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.