My FOCUS Mission Trip to El Salvador

Just a couple of weeks ago for spring break I had the opportunity to help lead a FOCUS mission trip to El Salvador!

Group with Sarai

After Sunday mass at the San Miguel Cathedral, while we were still relatively clean 😉

It was such an amazing experience! I’ve had so many people ask me about the trip and everything in the past couple of weeks, but it’s so hard to put into words what I got to experience throughout that whole week. Here are some of my take away’s, as best as I can summarize them.

The trip was eye opening in so many ways. This was probably my biggest take away. I had never really left the comfortable American world until then: I’ve been blessed to be able to vacation in Mexico and Canada, but even in Mexico we didn’t need to speak Spanish because we stayed at resorts.

In El Salvador, I was immediately confronted by a different culture and way of life. Even in the Avianca section in Miami Airport, we were some of the only people who weren’t speaking in Spanish. I love learning Spanish and I hope to be fluent one day, but for now it was somewhat overwhelming when people spoke to me in Spanish expecting me to understand. I can pick up words and even understand phrases and simple sentences, but when they’re speaking so fast, I had to flag down our friendly Spanish speaking missionaries, Roxio and Mario!

A pic of our local neighborhood.

A pic of our local neighborhood.

 

I couldn’t help but notice the poverty right away. It wasn’t like there were hoards of homeless people (that I saw), but rather nearly all of the homes there made a small “lower class” home in the United States look very nice. They made those “bad” parts of Newark look normal. They did have electricity (the wealthier homes at least- oh and I did see a very modern transmission substation by a highway once) and water (kind of- we couldn’t drink it, and hot water wasn’t common).

It was such a joy to be able to talk and play with the kids! They were shy but they warmed up to us fast!

It was such a joy to be able to talk and play with the kids! They were shy but they warmed up to us fast!

A very interesting thing happened every night while we were there. Everyone got all antsy and said that they had to leave around 5:30 pm. Every single night. It was still bright out and everything, and it was early in the evening, so I was confused about why they needed to get back home so early. It turned out that the gangs have instituted an unofficial curfew over the entire country, especially where we were in San Miguel, at 6 pm. That’s when they come out and it isn’t safe to be outside of your homes. In fact, every home had bars over their windows, cement walls around their yards, and barbed wire on top of everything. There were security guards in most businesses holding guns. Gang violence is very real, and there is the legacy of the civil war that ended in 1993 as well. I was devastated to learn just how deadly the civil war was, with the government (supplied by the United States) sending death squads to local towns by the end of it. I guess that shouldn’t be too much of a shock that it came to that after the whole Archbishop Romero fiasco, which I’ll talk about later.

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This is just a random shot of some homes in El Salvador. If you look closely you’ll notice barbed wire on top, all the fences, and bars over all the windows.

 

The food was seriously out of this world. We had the most amazing deal: some of the women (mostly grandmas) in the parish cooked for us 3 meals a day, and they went all out for us, cooking seriously the most amazing food I’ve ever had (no offense to my mom and grandma!). A couple of the Americans’ stomachs didn’t mix well with the food, but I was surprised to find that my stomach was more bothered coming back to America and eating processed food. Whoops, America.

Typical Salvadorian comida: pupusas on the left, rice in the center, fried plantains on the right. Turns out that plantains go really good with ketchup!

Typical Salvadorian comida: pupusas on the left, rice in the center, fried plantains on the right. Turns out that plantains go really good with ketchup!

The faith of the people was so inspiring! Everyone loved to talk about Jesus, and sometimes it was hard to get them to stop… 😉 They loved putting Jesus stickers everywhere on their cars and every other person seemed to be wearing a rosary (public service announcement, you’re actually not supposed to wear them as a fashion symbol). One of the coolest things that we got to experience was stations of the cross with a local town (Chirilagua, I believe). After mass on that Friday evening, the whole town seemed to gather together outside of the church as we walked around the town carrying a doll/statue thing of Jesus to each station, set up right in front of houses and shops and things.

