Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Junk Drawer of our Mind

Emptying out the junk drawer of our Minds
1)      Tons of things are sold in plastic bags and not the sealable ones (Cut fruit, uncut fruit, water and Juices). Sooooo, all these bags are tied tight. I’ve got Cro-magnon fingers and can’t untie any of them, Thank God I have Dianne.
2)      When you buy gas, you stand close to the attendant while he does it and make sure he puts the gas cap back on. I’ve been told; some of the attendants steal and re-sell them.
3)      Sooooo, in many of the public bathrooms and even in some restaurants and business the toilets don’t have seats. When I asked why, I was told they were stolen. How the heck to you steal a toilet seat without anyone knowing? I know that desperation causes people to do lots of things but stealing toilet seats???????????????
4)      Speaking of public bathrooms if they have toilet paper, many of them have dispensers near the sinks, that’s not to dry your hands, that’s your toilet paper. Grab some before you do your business or your S#*t out of luck. Excuse the pun.
5)      When going out always carry some tissues with you in case there is no toilet paper wherever you visit. Or again, you might be, see the pun in #4
6)      Before going to stores learn the phrase “Solo mirando”, it means only looking. Down here as soon as you enter a store a clerk is going to ask you what you want or do you need help. A quick Solo mirando, gracias, does the trick.
7)      When people stop at your house to say hello or when they see you outside and come over to say hello. You immediately get out your plastic chairs and offer them a seat, a drink and something to eat. It’s rude if you don’t.
8)      When you ask, how are you, como estas usted (don’t forget the usted) down here, unlike in the U.S., you actually mean it and be prepared to listen to peoples sickness or bad day. We care down here and we share are problems.
9)      If you come to visit during the right time of year in El Maizal, we have black moths that are huge and you’d swear they are bats, please don’t freak out. By the way, we have bats too, try not to freak out when they come around.
10)   The big red ants are creepy looking but don’t bite, it’s the darn tiny ones that bite the heck out of you. Don’t freak out
11)   We have Geckos like you read about. They are totally harmless and eat tons of bugs but they can startle you running up and down the walls. Don’t freak out
12)   If you’ve followed our facebook pages you’ll know we have Alacrans too (scorpions). Just move away before you “Freak Out”.
13)   If you’re on the bus and see someone holding something that looks like a bunch of crabs and they’re selling them. That’s what it is.
14)   When waiting in line for the bus, when the bus pulls up you find out you weren’t in a line at all, it’s every man, woman and child for themselves. You’ll be pushed to the pavement by that Grandmotherly woman behind you before you can say excuse me.
15)   At the sign of peace get ready to shake everybody’s hand. At large services, it’s a workout.
16)   You think we talk fast in Espanol. Wait till you pray with us. By the end of the Credo Niceno, you’ll be trying to catch your breath.
17)   In some showers and sinks there are 2 faucets, the one on the left is Cold and the one on the right is, wait for it>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> Cold. We call it refreshing.
18)   When you’re on the bus and it looks like you literally most climb over people to get on and off. Well, yes that’s what we all do and nobody gets mad. You can’t either.
19)   We found out where all the old school buses in the United States went to die. You have 3 guesses the 1st 2 don’t count.
20)   Here’s the main driving tip for down here. You must drive very aggressively but always in a careful way.
21)   Once they found out I was an accountant, all the guys have assumed I don’t know anything about manual labor. It’s funny at first but gets tiring fast. I do know how to shovel and rake without instructions by the way.
22)    Everybody loves us and wants to help us but sometimes you do feel like saying “Leave me alone”.
23)   The metric system is in full use here. Gas is by the liter, soda is by the liter, we travel kilometers and the land is measured in Hectares. But, go buy some Chicken, beef, rice or beans, it’s by the pound?????? Go figure.
24)   You know the dollar coins that we refuse to embrace and use in the U.S.? That’s all we use here, I don’t remember the last time I’ve seen a dollar bill.
25)   Since we’re on money. Even though many things can be bought with change, pennies just don’t get used much.
26)   Buying margarine that doesn’t require refrigeration take some getting used to. The yellow dye and the fact it only melts at very high temps is also very different.
27)   I’ve never so many varieties of Tang in all my life. It’s not just orange. You can get it in Cinnamon, passion fruit and tropical flavors we’ve never heard of. There’s even a milky sweet one.
28)    I think I’ve died and gone to heaven because in the Campos, hot dogs seem to be one of the staples and they are individually wrapped. If you haven’t figured it out, I love Hot Dogs
29)   If anyone ever offers you Pacaya, just say NO. Don’t think, Hmmm that sounds exotic, Hmmm maybe just a taste. We’re telling you right now, say NO.
30)   Our personal record for passengers inside our 4 door pickup is 10.  Four in the front six in the back. It was pouring so no one was in the bed.
31)   Sometimes I’m so filthy and sweaty from working in the fields, I empty my pockets, take off my belt, glasses and shoes and walk directly into the show to rinse the filth off the clothes and then off me. That’s just the rinse cycle, Dianne must still wash them to get them clean.
32)   If you ladies want to get rid of or avoid getting bat wings, start doing laundry by hand. Diannes arms are getting ripped.
33)   When I first starting using a corbo (Machete)and was pruning trees, on a missed swing, I must have flung it 20 feet. It might explain #21
34)   If we knew then what we know now, 5 years ago we would have come here and opened up a tienda selling only Hair Gel (Boys and men) and dark eyeliner pencils and hair ties for the women. We’d be retired right now eating Papusas and sipping Pilsners by the playa.
35)   You don’t like cold showers, then don’t shower in the morning after the water in the storage tank has cooled off. You shower in the late afternoon when that tanks been sitting in the sun all day.
To be continued………………………………………………….

