Sarah MacPhail



“It’s interesting how God keeps putting El Salvador into my path.”

Editor’s Note: Meeting Sarah was one of those unintended rich encounters on the trip that I’ve come to treasure. She was sitting alone and engrossed at her laptop when we befriended her. We immediately became pulled into the theme of her university thesis she is here to research. This impassioned, young Canadian is spending a few months alone in El Salvador focused and intent on her work. She doesn’t think it was a coincidence that it was suggested that she return to this country for the second time.

You are a long way from home. What Canadian province do you call home?

I grew up in New Brunswick and currently live in Nova Scotia, but originally I was an “Islander,” born in 1987 in Charlottetown, PEI – Prince Edward Island. PEI, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick make up the Maritime Provinces in eastern Canada along the Atlantic. I’m biased, but it’s my favorite place in the whole world. Most people associate PEI with the Anne of Green Gables stories, and my mom’s side of the family is from Cavendish where its author, Lucy Maud Montgomery, hails. She is actually a distant relative of mine.

This is not your first trip to El Salvador. When and why were you here earlier?

In 2008 I came as part of an Atlantic Canadian women’s study group with Canadian Baptist Ministries. For almost two weeks we met with students, women, daughters, grandmothers, city officials, and town council representatives talking about the context of the civil war and what the church could do. I was twenty-one years old at the time.

This was during my third year at university when I was becoming more interested in social justice issues. When I came here to El Salvador, I became more focused on those topics as I saw the poverty and the lack of dignity of people living in poverty and wondered how you address their needs holistically while learning yourself.


A Prince Edward Island Farm

A Prince Edward Island Farm

How does it happen that you returned four years later as part of your master’s thesis project?

In hindsight maybe returning was to answer the questions I was forming in 2008. I was becoming upset with a culture being apathetic to social justice issues. In my Public Relations program the emphasis of many of my classmates was on making money, whereas I was unconcerned with that competitive industry of trying to climb that corporate ladder.

I wasn’t planning to come to El Salvador at all. However, the topic I’m studying is transformational development, and I needed to do a case study. I was willing to go anywhere in the world to pursue the topic. I approached Canadian Baptist Ministries – the same organization I traveled with before — asking what options were possible for me to gather my data within the timeframe I had available. They suggested El Salvador would be a good place to pursue my topic. I told them I had already been here and had some familiarity with it. So for two and a half months I am gathering information through interviews. The theory I’m studying – transformational development – does not focus on a predetermined goal of economic, political, or spiritual transformation; instead the goal is to partner with a community as it identifies broken areas within its own context and work for holistic transformation. Lives being changed, relationships restored and identity discovered. Ideally, transformation occurs in the lives of people you work with, but as a practitioner it should also transform your own life. It is a two-way street. I’m addressing holistic changes in life.

Specifically where are you getting your subjects to interview?

I’m getting them from housing and water projects, agricultural training and agricultural cooperatives, and church missions in the Usulutan region of El Salvador. I’m interviewing individuals who have been involved with those projects as well as some from Canada who have volunteered for these projects in San Salvador, and staff of this organization. Some of the projects are funded by NGOs. It is not solely by the Canadian Baptist Ministries. Emmanuel Baptist in San Salvador is a partner church that facilitates these local projects.

How is your time spent here funded?

I have no financial help from my university, so it is a combination of a travel grant from Canadian Baptist Ministries, student loans, and my own funds.

What inspired and motivated you in this direction?

Bryant Myers’ book Walking with the Poor has inspired my thinking. He worked with World Vision and now teaches at Fuller Theological Seminary in California. This theory came from theological conversations in the 1980s about the interaction between evangelism and social action. The conversation revolved around whether as Christians we are about evangelizing or we are about social justice issues and that whole cultural shift. Does it have to be an either/or issue?



How do YOU see it?

I see it as two sides of the same coin. The theory of transformational development is really an old concept. Looking at the Gospel, you can’t preach the love of God without caring for all needs of a person entirely. But in faith-based development it can be a tricky balance. I entered my program doing a Masters in International Development which is primarily secular with many people in the academic area who are very cynical about so many things, particularly about development practices. Yet these are the same people who spend so much of their lives sacrificing for these causes. I look and ask what is missing here? Why are these people so willing to fight for things they don’t even necessarily believe in? I’m looking at it from a Christian view. Maybe there has been a lack of acknowledgement over the past twenty years or so about the value of spirituality and faith in development. There are lots of faith-based organizations that have a huge presence in the development fields. There are also so many churches doing so much, and even in my classes there are many students who have had great experiences in other countries with Christian organizations or NGOs. But when it comes to talking about it, my experience has shown that it’s often taboo. Religion doesn’t have a place in this. The nature of my research paper MAKES people have to talk about it. It should be part of the discussion.

What are your long-term goals?

Being here makes me step back and look at what I want to do in terms of career. I’m evaluating my future goals in terms of development. This study intrigues me. My immediate goal is to complete my Master’s degree from Dalhousie University. I hope to complete this study in one year.

What was your previous educational background?