Carrying the cross for stations of the cross with the community!

Carrying the cross for stations of the cross with the community!

With the parish that we were helping rebuild their church, I was impressed with how tight knit the whole parish seemed to be, with dozens showing up to daily mass with us, many of the male parishioners helped with the construction, and many of the female parishioners helped with cooking for them all and other odds and ends jobs. Another impressive thing about this parish was how they go on house visits each week to families their local community. At each house visit, they see how each other is doing, read the Gospel for the next Sunday together, have a mini bible study, and then close in prayer. That’s an awesome way of outreach that we should try and apply back in the United States! Even more powerful than all of those experiences for me was when the community prayed for us all, with some of the leaders laying their hands on each of us and praying with such emotion for each of us.

Leaders of the parish praying over us... so beautiful!

Leaders of the parish praying over us… so beautiful!

An absolutely stunning story that the locals shared with us was the tradition of Reina de la Paz, patron saint of El Salvador. If you can read Spanish, the more in depth details are here. If not, here’s my basic summary: In 1787, San Miguel Volcano, which is not surprisingly right next to the city of San Miguel, was erupting and threatening to destroy the entire city. The entire city, or I guess town back then, being Catholic Christians, turned to God and the Virgin Mary in prayer. They had this image of Mary that they decided to bring up with them to the volcano, begging for the Virgin Mary’s intercession in saving them and their city. Miraculously, the lava actually stopped and went a different direction, saving them all! Praise God! To this day, that same image of Mary, who they call Reina de la Paz (Queen of Peace), is in the Cathedral of San Miguel, holding a palm branch from the event. Reina de la Paz is the patron saint of all of El Salvador. When we went to the Cathedral for Sunday mass, we got to see Reina de la Paz ourselves and even touch it! It was so beautiful and moving to be able to be so close to something so important to the hearts of the native people. Isn’t their faith so strong?!

The image of Reina de la Paz in the San Miguel Cathedral

The image of Reina de la Paz above the main altar in the San Miguel Cathedral

We didn’t get to personally meet Archbishop Romero, but it felt like we did after getting to know and love this holy man so much that week. Here’s a great article that summarizes why he is such a big deal in El Salvador, and admired throughout Latin America, the Church, and the world at large. Basically Monsignor Romero (as they call him, even though he was an Archbishop) spoke out against the corruption and evils of the Salvadorian government while he was Archbishop and the leader of the Church in that country from 1977-1980. By that time, the government had begun to use violence to try and keep protesters quiet, and for a while it seemed like a priest was killed every month. Months before Romero was actually assassinated, there was a different attempt on his life where there were large amounts of dynamite placed right in front of the Cathedral, which would have killed him and hundreds or thousands more. Thankfully that attempt was revealed, but it didn’t stop Romero from speaking boldly. Above all, Romero was a man of God who wished to share the Gospel and help the poor. He lived a very simple life and was for the most part a very quiet man. But he was placed in a very explosive situation and despite the fear he must have felt, he stayed true to his God and his people above all else. He was shot while saying mass by an assassin on March 24th, 1980. At his funeral mass, tens of thousands showed up, but the government didn’t want that to happen so they shot into the crowd, killing about 60-80 people according to our Salvadorian hosts. Of course, the violence by the government was only beginning at that point. While in El Salvador, we had the opportunity to visit Romero’s tomb, house where he lived, church where he was shot, and even the square where he will be beatified this May! It was inspiring to learn more about this man and he has quickly become one of my favorite saints. Archbishop Romero, pray for us!

A statue of Romero outside the Cathedral in San Salvador.

A statue of Romero outside the Cathedral in San Salvador.

Praying next to Romero's tomb. There were dozens of the faithful coming in to visit and pray by the tomb with us.

Praying next to Romero’s tomb. There were dozens of the faithful coming in to visit and pray by the tomb with us.