Tom y Dianna

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

For you are all one in Christ Jesus

She has such a beautiful smile; it’s one of those smiles that make her whole face beam happiness when it appears. It’s never forced and she wears it well. We all know people like this; the smile is just a natural part of their appearance. That’s why when I saw her sitting at the table talking with our local Sacerdote (priest), hands cradling her forehead as she looked down speaking softly, it was sorrowful to see. A face that was always a source of an infectious smile was now desperate and worried a source of instant concern. You see, her father has left the family in order to better their lives.

She’s the middle daughter who’s around 16, her older sister is 17 or 18 and the youngest daughter is 13. The family is headed by 2 hardworking, loving and caring parents. They run a local tienda and they farm a Manzana (about ¾ of an acre) of land they use for Maiz, Maisillo y frijoles (corn, livestock feed and beans). They also maintain a productive yard of a few banana trees, a mango tree and a large flock of chickens. This is not a family that sits still waiting for life to get better or get worse; they make way the best they can. The family also attends our local church and the daughters regularly attend bible study with us. They regularly participate as lectors.

The older daughter works as a nanny for a family that live outside of our community, she leaves before 8AM and doesn’t get home till after 5:30PM. The two younger daughters run the store. Their tienda (store) will always hold a special place for me and Dianne because it’s the 1st place we made our presence known in the community outside the church. We’d go there to buy a bag of rice, beans or zanahorias (carrots, no lie, that’s the word for carrots) but it was the process that was fun. Why you ask? Well, we had to try out our espanol on the 2 younger daughters. In my best espanol I’d say, como estan ustedes, quieres arroz y frijoles, puedo tengo un libra de ambos? How are you, do you have rice and beans, may I have a pound of both. That’s when they’d look back at me with a look of utter bewilderment. My Massachusetts accent and terrible pronunciation made my espanol sound like a rare form of Klingon used in only the remotest part of our universe. They would giggle and respond back and we would give them our bewildered look because we didn’t understand a word of what they said and these two gringos now fully understood what immersion in another language meant. The whole communication process broke down into finger pointing, head nods, with interjections of my espanol, their giggles and them finally counting out my money for me because of course I couldn’t understand what sietenta y cinco was (.75 cents). That’s not all either; Dianne and I would now take the walk of shame. As we left the store to walk home we’d hear both girls talking, giggling and full-fledged laughing. I’d look at Dianne and say, “you know that’s about us” and she’d respond “you think” and we’d have our laughing moment. It wasn’t discouraging it was actually lots of fun communicating with these young girls, that I looked forward to (I think they did too) and now it’s no big deal at all. On a final note it wouldn’t have been so much fun if they weren’t so kind and compassionate to Dianne and I as strangers that they didn’t know. They helped us learn the language but we also learned from them the relief of receiving the love of God, the kindness and compassion in a helpless situation that Jesus calls us to give all our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Their dad was one of my working campaneros. He was a tireless worker who wielded his corbo (machete) with ease on any task whether we were cutting grass or framing the new greenhouse. He also showed me how to properly clean and sharpen it. At first he didn’t talk much to me but as he saw me using my terrible espanol to talk with the other workers, he soon was looking at me smiling and shaking his head in amusement. I considered that progress. Then it finally happened, he started telling me how to use the corbo with better technique and that this was how you cared for it. I barely understood what he said because he talked with machine gun speed and others had to translate my enspanol to him but we were friends now. He respected my work ethic and he was one of my mentors that I depended on in the campos. He’s also the caring dad who walks his daughters down to the bus when they must go shopping and stays with them till the bus comes, so he knows that part of their trip is safe. When they return he goes down and walks them home. Not all that different from us protective dads in the U.S. It’s touching to see.

The Mom, well as all you Mom’s at home know, she is the glue that holds it all together. She works in the tienda, works in their field, washes the clothes and cooks. The daughters all help but as usual Mom is the anonymous presence that makes everything look easy because she goes from one labor intensive job to another because she loves her family and everything else suffers if she isn’t that tireless worker too. Plus Mom is the one who sometimes gives us extra Papusas’s when we occasionally buy them on Sundays. The girls got their smile from mom tambien (also)

Unbeknownst to that family they are a part of our life. That’s why when we recently returned from a weeklong stay in San Salvador we immediately noticed the father wasn’t around. We didn’t see him working, he wasn’t at the tienda, and his presence was noticeably missing. I finally asked a friend where he was, we were afraid he fell ill.