My parents made the decision to move from PEI to Moncton, New Brunswick, when I was a year old. I graduated high school there. My older brother and sister each lived at home while attending Crandall University in Moncton, where my parents both work. (My mom is Residence Life Coordinator, and my dad is the Director of the Youth Leadership Program.) My parents have been such a strength in my life. I attended Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax for my Bachelor of Public Relations, which was 2 1/2 hours away from home. It was an eye-opening experience to transition out of the house and became my first reality check.

Are there other people besides your parents who have inspired you?

In high school some youth leaders were inspirational. I have a best friend from elementary school. She and I are very different but remain close. In the past four or five years I have been inspired a great deal by Lois Mitchell – who was one of the leaders of the first trip I took to El Salvador in 2008. She has encouraged me as I am working on my Masters, and to me is a model of a person who has tried to positively engage in the development process without cynicism, asking tough questions but remaining hopeful.

Did you go right onto grad school or into a career after finishing that degree?

I worked in Public Relations for a few years and then left my job to return to school. I still do some of that work in Canada for a company that involves event planning where I coordinate volunteers for large events.

At one point I worked for a large NGO – The Arthritis Society—as their Communications Coordinator for four Atlantic provinces in Canada. It was quite a large responsibility.

Have you traveled internationally besides here in El Salvador?

In 2011, I traveled to Bolivia for a month with a dear friend, who is a nurse, and also has a desire to serve. We left with the intention of volunteering in an orphanage. That idea got flipped upside down which turned out to be a good experience in being able to trust God to see what would happen. We took Spanish lessons and volunteered for a group called Compassion International where we did a variety of different things.

How would you assess the Catholic Church in this country?

Some of the sentiments during and after the war seemed to be “We were doing what we thought we should be doing,” which hurt a lot of people in the process. Any religion can be held onto so tightly and become part of the identity of the people so that if anything breaks down, it crushes the people at the same time as the people become so dependent on it. The church can become the most loved and the most hated entity in a community.

You seem to have strong feelings about the church. Has your faith changed?

Biologically I come from a long line of pastors. My dad is a Baptist minister. My mom comes from a family of pastors. Growing up as a minister’s daughter, I was totally immersed in the church. I always enjoyed being around other people. I enjoyed being involved in the music and other programs so I never felt much of a need to rebel. My parents did a good job keeping the three of us kids out of the politics of the church. Our parents gave us freedom to discover who we were.

When I left home to attend university, I was exposed to a different world, and I was social. However, I never walked away from my faith. I am very involved in my church at home—I am a youth leader and also lead a worship team.

My mentality is such that when I see a problem or issue, I walk closer to it and see what I can do to address it. Many young people are hopping around from one church to another or leaving altogether. Even when I am frustrated, I choose to stay and see where the church is headed.

What have been some rough times in your life so far?

Having a high stress job a few years ago produced much anxiety and disillusionment. I wanted to be productive, but it was all exacerbated when my close friend’s brother committed suicide. I literally dropped what I was doing when she called for help and immersed myself into her situation. That was the first of several deaths that happened over a short period of time. I also lost two uncles and a grandparent.

What have you learned about yourself from those dark days? What sustains you during those dark periods?

I recognize that I am less talkative when I am upset. I tend to be closed off. I start turning down friends who want to get together because I can’t face the thought of a two-hour conversation. It is too exhausting to dredge up the grief or listen to their problems so I draw inside myself. I allow my friends to come to me but I don’t go to them and I’m trying to change that.

My resources are to go to scripture. I spend a lot of quiet time reading and writing. Much of my writing is journaling which I will reflect on and read back later to see what stood out to me when I was having a hard time. Music is a joy to me and a stress relief. I go to the ocean for peace.



You mentioned enjoying music in the church. What specific areas do you get involved in?

I have played the piano for 16 years. One of my biggest challenges being here is missing my piano. I like classical and religious music. I used to accompany people especially my sister, in my church. My whole family is musical. I don’t compose, but I do write poetry and maybe my poetry will become music at some point.

What other dreams do you have?

I would love to travel more but still be based on the east coast of Canada close to my family. I love Canada. But if God calls me elsewhere, I would go.

I would certainly hope to keep writing and having music in my life. I hope to work in a job like contract work with the freedom to set my own schedule where I have flexibility to continue giving my time to things like youth ministry.

Now that I’m at the end of my master’s studies, I like the idea of traveling to different countries for NGOs to combine international development with my communications background. There is a need in many organizations for solid communications. These priorities can often fall by the wayside because people are strapped for time or don’t have the resources or opportunities to communicate their message with the public, clients, media, and donors.

It’s interesting how God keeps putting El Salvador into my path.

Editor’s Note: Soft-spoken Sarah admits she is still working through some grief issues. Moving thousands of miles away doesn’t remove that kind of pain from one’s heart. She finds being the interviewee a nice diversion from two months of being the interviewer. We somehow have the feeling that, like us, she too, may be returning to El Salvador even after her thesis is complete. This country has a way of reaching out to Christians who are interested in social justice.


    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.