Two days before I was scheduled to fly to El Salvador for my third Thrivent Builds-Habitat for Humanity trip I got an e-mail from our State Department warning me of escalating concerns about safety there for U.S.A. travelers. Were this my first trip I might have canceled my flight.
Since this was not my first trip, I deleted the e-mail and continued packing. Both Thrivent (a not-for-profit financial services organization for Christians) and Habitat in El Salvador run excellent programs. The work, though physically challenging, is manageable. We get two breaks and a long lunch plus encouragement to rest when we’re feeling tired.
Our task was to help dig an eight-foot-deep hole and deepen a trench around the house for a new septic system at the Habitat home. We spent much of the week moving dirt out of the way and then moving it back in to fill in around newly laid pipes.
The week wasn’t all work. Habitat encourages getting to know the Salvadorians we met. For that reason each work site includes an interpreter. This is essential as the building project managers are hired for their construction skills and ability to work with international volunteers, not for their English skills. Some volunteers speak Spanish, but few know have an adequate vocabulary to negotiate building instructions.
One of the Habitat workers was a young man, David. At one point David was pitching dirt out of the pit that was now deeper than he was tall. He could pitch dirt out faster than five volunteers could load it into a wheel barrel and haul it to the empty lot next door.
One young local woman, Glenda, came by every day to help because she wanted to practice her English. I wanted to practice my Spanish so we spoke to one another in both languages frequently during the week. I was immediately drawn to Glenda as she is the same age as two of my granddaughters.
Luis Viscarra is the Habitat staff person charged with welcoming each international team at the San Salvador airport. He gives each team a brief history of El Salvador along with practical tips for staying healthily and safe while in country. He starts by explaining that when Spain conquered El Salvador several centuries ago the country was divided up among fourteen colony families. By the time of the 1980’s Civil War, descendants of these original fourteen families literally owned all of El Salvador. These few were wealthy while the majority of people were living in desperate poverty.
The Civil war broke out in 1979 when the military-led government, representing the interests of the fourteen families, fought against a coalition of guerrilla groups fighting for a more equitable distribution of the country’s resources.
Many fled during the twelve-year conflict. Both sides recruited child soldiers. There was extreme violence, including deliberately terrorizing and targeting civilians via death squads. Martyr Oscar Romero, a Catholic priest, campaigned on behalf of the poor. For his efforts he was assassinated in March, 1980 as he led worship. We saw photos of him everywhere, including on the stole of Lutheran Bishop Gomez who presided over worship at Cristo Rey, our first Sunday there.
The years of extreme violence and the disruption of families as many fled the twelve years of extreme violence have resulted in a generation of young men who have grown up inadequately educated but with much experience with violence. That combined with extreme poverty, has led to the formation of gangs.
So yes, gangs are a serious problem in some parts of El Salvador. However, Habitat leaders know where they are active and keep the international volunteers far away from those areas.
Because we were team number 250 through the Thrivent-Habitat of El Salvador partnership, we were given extra special attention. The week started with a worship service at Cristo Rey Lutheran in Santa Ana. An earthquake destroyed their church building in 2000. For many years the small congregation gathered in an old cinder-bloc building that survived the earthquake. It had originally been a chicken coop.
When Joe and Bonnie Reilly started taking volunteers to El Salvador as part of Joe’s work with Thrivent, they took teams to worship at Cristo Rey since many of the homes they worked on belonged to members of that congregation.
A few years ago they sat with their team in folding chairs in the cinder-block building and asked Pastor Carlos what he needed most. His obvious answer was, “A new church.” There were only two problems: the congregation had no funds and little hope of raising them to build a new church and Habitat for Humanity builds homes, not churches.
The best way to handle a problem is to get rid of it. With a lot of prayer and enthusiasm Partners in Faith was formed. Funds were raised. Habitat for Humanity gave permission for teams to slow down on building homes and pick up speed on construction of the much-needed new building. International volunteers and Cristo Rey members worked side by side for several years to build what Bishop Gomez claims is the best Lutheran church in all of El Salvador.
As we worshiped on the one-year anniversary of the completion and dedication of the church I held back tears, as did many of my fellow team members. Most of us had played some small part in the construction of the new building. In addition to Bishop Gomez, several other honored guests participated, including the president of a Baptist seminary, an Episcopal priest, two USA Lutheran pastors, and a pastor from Guatemala. Sitting next to me in the pews was the German Lutheran church’s ambassador for Central America.
Our team of twenty-seven worked on three housing projects in the planned community of Gethsemane near the town of Ahachapan, in Western El Salvador, near Guatemala. We stayed at a lovely lodge resort in the mountains that featured a large dining room complete with dance floor, a miniature zoo, horseback riding, a spa and swimming pool, a playground and a couple of game rooms.
Luis told us that approximately two-thirds of Salvadorians live in sub-standard housing. Thanks to the twenty-five years of effort on the part of Habitat in El Salvador and the volunteer work of a thousand volunteer teams, that situation is slowly, but surely improving.
Our media loves to cover violence and corruption. They miss some of the many truly beautiful places we saw on our trip. The people, the food, the hospitality, and the community of volunteers all working on a common mission make traveling to El Salvador well worth the effort it takes to go.