Christian Armando Chavarria Ayala

“I feel when God gives us gifts, we need to put them to his service and not squander them.”

Editor’s Note: Christian is a talented young man with a boundless, unrestricted reservoir of gifts. If he hasn’t yet discovered a talent lying dormant within himself, he will when someone needs that skill.  The fact that he is so willing to delve deep within himself to develop and share those gifts with others speaks of his compassionate nature.  

 Christian constantly puts the needs of others before his own.  He is the gentle, valued  “go to” friend and family member everyone seems to rely on to be a sounding board and give advice.  An example of Christian’s humble spirit is his refusing a scholarship from Sweden; instead, thanking them, but encouraging them to find a more needy recipient.

During our country’s civil war when people found it necessary to go into exile, they tended to cross local borders and stay in Honduras, Guatemala, or Mexico.  I was an exception to the rule.  When a good friend in the Lutheran school was the last in our group of young teens to be killed, I was targeted by the death squads to be killed next.  I was quickly ordered into exile to Sweden alone at age 15.  My mother arranged for this hasty exit.  I remained there for two and a half years. Some of the young people in Sweden affectionately referred to me as the “black head demon.”  I didn’t like to be called like that; I told them once, “I’m proud of my black hair, and I hope you are also proud of your potatoes head.” I’m not a demon, I’m just a child of God like you.  You can call me black head but not a demon.  I remained in a refugee camp for a month before the immigration officials placed me in a small apartment in the city, Ornskoldsvik.  They taught me how to take the bus to school and sent me a monthly check to cover food and transportation.  I had a rough first year learning the language and coping with homesickness while adjusting to this unfamiliar country and climate. I remember spending Christmas of 1993 sitting by the window crying the whole night from loneliness, my only consolation feeling that my mother was probably doing the same thing for me back home.  Calling was too expensive for either of us to do so contact was quite limited.  I needed to remind myself that I was fortunate to be safe.

The circumstances leading to my being sent to Sweden began when I was four years old and the military came to our house and began killing everyone.  My parents left; we kids remained.  I witnessed my mom’s cousin get cut in half by a machete and saw my siblings die.  The soldiers threw me up against the kitchen wall leaving me unconscious.  I remained with the dead bodies for two days and a night before my parents returned.  As my parents and the rest of my family began a life on the run living in the woods, I developed chicken pox which became infected and full of worms. 

We were involved and witnessed the massacre at the Sumpul River, which serves as the border between El Salvador and Honduras.  (See details about this horrific event in Yvonne Dilling’s book, A Place of Refuge.) Military from both countries were slaughtering innocent civilians trying to cross the river to exile into Honduras.  In addition to being shot many drowned because of the swift-moving water.  I was terrified of water after that ordeal and needed to have extensive psychological counseling years later due to its trauma.  It was a monumental step for me to get into a pool.  I am now able to do that but still am unable to walk into the moving water in rivers or the ocean.

My family spent seven years in the Mesa Grande Refugee Camp where we were supposed to be safe.  We felt anything but safe.  The camp was composed of a series of tent cities for us 4,000 displaced persons. Barbed wire fences surrounded us on all sides as well as covering the top totally entrapping us.  Armed guards shot anyone who dared to venture outside.  We lived in terror.  The harsh living conditions, as well as the treatment by the military, made it comparable to a concentration camp.  It was a very de-humanizing, undignified experience.  As a result, many people chose to escape and re-cross the border to take their chances in our own war-torn country rather than living imprisoned in another country.  I lived in Mesa Grande from ages four to twelve in 1987.  One positive part of the camp was that a teacher named Alison Fry chose to live with our family.  This brought great delight to my mother.  She is now a doctor in the U.S. and remains in contact with us.

One of the jobs of the children had been to go into the forests and gather the weapons from the dead.  It was not so dangerous for children to be running if the helicopter came to bomb the place, but if the military did find us doing that, they certainly would kill us, too; adults would have certainly been killed.  We hid the weapons and told the adults where they were, and when the fire was finished they went to pick the weapons up, and give them to the guerilla when they came to our villages.  The children also carried food to the guerrilla fighters.

