Mending Shattered Dreams and Dignity in El Salvador
By Nayara Alves Gervásio*
I was drawn to the Global Mission Fellow program because it focuses on seeking social justice for those who lack it. We cannot demonstrate God’s love for people without serving the people. To demonstrate God’s love for people is to help them feel loved and cared for by God, to restore their dignity and their rights as human beings, even in an unjust system. This is the work I have been assigned to with the migrant ministry of the Salvadoran Lutheran Synod in El Salvador.
My work in San Salvador focuses on two main issues: preventing migration—mainly with children and adolescents—and emergency assistance for those who have returned or been deported. As I learn about the history of this country and some of its communities, I understand the many reasons Salvadorans migrate. El Salvador’s poverty, its lack of infrastructure, basic sanitation, and access to education, and its unemployment are devastating. In addition, a network of gangs forms a parallel power to the government in the country. These problems force many families to emigrate or to send out their children to find the “American dream.”
A staff worker with Lutheran World Relief teaches accounting and business skills in a village in El Salvador to help returning or deported Salvadorans establish small, sustainable family businesses. PHOTO: NAYARA GERVÁSIO
Working on the prevention side, our ministry offers workshops for community leaders, pastors, police, and health-care workers to help them alert families about the risks, implications, and dangers of emigrating in an “irregular” manner. In 2017, we launched an education campaign called “Migration Is Not the Solution.” Learning about immigration laws in the United States, the types of visas, and information on asylum or refugee requests increases awareness and understanding. It includes real statistics on immigration cases in the US and seeks to dispel some of the illusions people have about migrating.
The other side of work with our ministry is to provide emergency assistance to families who are forced to move—threatened by gangs, either by extortion or by attempts to recruit their children. We help these families find a place to live somewhere else in the country.
People returning to El Salvador find few employment opportunities, so the ministry helps them set up small entrepreneurial projects. Even though many have little education, they have skills and abilities, often in agriculture or small business. We help them establish small, sustainable family businesses such as agriculture, fishing, repair shops,
retail clothing or food, or even beauty salons, for example. Many people return to the country without hope, their dreams shattered on the journey. These projects help them sustain their families and thereby rebuild their dignity as citizens. I see more than just charity in this work, I see justice. I see families prospering.
*Nayara Alves Gervásio, from Ribeirão das Neves, Brazil (Advance #3022222), serves as an assistant in migrant pastoral work with the Salvadoran Lutheran Synod in El Salvador. She graduated from Izabela Hendrix Methodist University in Belo Horizonte with a degree in administration and an emphasis on entrepreneurship. This article was translated from Portuguese by Donald D. Reasoner.
Who Teaches Us the Most?
By Joseph Russ*
They have no electricity… Wow.”
That’s what one of our visitors said after visiting the community of 30 de Abril (“30th of April”) in El Salvador. It’s true, the residents have no electricity in their homes, which are primarily composed of sheet metal and tarps bolted to bamboo. They have no running water, and even the well water is severely contaminated. The only high school is miles away across the highway, a dangerous journey in a country with the most car accidents per capita. Yet these homes are on land they fought hard for, and they are proud to have won the land in a struggle with the local government.
Several years ago, a massive flood displaced dozens of families, leaving them homeless and with no other options. They pleaded for access to land from the local government, but they were met with silence. Without homes, they squatted in a sugarcane field, constructing shanties out of whatever they could find.
As the years went on, they began to organize as a community. They advocated for their right to safety and land, and finally, on April 30th, 2015, they negotiated their rights to the space with the local government. It was a struggle, but the success and satisfaction of this accomplishment is commemorated in the very name of the community. While they may not have many amenities, they have something invaluable: the skills to organize and advocate for their rights.
Joseph Russ in El Salvador. PHOTO: COURTESY JOSEPH RUSS
The next challenge is the struggle for clean water. Currently, the well water is undrinkable because of contamination from nearby farms and the toxic chemicals they use, such as pesticides and herbicides. The community board continues to organize the citizens to lobby their government for access to clean water, but the fight continues. Their strength, perseverance, and organizing skills are inspiring, and they have a lot to teach all of us.
The visitor mentioned above came to learn from them. He wasn’t a tourist or a philanthropist who came to save the people of El Salvador, but a participant in a seminar on human rights and community development. This seminar, hosted by the nongovernmental organization Cristosal, was an opportunity for US citizens to learn about the community’s advocacy for their rights. It’s not an opportunity to marvel at the poverty and destitution before them, nor is it a chance to solve the problems. Here, participants learn from people doing amazing grassroots organizing under extremely difficult circumstances.
When the participants say “Wow,” they are marveling at the accomplishments the community has achieved. They are amazed at how, without things we consider so basic, people continue to fight and win. They are inspired. They realize they have much to learn. This is the power of the human rights approach to Christian mission. It honors the true work of Jesus Christ in our world: a ministry and mission by the marginalized for the marginalized.
*Joseph Russ is a Global Mission Fellow from El Segundo, California (Advance #3022225), serving with Foundation Cristosal in El Salvador.