We found out that he had been thinking for quite some time about emigrating to the U.S. in order to earn substantially higher wages to help his family. In El Salvador as a laborer he can make $4 to $6 per day if he is lucky. He knew that in the United States a laborer with his skill set can make $6 to $10 per hour. I won’t insult you all by doing the math; the financial benefit of this decision is tremendous.

So what do you do when you decide to go to the U.S.? You contact a coyote and pay upwards of $6,000 for passage to the U.S. and you tell no one till you leave. You travel by different modes and if you are lucky you walk into the U.S. 8 days later. If you aren’t lucky it can take anywhere from 15 to 30 days. If things go badly you can be arrested and jailed wherever you are, you get arrested and deported, you injure yourself or get sick and you are abandoned to fend for yourself or you potentially die during the trip for various reasons including untreated injuries/sickness, exposure to the elements or murder. During all this time the immigrant cannot have any phone contact with anyone. The family never hears from the traveler till they reach the U.S. The family must wait and pray that a phone call comes and as I pointed out sometimes you never get the call and the family is left to wonder what happened. In regards to when the father will return home, no sabemos (we don’t know). Getting back is just as dangerous as getting in.

 I’m sure some people think they know about this but you don’t know about it, you only know the stereotyped story that labels the immigrant as an illegal. The immigrant story most of you hear is in the sole context that they are a threat to our way of life in the U.S. (that statement screams entitlement of the privileged), they are criminals and a drain on our system (a statement that is very debatable when you look at independent studies of the financial pros and cons) or they are coming to solely live off our welfare system.

None of these apply to my friend and the argument can be made that they don’t apply to the vast majority of illegal immigrants. Our friend knows what he needs to do in order to help his family. He’s being courageous, willing to risk life and limb to get this done. What father presented with the same situation and limited options wouldn’t consider taking the same risks?

A wife is missing her husband, children are missing their doting father and a man must take risks that most of us know nothing about for his love of family. I’ve seen the daughter’s tears caused by the pain of missing their Papi (Daddy). People need to stop believing these lies about immigrants with descriptions that only breed, resentment, hate and fear of our fellow man. Its political rhetoric meant to garner support of some voters by filling them with fear and hate of complete strangers.  It’s called scapegoating by creating a narrative about people that’s false but it’s effective because few people know the truth or many deny the truth so they can deny their responsibilities to their fellow man.

 We have the same story about one of neighbors who lives behind us. She left her son, husband and mother to work in the U.S. We don't know if she arrived safely or not. It's more than sad to think people must make these sacrifices and take these risks to just improve their family’s lives from miserable poverty to livable poverty. Let me point out nobody is getting rich except for those who traffic our fellow brothers and sisters who are in desperate situations. These stories are quite common.

I had concerns about blogging on this because of it being a political hot button but in reality we are very close to a reasonable reform if our politicians who call themselves Christians remember "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."  Galatians 3:28.  If men of political power lived their faith instead of professing it to garner votes, many of our social problems could be reasonably resolved.

Put immigration on a personal level. Look at the families of your closest friends and neighbors and imagine them being torn apart like this. We didn’t imagine it we saw it and we knew what we had to do. We visited them with our Books of Common Prayer and together we all prayed for loved ones, for protection and for travelers. If Dianne and I have learned anything that we can share with you it is this. Don’t believe the narratives of the poor, the immigrants or any strangers that you’ve been fed all these years. These stereotypical descriptions tend to be steeped in hate and fear.  Think of our faith and not the stereotypes next time.

1 John 2:9-11

Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness. Anyone who loves their brother and sister lives in the light, and there is nothing in them to make them stumble. But anyone who hates a brother or sister is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness. They do not know where they are going, because the darkness has blinded them.




Tom & Dianne

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Our constant companion

He that believeth hath everlasting Life

Sadly last night we found ourselves sitting at another final memorial service for a young friend who had passed away. These services are normally 9 days after the death or burial.

On Thursday night of October 23rd we found out that a young man who attended bible study with us in a neighboring community (Positos) passed away. Gustavo Enrique Nunez was only 15 and his mother Victoria hosted bible study at her house, which we have attended many times. He was also the brother and Brother-in-Law (Yerno) of our friends Yuri and Alfredo (our previous Deacon). Thursday at about 5PM Fr. Mario came to our house and told us the news and our help was needed. We spent from 5 PM to 1:30 AM driving back and forth to a Hospital in the City of Santa Ana so the family could make arrangements for the body. I didn't drive but a community member who knows the country very well did. When we returned from Santa Ana the grieving mother, Victoria, rode in our truck. Dianne and I listened as she spoke about her son to our friend Alberto, the driver. It was heartbreaking as she talked about how he just bought a bicycle and as she told the story and repeated how he said “Por favor Mami”when he requested permission, she broke down and cried remembering that moment, we did also. Gustavo was her last child, the baby of the family and the only child who was still living at home.