When I was 12, I was coerced to join the guerrilla forces to fight the military.  I got a gun that was bigger than I was and was eager to have an opportunity to get even with those who killed my brother and sister.  There were 14 of us in this group.  Within three months every one of them except me was killed. 

From Mesa Grande, Honduras, during the war my family returned to El Salvador to a small community called Guarjila where we had to build humble houses. All my childhood friends are dead, and another brother died when he was 18 as a result of the war.

My parents had an arranged marriage. My grandma told my mom to marry my dad when my mom was 15 and my dad was 20.  My mom was  dedicated to buy chickens in the village and went to San Salvador to resell them to sutain the family.  My mom worked as a housekeeper, baked sweetbreads and tamales to sell, and raised pigs to sell the pork.  They often survived eating skunk, armadillo, rabbits, or just berries and fruit they gathered from the mountains.  My dad worked in agriculture raising rice, beans, and corn.  He made sure we kids were fed.

I am one of 12 children in our family; born on September 1, 1976, in Nueva Trinidad, in the Chalatenango department in northern El Salvador very near the Honduran border. Only nine of us children survived the war.

My parents stayed together for 30 years.  Then my mom asked if she could come live with me.  Of course, I was happy to have her.  My mother died two years ago at age 62.  She had become increasingly depressed after the loss of her children.  It compromised her immune system greatly.  My father is alive, and we maintain a cordial relationship.

There are three persons who have taught me to dream of what is possible, that is, that my dreams in life need to be realistic.  My mother is one of the three most influential persons in my life.  She is the greatest person I know.  She was never afraid.  I consider her the bastion of the family.  She valued her faith and told me never to challenge God for the things that happen.  That advice has served me well.  Though illiterate, my mother was super intelligent and a leader in the country’s fight for human rights. She believed everyone needed to be respected and have the basic rights of food, health care, and education.  I wish to have her same leadership skills. 

My mom believed in the power of education despite never having the opportunity to receive one herself.  She taught me that education is the hope for a better country.  My mom always insisted “You HAVE to study!” and was proud of my accomplishments. (My mom’s nickname for me was “little black one.”)We had no schools in our area when I was young and learned our lessons under the trees.  When it was raining, there were no lessons.  Formal school began for me at age 13.

Archbishop Oscar Romero is a man I admire for his courage to defend the poor of our country.  He could have had a nice personal life through the rich people he knew but instead chose to defend the poor.  He was a real pastor that the world needs, a true Christian that God wanted here.  I would like to have the opportunity to serve based on the inspiration of his testimony.

Bishop Medardo Goméz, Lutheran Bishop of El Salvador, is a very humble man who has  dedicated his life to serving the poor in the country.  Despite the difficulties he faces, he continues to support and defend the people.  He was there waiting for us with help from the Lutheran Church when we returned to El Salvador from Honduras during the war.  He helped to re-build the communities with the people.

The civil war was a turning point in my life.  My brother’s death at 18 changed the course of my life and my mind about wanting to be actively involved in fighting in the war.  As a child I wanted revenge for my family’s deaths.  As I grew older, I learned to know what is just and what is unjust.  I learned how to face life without guns and how to respect life.  Suffering taught me to be thankful to God for everything He gives us every day.  There were times our family shared one egg among six people, but we survived. I decided instead that I wanted to study. I wanted knowledge instead of guns.

There have been plenty of close calls in my life.  I recall vividly one day when I was surrounded by the military.  My friend was killed and the others had all run away and I was alone and afraid standing under a mango tree with helicopters bombing and shots firing all around me.  I closed my eyes and prayed to God to save me from this situation.  I was confident that His Holy Spirit would protect me.  Often I do not understand the ways the Holy Spirit acts in us, but I do feel it and try to make decisions based on how I feel led by it.

In our culture verbally expressing love is seen as a weakness.  My mom preferred that I demonstrate it.  She was my biggest supporter, so when she got sick, I cared for her.  The worst thing in my life was seeing my mother die; I wanted her to enjoy a life, this new life that God has given us, with more opportunities. She had been voted one of El Salvador’s 100 most influential women of the century in the year 2000.  I was studying in Germany when my brother called me to tell about it, and I was so proud of my mom.  

