Yesterday morning, my fellow missionaries and I arose at 3 am in order to get to the airport early enough for our 6:45 am flight back to the States.
As I sat in the plane and gazed out the window at the land I had grown to love in ten short days, hot, persistent tears streamed down my cheeks. I was thankful that the women sitting in my aisle were both trying to sleep, so I needed not to explain. How could I explain?
How can I explain?
My heart had been turned over and turned inside out and is sore from the growing pains. The wounds, left by some of the horrors I saw and heard of, are still fresh and will never fully heal, but only leave scars that will twitch and sting at reminders of human suffering.
Moreso, the overwhelming sense of joy and honor and love and strength in human spirit runneth my heart over, spills over my lids and down my cheeks, trails of joy tracing my face.
When our parish, St. Luke in Shoreline, began going to Project FIAT for mission trips, we asked Sister Gloria who leads the volunteer house, if if would be better for us to just send the money down there rather than spending it on our trip down there.
She answered no.
She said that what is gained in relationships is worth much more and needed much more than the money itself. While this was a nice thought, I didn't entirely understand what she meant.
I understand now.
The depth and richness and strength of relationships that I formed over the past 10 days was surreal. So many individuals left a deep imprint on my heart, and in the short time I was there, we were able to form a strong connection.
Let me just say that in my small experience of the people of El Salvador, they seemed much more open to this type of relationship than the people of America. In Seattle, people keep to themselves and are very guarded. It is difficult to connect even with the people who I meet regularly, as we mostly relate through small talk and then go our separate ways. If I do form a real connection with someone, it is usually over months or even years, after getting to know one another and possibly finding out if we "have something in common."
In El Salvador, all of that pretense was gone. There was no guarding of their hearts, but just seemingly a deep, immediate acceptance into their community.
Imagine walking through your neighborhood or through the city, smiling and saying hello to each person you come across. For real. Each person. This is how it seems the Salvadorians live all of the time.
Now imagine that in the past forty years, the people of your country have lived through the horrors of poverty, oppression and war. Boys as young as twelve were forced to become soldiers; bodies were found on the streets each morning because of the Death Squad; those who spoke up against the violence were tortured, raped and/or killed, including priests, nuns, and of course, the Blessed Archbishop Romero; the bullets of nightly battles sailed through villages and homes, often killing civilians. The war ended only twenty years ago, you live in a shack made of scrap pieces of corrugated metal that you were lucky enough to find, the drinking water gives your children dysentery, you have enough food to maybe provide your family with one meal a day, and on average, twenty people are dying each day due to the gang violence, another after affect of the war.
Imagine two daughters, ages about 12 and 14, whose mother is very sick and requires expensive medicine to live. In order to keep their mother alive and not lose their home, the two girls become prostitutes in order to make the $32 per month for rent and electricity.
Imagine a 12 year old girl who lives in an orphanage because it is a safer place than her home, where she is abused. The government is closing the orphanages. An American couple who cannot have children begins the process to adopt the girl, with the parents' consent. The girl moves to America with the family, and is taken care of there for several months. The mother then changes her mind, and the police have to tear this girl away from her adoptive parents to bring her back to El Salvador. She goes back to her parents in El Salvador, her mother OD's and dies and her father abandons her. She then becomes a victim of sex trafficking.
Not as horrific, but possibly causing a slower, just as lethal death, young men in their twenties live in an impoverished village with absolutely nothing to do day after day after day. Their education ended at ninth grade, but they are at a much younger grade level than that by American standards. They could not attend high school because there is no high school within walking distance and their families cannot afford the cost of about $30 a month in transportation to get them to the closest high school.
All of these stories are common in El Salvador.
Now tell me, if this was the society that you lived in, would you be saying "Buenas Dias" to everyone you passed with a smile on your face?
Would your faith be so strong that the 7 am daily Mass in the local church was full of people, singing and worshipping before they went on with their days?
The hospitality, friendliness, kindness, love and faith of the people in El Salvador comes from such a strength of spirit as I have never witnessed before.
I honestly didn't want to leave. I wanted to see my friends and family, but I would have rathered that they just came to El Salvador. If I thought it would be a safe place for our children to grow up, I honestly might be discerning if it was God's will for us to live there.
Why would I say that? Why would I ever want to live in a place with such suffering and poverty?
It seems that although or maybe because the Salvadorian people have so very little, they really understand what's important. Faith. Family. Relationships. Laughter. Life.
I connected with their culture in a way that I was not anticipating.
In some ways, I felt more at home there.