The next day Dianne and I travelled to the next town Cara Sucio to transport family members back to Victoria’s house. Early that morning in their grief they took the bus to that town to purchase food for all the people who would be visiting the house. We went back to Victoria’s to drop everyone off. We were surprised to find that Gustavo’s’ body was already at the house. One room was adorned with flowers, candles and a large Cross at the head of his casket. Gustavo’s Casket was in the center with a framed picture of him sitting on top. Gustavo was a handsome young man with a bright smile that he wore almost every time I saw him. He was a good boy who attended school, bible study and church regularly. He was very interested in attending the English classes Dianne and I will be starting  in that community. He also was aware of the gang activity in that community and avoided it by staying at home with his friends instead of being in the streets exposed to recruiting by the gangs. From what I knew of him, he had his head on straight for a young boy and wanted to better himself. Two key attributes I believe you need to possess in this country if you want to have a chance of improving on your current situation. We paid our respects and visited with his mother.

As we visited and waited to see what schedule would be for the next couple of days, as is common thoughts of the departed goes through your mind. For instance last Sunday was the last time I saw Gustavo, I was showing him and other kids my truck. I remember having to go up to him and say " Mi amigo, lo siento, yo no recordar tu nombre" my friend, I'm sorry I don't remember your name. With a broad smile he said Gustavo and extended his hand for a shake. That's the last time I saw or spoke to him. It’s amazing how a simple meeting can end up sticking with you with an attached value that you didn’t realize at the time. Soon after we took everyone back to El Maizal as the wake would be all day and many members of the community wanted to attend the wake that night.

Friday night we were supposed to bring 15 members of the community to Positos but unfortunately it started pouring buckets at 5PM and never really let up till 7PM. We had to confer with Father Mario and call off the trip because the roads would have been too hazardous. It was a very difficult decision as we know this denied Victoria additional company in this time of need. There are many harsh realities and something as simple as rain and dirt roads can deny people help when needed.    

Saturday morning was the funeral. We brought members of the community to the home and we all assembled our vehicles for the procession. The procession was made up of pick-ups and small flatbeds equipped with frames in the back to allow the most passengers as possible. The cemetery was farther away than the last one we attended so nobody walked and the procession moved much faster. It was interesting to see the procession would stop to pick up more passengers, the vehicles were crammed with mourners.

When we arrived at the cemetery we all walked in. Like the last cemetery we visited it was mostly above ground vaults but this cemetery was even larger. Let me point out that during these funerals because of the cramped quarters it is customary to walk on people’s graves (vaults) and even use them as a higher vantage point to view the actual ceremony. I was standing on a high vault with about 6 other people in order to view the service.

Because of Gustavo’s age he had many classmates there, most of them in their school uniforms. It was very moving to watch them all file by the vault paying their last respects. The grief stricken family was last. It was exceedingly difficult to watch friends suffer like this; Dianne and I were moved to grief ourselves. After his vault was sealed we all returned to our homes and our thoughts were with Victoria and hoping somehow the void in her heart could be filled while the memories could slowly go from grief to cherished moments of his life. We have never experienced such grief but that hope is all we could pray for.

With the recent deaths in the communities we live and share Gods mission with, I found myself concerned with the fact that maybe the tragedy of young unnecessary deaths might be our constant companion.  It took me a few days to realize I was looking at this all wrong. Of course these deaths are tragic and we should never be accustomed or accepting to the fact that in many cases in this country and many like it they are caused indirectly and sometimes directly by social injustice. The reality is that if we live in this world we will always experience death.  However, as a Christian I believe I gave death too much emphasis in our lives. It’s not a comrade or friend, words associated with companion. It is merely something closely related to our state of being or part of our life cycle, no more, no less.

When we look closer at any tragedy our companion is not death, it is not grief, it is not suffering. It is the One who gives us hope. It is the Christ that will never leave our sides. He can’t stop our human suffering at these times but He gave us this message to give us Fortaleza (strength) “I am with you always, even to the end of age”.  We need to grieve, it is part of our healing, it is part of our human existence but we can’t forget who our true Companion is.

Friday, October 25, 2013

He’s had a long journey but he’s home now

About 3 months ago our neighbors Don Florencio, Dona Lydia and their family found out that their Grandson, Marvin Gonzalo Hernandez Aquino, was struck by a car and killed in Mexico. He was only 21 years old. It was an extremely sad time for them but also a financial crisis. His body was in Mexico and there was no way to get it returned to El Salvador. The cost was going to be considerable and the dollars were needed right away or the body would be discarded. This family not only had to deal with the suffering of loss but also the possibility not being able to bury a family member with the care and love we would want for all our loved ones.  It was very hard for everyone but fortunately they found an agency that was able to help them retrieve Marvin’s body.  This was not easy, as they had to travel various times to San Salvador to fill out applications and provide documentation. All the while the body was held in Mexico.

Dianne and I witness the many challenges of people born into poverty like this but this was one aspect we never considered. The need for jobs causes people to leave their home countries but what happens if there’s a tragedy like this? Unfortunately most people, in this situation, don’t have the funds or know anyone who can help them. Sometimes a loved one is simply discarded. It’s a harsh reality to swallow.

