Monday, August 23, 2010

Random Film Review

As usual I arrived to the theater without a plan. I knew neither the films nor the times they played. After realizing that we had a choice between waiting an hour and a half or trying to beat the previews, my fiends and I decided to rush in and catch The Karate Kid with Jackie Chan.

In this film, a single mother from Detroit and her son get the chance to start a new life halfway across the world in Beijing. The boy, Dre Parker, struggles to adjust to the world his mother finds so intriguing, despite the fact that the culture resembles that of the U.S. in every way, at least according to what the movies tell us. Perhaps he has such a hard time for this very reason. The school he attends comes complete with school lunch bullies to contest, and cute girls to woo. This combination leads to big trouble. Fortunately, the maintenance man at his apartment complex knows kung-fu. He bargains a truce between Dre and his enemies by convincing them to settle their differences in an upcoming kung-fu tournament. The maintenance man now has to teach his new pupil kung-fu, hence The Karate Kid. Yeah, I don't understand the title either.

As I watched this movie, I couldn't help but compare Dre's new life in a strange land to my experiences here. I have never traveled to China. I don't really know anything about life there, so I will just assume that everything I see in this movie accurately represents real life, which we know Hollywood movies always do.

For those who arrive late, the film opens with Dre in a public park in Beijing challenging some old men to ping-pong. Shortly after realizing his inadequacy in this endeavor, another kid his age challenges him to talk to the cute girl sitting on a nearby park bench. This begins a fascinating exchange of dialogue, not because it revealed anything interesting about the characters, but rather because it revealed something about Hollywood's China that surprised me. Shortly after a failed attempt at speaking Chinese, Dre realizes that she already speaks his language.

For English-speakers who've traveled the world, it comes as no surprise that our hero could find a place where people speak English. But I find it wholly remarkable how everyone there speaks fluent Spanish. I would have guessed that as many people speak Spanish in China as speak Chinese in El Salvador: a few, but you'd really have to know where to look. Some will say that they really did speak English and relied on dubbing to communicate to a larger audience. Nonsense! I like to think that China sees the Spanish-speaking world as an important cultural influence, a world power with whom they need to communicate if they want to compete economically and hold prestige in their lives. Surely everyone pays attention to every move Spanish-speaking countries make. Such communication would bring honor and success to many.

Shortly after his exchange with the girl, a bully challenges Dre to a fight then executes several dishonorable moves as he submits our hero to an embarrassing defeat. This bully, it turns out, belongs to the prestigious Kung-Fu School of Evil, or something like that, who chants its motto, "No weakness, no pain, no mercy," at every meeting. This kung-fu club will cause hardship for Dre until Jackie Chan's character negotiates the tournament solution. They constantly threaten and intimidate him to the point where they endanger his physical and psychosocial wellbeing. Fortunately, he finds a way to overcome his oppressors. He finds a tradition that keeps the violent powers from drowning his hopes and his soul. The tradition shows him a better way.

Unfortunately, too many organizations throughout the world really do live by the creed, "No weakness, no pain, no mercy." Too many choose to solve problems with violence. Too many people have to face the reality of that violence every day. In The Karate Kid, we see how a group of people who push their weight around while marking their territory can disrupt the lives of everyone else. As hard as Dre had it in Hollywood's China though, he had an easy life compared to many in the world. He could leave and explore the city with friends feeling perfectly safe. His bullies only bothered him and did not come after his family members. They did not use firearms. They did not require their members to kill just to join. Too many people around the world face the reality of violence every day.

El Salvador has seen its share of violence through the years. It has a history plagued with massacres and war. Though those have passed, the violence has hardly let up. Organized gangs push their weight around and mark their territory. People who live or work where they operate have to pay a "rent" if they want to pass without physical harm. The country of El Salvador can expect ten to fifteen or more murders every day, despite the efforts of the police and armed forces. The weight of violence can break people down, and we can't just negotiate a peaceful tournament for a nice Hollywood ending. Yet the people, like Dre, need to find a way to overcome their oppressors. The people need a tradition that keeps the violent powers from drowning our hope, from drowning our souls. For this reason, the Salvadoran Lutheran Church stands together with other faiths and organizations in proclaiming, "No more violence!"