I had a very hard time grieving.  I was always tired, didn’t want to eat, avoided people, or kept constantly busy.  It may have been exacerbated by the fact that much of my family no longer lives nearby to offer support.  Doctors ran many tests on me. I was clinically depressed.  My faith once again helped me survive yet another trauma in my life.

We need to share testimonies of faith to proclaim the greatness of God.  This is a way to show God is love and all who believe in Him will have hope regardless of earthly problems.

Not all my knowledge came as a result of formal instruction.  When I was eight, I began to draw and taught myself to paint.  My mom used to give away my art to people who visited us in the refugee camps. Although I use the traditional Salvadoran techniques in my art, I have developed my own style.  It began as a hobby but now serves as a livelihood.  I consider it a gift from God to share with people including presidents, and archbishops around the world and have made the crosses for people in 98 countries.  The Crown Princess of Norway, Mette-Marit, commissioned me to make one for her which was a special honor.  For someone like me born in one of the poorest places in El Salvador it is a blessing to share.  It allows me an opportunity to meet and greet many people around the world.  Through my art I am able to talk with people about the injustice in the world and that we have to have faith against it, but not using violent means.  Selling my crosses in Finland allowed me to send money to help send my sister to high school.  That made me very happy.  Until now I have made around 70,000 crosses!  I have a carpenter cut out the pieces for me, and when I get these large orders, I sub-contract other people to help me fill them by helping with the painting.  Some people criticize me for doing that saying those people I teach to paint will go into competition with me.  It is a risk I am willing to take.  I see it as creating jobs for people.  One of my painters is an amputee who otherwise was not working.

I’ve also taught myself to play the piano.  It was mainly to answer a need in our church because there was no one to play the piano for services.  I thought, okay, I can do that and started to learn how.  Now for four years I have been playing the piano for the liturgy and hymns for our Lutheran church in San Salvador on alternate months.

Although I don’t like to fly, I do enjoy the opportunity to travel to many countries to publicize suffering and address helping the defenseless.  Traveling gives opportunities to think and learn about being more tolerant of others.  Many of the people in the rich countries look on refugees or immigrants with disfavor without ever considering what their backgrounds are or what circumstances brought them to their country.  Instead they become intolerant against the poor people who suffer.  Immigrants are only looking for the opportunity to survive.  No one is illegal in God’s earth.

When I was 13, I made a promise to Bishop Goméz that I would help to re-build this church.  It is in much disrepair and is inadequate and unsafe. One of my dreams is to re-build the main church, La Resurreccion Lutheran, which will cost $150,000.  People say that is impossible, but I feel it is important to follow the work of God in the fight for a world of equality, and the church must be an example of that.  I’m willing to work hard on it, I know that for God nothing is impossible. 

My latest project within the church is to complete a hymnal for the church; I hope to complete it very soon.   This involves transposing and translating 600 hymns and liturgies to be used as the order of service in Lutheran churches throughout Central America.  I feel when God gives us gifts, we need to put them to His service, and not squander them. 

As I mature, my faith has become more trusting and has greatly enriched my life.  I believe in a God of life that wants the well-being for each of His children.  I sense the presence of God in each and every moment.  I feel my faith has kept me alive.  I believe God saw me through my difficult times.  I try to help support others who experience their own despair. {I personally witnessed this during our week together. His neighbor across the street was on a bus returning to work in Honduras after celebrating his son’s graduation this weekend.  The bus careened off a cliff killing him and nine others.  Although shocked, stressed, and shaken, Christian offered support and strength to the family.}

Currently I am a third- year theology student at the Lutheran University of El Salvador, where I can freely study and profess my belief that Christ is the source of all hope and life.  I consider myself lucky to have friends who also believe in God and have strong faith.  Yet, when they hear about my life, sometimes they waver and ask how I can believe in a God who allowed these things to happen.  My answer is that men, not God, made them happen, and God helped me through it just like Jesus gave the blind sight.  I wonder if God makes things happen so we don’t forget His greatness and will always praise Him.  God never abandoned me even during my suffering, and I give thanks for my life He gave me. God has given me so much more than what I dreamed about, and I am very happy.  I want to live to the maximum.