As Dianne and I have found out numerous times since we have accepted this mission, our Lord truly works in mysterious ways.

We spent this past week in San Salvador finalizing immigration papers, meeting with Bishop Barahona about the Mission in El Maizal and we thought we were going to have a meeting about buying a car in the near future. The meeting about purchasing a vehicle was not about the future, it was about us buying one, right then and there. We’re now the happy owners of an Isuzu Pickup. We thought to ourselves, wow was that fast and thought of all the things we needed and could do in the future. Otra vez (again) the future was now. There was a great need in the community that we were not even aware of yet.

When I called our community to tell them the news and when we were returning, Nelson told me that Marvin’s (Florencios Grandson) body was being returned on Friday, the same day we were coming back to El Maizal.  Friday was a world wind of a day. I drove from San Salvador to El Maizal, then El Maizal to San Salvador, back to El Maizal before we could find out what the schedule was for Marvin’s services. 

God fast tracked the truck for a reason. Our help was needed to transport family members back from the cemetery where they were preparing the grave and then go to another community to see about renting a canopy.  After that, Dianne and I attended Marvin’s funeral service. At that time a member of the family asked if I would transport the Casket, Don Florencio and Dona Lydia to the cemetery the following morning. I was caught off guard because of it being such and out of the ordinary request.  I quickly agreed to such and honor and responsibility, the thought of helping them like that was quite moving, to be honest.

The Evening Service was a combination wake and funeral. When we arrived at the Church the casket was on display with a picture of Marvin, he was a handsome young man; it’s such a sad loss.  The casket was in the center of the church with the pews to the side and chairs set up in their place. Many people were outside talking, eating and drinking while some of us sat in the church. We waited almost 2 to 3 hours for the 5PM service to start and during that time family and friends came in and out of the church to view the casket and pay their respects. It was a great sense of community and family with so many people and children milling about. The service was Burial of the Dead Rite one and I was given the privilege of reading Salmo 1. The only difference was at the end the visiting priest had us say the Hail Mary with our closing prayers. The strong Catholic presence in Central America is ever present even in an Episcopal service. I’m a former Catholic and praying to Mary during times of trouble has always had an appeal and calming effect for me. I still say Hail Mary’s in time of trouble.

The service was followed by a family all-night vigil at the church. Mattresses were brought in so people could rest but much of the time was spent just being together. Dianne and I didn’t attend the vigil but visited for a short period after the service.

The following morning was the burial. The family had left the vigil, freshened up, ate and returned to the Church. It was very sad to see our neighbors go through such sadness; in particular Lydia was very overwrought and crying. We couldn’t help but cry ourselves. Grandparents are not supposed to bury their grandchildren. Marvin’s Uncles were the Pall bearers and they carried the Casket to my truck and placed it in the back, surrounded it with the flowers and tied it in place. In my truck Florencio, Lydia and 2 of their grandchildren travelled with Dianne and I. The procession was our vehicle 1st, followed by 2 other trucks and a number of people walking. I drove far to the right at a walking pace with emergency lights flashing. I want to mention that as cars passed us and people on the side of the road watched, many of them made signs of the cross in prayer for the dead and the family. As we crept along trailers and motorists passed us at breakneck speeds but we solemnly kept our pace.

The cemetery was about 3 miles down the road. We had to weave through a small community to a soccer field that was also the entrance to the cemetery. The cemetery was bursting with mostly above the ground vaults, no more than a foot apart. In some areas the vaults are in front of each other and I have no idea how people get to the vaults in the back except by standing on the ones in front. A few graves were just mounds of dirt but most are cement vaults. What’s interesting is that the families make and maintain these vaults. That’s what the men were doing the night before when I picked them up there.  I know I’m describing something very foreign but in a way very beautiful.  Numerous vaults are either painted very nicely of a solid color or have tiles that make up the outside and many have flowers placed on them. You can see and feel the respect that people have for their passed loved ones by viewing how some of them are maintained.  The path into the cemetery is so small that you need to back in and then drive out. I tried my best to back in but eventually one of the men in the family volunteered to back in. I gladly handed him my keys.  In no place on the path do you have much more than a foot or 2 of clearance on both sides and in many places it’s only 6 inches to a foot.  Let me add the path is not recto (straight).

The vault was about a hundred yards into the cemetery and when we arrived, saw horses were put in place so the Casket could then be placed there surrounded by flowers.  The Pall bearers somberly brought the Casket to its place and the grave side service commenced. It was not an Episcopal nor Catolica Romano (Roman Catholic), I believe it was Evangelical. The preacher spoke enthusiastically for over 1 ½ hours only interrupted by some standard prayers and hymns.  As we listened I couldn’t help but notice that a frozen ice vendor had followed us.  In this heat he was doing good business. I avoid them because it’s simply a big block of ice (of unknown origin) being shaved into a cup with syrup put on it.  It looks tasty but not worth the risk.