The vestments that Romero was wearing when he was shot.

The vestments that Romero was wearing when he was shot.

The most beautiful flowers were growing right outside the church where he was shot.

The most beautiful flowers were growing right outside the church where he was shot.

Archbishop Romero was saying mass at that altar when he was shot.

Archbishop Romero was saying mass at that altar when he was shot. Today schoolchildren come and visit daily.

As we were preparing to leave, we decided to leave our cooks, and through them the entire parish, a little sign of how much they meant to us by washing their feet. We prayed with them as we washed their feet and it was so moving to think about how much God had done through both parties. They had given up so much to serve us, and we definitely had given up some things in order to serve them as well. The sacrifices made by both parties for the sake of God and His Church was so beautiful.

Washing the feet of our amazing cooks!

Washing the feet and praying for our amazing cooks!

Though it might not seem like it, we actually did some work too! So the practical part of our mission trip was to help them build a new church, because the last one was destroyed in 2001 by an earthquake. It’s taken them this long to be able to build a new one because they don’t have the funds. Thanks to about 5 more FOCUS Mission trips to this parish, we’ll be able to significantly help them both with funds and free labor, so that they hope to have it completed in about a year. At the moment we were just working on the foundation, so most of what we did was shoveling dirt and carrying concrete by bucket. They had no back hoes, cement trucks, cranes, lifts, dump trucks, or anything that you’d expect in America. All of the labor was by hand. But it was a lot of fun! I enjoyed being able to work side by side with the locals, chatting it up with my fellow missionaries (both FOCUS and students), and enjoying that wonderful 100 degree dry heat. I swear there wasn’t a cloud in the sky all week.

Doing work!

Doing work!

Our mission trip team with the workers and Father Antonio.

Our mission trip team with the workers and Father Antonio.

One of the most important things that I’ll cherish from this trip is growing in friendship with my amazing teammates! Carly, Grace, Tess, Becca, Roxio, Elli, Sarah, Jonathan, Max, Mario, Michael, and Fr. Jeff. You guys are awesome! It was so beautiful to not really know anybody going into this week, and come out of it with 12 new amazing friends, with plenty of inside jokes to go with it. No espanol. Pwerp. Having a blast! Michael prancing away from the scorpion. Alfredo. Too blessed to be stressed! Liquiddddddd!!! Riding in the back of the pickup truck. God’s pharmacy. Shamar the rear! I saw God in you guys. Your service and selflessness is inspiring and I can’t wait to see where God leads you all! Huge shout outs to Sarah for being in charge of basically everything and being an amazing trip director and Fr. Jeff for joining us last minute and being such a great priest and role model!

Group PicIf you get the chance to go on a mission trip, you should go! It was amazing and transformative and fun! It has helped me grow in my faith, gain a more complete world view, and have some experiences that I’ll cherish the rest of my life. Check out FOCUS Missions!

“To change the world we must be good to those who cannot repay us.” – Pope Francis

Here’s a video that Mario put together of us!

 

El Dia de los Muertos and the Catholic Take on Death

Dia de los Muertos

So here in America when October 31st rolls around, we all get excited for Halloween. We think of ghosts, zombies, witches, and candy. I’m not quite sure what we are actually celebrating in America anymore, to come to think of it.. Maybe that we like playing dress up and eating candy? But Halloween has a pretty interesting history. The word “Halloween” comes from “hallowed evening” or “holy evening,” because it takes place on the evening before November 1st, which is to Christians All Saints Day. November 2nd is All Souls Day.

Dia de los Muertos is such a cool tradition.. in Latin cultures it’s less about fearing death but more about embracing death as the next part of life. In this tradition, it is said that the souls of children come back the 1st, and then the souls of adults come back on the next day. Families put out offerings for their loved ones who have died to welcome them home. This tradition is kind of a combination of both the indigenous traditions of the native peoples and the tradition of the Spanish Catholics, and I see a lot of beauty in it: especially in revealing how we should be honoring and praying for the dead, and that death is not something to be feared.