This year, the Lutheran Church of El Salvador celebrates its 24th anniversary with the theme, "No to violence, yes to life," to guide its ministries for the year. In the days leading up to the anniversary on August 6th, we held several events in honor of this goal, culminating in a march through the streets of San Salvador.

People from all across the country gather for the march.

Several congregations and organizations make banners
that reflect the theme.

"No more violence!"
"The youth ask for peace."

The march takes us through the heart of San Salvador.

Bishop Gómez, international bishops, clergy,
and many others help lead the way.

We march toward the Lutheran church La Resurrección.

We hold the church service in the street to accommodate all the people.

They display all the banners in front of the stage.

Thousands showed up to the march, giving an impressive demonstration of the values of the church. But no event impressed me more than the preceding retreats for youth and women. A visiting group invited me to the women's retreat to translate, so I had the good fortune to witness such a moving event. They invited participants to come forward to share their thoughts on this year's theme.

Many women spoke, providing some powerful testimonies. But few complained of the hardship associated with the gangs, though those experiences certainly remained on their minds. Instead they called the women to come together and each do her part in reducing the violence. Violence often begins at home, and we each have a responsibility to create an atmosphere of peace. We aim not to take down the institutions that plague us, but to build up ourselves and the communities we take part in every day. If we act violently before our children, then our children learn violence, but a house that works for peace will have children that work for peace. Whoever we are, we can take actions that proclaim louder than words, "No to violence, yes to life!"

At the youth retreat, teenagers from all over the country broke up into groups to discuss the various types of violence: psychological, emotional, cultural, and others which often lead to physical violence. They then brainstormed ways that the youth could include everyone, and commit to building a society not based on fear, but on love. Dre from The Karate Kid made a commitment to long hours of training and discipline to overcome his oppressors. In the same way, the Lutheran youth of El Salvador have made commitments that should challenge youth everywhere, that we can work together to help those around us. When we see somebody suffering, we can say, "No more violence."

Everyone can take part in a tradition that keeps the violent powers from drowning our hope. Dre found it in the ancient art of kung-fu. The Karate Kid provided a simple, fun diversion from the real world and a refreshing breather from the effects-driven films Hollywood normally puts out. But this diversion calls out to a deep-seeded human need, the need to take part in something greater, something that will help us stand up to the craziness and provide the peace we need. Jesus took part in such a tradition so many centuries ago, and he continues to call to us today. Do we have what it takes?

Wax on! Wax off!

Friday, August 6, 2010

The Year of the Cross

Then Jesus told his disciples, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me."
―Matthew 16:24 (NRSV)

Nearly a year ago I arrived to El Salvador for the first time, knowing little what to expect. The Salvadoran Lutheran Church had just started its campaign for the year. Every August, in celebration of the anniversary of their independent synod, the church chooses a theme to focus their ministries for the year to come. Anticipating the 20th Anniversary of the Subversive Cross, they chose their theme from a verse in the book of Matthew, "Take your cross and follow me!" (16:24) Those who study the ways of Christ understand the weight of those words. They mean that Jesus needs a full commitment from us if we want to follow him, and the cross symbolizes the extent that commitment can possibly take. With this as the motto for the year, the Lutheran Church reminds everyone just how much God expects from us. I had come to El Salvador expecting to learn how God works in a new culture. In my first year here, I would learn about the cross and what it means in El Salvador. I have seen many difficult things since I arrived, but I have also seen how the Lutheran Church arises to take care of its people.