As the service came to an end the family performs its final acts of respect for Marvin. The family places the casket into the shallow vault using ropes. The family then places bouquets inside the vault. Then as we all watch, braces are placed just above the casket, on the braces a sheet of corrugated aluminum is fitted into places, on top of that is a welded grate and then paper is stuffed into any openings on the side. The men of the family then mix a large pile of cement, by hand on the ground next to the vault. Two men shovel and mix while others add water, once the correct thickness is obtained they then take turns shoveling it on top of the grates. It’s finally smoothed over. The men then use bricks to create a form of a cross next to the vault and fill it with cement, when it’s hardened that cross will be put on the vault.  Lastly the family places the remaining flowers either on or around the grave and leave.

As I drove out, there was a sense of finality for Florencio and Lydia. They talked normally and even chuckled about something.  The night before a family member said they personally were over the suffering but now just wanted this whole tragedy to be put to a close. 3 Months is a long time to deal with any tragedy let alone the death of a young family member..

Many, many things about this struck me but the devotion the family showed each other struck me most. The Grandmother constantly had one of her children or grandchildren with her. The brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles all consoled one another but also shared the good memories they had. I believe this to be true because of the laughter I heard coming from the vigil. Yes families grieve but we also know that even during the grief someone is going to say, Remember when we did this, or he did that” and the great memories flood back and our tears turn to laughter and smiles.

A final interesting note is that when we all went to the cemetery many attendees had lemons with them. They’d rub them in their hands, some were partially peeled and the people where smelling them. I thought maybe they were to cover foul smells but I didn’t notice any. We finally found out later. When everything was over and we were at our house, Nelson came over. He wanted us to bring the clothes we were wearing earlier. They had a fire going and they were burning Lemons leaves creating smoke. They believe that the smoke from the lemon leaves killed off any germs from the dead bodies we were exposed to. We smoked our clothes then we stood in the smoke also. They were sniffing the lemons because they thought it would kill the germs in the air. Maybe it’s just legend or maybe it works but as they say when in Rome.

It was all quite the experience on many levels (again). I hope you will all say a prayer for Marvin, as his short journey on earth is now over. His family’s journey continues on without him and may we all have the solace that Marvin now has the joy and gladness of God’s Kingdom that awaits all of us.
Tom and Dianne

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Witnessing life

Karla, Nelson, David y Gloria

I was starting my blogs with idioms but I ran out. I finally have a new one. When you are talking about doing hard work in present, past or future tense, you say “yucca” while wiping your hand across your forehead (like you are wiping sweat). Yes, it’s yucca the vegetable similar to potato. It was explained to me that harvesting yucca is very, very hard because of the size and depths of the roots you are pulling out of the ground. When you do the action and say the word, people know what you mean. I count myself lucky that we don’t grow yucca in El Maizal, yet.


Last month our good friend Neslon Caranza, our companero, our constant source of help during our transition to our new country and home, accompanied us to the City of Sonsanate for some shopping. We joke that he is our personal security guard although in reality, he actually is. In previous years he worked as a security guard in San Salvador and Acajutla. As we shopped and chatted we noticed his demeanor was different. When we finally asked him about it he said he was infermo (sick). We left the mall and headed home, it’s a two bus trip that takes an hour, mas y menos (more or less). By the time we got to the terminal for our transfer he was burning up. When we finally arrived home, he was walking in extreme pain.


We went to visit him the following day and his family told us he was at the Hospital. Luckily we saw him when he returned on the bus that evening. He was still sick and was tired from the bus rides. Keep in mind that as sick as he was he took 4 buses and spent over 2 hours on buses today just to see the Doctor and return home.  The Hospital wanted him to be admitted but he doesn’t have the money for that. He had to return home with medicine and descanso (rest). He has problems with his kidneys diagnosed as a severe infection. One of the problems is that healthcare is limited for the poor. They can go to the free clinics but they have little to no medicines or equipment to help diagnose what they are seeing. The poor can go to the better hospitals but then they don’t have the money to take advantage of the better medicines, testing and certainly can’t afford to be hospitalized. It’s a vicious circle that doesn’t help much at all unless you have insurance or have personal wealth. In our new country neither is common for most people.


He’s a young man only 35 but this is a common medical problem for men in El Salvador and can have deadly consequences. For instance he is one of 3 friends that we know who is dealing with this and we’ve only been here 7 months, they are just the ones we know about. A man like Nelson makes his living off the land like many men in this country. It requires hard physical work to be conducted in the very hot sun. Dehydration is a constant issue and many times the water they drink is not clean.  On top of that they are exposed to the toxic effects of herbicides and insecticides that are used with little regard to its exposure to the workers. They themselves don’t always understand the dangers of handling these materials with no safety equipment like gloves or masks to filter out the


Our lives here are a great experience but we’re not here to soak in the sights and sounds. One of the things we have done is become part of the community and be their friends. It all sounds great and it is until you realize you don’t just experience and see the good things. It’s also about witnessing life in poverty, the structural injustices that deprive our friends of basic human rights (including healthcare) and knowing it just doesn’t have to be with way. There’s a feeling of helplessness in the face of these man made situations our world puts people in, be it here in El Maizal or Worcester, MA.