But I can only talk about Dia de los Muertos so much. I’m white. I learned about that stuff from Spanish class. What I can talk about is the Catholic take on death. I think in our culture, death is pushed to the back of our minds, we try to forget about it. But it happens, doesn’t it? Death is actually the reason why I’m giving this talk.. Perla’s aunt, her Godmother, passed away last week. Perla is back in Mexico grieving with her family right now.

But here’s a fun question: do you know anyone that didn’t die?

Jesus? Nope.

Jesus died, but then He Resurrected, didn’t He! That’s an important point.

Let’s start at the beginning. Were Adam and Eve created to die? No! Adam and Eve were created to live forever in paradise with God.. the Garden of Eden. They didn’t have to work, had no pain, walked around and spoke with God in the garden, etc. They had the life! Man was not created to experience suffering, pain, and death. As it says in the Book of Wisdom (2:23), “God formed man to be imperishable.” As a missionary, I go around asking people about deep stuff like this all the time. Basically everyone universally believes that there is some sort of afterlife, some sort of meaning behind everything that we struggle through in this life, and there is truth in that! All people, no matter our faith, still know deep down that we were meant for eternal life. ..But then something big happened that changed the course of history. Adam and Eve sinned: they disobeyed God. God warned them beforehand, of course. Eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge wasn’t just a rule for the heck of it- God told them that they shouldn’t eat it because they would die. Genesis 2:17, “From that tree you shall not eat; the moment you eat from it you are surely doomed to die.” It seems explanatory enough for me. But they went ahead and ate from it anyways.

We messed up, didn’t we? God warned us, then we messed it up. That sin affected everything about the human condition, from death to the need for clothing. In St. Paul’s letter to the Romans he says, “The wages of sin is death.” Our relationship with God was fractured forever- you can think of us and God being on the opposite sides of the Grand Canyon. We need God’s forgiveness to repair this relationship. You know, if I do something wrong to Ania, I can’t forgive myself. No, I need Ania’s forgiveness for our relationship to be ok again. It’s the same way with our sin and God: we need God’s forgiveness.. we can’t just go on with our lives pretending that everything is alright when it isn’t.

Let’s see how God comes to forgive us. Jumping forward through a couple thousand years of Jewish history, we land in Bethleham around year 0. In a little stable there’s a baby boy in a manger: an animal’s feeding trough. This boy is God incarnate. Emmanual: meaning God with us. Jesus: meaning God saves.

Jesus did amazing things during His public ministry: water to wine, healings, multiplication of food, walking on water, and even raising other people from the dead. But the most ridiculous thing that happens to Jesus might be that HE dies. Jesus died in one of most horrific ways imaginable: He was scourged at the pillar until his entire body was bleeding, spit on and forced to wear a thorny cross that was hardly a fashion statement, forced to carry his cross, and then finally He was nailed to the cross and left there to suffocate.. your arms get too tired to pull yourself up to get each breath. Of course on top of this He was bleeding all over the place and after He died, His heart was pierced with a spear to make sure that He was dead. Here’s a quick side note: I’ve played Jesus in a stations of the cross event before, carrying a smaller life-sized cross for a half hour or so before on a flat surface.. it’s ridiculously difficult to the point where I was looking forward to those 3 falls and not worried at all whether the cross fell on me or not. I have two points in sharing this: 1. Jesus didn’t have the option of “faking” His death so that He could be “resurrected” 2. He didn’t have to do that. He didn’t have to do any of that. He could have snapped His fingers and we would be forgiven. No, God doesn’t just have a little mercy on us, a little liking for us. No, God has a Fatherly love for us where He is willing to go through whatever it takes to get us back. Think Liam Neeson talking about his daughter in Taken. “I would sacrifice anything for her.” God will leave the other 99 sheep just to go and find that lost one. Just like a good shepherd, He will even sacrifice His life to save the sheep. That’s God’s love for us. This isn’t just a “sad” love story though, this is an amazing story with a powerful ending! Jesus rose from the dead! WHAT! God died, and then He was resurrected. This is huge on the Catholic take on death and the afterlife, and now I’d like to think that I’ve set the stage enough for some Catholic theology.

