$50 FlipFlops

A word of warning — If you have not yet taken the plunge but are contemplating the role of serving in accompaniment (i.e., being in long-term relationships) to folks within underserved communities across the globe, be sure you are feeling the call to do it. Yes, you will certainly experience life-changing moments. However, if you simply want personal gratification, this is not a role for you. You must have both a compassionate heart, and a willingness to serve as an advocate for the social injustices you no doubt will witness in their lives.

Also prepare to accept that not all your experiences will be the over-the-moon, positive, uplifting moments. It will be excruciatingly painful and frustrating as you become more and more involved with the downtrodden. Don’t become discouraged and do learn to ride the roller coaster’s ups and downs. Remember to be grace-filled and to maintain a sense of humor.

Some incidents my partner and I have dealt with in El Salvador have given us pause and made us wonder if we are expecting too much. We also recognize that priorities and cultural issues differ. Sometimes we simply shake our heads and laugh it off when we unwittingly find ourselves taken advantage of or because we are simply too trusting of everyone we meet.

Let me share a couple of examples so that you know what I’m talking about.

One day I needed to purchase a pair of flipflops for shower shoes that I had forgotten to pack in my suitcase to El Salvador. A relative of someone in the guesthouse OFFERED to drive us to a Dollar Store which would be near the art gallery of a famous Salvadoran artist I wanted to visit. This would be a two-for-one trip and sounded time efficient. (I asked if the art gallery was open since it was a holiday, and the driver assured me it was; nevertheless, I asked him to double check). He drove us to the other side of town and proceeded to take us on an extended tour of that neighborhood (which we had not asked for and were quite familiar with so did not need a tour). He said this was a nice safe Dollar Store. When we returned with my $2 flipflop purchase, we asked how much we owed for the ride and nearly fainted when his price was $50! Plus, he had never bothered to check to verify that the art gallery was closed, as I anticipated. We were livid and unsuspecting suckers.

It was frustrating.

The same thing happened when we needed a ride to take us to a different location outside the city to meet a friend who was traveling from her home to meet us. We negotiated the price in advance. When we arrived handing over a large bill, we waited for change. The guy quickly jumped into his vehicle and drove away leaving us shaking our heads at each other in total disbelief. We unsuspecting foreigners were once again scammed.

It is frustrating. Here we are giving of our time and resources to help marginalized folks in the country only to be taken advantage of!

Then there was the day we were unable to get our vehicle back the deeply rutted, muddy road into the campesino community to visit three scholarship students, and the suggestion was to meet them in the city for a meal. When we arrived, 22 people, including lots of extended family members including aunts, uncles, and cousins showed up ordering the most expensive meals on the menu. We had very little cash left to pay the bill which we were saving to pay tuitions of other scholarship students we still needed to meet. The credit card was not working, and we ended up cash-strapped and worried knowing our guesthouse owner accepted only cash. I quickly cornered the waitress and made it clear NOT to allow dessert orders lest we have 22 extravagant desserts added to the mounting bill! It seems the perception is we have an endless supply of funds. In reality, we are having a tough time raising funds for our existing projects and scholarship students.

It is frustrating. I know; life isn’t fair. And we did get some laughs out of these incidents after the fact.

We try desperately to determine the financial needs and timelines of tuitions for our scholarship students months before their needs. It takes a check several weeks to travel to the country and then due to Salvadoran banking laws several more weeks before the recipient can cash a check. So when we repeatedly ask and hear nothing for months and then suddenly get a panicked note that a student needed money to begin classes yesterday, we end up scurrying around trying to get funds moved quickly through a less desirable channel in order for that student to begin the semester.

It is terribly frustrating, and international laws regarding sending wire transfers come into play making it increasingly more difficult. We have had students need to “sit out” a semester simply because we were unable to jump through the necessary hoops quickly enough, since we were not notified in time to send the funds needed. We have had a student need to take out a personal loan because our own funding source is uncomfortable with our sending wire transfers. Of course, we do not want that to happen, but the reality is we should not be expected to be put into this situation. Sometimes we are not even in the area to act on the request – period. Nor can we ask our financial people to drop what they are doing to immediately write a check to mail which will arrive too late to do any good. It is simply not fair to need to continue to pull funds out of our individual private savings accounts to send to cover these costs either. Yet, that is what keeps happening.

When we visit our friends, we try our best to determine their individual needs and life situations and return home with certain understandings. However, sometimes we discover we have been deceived. For example, a person who promised never to leave the country hired a coyote and was on the run leaving behind a family with no means of support.

It is frustrating.

We must be careful not to be judgmental. We each act out of our own cultural bias which we need to value and respect. Time is something we North Americans tend to value; some would say obsessively so. When we Gringos set a Monday, 10 AM meeting or Skype session, we mean promptly at 10 AM on Monday. Many Salvadorans who work closely with North Americans do adhere to the need for promptness. But at other times, if that meeting doesn’t get started until noon, or even until Tuesday or Thursday, don’t be surprised or put off. “It’s El Salvador,” and our time is not necessarily their time.

It can be frustrating to orchestrate an entire day around that Skype session only to find out it is not going to happen because WiFi was unavailable or the person scheduled to talk with was unable to catch a bus to the friend’s house who had WiFi. But be patient; it’s not that your need to talk is unimportant; it will happen sometime, just not necessarily when you hoped.

How do we keep from becoming discouraged? Fortunately, the positive outcomes far outweigh the isolated negative examples I share. So many of our projects and ministries have turned out remarkably well because of the amazing, committed help of our on-site Salvadoran friends who work together with us. They drive us, protect us, translate for us, set up and get us to appointments. They work through the bureaucratic forms to get needed paperwork done. They set itineraries for our delegations to visit; some risk their own safety to get us to places where those hiding from gangs are located. Over and over locals have put aside their own work and agendas in order to give us behind the scene peeks of their off-the-beaten locations to allow us a real insider’s feel for the country. Those who coordinate our scholarship program take a HUGE weight off our shoulders, particularly now as our visits are becoming less frequent due to health issues. When deathly sick, they arrange their own private physicians to see us within an hour at the best hospital in the city and for nurses to come to our guest house for follow-up care. Obviously, these things don’t happen in isolation; they happen because of relationships formed over many years. The trust we develop in one another is the basis for the positives.

Working in tandem with another or others who are equally committed to the same cause is vital. When one becomes discouraged, the other can be a sounding board off which to bounce the tough issues and, one hopes to lift the spirits of the upset partner or team member. We don’t want to give in or give up; we just may need our engines tuned up a notch. Likewise, decision-making needs to be done in partnership with others. Being in conversation with others around the country doing the same types of projects and ministries allows comparing notes and picking up or passing along hints to reinforce one another’s efforts.

Re-telling the stories back home after-the-fact and hearing the reactions of others gives a different perspective. The stories are often funnier after we return home and are away from the situation rather than dealing with the crisis of the day. Once we step back, we are less likely to take ourselves so seriously. Remember to laugh!

We need to give thanks for those who allow us to enter their world for a brief glimpse and accompany them for a moment or two.

Frustrations are inevitable as we serve. Therefore if you are contemplating accompanying others in the global world, find a partner or group with similar values and go for it. Be filled with grace and laughter when you are taken advantage of! Being in accompaniment with other global partners is definitely worth the time and effort.

Just beware of those $50 flipflops.

(images provided by google free stock images)


    Afflicted with Hope / embracingelsalvador.org is one of many outreach ministries at
    Saint Stephen Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELCA)
    30 West Main Street, PO Box 266
    New Kingstown, PA 17072

    Tax deductible donations for support of this work in El Salvador may be sent to the above address.