I am undecided if I want to be a pastor, although many people think I would be a good one.  I still need to be convinced.  Being a pastor is a great responsibility, and a great privilege . There are other ways to serve God, and I will make that decision later.  I spent three months in Sweden and one month in Finland successfully working in a job in international ecology where I would speak on clean water projects.  (I speak Swedish,  German, English, and Spanish.) However, when my mother got sick, it was imperative that I return to El Salvador.  At this point I am single living  in San Salvador.

My personal dream would be to purchase a small piece of land outside the city where I can live in the middle of trees and animals.  I would like to raise organic chickens.  I do not long for a lot of things but for a life in harmony with all beings of the earth.  At the same time I would like to keep my house in the city as my financial security for when I get older.  Being self-employed, I have no health insurance, and this house would be my future.

For El Salvador as a country, I would like to see it become a true democracy.  Fortunately the days of its being run by a conglomerate of a few families of multi-millionaires that handled everything and seemed they were the only ones entitled to the right to life are over.  I would like to see our country producing for itself and a government that cares for the interests of the poorest of its people in order that they receive a decent life. What disappoints me is that even after all the lives that were lost in the war for the sake of justice, there are still so many people without housing, health care, jobs, and opportunities.  I don’t expect the government to hand over a set of keys to a house but I would like to see more programs developed to address those needs.

Other people dream about and do migrate to the U.S., but El Salvador needs people here who have faith in this country to make it a better place.  I want to see justice for everyone.  In 1999 I obtained a 10 year visa to visit the U.S.  In 2009 I renewed it.  I have no desire to live there, but I serve as a bridge between persons close to me living there and here.  I once had a crushed car sent back to El Salvador from the U.S.  It looked like a pancake, but our mechanics can straighten them out and, as long as the engines are good, can put them back on the road in good working condition.  That is not unusual here.  After being robbed so many times on public buses, I finally decided to buy my own car, even though this is considered a luxury.

There is not a great amount of time to spend in leisure.  It fluctuates depending on my schedule with the church and the orders I have for my artwork.  I enjoy going out to dance, but going out at night can be unsafe.  I learned to fish in Sweden and found it to be quite relaxing.  In El Salvador much of the land around rivers is privately owned.  I am too afraid of the high waves to fish in the ocean.  I go to the gym with friends when I have time during the day.  Many recreational events can be too expensive.  I like to be out in nature walking in the mountains and walking beside the rivers.

Christian’s mother, Albertina Ayala

My hope is that there never again be a war in our country.  Things cannot be achieved by fighting with weapons and killing one another.  It is seeing past the news of a country at war and making a judgment about the cause or blame. Rather, it is looking at those who are caught up in the suffering of it and acting on it. 

When I was a child, I was filled with joy that someone was worried and concerned about my well-being.  Seeing the needs of others is what God wants for us.  Simply attending church does not make one a Christian.  It requires loving your neighbor without distinction as to race, color, or sex.  Faith involves showing love for one another through compassion, being in solidarity with the ones who are suffering.  We are all God’s children living in the earth that God lent us.  It is not yours; it is not mine; it is God’s earth.

Editor’s Note:  Our week together was drawing to a close.  Christian had been commenting throughout the week about how impressed and touched he was by the people he met as our translator.  They were fellow Salvadorans, but not ones he had ever interacted with in any capacity.  Many had known and worked with his mother and some even knew him as a child.  He got emotional at times as he now realized the depth of his family’s influence and was again reminded of his mother, an angel of God.  There we sat quietly taking in our scene of solitude.  It was under Christian’s favorite fruit tree, the anona, on the steps of a in a very remote area community of people living in extreme poverty.  As we were watching the barefooted children play and vie for attention, his face suddenly lit up as his thoughts gave way to the epiphany stirring inside.  “This is what I should be doing, serving in a community like this one!” He excitedly declared, “I’m going to tell the bishop next week.”

How God and the bishop respond to Christian’s epiphany and guide him will be worth following. 

His mother certainly gave him the right name.

See “Artesanias de El Salvador”on Facebook for information on Christian’s artwork.

If you would like to donate to Christian’s cause of re-building his church, you can do so at this address:

Church of the Resurrection, #242, District San Miguelito, San Salvador, ES, Central America

To correspond with Christian:



    Afflicted with Hope / 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.