As a Catholic I believe that just as Jesus died and rose, if we follow Jesus in dying to ourselves and becoming a new creation in God in our baptism, joining the Church, we can also rise with Jesus on the last day. See, Jesus didn’t just DIE for us, but He also ROSE for us, so that we can also rise and be with Him forever in paradise. In John (11:25), Jesus says “I am the Resurrection and the life.” We come into communion with Jesus every time that we go to mass, where we get to receive Jesus Christ Himself: body, blood, soul, and divinity, in the Eucharist. St. Irenaeus said of the Eucharist, “Just as bread comes from the earth, after God’s blessing has been invoked upon it, is no longer ordinary bread, but Eucharist, formed of two things, the one earthly and the other heavenly: so too our bodies, which partake of the Eucharist, are no longer corruptible, but possess the hope of resurrection.” Being nourished by Jesus in the Eucharist, we become the Body of Christ. As the Body of Christ, we can be united with Jesus for eternity. We will be united with God forever, in ecstasy forever. Most people think of heaven when they think of the afterlife, but we have to remember that our destiny is resurrection. Everyone will be resurrected, the faithful to eternal bliss in new heavens, new earth, and the cruel to eternal despair.

See, what’s new about Christianity is that death isn’t the enemy anymore. Death has been defeated, as long as we’re clothed in Jesus in the Church, with the sacraments. Loving God is our purpose and meaning, and death should not scare us anymore. Our earthly lives will testify to how we love. Jesus said, “No greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” The martyrs are great witnesses to this beautiful truth. A great example of this is St. Ignatius of Antioch, a bishop and disciple of the apostle St. John. St. Ignatius was captured for his Christian faith in the 1st century and taken to Rome, where he was martyred in the Roman Coliseum, probably eaten by lions. He wrote this while he was on his way to martyrdom, “It is better for me to die in Christ Jesus than to reign over the ends of the earth. Him it is I seek- who died for us. Him it is I desire- who rose for us. Let me receive pure light; when I shall have arrived there, then shall I be a man.”

I suppose it is worth a moment to talk about hell and purgatory. Of course we believe that there are two destinations: heaven and hell. Don’t think of them as physical places, but rather states of relationship with God. God is always seeking us, but are we seeking Him in return? God gave us free will, if we truly don’t want Him then He is going to give us what we want. Unfortunately for the souls in hell, life separated from God sucks pretty bad. Nobody is predestined to heaven or hell, it takes a willful turning away from God, or mortal sin, and persistence in it in order to be in danger of hell. But for those who are on their way to heaven but haven’t quite been purified of all their sins, there is a place of final purification called purgatory before heaven.

Heaven: being intimately with God forever, is our goal. There we will see God face to face. Often this is compared to a wedding feast. You’ve probably heard of the apocalypse before, right? And when you hear about the apocalypse, what do you think of? Monsters? Darkness? Chaos? Earthquakes? Well, actually, apocalypse means “unveiling,” like the unveiling of a bride at a wedding. The apocalypse is the unveiling of the bride of Christ: the Church, and then the wedding feast and eternal bliss they share forever. It’s the perfect love story, eh? St. Cyprian commented, “How great will your glory and happiness be, to be allowed to see God, to be honored with sharing the joy of salvation and eternal light with Christ your Lord and God, to delight in the joy of immortality in the Kingdom of heaven with the righteous and God’s friends.” At the last day, the dead will be resurrected, Jesus will return again and will have the last judgment, where He will separate “the sheep from the goats,” “placing the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left… And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” (Matthew 25:31,32,46) In this new heaven and new earth, the Kingdom of God will come in its fullness, where the righteous will reign forever with Christ. In this heavenly Jerusalem, God will have His dwelling with us, and “wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” Rev 21:4.