Many recall the floods we experienced in November, and how they caused so much destruction throughout the country. While the most impressive events occurred under the shadow of Chinchontepec in San Vicente, people from the entire country had lost family, homes, or food sources. Hurricane Ida, which had caused the floods, gave the last rains of the season, leaving very little to get through the long, hot dry season to follow. A rush of aid had come in right after news of the event broke, much of it thanks to readers of this blog. But as its memory faded, things slowed down, and people started to focus on earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, while the much less dramatic heat left many in El Salvador searching for ways to sustain their families. Neither the Salvadoran people nor the Lutheran Church, however, gave up on their people.

The church worked through an ecumenical organization called ACT, Action by Churches Together, to provide food to the most affected areas. On January 8th, I traveled with ACT to Buen Samaritano, one of many communities that received aid.

The truck full of corn, rice, beans,
and bottles of soybean oil arrives in the community.

Helpers from ACT and the community unload the truck.

They measure out the food to make sure
everyone gets their fair share.

Volunteers keep a record of everyone receiving food
so that no one gets left out.

A woman returns home with a chance to prepare a meal.

Each family finds ways to carry food back home.

ACT handed out food in several places at once, and came back to follow up in each one. On March 4th, while Buen Samaritano received its second round of support, I visited Nahualapa in Rosario, La Paz, to take part in their second round.

A truck again brings in the food.

The community jumps in to help.

They pile the floor with corn, rice, beans, and cooking oil.

A woman receives rice for her family.

Families will now enjoy meals together with less worry.

That brings a smile to everyone's face.

Sacks of food also arrive to the nearby community of Galilea.

Yet more families receive just a little more security.

Our commitment makes a difference.

Many thanks must go out to all who responded with support to ACT, the Lutheran World Federation, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)'s Week of Compassion, and the United Church of Christ's One Great Hour of Sharing, as well as anyone who has offered time and resources after the hurricanes and tropical storms we've suffered.

These actions have helped greatly, but the struggle still continues. The long-awaited rains came this year not as a blessing, but as another round of floods from Tropical Storm Agatha. For people who just want to grow their food, this news can dampen the spirit, but the call of the cross drives us forward, always working to build up.

A few weeks ago, the women of the church Manantiales del Desierto in San Jerónimo, Guazapa, shared their experiences with their partner church visiting from North Carolina. They first talked about the November flood itself. Shortly after the flood, they had drawn pictures of the that night's events on a sheet of paper, which they showed to the group. They told how they had woken up in the middle of the night to find their houses filled with more than two feet of water, how they had so little time to find their children and escape, how they followed their instinct and ran uphill, and how they watched helplessly as the water carried away everything they had.

The pastor in the visiting group, who also works as a professional counselor, emphasized the importance getting their feelings on paper right after the traumatic event. It allowed them to express their anxiety in a healthy way, and feel more comfortable talking about it now. The women explained how the pastor and the church always stood close when it came to the most important service they provided, psychosocial attention. Life sometimes leaves people feeling hopeless or causes us to give up. In these difficult times, they need hope and community as much as they need food. Pastor Gloria stayed with her people and guided them through these times. That takes a special commitment, one that continues now, and will continue right up to the cross.

Several agricultural projects had also helped with the recovery by providing needed food. But they didn't wait until they needed help to start growing. They had already begun these projects before the floods had even come. The people had already given themselves up to help each other through acts of sustainability and prevention. Commitment doesn't just respond to events. A total commitment will anticipate the needs of the people and prevent a deeper crisis.

These examples of service for those in need only show a small part of the many ways I have seen Christians in El Salvador take up their cross. We have seen a year of tragedy, but also a year of hope. The celebrations at the 20th Anniversary of the Subversive Cross and the 30th Anniversary of Archbishop Óscar Romero's death showed us that tragedy can sow the seeds of that hope. But we have also seen a church who looked ahead to start planting food, who didn't need a tragedy to get into action. We have seen a church that takes care of the whole person, and not just immediate physical needs. All of us can aspire to better the lives of those around us. We just need to take up our cross and follow Christ.