Walking Among the Blessed

Following the ELCA model of mission accompaniment for many years in El Salvador has involved making frequent trips there to check on our various ministries. I often pinch myself, blink a few times in a double take, or stop “dead” in my tracks. Am I dreaming, or did I just experience an example from a Bible story here in El Salvador? It often seems as though I’ve been transported via a time machine back to Biblical times. Enough of these parallel coincidences have occurred that it came time to record them.

All I need to do is look around me and watch the rural women carrying water jugs on their heads to and from a trickle of a mountain stream to picture the Woman at the Well. Stumbling across several dozen women doing their laundry by hand in hand-hewn stone community tubs beside a mountain stream or pounding laundry in a hole in a trickling brook is commonplace and probably not unlike laundry practices in the Middle East centuries ago.

Everywhere my partner and I go we receive an offer of a fresh, hot tortilla or a coconut just cut with a machete from an overhead tree to quench our thirst on a sweltering day of intense heat. Both are generous signs of the type of hospitality required of Old Testament Israelites from humble people living in dirt-floored homes often with palm-frond roofs. These simple scenes are offers of welcome. We struggle with whether to accept these offers when we see hungry children lurking in the background.

Fears and prejudices are palpable toward two adult brothers who both are on the autism spectrum living at the far edge of a community we support. Not understanding their issues or needs, the neighbors are fearful and skeptical of them, unable or unwilling to support this family so burdened by their care. The country’s own educational and mental health systems have denied their inclusion. This social stigma is similar to the one faced by those who had “demons” or were lepers in Christ’s time. Too often avoiding and ostracizing what we do not understand was and is how we handle those with exceptional needs.

What stands out most to me from spending considerable time in El Salvador is how the campesino folks live in community. They depend upon one another. Each and every person has a role to play for the greater good of all. It’s just such a foreign concept to us independently-minded North Americans who often do not even know the names of our next door neighbors.


Our church has supported a part-time pastor/part-time fisherman who my partner and I have visited numerous times. It is mind-blowing to observe the community of folks of both genders and all ages who appear out of nowhere from behind sand dunes to help any incoming boat unload its catch, clean the boat and nets, size the fish, hang some to dry, place larger ones into coolers to take to market, and mend the nets all within minutes before the next boat shoots the last wave to shore and watch the process repeat. Even the youngest child has a role to play. This was the life of Christ’s disciples as they provided for his sustenance when traveling the coast to spread the gospel to the people. They didn’t have coolers, but dried the fish placing them into baskets along with bread to serve the crowds following Christ.

This seaside scene brought the Biblical story in Luke 5:1-11of Simon Peter, James, and John, sons of Zebedee, being called as disciples at Lake of Gennesaret alive to me. No less than eight of Jesus’ disciples fished for a living. Christ’s followers needed to be fed. The feeding of the 5,000 included fish.

Throughout the Bible we hear stories of unlikely persons called by Jesus. Some gave up lucrative careers and comfortable lifestyles in order to follow. Zacchaeus, the tax collector, comes to mind. Also, Paul was considered educated and affluent.

In Acts 16 we read about Lydia of Thyatira, a successful businesswoman who deals in purple cloth. She is baptized and opens her home to others. I think of Lydia when I meet a lovely, gracious North American woman we know who had an enviable position as a flight attendant for a small, elite, private airlines that shuttled VIPs to exotic locations around the world. She felt something missing from her life about the same time an opportunity came to re-claim an abandoned family property in El Salvador. This woman has worked herself to the bones to turn the overgrown property into a productive coffee finca. But she doesn’t stop at that. She employs and houses locals from the community, supports the local school, and involves herself in many community endeavors. She built housing for her foreman’s family on the property and hired a local housekeeper. Although fraught with frustrations and difficulties, she finds greater meaning in her new life. She may not use the word Spirit-led to describe her new path in life, but it seems to fit.

Another North American who held a lucrative career living in Japan read about the mothers in El Salvador desperately searching for the disappeared during the civil war. She too felt called to travel to the country during that dangerous time to witness for herself; she never left. She helped the Santa Marta group that had been displaced during the war repatriate back into El Salvador from Honduras; as well, she worked with Radio Victoria, an independent radio station, during the fight to retain El Salvador’s natural resources from foreign takeovers. She has set up an organization working mainly with empowering women in their machismo culture.

