Greetings fellow Network of Love Lovers!
I've been busy typing away at my job writing newsletters for the Vocations Office of the Milwaukee Archdiocese. But while taking a break, I thought I would post a reflection/article I wrote regarding my trip to El Salvador in May. I have already posted several blogs referencing the trip, but this article is more concise and more full, I believe, than the previous postings.
Just to give you a background: Our trip was through Loyola Campus Ministry and there were 10 of us in total who went to El Salvador. We stayed with families for several days in Zaragosa, El Salvador, and spent most of the rest of our time visiting various sites of importance to the history of El Salvador---to the history of the bloody civil war of that country, the struggling economic situation of its history, and to the history of the Catholic Church in El Salvador. There are many Christian martyrs who have played a role in shaping the outcome of the history of El Salvador. It really is a country filled with a rich, dramatic, and, at times very difficult to stomach, history.
My reflection deals primarly with the host family who welcomed me into their home and community. I stayed with them for less than two days, but the experience has touched my heart to the point that I hope, pray really, will last a lifetme.
The Privilege of Immersion
By Bob Spoerl
I am a very privileged, fortunate undergraduate student. Several weeks ago I went to El Salvador for the second time in as many years. Again, I had the opportunity to eat a lot of pupusas (the most popular Salvadorian dish, a thick tortilla stuffed with things like refried beans and salty, tasty white cheese) and devour fried plantains just about every day. On a deeper level, I was able to spend time with some remarkable people and grow closer to God. On May 11, following the end of my Spring semester and junior year of college seminary at St. Joe’s on the campus of Loyola University Chicago, a group of eight students from Loyola University including myself and two faculty members flew out of O’Hare Airport on a flight through Houston to San Salvador, the capital city of El Salvador on our way to a ten day immersion with people from El Salvador. Our trip was part of the Alternative Break Immersion program, a division of Campus Ministry at Loyola. The immersion program (a program offered by many campuses throughout the states, including Marquette University in Milwaukee) presents students with an experience materially out of the ordinary in comparison to the general situation here in the United States.
For the first few days, we spent our time staying with host families from a city named Zaragosa. With a little over 30,000 residents, Zaragosa is a generally self-sustaining community about 45 minutes from San Salvador. Many of the people are essentially working middle class in comparison to fellow Salvadorians. For the seven person family that hosted me, this meant living in a home about the size of a 1950’s style suburban ranch home in the states. However, the construction of the home was much different than what you might find here in the mid-west of the United States. The walls of the house were made out of concrete, the roof partially exposed, and the floor was very dry, hard dirt. If a member of the house wants to shower, he dips a bucket into a tub full of water and then gently pours the water over his body. When cleaning himself, he needs to be careful to preserve the water; it is often a most delicate entity---at the time we stayed with our family, they had lacked running water for around a week from what I understood. Several backup tubs acted as storage units in case water got too low. Nevertheless, preservation of water was a must---when my friend Carl and I (Carl is a sophomore at Loyola University) helped our family by washing dishes, we realized how conscious we had to be of how much water we were using on each cup or plate or fork. For me, it became a game of how efficient my dish cleaning could be---I became a human dishwasher, keen on preserving water!
Even though we developed an awareness of the daily life of our host family on a kind of material level, the home stay was more than a realization of how the economic and material situation in Zaragosa and, by comparison much of El Salvador, affects the actual people living and breathing in the country. Beyond considering this aspect of what it means to be Salvadorian, our group was privileged enough to gain an insight into the spirit and characters of our friends in El Salvador. We actually had an opportunity to become “immersed,” as our program suggests, in a culture foreign to us but home to another. We shared stories with our host families (in broken, broken Spanish), ate meals together, slept under the same roof, and drank the same coffee (which, no argument, beats Starbucks ANYDAY). Our time became Salvadorian and our bodies became swamped in the heat of the place. And our lives, just for a short moment, became intertwined with people incredibly distant, geographically and even economically speaking, than us. Yet, an “us and them” binary became intimately and remarkably transformed into a “we” union in many ways. We were, by all appearances, the foreigners. We were clumsy in our ways, people obviously from a different place. Still, we all gathered together at the same table in Zaragosa. We all ate the same meal and we all laughed at the same jokes (even if some of them had to be translated). We all enjoyed the same music at our Zaragosa block party, and we all danced to the same beat (though some much more gracefully than others). I was a dancing fool, along with many other people in my group, and we did not care how we looked. Sure we were out of our comfort zone. But out of the zone, we were able to enter into a life full of joy and hope. Amidst all of the daily struggle our Salvadorian friends face, despite the fact that our family in Zaragosa had lost three members during a civil war in the 1980’s that left some 75,000 Salvadorians dead, despite the fact that my host grandmother had been thrown into prison by the government for several years, locked away because her husband fought for a revolutionary group seeking to overthrow the militaristic government, there was an incredible amount of faith and vitality in her spirit. She motivated me in the moments I wanted to escape back to “me;” she kept me on the path toward “we,” the place we were called to be in those tender moments with our host families.
