Amid the abundance of negative stories flooding U.S. media about Central American youth leaving their countries behind due to threats of gang recruitment, violence, and poverty, we find hope.
Education offers hope to youth. A strong scholarship program to support education to El Salvador’s youth is our task force’s number one priority at St. Stephen Lutheran Church in central Pennsylvania. We realized the program is best served by an in-country coordinator. My partner in Salvadoran ministries and I decided to ask Pastor Cristian Chavarria, a Lutheran pastor, to assume that role. He accepted with grace, commitment, and humility.
Pastor Cristian offers an alternative for the youth he serves by coordinating our scholarship program in a small Lutheran church in a rural campesino community perched high above a volcano. His goal is to use a positive approach within the community to as many students as he can.
His hope is that serious-minded students will graduate to achieve their goals and fulfill their dreams of becoming a credit to their families and community. He hopes they will choose to remain in El Salvador and make a positive difference within their country.
One definition for education is “a body of knowledge acquired while being educated.”
That is the one that seems to fit what Pastor Cristian is striving to achieve with our scholarship students in El Salvador. Yes, he encourages them to study hard and earn good grades which he reviews and discusses with each student at the end of each semester.
Beyond that, Cristian sees education as more than classroom work; that it extends well beyond the classroom. He provides “projects” for the students to work on together as a group within their community. Issues for these projects are sometimes student-generated; other times they come from within the needs of the community.
By working together this group can bond, problem solve, and rely on each other during their teens when times are tough and serve as good role models for their community.
Stewardship for their environment is one of the goals Pastor Cristian wants the students to experience and become involved in.
One of their stewardship projects was to help stock the local lake with fish for the upcoming season. This involved lugging heavy water bags of fish down a long dirt path to the lake. This arduous work was rewarded by cooking a pot of soup over a campfire after a refreshing swim at the end of the day. The mayor of the nearby town was so impressed by the group’s efforts, she offered to pay their transportation costs to and from their classes.
Even though El Salvador is a small country, it is not uncommon for its poor to remain isolated within their communities without ever experiencing life outside of them. Pastor Cristian arranged to take the students to a “department “(comparable to our “state”) to the far north of the country near Honduras where the youth could experience altogether different aspects of their own country: its mountainous terrain, vegetation, and birds while hiking together for a day.
Another day the group learned about the importance of maintaining a clean environment by gathering all the trash in their community and educating themselves and their community about the harm of carelessly discarding plastics.
Toward the end of the pandemic, Pastor Cristian, himself an accomplished musician, introduced a multi-generational music project to teach guitar, violin, and keyboard. Twenty-three enthusiastic students are involved in the weekly lessons offered.
A big problem in the Latino communities of Central America is teen pregnancies. Sex education was one of the formal programs presented to students to encourage stewardship and respect for their bodies.
Organic gardening around the church property was another project. A team of engineers did a soil sample to find out which plants would grow best in that area before embarking on the project. With the donation of seeds by Lutheran World Relief, and assistance from students at Lutherano University in the planting and harvesting, these students will learn gardening skills from start to finish. They plan to sell the crops within the community and thereby learning some marketing skills also.
Learning to value and appreciate the history of their own community, Pastor Cristian began a project serving dual purposes in the campesino village he serves. Not unlike our own historical memory project, Cristian pulled together its members still dealing with the residual and very real trauma of their war experiences to help them heal. Not to miss a beat, he included our scholarship students to witness as well as document their testimonies. As moved as we are to hear these stories, I can only imagine the emotional feelings the students felt hearing people they know personally share their cathartic involvement in a situation they participated in.
We give thanks to Pastor Cristian for his vision of education beyond the classroom.