How to Be, Not Do, in Fascinating El Salvador

I woke early to the singular sweet clarion call of a tropical bird. Soon the morning doves filled in with their baseline organ drones and countless high-pitched chirps filled in the morning air like a canvas. 

As I descended the shaky white metal stairs from our second story room at the guest house into the flowering courtyard, a maid hurried to her post, snapping her dancing black ponytail into a neat round bun. A scene out of Alfonso Cuarón’s movie Roma. The scraping scrubbing sounds soon began, punctuated by the slap of a dish cloth on a hard tile surface.

I was in El Salvador participating in the “More To Migration” seminar organized by the United Methodist Board of Church & Society and hosted by IPM, International Partners in Mission. IPM seeks to “expand the participants’ worldview by walking in solidarity with the local communities.” My purpose was to gain a deeper understanding of why the Central Americans I host in my home after they are released from immigration detention leave their countries.

More to Migration Team. Photo Credit: Kurt Adams

Throughout the week of our immersion trip, we listened eagerly to lectures on migration and visited socially conscious businesses such as NUTRAVIDA Soya program, a cooperative that provides soy products to low-income Salvadorans to supplement their daily nutrition. Rather than doing something for the people we met, the idea was “to be present, to listen and to learn from our hosts.”

Several of us inveterate doers struggled with the concept of just being. The group was composed of spirited people who work on the literal frontlines to feed, house and defend the rights of migrants. While there is no color-coded gant chart for being, our IPM hosts introduced us to a beautiful philosophy of Accompanying written by Dr. Alan D. Wolfelt, a noted author, educator and grief counsellor.

As the group took turns reading each line, I felt my hypervigilant mind start to power down. I put away my solution seeking habit of frantically flipping through my brain like a rolodex. With each sentence, my heart clicked more solidly into gear, and stayed there throughout the week, vacillating wildly between despair, shame, fear and hope.

Enervating despair saturated my heart as I saw that a country can become so lawless that the government can gun down priests and nuns with impunity, leaving only their blood-stained garments to rest safely within glass museum cases..

Robe belonging to slain Jesuit

Prickly cold shivers of fear zapped my body when the words of past Salvadoran autocrats mirrored phrases now emerging from the mouths of US politicians.  Hot shame flowed through my veins with the realization that the US government continues to use El Salvador as a chessboard, arranging the pieces for a guaranteed win, willfully disregarding the cost to the Salvadoran people.

But sparks of hope lit up my soul as we met women hacking out a dignified life, clearing away seemingly impenetrable prickly thickets of unknowable pain, “machismo” culture and relentless poverty. As surely as the birds of El Salvador greet each dawn with song, these women of El Salvador rise each morning determined to make a new, more just day. And I am grateful for the opportunity to accompany them on their journey, my heart swelled by just being in their presence and listening to their stories.

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