Thanks to a generous donation to the Berkeley Divinity School, I travelled to El Salvador last week with three other members of Berkeley for an 8-day mission trip hosted by the Episcopal Church in El Salvador.
At Yale, we had been studying the via Anglicana (the Anglican way); in El Salvador, a country still trying to recover from a bloody revolution and multiple natural disasters, we encountered the Villa Anglicana.
In response to natural disasters and the war, Episcopal Relief and Development has worked with the Episcopal Church of El Salvador, an organization called Cristo Sal, local governments, and sometimes other international organizations to build small villages for people who had no place to live and no way to survive. Four of these “villas” (communities or villages) have been built in the past decade, and they start with a similar template. Each one starts with a church, a school, a small medical clinic, and approximately 30 small homes.
During our visits, community members emphasized that the villa had given them dignity: a place to live, a place to worship, occasional medical attention, and a school for children in kindergarten through sixth grades. Some people have access to work nearby or a field in which to grow food, but other communities struggle with finding regular employment.
For all of their similarity in concept, they were very different communities with their own personalities. One community, El Maizal, has been struck repeatedly recently by robbers, and this crime spree has caused a great deal of stress. And yet, the community has a thriving farm and forest, and a professor of agriculture teaches women and young people to raise a variety of crops and to care for a wide variety of trees and medicinal herbs. Someone else comes to give workshops on preserving fruit and vegetables. Teenaged girls raise very healthy Rhode Island Red chickens.
“Se vende las frutas?” I asked the agriculture expert, Antonio. Is the fruit sold? I asked this because I wondered how the community could survive long term without generating income. Twenty minutes later, after Antonio and I had traipsed up and down a hill, chatting about my family’s roots in farming, he finally answered that question: the community needed to learn more about marketing the products.
At other Villa Anglicana sites, we found a very strong sense of community. Sometimes, that community was centered around church, and giving their children a chance at education. One community celebrated its success at working with the government to get water and electricity up to their remote location. But now they need more housing because their children are growing up and having families of their own. For now, those new families are staying under the same roof as their parents’ family, making for crowded conditions and family stress. They wonder: where will the money come from for new houses?
And I wondered: How can these communities be sustained? What responsibility do the initial partners have to continue helping those for whom these Villas Anglicana were built in 2002-2006 or so? As the world economic crisis continues, how do we determine who gets help and who doesn’t? It can be so difficult to weigh human need and suffering and favor one project over another, or a new need over an ongoing need.
I pondered these questions and more as we bumped and bounced in an Isuzu truck over rutted roads to visit our brothers and sisters in El Salvador (film to follow). I pondered this as we listened to people talk about their successes, their difficulties, their appreciation for the church in their midst or a piece of land to work, however stony. I pondered this as I looked at the frames of mission churches, some with corrugated metal walls and roofs, some waiting for walls. Those church beams wait patiently.
And so do the people of El Salvador.
For my part, I felt excited. I was excited that mission churches are being built in a land so riven by violence, even after the war. I was excited that I was there to see it, and to see corn, children, and congregations growing.
And I want to go back.