Carl and I had an opportunity to share in scripture reading with this little old lady with a heart of gold. Our abuela (grandmother, the one who had lost her husband during the war), is a very devout Catholic. The entire family we stayed with finds a lot of strength in their Catholic faith; on their dinner table sits a Bible and on the wall directly above the table rests a kind of makeshift shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe. One afternoon, after lunch, I asked them if I could take a look at their bible; our grandmother handed it to me. As I sat there, with a most precious part of my family’s life (and I am referring now to my family in El Salvador and my family in the United States really) I opened it and considered what to do. Saying a little unwritten prayer in my head, I flipped through the pages. After less than a minute, I knew where to go with this moment---rather, I feel the Spirit was leading me to a place in this time. The place was Psalm 23---a psalm that has helped me in several dark and dreary moments during my life.
I handed Carl the bible and asked him to read it (I wasn’t trying to be mischievous, but, like me, Carl does not have much training in the Spanish language). It didn’t matter though. He read the psalm straight from his heart, with what seemed like all his heart. The words flowed smooth and methodically and, as we all listened, I felt like we were part of a very special Sacramental moment. Shepherd us O God, WE need you! I grabbed my camera and took several snapshots of Carl reading. He is a person who can be incredibly deep and serious when he needs to be, but is generally laid back and joking. So, I thought it was an opportune time to take a snapshot of Carl at a moment when he seemed to be connecting especially deeply with the Spirit all around us.
This snapshot of a moment in time is but one example of many other instances of Sacred, tender times I experienced in El Salvador. The “we” moments of our trip is what I most cherish---the times when we gathered to share in union with one another. These unified moments where filled with a variety of emotions: I think of Sunday morning mass; listening to the deeply moving guitar strums and the voice of Julieta, our faithful tour guide and spiritual mentor throughout the week. I recall a prayer said at the chapel where Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated saying mass. The prayer we read was a prayer he, a Christian martyr, had written. Our group from Loyola, we were able to share in the remembrance of a saint of the Salvadorian people. I consider the moments when we visited other martyr sites, and the incredibly difficult, painful moment of traveling to a village, El Mozote, where hundreds of innocent women and children had been brutally slaughtered out of fear that they might one day rise up and fight the government. I consider moments of embrace---times when a hug or a hand held meant the world in that moment. And in these moments, these tender moments, I realized that the face of God is transparent, whispered into our ears like a soft, gentle breeze off the Pacific Ocean on the shores of a Salvadorian beach, written into our hearts and filling them with a Love that always has something to give no matter what we materially possess.
It is not often that we have an opportunity during our busy days as people living, studying and working in the United States to take time to realize and practice the presence of God. I am fortunate to have set times during my day to pray as a college seminarian for the Milwaukee Archdiocese, and to reflect on memories of love, of God. My prayer for everyone reading this article is that you have an opportunity to consider the awesome presence of God in the everyday moments of your life. God is not just present in a trip to a different place, meeting new people. God transcends globalization and circles right back to the very place that a person calls home. To draw from the old adage, “home is where the heart is,” we might update this saying to have it read something like this: “home is where God is.” Hush, hush, someone is knocking at your door. In the silent, tender moments, may a God-who-is be an Advocate to make the “them” in your life a we, so that WE may all come to the table of plenty, marching in the light of Christ and sharing as a Community of believers.
Remember: Juntos Somos Fuertes!!! (Together we are strong!)
~ Peace and blessings ~
your friend bob : )