I’m not just talking theory here. Just this March and April, two of my friends from college died within a few weeks of each other. Phil then Dan. Phil died in an accident. He was handicapped for nearly all his life and constantly witnessed to me what it is to be a humble servant of God. Though he could barely even move his hands and had to sit in his power chair chair all the time, he never complained about anything. When the weather was cold out and he couldn’t put on his own hat and gloves, I’d still see him driving along to class in the harsh Illinois winters. He would always say please and thank you when he needed help in the cafeteria, or with anything else. Phil is in heaven, there are no ifs ands or buts about it.

Dan is a different and more radical story. Dan was a year younger than me, he was in my bible study for a couple of years and we were good friends. I never noticed but in hindsight it’s so clear: Dan had issues with depression. He had a particularly difficult time this past school year, and would go home often. After a particularly difficult time, he needed anti-depressants. But getting off of anti-depressants transforms people: they aren’t themselves. One time the pain was too much for him and he committed suicide. Thank you God for Dan. It hit me hard, because it came out of nowhere. I never would have imagined I’d have to deal with that. I’ve actually had another good friend commit suicide before, so I kind of had an idea of how difficult it would be to grieve, but as always, I had hope in God. It helped that Dan was a Christian at least, it made me feel much better. We all have that longing for eternal life, to be with our loved ones forever. That’s how we were created to be.

I kind of went on with the hopeful but curious mindset after the wake and funeral.. after all, suicide is a major sin. God can forgive it, especially when people are not in the right state of mind, but it’s never something to joke about. So I always had hope, God is so merciful, after all. One day a week later his whole family came back down to the University of Illinois for our memorial mass for him, and his mom shared this story with us at the end: Dan has an uncle who is a Salesian priest in Japan or Korea or something like that. On the same exact day that Dan died, even at the same exact hour, Dan’s uncle was saying mass and lifting up the Host at the consecration. At that moment, Our Lady, Mary, appeared to him holding Dan. There is no way that his priest-uncle all the way in Japan could have any idea what was going on let along timing the whole thing down to that hour. Praise God for that sign, we now know that Dan is in heaven. God’s mercy is endless, and our hope has to be in Him.

I’d like to share with you Dan’s last Facebook status ever.

“Mercy there was great, and grace was free;
Pardon there was multiplied to me;
There my burdened soul found liberty at Calvary.”

Happy Easter! He is risen indeed!

Pope Francis

Pope Francis I appears on the central balcony

I love this man. Maybe that’s just the Catholic in me showing. But there’s something so warm about him. I just feel so good.

Former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, S.J., of Buenos Aires, Argentina is now Pope Francis.

He wasn’t even close to a front runner for the papacy.. I call myself a Catholic nerd and I still had never heard of him.

He looked so awkward and shocked out there on the balcony (did he remind anyone else of the Iron Giant???), but it was so beautiful to see the joy in his face when he began talking about our Father and speaking with his hands more.

He seems to have a huge Marian devotion, which I love. Check out his coat of arms, it’s practically all blue for our Blessed Mother:

Pope Francis Coat of Arms

I know that Latinos will be so joyful for this selection, it is a great gift to all of the devout Latino Catholics.

From what I hear, Pope Francis is practically a living saint. On his elevation by Pope John Paul II to become a cardinal, he urged Argentinians not to come, but to donate the money that they would have spent to travel to the poor.

The gift of a new pope is a sign of how God continues to care for the Church, even 2000 years after Christ founded the Church (Matthew 16:18-19). Thank you God.

Please keep Pope Francis in your prayers. This is an exciting time for the Church. Praise God for this wonderful man who said “yes” to God’s call.