getting or renewing their licenses, which took a bit more time. Finally I was free to head over to the Archdiocese, where I returned an ice chest that had gotten mixed up with our bins and boxes to Dina, who will get it to its proper owner. And I headed for home.

That will teach you all to ask me what I do when mission groups aren't around! I admit, this week was extra heavy, crunched in between my getting home and Holy Week, when every office that can possibly be closed is closed. But it's not unusual. There's a lot of travel to offices, a lot of meetings, frequent times of waiting around or coming back the next day - but most important, there are many people whose lives I'm able to help a bit because of the generosity of our donors. Thank you!

Primero Dios or Primero El Salvador

Yesterday La Prensa Grafica featured a two-page spread on the commemoration of the 30th anniversary of Archbishop Romero's murder, and one item on the page reported vandalism at a small park in Antiguo Cuscatlan honoring Roberto D'Aubuisson, founder of the ARENA party and a man considered by many to be responsible for Romero's murder (for a recent, well-reported and chilling story about the events surrounding that murder, see the English translation of El Faro's excellent interview with Captain Alvaro Saravia.).

The vandals at the park had left a sign saying Asesino and the outline of a body in red paint. But what really struck me in the photo was the plaque with what I presume was D'Aubuisson's motto:
Primero El Salvador
Segundo El Salvador
Tercero El Salvador

How different that is from the words I hear every day in El Salvador, Primero Dios, God first. There's a huge irony here in that El Salvador means the Savior, means God. But I don't think that was how D'Aubuisson meant it.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

San Romero of the Americas

Today, speaking as head of the Salvadoran state, President Mauricio Funes asked pardon for the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, Funes said he apologized because the state failed to investigate the murder. For this story and a link to a BBC radio program about Romero, go to Tim's El Salvador Blog.

Today the Chapel of the Hospital Divina Providencia, the Hospitalito where Monseñor Romero lived and where he was shot 30 years ago today was crammed with people - Salvadorans, delegations from other countries, youth groups, labor organizations. Although the big memorial march took place last weekend, today's ceremony, which began with Mass at the Hospitalito and proceeded to the Cathedral, was full and moving. His words were spoken in Spanish, in English, through many different voices. His message and his fearless example have lost none of their force. The message on the back of one of the official T-shirts for sale today is: Bienaventurados los liberadores que ponen su fuerza no en las armas, no en el secuestro, no en la violencia, ni en el dinero, sino que saben que la liberación tiene que venir de Dios; que sera conjugación maravillosa del poder liberador de Dios y del esfuerzo cristiano de los hombres. [Blessed are the liberators who place their strength not in arms, not in kidnapping, not in violence, not in money, but who know that liberation has to come from God; that it will be a marvellous combination of the liberating power of God and the Christian efforts of people.]

Here are two photographs from the day - one of the march in progress, and one of my friend Mercedes Arias holding a Romero poster. I particularly liked this poster because it uses the same image our Congregation leadership used in our recent gatherings, of a seedling. Here the seedling springs from a cracked and parched land. New hope, new possibilities: a marvellous combination of the liberating power of God and our efforts.

In Suchitoto

I'm back in Suchitoto - Peggy O'Neill kindly picked me up at the airport and we drove north through the usual crowds of kids getting out of school, guys with trucks, guys working on the road, women making dinner at the roadside, dogs and chickens and buses and overloaded trucks - I knew I was in El Salvador! I had no trouble at all with customs, they waved me through, disregarding the fact that I was wheeling the wheelchair rather than riding in it.

The house looks great, shiny clean, and the garden is entirely happy (the lemon tree is thick with young green lemons and the hibiscus is working on a flower).

This morning I'm driving to the capital to take part in a Mass and procession honoring Oscar Romero. I'm very glad to be here for this 30th anniversary of his assassination.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

My bags are packed, I'm ready to go

Our western area of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace held a Fall Assembly yesterday and today - a grand experience of community as it always is, a time to catch up with each other, and celebrate, and learn, and pray, and grow. Our main subject was vocations to religious life and how we can encourage them; we learned from Sister Charlene Diorka, SSJ, about studies of recent vocations and about some of the ways we can be welcoming and inclusive of seekers.

We also got a first look at a new CSJP website that will be unveiled in May - there's a photo of Jane Kortz, CSJP Associate, checking it out - and we heard about plans for a new home health center at St. Mary-on-the-Lake that will give better care and comfort to our most senior sisters.

We celebrated some of our existing and enduring vocations with a Jubilee dinner honoring this year's 10 Jubilarians, celebrating from 80 years (Sr. Cecilia Marie Gri) to 50 years in religious life as Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace. We ate well, we talked a LOT, we joined in the eucharistic liturgy, and we danced. As always, being with my sisters reminds me what fun it is to be part of a group of women that knows how to pray and how to celebrate.

Now it's time to go home, to my other home in Suchitoto. My bags are packed with vitamins and Titebond III glue and new stationery and Apostilles and dictionaries (gifts from Eleanor Gilmore to some Salvadoran friends), the wheelchair is wired together for the journey, and Eleanor is taking me to the airport in a few minutes. Sister Peggy will pick me up on the other end. I'll miss the hot water and sleeping under a quilt and seeing the sisters and at least some of my Seattle friends; I look forward to the heat and the lemon tree and the market and my Salvadoran friends. ¡Hasta pronto!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Peace Day

On Wednesday I led, for the first time, one of our Peace Days for Women - a monthly gathering that has been taking place at St. Mary-on-the-Lake since the 1980s. It was a great group of women - some I know, most I didn't at the beginning. The topic was "Friends and Strangers," and since this was St. Patrick's Day, I began by focusing on his history of being kidnapped and enslaved - and then choosing to return to the place of his captivity, to befriend those enemy strangers.