I know at home what a flashpoint universal healthcare is but just put the dollars aside for one minute and think about the suffering that no healthcare causes. These are real people that we impose suffering on so casually, when we protect our tax dollars before we provide healthcare to the least of those in society.


Matthew 25:40

"The King will reply, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.'




Tom & Dianne

Thursday, August 29, 2013

El Proyecto de Agricola – The past, the present, the future and the hope.

Youths from El Maizal & Izalco and Nelson Caranza Asst. Director


This picture is from an event our agricultural project held recently.  Senor Cabeza is the head of the Diocesan Agricultural projects and has been working with the Diocese for 12+ years. His Assistant is Senor Nelson Caranza, Nelson lives in our Community of El Maizal.  Senor Cabeza's original main task was overseeing the Centro de Capacion, El Maizal Divina Providencia, (The El Maizal Divine Providence Training Center). In his tenure as Director he has expanded the project to include 4 other communities; Congo, Izalco, Cuilapa and Amatal. Under his guidance and with the hard work of many dedicated members of the project, they have maximized the agricultural resources of the communities through extensive training in all phases of agriculture. 

Left to right - Senor Cabeza and Senor Nelson Caranza
Young Ladies of the Youth Agriculture Project
On the far left is Cristina, President of the youth Project

Initially the training was for all interested community members. Then the training was aimed at the jovenes (youths) and mujeres (women). The youths of the community belong to the 4C’s, Corazon (heart), Cabeza (head), Conicimiento (knowledge) and Cooperacion (Cooperation). Between the 5 communities there are almost 50 youths involved in the programs, with 17 members being from El Maizal. The house next to ours is used as a large storage shed for all their supplies.  Dianne and I get to see them daily. The womens group has 100 members with 20 of them from El Maizal. To give them their own identities and promote their own autonomy both groups are trained separately with meetings happening almost every week.

The Women's Agriculture Project logo

When the Agricultural project was 1st started in approximately 2002, Mr. Cabeza had the foresight that in order to be a steady revenue source for the Diocese, part of the project should be the forestry of hardwoods. With funding from ERD, U.S. Dioceses and U.S. Churches, in El Maizal we now have stands of Teak, Eucalyptus and African hardwoods.  These were all planted at different times so there will be multiple harvests going into the future. These stands are self-sustaining as the saplings at the base of the trees are dug up and used to start other stands. It’s always fun to speak with people from the U.S. who have visited El Maizal and some tell us how they were part of Mission Service groups who planted the original Teak Trees. Those same trees are only about 6 years from harvest and most of them stand over 20 feet tall now.

Harvesting Teak saplings

We also have Mango, Lime, and Coconut tree groves (you put the lime and the coconut and drink it all up, oops I digress).  There’s also Avocado, Black Pepper, Maringas (trees of life), Cinnamon (Canela), Guava, Jocote (local fruit), Plantain, Banana trees and Orange trees. They aren’t full-fledged groves but there are many of them in proximity to the groves I mentioned. Most of these trees you’ll recognize but you probably don’t know that they aren’t all native to El Salvador. They are the fruit (excuse the pun but I just had too) of one of Mr Cabeza’s ideas. He wanted to look at other areas of the world with similar climates, identify what they grow there and decide how they might benefit the people of El Salvador.
Mother and Child working the rice paddy

There are also vegetables grown in our 2 greenhouses. The greenhouses are large bamboo framed structures covered with heavy duty white netting that allows in sun and rain in but protects the vegetables from the very strong direct sunlight. In the greenhouse we grow various types of tomatos, pepinos (cucumbers), lechuga (lettuce), repillo (cabbage), cauliflower and radishes. Surrounding the Greenhouse, pinas (pineapples) are grown and another section is devoted to various spices such as chives, oregano, rosemary, spearmint and other. In this same area is a relatively large section reserved for planting of corn, in an area that is prone to collecting water run off there is a rice paddy and I recently helped plant soy in another area. All of these areas that I have mentioned are used as living classrooms for the 4C’s, the women’s group and other interested parties.

It’s all wonderful work and has improved the lives of the communities in many ways. In communities that rely heavily on Corn to feed themselves the fruits and vegetables provide additional vitamin rich food options to ward off malnutrition. This knowledge has allowed people who must watch every last penny to save money by increasing their harvests and growing additional foods instead of buying them. Finally as any farmer knows better than I, there’s a certain sense of accomplishment when cosecha (harvest) time comes and you see the production of all your labor.

There's  a part that I don't want overlooked. It's the future that is being built here. In many poor communities planning for the future is overlooked because trying to just achieve the daily needs takes all your time.  Planning is a luxury of free time that they don't have. In El Maizal it's not just the investment in trees, vegetables and fruits that will produce a brighter future, it's the investment in people. Between the women's and youths groups there are 150 people who now know or are in the process of learning how to better feed themselves and their families, invaluable life skills. All of them can take pride in their hard work and what they have accomplished. In the 150 people are 50 youths who have been given an option and opportunity (opportunity - another luxury not seen in poor communities) to improve their and their families future. Often the youths are described by a single story in El Salvador, Gangs and lives of crime. Projects like these help remove that stigma.