I think of young Mary Magdalene, who was drawn to Christ and followed him all the way to his Crucifixion. Several brilliant, capable high school and college-aged girls we met volunteered in El Salvador with various NGOs and returned or remained there to accompany its people instead of climbing the corporate ladder to success in the U.S.

One of them volunteered with a church-oriented NGO (non-governmental organization) leading delegations of North Americans to experience the reality in El Salvador. Traveling back and forth between the U.S. to study and El Salvador to volunteer for many years where she worked within the prison system, she always felt the tug to do more in El Salvador where she has set up an organization providing scholarships for women and helping them resolve trauma in their lives. She could be successful in whatever position offered to her in the U.S. yet chooses to follow her soul, living a simple meaningful life in El Salvador.

A similar story of another capable American youth who had once considered becoming a nun first visited El Salvador and became enamored with the Salvadoran people after she volunteered there. She saw a gap with kids who left institutional life in the orphanage but were unequipped to transition into adult life. She set up a post-high school living setting near the campus of a college where students would attend classes and then return to a schedule of revolving structured tasks within the house leading them toward independence. It is similar to a half-way house or group home concept designed to help bridge the gap they had experienced.

Other North Americans serve within the clergy as missionaries/ priests/pastors/nuns. They live humble lives in solidarity with the Salvadoran people. I think of one Sister of Charity nun from New Jersey who has served for nearly 60 years. She has established a center for the arts in Succhitoto with the purpose to treat the trauma of the Salvadorans through the various arts.

A Maryknoll missionary provides food distribution in one of San Salvador’s gang-infested areas. She serves any and all who require the help.

A young Lutheran pastor from Canada chose to work within the Salvadoran prison system and has remained within the country after his retirement providing sanctuary for persons at risk from harm.

Strong faith is how I would characterize all three of these clergy just as I would describe my favorite Biblical character, Simeon, who was told he would not die until he saw the Christ child.

Two strong local Salvadoran women were not queens like Esther but are nobility to their fellow Salvadorans who elected them to key government roles to defend their rights after their selfless, heroic efforts to defend them during the civil war. Given El Salvador’s male-dominated society, it is especially uncommon to elect women to such positions.

Like Moses’ protective sister, Miriam, another young woman we know not only protects the family business but also reaches out to its neighboring community to raise the standards of its school, to improve infrastructure of roads, to bring WiFi, and to improve health care for the local sugar cane workers.

Against all odds, Daniel somehow miraculously survived in the lion’s den thanks to his faith. We met two survivors of horrendous massacres that destroyed their villages but who managed to escape. The hope they carry, rather than blame and resentment against their aggressors, encourages me daily. Another woman was brutally tortured, imprisoned, and left along the side of the road with her unborn child for dead. Treated for her trauma for years, she remained resilient enough to testify face to face with her torturers in court and won the case. The respect I have for the resilience and strength of these women is second to none.

Both Jonah and Moses refused to do what God asked of them yet ended up in God’s favor. During the civil war a high-ranking Salvadoran military official we met was ordered to lead his company to massacre a village of innocent people. He refused to follow those orders but rather followed his conscience instead. He was forced into exile in another country where he remains.

The parable of the Widow’s Mite in the Bible reminds me of our engineer friend who feels strongly about giving back to his country. He uses his advanced skills to help folks in marginalized communities gratis. He and his young family live a humble lifestyle in order for him to contribute in this way.

It has been a privilege to know others who had opportunities to study abroad and could have chosen to remain there living much easier lifestyles. Instead, they use what they learned elsewhere for the benefit of their country El Salvador and those who live there. One has become a pastor to serve, one advocated for the handicapped, one works on behalf of human rights, one provides immersion trips for awareness, one taught art to share his skills with others, one shared his gift of music. ALL these Salvadorans returned in order to improve the conditions within their country. If that isn’t a Christian lifestyle, I’m not sure what is.

When we travel to El Salvador, we don’t ride on the back of a donkey or travel on foot, but it certainly seems as though we are in Bible times on our journeys. Around each and every corner is a new “Biblical” character eager to share his or her story, and I am fascinated to listen and learn from each and every unassuming humble one of them.

Each one has been a “God moment” to me.


    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.