The part of the day I enjoyed most, probably because it was mostly wordless, was an exercise adapted from Joanna Macy and Molly Young Brown's Coming Back to Life - it involved walking through a big room, first fast and frantically with little attention to others. Gradually the group is asked to slow down, begin to notice the others in the room, and then to take someone by the hand. The movement continues through a number of handclasps with different people. We all noticed our sense of connection with each other growing strongly, our pace slowing, our peacefulness increasing. It struck me that there are many ways I can continue this exercise in my daily life, walking slowly and deliberately when I'm feeling a bit frantic, paying attention to who and what is surrounding me.

I'm a bit sad, though, that I didn't have Sister Susan Francois' meditation on friendship in front of me when I led the Peace Day. This is a beautiful reflection by the other blogging CSJP Susan, and I recommend it to you. I'm a bit sad, too, in preparing to return to El Salvador when there are still so many friends I haven't had time to visit with. That's definitely the shadow side of living 3000 miles away and in another country

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Things to take back

My stock of things-to-take-back is getting big and complicated. This wheelchair is headed to Comasagua, where it's going to give a little more mobility to a housebound woman. It's a gift from the Bellingham Lions Club, brought here to St. Mary-on-the-Lake by Ken and Janet Henderson as they headed to the airport for a trip to Nicaragua.

It's beginning to sound like one of those terrible counting games where you have to remember a long string of unrelated items: 21 bottles of vitamins, a jar of ginger marmalade (thank you to Sister Joan Holliday!), Titebond III wood glue (for sculptor Miguel Martino), a wheelchair and three apostillated doctor's licenses. And there's more to come! May it all, somehow, fit on the plane come Sunday.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Things to take back

I'm beginning to assemble a mighty pile of things to take back. There are the vitamins, and my refilled prescriptions, and yesterday I added the lightest and most important item: three apostilles. These beautiful documents, produced by the Secretary of State's office in Olympia, certify that the license and curriculum vitae of the three doctors who will be part of our May eye surgery mission have been notarized by an authentic notary in the state of Washington. I drove down to Olympia yesterday with my sister Kathy, and the whole process was cheerfully completed within 20 minutes. Our lack of apostilles for the February mission gave me serious anxiety and a bit of heartburn, but now that I know how this process works, I can see that it will be an easy requirement to fulfill in the future.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

It's raining vitamins

On a wonderfully typical rainy spring day in Bellevue I joined the monthly lunch of women from my Queen Anne High School (Seattle) class of '59 and got showered with vitamins they had collected for our medical mission. What a bounty! I figure that on our San Juan Opico mission we gave out over 50,000 vitamins, so our demand is always huge. We'll use these during our follow-up eye clinic in Opico this November. Thanks, dear friends! The photo above is with Kari Black and Jo Wiltse, two of the 16 or so sharing lunch and news.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Padre Oscar

I've been mindful yesterday and today of a grand celebration in Suchitoto - Oscar Alfaro Melgar has been ordained, and, as Padre Oscar, is just now in the middle of celebrating his first Mass. Padre Oscar is the younger brother of Martha who keeps our Suchitoto house in beautiful order, and the whole family has been praying and preparing for this special day for a long time.

Padre Oscar's parish, San Nicolas Lempa, is far from Suchitoto, but he asked to be ordained in his home town, to share the joy of this day with his Suchitotense family and friends. His bishop was agreeable, and Suchitoto is always ready to have a fiesta. The celebration yesterday included an almuerzo (luncheon) for 100 at the Centro Arte para la Paz, chicken for most everybody else in the parish, bucketloads of tamales, and - I can hear them in my mind's ear - plenty of firecrackers.

I wish I could have been there, but Marta has promised to show me photos. Meanwhile, I've been visiting the Tacoma home of my friend Patti Moore and getting an advance tour of the house in rural Pierce County that she and her husband are fixing up. I'm about to go to church with Patti, and will be praying in thanksgiving for the gift of Padre Oscar to the people of El Salvador. May the spirit and courage of Monsenor Oscar Romero be his.

Friday, March 5, 2010


Springtime in Seattle is glorious, a four-month-long extravaganza in which each week has its specialty and each bush and tree and flower finds its moment to unfold in splendor. A pleasure to be back for three weeks of this long season: we're in daffodil and forsythia and cherry blossom season, shortly to be followed by the tulips, magnolias, rhodedendrons. Lenten festivities of the warming earth.

Springtime and fall aren't part of the seasons of El Salvador. We go from the rainy season, winter (May through October) to the dry season, summer (November through April). I haven't figured out the rhythms of the plants yet, when different plants lose their leaves or put on new growth. The nance tree in our patio seems to lose leaves all the time, and puts out flowers and new leaves while it's losing the old ones.

Here, I understand the rhythms, and I can name the trees and I know which flowers to look for next. What a gift at this time in my life to be learning a new rhythm and order of this planet. And what a gift to come home to the familiar beauty of the cherry trees.