This project has planted seeds in more ways than one.

This is what we are about:
We plant seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.

ArchBishop - Oscar Romero


Tomas y Dianna


Sunday, August 11, 2013

Mano en Mano

My essentials in the campos
Raul & Francisco (check out the height of the grass)
They spend much of their time bent over like on the right, their stamina is amazing

As I walk through the waist high grass at 7:30 AM, already soaked through all my clothes with sweat, a roll of hay hanging over my head on my trienche (pitchfork), praying that a scorpion or arana (spider) doesn’t drop on me, I say to myself, “self”, you asked for it J.

You see about 2 weeks ago I started asking mi amigo Nelson (Assistant Director of the Agricultural Project) if I could work with the project. Nelson would smile and say Tomas, manana (tomorrow) or le llamarle’ (I’ll call you). Tomorrow comes and no Nelson, no call.  We played this game a couple times till I told him, I’m here to help, let me help. He smiled and said manana and I thought here we go again.                   
Tomorrow comes and this time Nelson shows up and my active membership in the Agricola Proyecto (Agricultural Project) starts (be careful what you ask for).  Since then I’ve planted Teak saplings with Claudia, another member of the project. We planted about 50 trees over 2 days. I’ve also pruned Teak arboles (trees) with Nelson using our corbos (machetes). I’ve planted corn, soy and also fertilized the churches corn crop with Santos, Gloria, Yury and Laura. With Erick and Nelson’s help our park was cleared for the kids to use.
Finally here I am waist deep in grass. For the last 4 days Raul, Francisco and I have cleared ½ of a soccer field so it can be used. We started every day between 6:30 to 7:00 AM, stopping at 11:30 or 12. The grass and weeds were 2 feet to 6 feet high. Raul and Francisco use a hooked stick to hold up the grass while swinging the corbo to cut right along the ground. As they progress they use the stick to pull the cut grass behind them and move forward. This is where I come in. I use the pitchfork as a rake and roll the grass till I’ve formed a decent sized roll, then I take one end and twist it back over the roll and stab it down into the middle. You lift it up and you have what looks like a big bunch of cotton candy that I pile up at the edges of the field. The bundles weigh from 20 to 40 lbs.
A job well done and they cut it to within an inch of the ground with a corbo

The cleared Goal

The view from midfield at the goal in the uncleared area

It’s been one of my best experiences here because I made two friends by being present. The reason we only work 4-5 hours is because when we start the heat index is in the high 80’s and by the time we stop it’s crept to the low 100’s (101 to 105). In this heat doing this work you work for 45 minutes and rest 15 minutes slowly filling up on water (don’t gulp water in this heat). The actual work was a struggle between the heat, the sun and because of the previous nights of rain we worked in either a couple of inches of water, mud or normally both. It was very important not because of the end result but because I was earning respect from my campaneros de trabajo. First because I was actually doing this work but they came to realize I could communicate in espanol and that we had many mutual interests.
In the field when they found snakes, we talked about snakes. They found turtles we talked about turtles. They noticed (everybody notices) that I sweat so much I dripped from head to toe they joked about it saying, “I was leaking”. During the breaks it was more of the same, we talked about our families, sports, food and the good and bad things about El Salvador and my country the U.S.  Raul worked in the U.S. for 2 years in California and knew a little English which helped facilitate the conversations. Francisco at first was very quiet but with Raul explaining my Spanglish, soon Francisco was also talking to me. That was a big moment for me because I don’t think he realized I could communicate. Don’t get me wrong, my Spanish is terrible, absolutely terrible. It’s all 1st person present tense, I can only hope that ½ my verb conjugations are right and pray that ½ the words I use mean what I think they mean. The point is that it doesn’t matter. We had some great laughs (most at my expense) but I became one of the guys (and gals, there’s as many women as men in the project) during all this work.
Mano en Mano means hand in hand, in this case you could assume it’s because we were working hard and needed each other’s support. The reality was we reached out for each other’s hands in friendship by sharing the information of our lives. Everybody I’ve worked with knows more about me and me about them now and we all shared smiles and laughs. For me in mission this is what being present means, this is what accompaniment means and this is what it means when you hear people talk about the process being more important than the job. Every home, school, hospital built or skill taught is extremely important in impoverished nations but if you’re not present, if you don’t accompany the people and if you don’t take the time to make real friends (not based on being the giver and them the receiver) along the way, you’ve missed one of the great gifts God gives us when He calls us to serve. It’s the gift of giving and receiving, not of tangible assets but of ourselves.
“As we begin to strip ourselves of false securities, finding in God our true and only identity, daring to be open and vulnerable to each other, we’ll begin to live as pilgrims on a journey, discovering the God of surprises who leads us into roads which we have not travelled and we’ll find true companions on the way.”
Quote – Anonymous
Tomas y Dianna