Friday, January 7, 2011

A Place of Hope

I just returned to Gran's house from Notre Dame Preparatory in Towson, Maryland. I was invited to speak to three all-girls high school religion classes there this morning about my experiences living and working in El Salvador. It was fantastic.
I even looked up an old friend and former professor of mine from Loyola, Claire Storey, and got to catch up with her. As she walked us down the hallway toward her classroom to see us off, she invited me to pop into her class and say some words about El Salvador before Gran and I left. I had not planned on presenting to her class, and I knew speaking Spanish in front of other North Americans is sometimes uncomfortable for me. But fortunately I felt very comfortable and secure in the fact that I was simply promoting a form of life and a personal story that has given me just so much life over the past months. And so it was great! And probably even easier than speaking in English, because in English I tend to enter the realm of the abstract when I speak...

My favorite part of the day was just feeling like there is a place for my experiences, the passion I feel for El Salvador and concerted efforts to heal, in the U.S. and in Baltimore; and furthermore that there is so much interest in getting our youth and American money interested in those basic human calls and desperate human needs (in El Salvador and the rest of the world).

So back to the talk: I was nervous speaking in front of the first of three groups, of course. But fortunately Joan, a woman who teaches religion at NDP and is a good friend of Gran, asked me a fantastic question that really put me on track. Joan asked me to talk about why I decided to return to El Salvador last year after my experience studying abroad. Great question.
The response that entered my mind at that moment, and which ended up framing my latter two talks to some degree, was this. The first time I went to El Salvador I experienced a very different reality, a tough reality in a lot of ways, and was forced to confront a lot of suffering and injustice. (I confronted much personal suffering as well, I realize now, but I did not speak much about that...) I think my motivation for returning to El Salvador can be found in what has become a foundational question for me to live in this world: "how can I respond? How do I respond to suffering in this world, and to injustice, from my position of relative privilege and opportunity?" As Father Mark Ravizza phrases it: How do we invest in a world that breaks our hearts?
The flipside, which I was sure to inform my audiences, was that I also just love El Salvador. I love the friendliness of Salvadorans and their tendency to share quite willingly stories of even th most intimate experiences of life and death. I love the Centro arte para la paz, and the idea of creating spaces of peace and growth. I love the soul of El Salvador: there is a faith in life so deeply rooted in the people that not even a 12-year war, nor the antecedent and continuing social and economic travesties that caused it, can keep people from simply celebrating life.
Salvadorans know how to party. No. But seriously, in my experience Salvadorans see the value of human life, and often raise it to the level of biblical truth in their automatic hospitality and unerring friendliness. They are in the struggle together. They are in the lucha together as a matter of fact. Not everyone is on board and smiling of course, but it is a cultural rule rather than an exception. And this aspect of Salvadoran life has been most instructive for me, especially as a person who has, in the past, come from a more critical or pessimistic life-outlook. This innate humility and reverence for life seems to come out in so many forms: in social organizing, in community vigils or all out celebrations of peace; and often it is expressed in smiles and "buenas. Que les vaya bien", or the offer of coffee, always coffee, and personal testimonies.
The sum result for me is a warm sense that I could ask for anything, anything at all, from a neighbor or a family member or a stranger, and whether it was material, personal, or whatever, they would find a way to engage. Notice I didn't say help. Yes, Salvadorans in my experience are very helpful, but not I think because they simply want to be useful. Rather, Salvadorans in my experience want to interact because interacting with people and participating in one's identity as one in community with others is just what you do.

So woe to the forces which push and partition people into dire circumstances, and a bigger cheers to the peacemakers. Like Joan in her religion class and the El Salvador delegation she will lead in April; like Lucy, another NDP teacher, and her desire to see our world's last become our first; like Clara Storey and her humble mission to serve and to love, and to share her son with the world. And to all of the women I met today at Notre Dame: thank you.
Most especially cheers to Gran for believing in me and welcoming me into her community.

4 more full days at home! Hockey, family, movies, hiking, cousins....! Then to El Salv on Wednesday!

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