“I Feel Blessed in the Sense to be Able to Care for Others And Hope that God Can Use Me”
Lutheran Bishop Medardo Gomez has played a significant role in my faith and my personal life for many years. Like many Salvadorans, I was raised in the Roman Catholic faith. My parents and grandparents practiced Catholicism by taking the whole family to church every Sunday. We never questioned our faith at that point. I never had any plans to convert to a Protestant faith. But I am an observer. During the war I spent much time working in refugee communities. Bishop Gomez often visited these areas, bringing relief to the displaced people in these mountain areas. He gave aid to everyone regardless of their faith practices or beliefs. He did not distinguish between helping Catholics and Protestants or make distinctions between people based on their political persuasions. The Catholic Church, on the other hand, gave aid ONLY to the Catholics. It was biased and exclusionary. I noticed that and really liked Bishop Gomez’s attitude. It appealed to me. I saw it as very Christ-like. Also, he was active in the disbursement himself, a hands-on kind of person. Gradually, I ended up a Lutheran, the only one in my family.
During the war I was also active, having been sent by the FLMN party to help organize people in the refugee centers to send them back to where they came from originally. These people had been displaced from their homes in the country by the armed forces and had to flee to the cities where they were given shelter. My assignment was formidable and one of responsibility but someone had to do it and I was willing. I worked in San Salvador for three years doing this.
My husband had been killed in 1980 at the beginning of the war when he was only thirty-five years old. I also lost a seventeen-year old son during the war in 1985. I was thankful to have lost only one child during the war; many families lost more children. Being a single mother of four children at that time, I needed to provide for them after we were left without financial support. During the war I sent them to live with my extended family members in my hometown of Suchitoto, where I thought they would be safe. It is a small colonial city at the northern edge of the Cuscatlan department. After three years the intensity of the war increased and persecutions continued. In 1986 I was a political prisoner for seven months along with my one son. I helped him escape once but was unable to help him the second time. Twelve of us were given political asylum by the U.S. to work with an NGO to populate communities. My daughter suffered from depression when she was young and tried to take her life when she was nine or ten years old. Things became more difficult in the city, and I returned to Suchitoto to be with my children.
Nothing quite prepares you for the stress and trauma of war, but having a firm faith foundation was certainly my salvation. I was born on July 1, 1937 in Suchitoto. My parents and grandparents had always taught and modeled the love of God, not just in prayers, but also in their lifestyle. My grandmother advocated for children and older people. My family always helped the poorest people from the time I can remember. It is no doubt from those earliest memories that I developed my strong attachment for young people as well as older folks.
Enduring the grief of death was something even I sometimes have to admire about myself for dealing with while working and raising the other children. I know God is responsible for helping me see my way through the pain and find productive ways of handling it. That is not to say that I didn’t struggle and am not currently struggling with grief. In moments of emotional despair, I have asked God why he has abandoned me. When my rational self kicks in, I realize that my children and husband did not die because God failed to provide for us. They died because of the evil of man. My present grief is perhaps more difficult because it involves taking on the responsibility of my son’s family’s care. Regardless, God continues to support me. I give thanks that the rest of us have survived and none of us went hungry.
For me death and Resurrection are interchangeable terms. I can’t remove one from the other. Just today at noon my daughters were talking about our recently deceased son. We feel his presence among us and feel in death comes Resurrection.
What plagues me about the motives in violence have been in the differences over the years in reasons that violence has occurred–as I see them. During the war there was a “cause” that the people were fighting for, and it was a just cause. People that died did so because they were fighting for a principle they believed. Today violence is motivated by jealousy, hatred, and envy of other people’s possessions. The thinking is, if there is someone I hate or who has something I want, I have to kill them. If there is someone who has a better job than I, I will have to extort them or kill them. There is nothing noble or just in those deaths.
After the war I also felt God’s presence because somehow a special person, another Lutheran pastor from northern California, Pastor Anna Kari, who was a pastor at the university, took an interest in my situation and helped me. She was responsible for arranging to help me purchase a property in San Martin, which I have now owned for twenty-one years. This was purchased under the former currency system prior to the dollar, the colon, and when our government was forming a republic in 1995. She has maintained a relationship of solidarity with me over the years by bringing delegations from her church to visit annually. They are generous providers of the work we do here. She recently brought 45 persons here in August [of 2009].
We are very fortunate that the land on the San Martin property is fertile and capable of growing beans and corn. Those crops are harvested and used for feeding the people who visit the Lutheran Church Synod guesthouse here in San Salvador, Casa Concordia, where I have served as the volunteer director for over twelve years. It helps keep our expenses down somewhat.
About a thirty-minute bus ride away is the program I have a passion for which is partially funded through the proceeds from Casa Concordia. I am the director of Casa Esperanza, a program designed to help those on the street who are in crisis. [A translation for Casa Esperanza is “Hope House.”] It could be loosely defined as a soup kitchen. We address issues such as basic hygiene, health, and nutrition issues. We also run an Alcoholics Anonymous group, Narcotics Anonymous, and other substance abuse groups out of it. On site also is a workshop which serves partially as rehabilitation and partially as a funding source in making things such as wooden crosses to sell as fund-raisers for the program. With the donation we received of a sewing machine, we can now make shirts and purses to sell for the same purpose.
It is in this setting where I see miracles and transformations occur. For example, there was a child I took off the street, brought to Casa Esperanza for refuge, and after some period of trust-building and rehabilitation, he is now studying medicine in Cuba and will become an excellent doctor. Another person who was trying to avoid drug and alcohol was removed from those temptations and is now safe and drug-free. My own son’s family, the one who was recently killed, is living here temporarily as a sanctuary for protection from further gang retaliation. There are sixteen family members altogether. Without this place the money would be tight, and their security would be in jeopardy. There are people who come here who have no alternative to living on the streets. Some are trying to escape drugs; others are in risk of being deported so are here for political sanctuary. Others are here as the first step on their journey on the underground to the States in hopes of finding a better life. Even now there is a man with a broken leg in Casa Esperanza who we are taking care of, and I feel blessed in that sense. Without the support of God, I wouldn’t be able to continue. The stories are countless.
There are more needs than there is funding. Often I end up helping persons financially myself. I don’t get discouraged that I don’t have a comfortable salary. I am just happy to be able to help someone. For me the happiest moments in my life are when I am helping other people. Often the funding sources dry up altogether, and I go to Bishop Gomez and announce that we will need to shut down our programs. He is eternally optimistic in his response, “Don’t shut down; God will provide,” and money comes through every single time.
At my age personal dreams don’t make a lot of sense. I have no ambitious dreams. My children are all grown now. I simply hope and dream that God can use me to help the youths that live in this house to live on their own and fulfill their own dreams. I continue to support my children and grandchild so that they can continue to study and become healthy and good people in life. Sometimes I worry about what will become of me if I become really sick and unable to care for myself. Then I am reminded of Bishop Gomez’s affirmation, “God will provide.”
In terms of this country, I dream of less violence and deaths from gangs. The government says it is working to prevent delinquency.
Thanks to God who is the source of our strength! Thank you for listening. It is wonderful to meet people and share my story. That others who are interested in our stories strengthens us Salvadorans as a people and a country.