El Salvador : A Memoir

This past January, Jesse went on his first mission trip to El Salvador with the community building group Santa Cruz al Salvador, whose mission is to enhance and enrich the lives of the people in the developing community of Guillermo Ungo. These are some of his reflections a month after his return. If you’d like to learn more about Santa Cruz al Salvador, go to http://www.santacruzalsalvador.org/.

When people hear of church trips to third world countries, they usually associate them with the giving of resources. Giving we certainly did, but not in the way people think of it. Rather, we gave our time and energy to collaborate with the community, to remind them that they have friends in America, and to assure them that they’re not alone after the disastrous war that struck their country only thirty years ago. Though we did not physically build anything with our hands for them, as many Americans may assume we must have, we still did many things to help the people of El Salvador: we donated money to the developing education system in the community of Guillermo Ungo as well as facilitated a graduation ceremony for elementary, middle and high school students; we shared our culture, language, and friendship; we listened to their stories and told ours.

We received much from them as well. We may not have each received the same kinds of gifts from the people and culture, but for everyone there was much to gain in experience, friendship, and most importantly of all, perspective. Perhaps the most prevalent thing I learned was that the country, though it may be monetarily poor, is rich in spirit. The people there are resilient and vibrant, despite the hardship their country has been through. They warmly welcomed us into their homes and schools, and they were as fascinated by us as we were by them. It amazed me how the adults were so open to us, though the weariness was often apparent in their work-worn faces and hands. Likewise, the children had a sparkle in their eyes reflecting at everyone a freedom of spirit and unhindered wonder at a degree that I had never seen before in American children.

The children there delighted me, their boundless curiosity never for a second letting them out of the sight of the mysterious Americans. They wanted to show us everything they did; they wanted to take us everywhere in their little town; they wanted to accompany us on our hikes up the mountains and from house to house. One day specifically remains distinct in my memory when we were hosting a craft project, several tables spread throughout the school cafeteria and bearing various activities. The projects coming along quite nicely, we decided to play a little music for the kids to sing along to. I ran back to the schoolrooms where we were staying and grabbed my ukelele, and soon enough we were engaged in a Spanish version of the popular camp song, “Joy in my Heart.” When we were finished, the children, of course, wanted to try out the instruments for themselves. Olmar, a child of about seven whom I had met the previous day, came up to me after the song, hands outstretched tentatively and eyes expectant, the request to try the ukelele obvious in his expression. I let him, which was possibly the biggest simultaneous mistake and success I had on the entire trip.

Before I knew it, I had a parade of children following me around wielding enthusiastically the plethora of small, accessible instruments I had taken on the trip. Noticing that some delegation members were getting rather annoyed at the cacophony, I decided to move outside with my miniature orchestra of chaos. Rumor has it that whenever I approached, one could hear the advancing wailing of the ukelele, a recorder or two, and several harmonicas in just as many different keys. The kids certainly had fun, and I did too, but I am most definitely glad I was able to ask someone how to say, “Not now, but maybe later,” in Spanish before the situation got too out of hand. Of course, my orchestra seemed melodic and soothing compared to the rooster that sat by our window that night, which, contrary to popular belief, does not crow once at five or so in the morning but rather every two seconds from ten to seven.

The trip wasn’t all laughs and and happy children and orchestras of chaos, however; there were more serious times as well. Before we had entered the community of Guillermo Ungo, the new delegation members were taken on a tour of the University of Theology, where we learned of the horrors that had occurred during the war for historical perspective. It was strange to be so close, both physically and temporally, to places and times of tragedy. One church we visited bore on its walls several paintings, depicting both literally and symbolically events from the massacre of the Jesuits, who were killed for being intellectuals. The rage of justice is not a common emotion for me, but as I learned of the injustice that was done, I could not but help being furious at the oligarchy, greedy for land and power, that had facilitated such atrocities.

The delegation members in the church where Oscar Romero was assassinated. Source: Jesse McMIlan
The delegation members in the church where Oscar Romero was assassinated. Source: Jesse McMIlan

As I placed foot in the sanctuary where Oscar Romero was assassinated; as I walked through rooms filled with the preserved clothing and items of those who had been killed, still soaked in dried blood; as  I stood in a garden of roses where bodies of Jesuits had been heartlessly dumped; I was touched in a way I had never been before. And I was not just mournful for the Jesuits, but also for the ignorant soldiers under the oligarchy’s direction who were forced to kill so many innocent people. When I asked our guide if he thought that evil deeds committed in ignorance could still be considered evil,  I was met with more than I expected. Our guide was, apparently, a philosophy professor and what  I intended to be a simple question of opinion turned into a drawn out, thoughtful discussion about good and evil, providing excellent closure for what I had just learned.

Perhaps the most memorable experience of all, however, came to me through music, as in many situations is often does, seeing as music is my gift and I regard it as my utmost duty and pleasure to share it in whatever way I can. On the trip with us was a boy of eighteen years of age named Mauricio, who had been raised in El Salvador and often traveled to America  to attend college. He had brought his guitar along with him, and was well-learned in an intriguing style of playing that was a blend of classic rock and the music of his own culture. On the last night of the trip, he invited me to a jam session. We stayed up much longer than we intended, resulting in a very sleepy next day for me at least, but it was well worth it. As I sat with him in front of the schoolrooms, the two of us connected in what almost seemed to be a singular mind as we contemplated the trip in the form of music. The endless audience of stars above seemed to be listening with utter fascination as the darkness of night sang along in echoing harmony. And at that moment, I knew for certain I wanted to return. I decided with resolution that I would go on the next mission trip and live again amongst the beauty that is El Salvador.

An old yet energetic nun by the name of Sister Peggy often says there is a virus that resides within El Salvador whose spread is inevitable. It’s in the air, in the water, in every single one of the people. This virus is not deadly, and you may not even notice the symptoms for years. However, when the virus does go into effect, it snares you within its hold and refuses to be cured. There is no vaccine for it, nor is there any method of treatment, nor is anybody developing any of these defenses due to its rarity, though it infects every delegation member that comes to El Salvador. And what exactly does this virus do? Well, that’s simple. It makes you want to come back.

-Jesse McMilan

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