Dios

And Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all manner of sickness.  But when he saw the multitudes, he was moved with compassion for them, because they were distressed and scattered, as sheep not having a shepherd.  Then saith he unto his disciples, “The harvest truly is plenteous but the laborers are few.  Pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he send forth laborers into his harvest.” (Matthew 9:35-38)

I leisurely swung back and forth in the hammock outside our humble, temporary home in the El Salvadorean village of Guajoyo.  I listened as the birds and bugs orchestrated their evening songs as the sun dipped below the horizon, bringing about vibrant hues of pink and purple shooting across the deep blue sky. The evening brought a cool breeze to gently push away the heat of the day, and the family next door was having dinner outside.  Their children laughed and ran around as they munched on their tortillas while slyly peeking around the corner at the strange white girl reading in a hammock.

My pen underlined and re-underlined one sentence from the scripture Bonhoeffer was elaborating on in one of the last chapters of his book, The Cost of Discipleship. “The harvest truly is plenteous but the laborers are few. . . .”  Amen, Jesus.  But I couldn’t help but squint my eyes at the prior sentence, ” . . . he was moved with compassion for them, because they were distressed and scattered, as sheep not having a shepherd.”  This sentence had me thinking:

Hmm… How does this slice of scripture pertain to this delegation? To the people of El Salvador?  To me?

Twenty-four hours later, we were loading up the van hurriedly as we watched red flames angrily light up the horizon.  We were fleeing a natural disaster in our air-conditioned passenger van as the residents of Guajoyo filled up dozens of cantaros with their precious water.  The town’s directiva, their board, had gathered an army in less than a couple of hours to fight the fire threatening their livelihood. All the while, we received warm hugs and blessings as we prepared to drive back to the capitol city.

My mind was reeling, and it was difficult to string together coherent thoughts.  But I did know one thing:  the people of Guajoyo sure as hell didn’t remind me of scattered, hopeless sheep.

We spent our extra day in San Salvador learning about the history of the civil war of El Salvador and about the brave people who fought for peace and for the rights of the least of these.  Thousands of people died in El Salvador during the war for speaking out against the inequities of the war.  Five Jesuit priests were killed in their garden on the University of Central America’s campus; Four nuns were pulled over by the military, raped, killed, and buried in a ditch; Marianella García Villas, an El Salvadorean attorney who fought for human rights, was executed for presenting wretched stories of injustice to the UN.

That day in El Salvador, we learned about the strength of the human spirit.  Perhaps the most inspiring and devastating chunk of history we delved into was that of Saint Oscar Romero.  We visited the chapel where he was shot by an El Salvadorean military assassin as he prepared the table for the Eucharist.  The night before he was killed, he held a radio show where he begged the El Salvadorean military to cease fire.  He urged that ” . . . no soldier is obliged to obey an order counter to the law of God.”

Saint Romero became the archbishop of San Salvador in 1977.  He was deeply beloved by the people of El Salvador, and he ministered especially to poor and marginalized populations.  Whenever he could, he criticized the ruthless killings done by the military, and openly and vehemently disapproved of the United States’s support of the El Salvadorean junta.  Anywhere you go in San Salvador, there is a portrait of Saint Romero hung on a wall.  After learning his story, seeing these portraits everywhere began to move me to tears.

Not long before his death, Saint Romero said, “Si me matan, me levantaré de nuevo en el pueblo salvadoreño.” 

If they kill me, I will rise again in the El Salvadorean people.

I see God in Saint Romero’s story.

I see God in every single person I met throughout the duration of our delegation.

God is here.

The laborers are certainly few, but the harvest is plentiful not because we, as God’s laborers, must shepherd the people of El Salvador – or really of any country other than our own.  We are called by Jesus to reap the harvest of knowledge, wisdom, courage, perseverance, and LOVE the least of these have to offer.

We cannot expect to “fix” the problems El Salvador and other nations face, especially when we may be the root of the issue.

Those who expose themselves to these truths and those who are called to support and walk alongside the least of these – God’s laborers – are bound to reap plentiful harvests of lessons learned and love shared.

Thank you, reader, for following along as I reflect upon this journey.  It was difficult to write this last post, but I know that my meditation on this experience will continue throughout the remainder of my life.

Blessings to you on whatever journey you are on.  May you be led by God’s love.

Until next time. xo Kailen

 

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azúcar

Y’all, I love cake.  And cookies.  And candy bars, and pie, and cheesecake, and…well, you get it.

Until recently, the only reason I worried about my sweet tooth was due to its effect on my waistline.  Before my trip to El Salvador, I had read articles about how sugar is added to foods you wouldn’t imagine, and how as a society we are completely and hopelessly addicted to it.  But, not once had I read or heard of an article that explains where sugar actually comes from, and I honestly didn’t really care.  Sugar to me was just the delicious, pure white granulated confection that came in big sacks at the grocery store.

So, where does it actually come from?

I remember reading about sugar cane in my history textbooks throughout school. Looking back, I don’t think what I learned coincides with the reality of the industry and its effect on the people of the world.  In El Salvador, the sugar industry picked up in the 1980’s and 90’s during the El Salvadorean Civil War.  During this time, corn fields – corn being the main sustenance crop of the country – were being replaced with sugar fields.  People were beginning to raise crops like sugar and coffee for money rather than for food.

Driving through the El Salvadorean countryside was so different than I imagined it would be.  El Salvador – the country famous for its dense corn tortillas and hand-made pupusas – hardly had any corn fields at all.  Instead, as we drove down the highway to Guajoyo, the road was lined with fields and fields of sugar cane.  As a result of this quick agricultural shift, El Salvador now relies heavily on neighboring countries for food, including corn.

One could imagine that this boom in cash crops isn’t so bad.  Sugar and coffee are in high demand and probably always will be.  Us Americans can’t get through a day without our caffeine and sugar, you know.  We must be giving those El Salvadorean sugar plantation owners some good business.  Right?  Well, no.  Naturally, all of the sugar fields I saw that day were owned by big corporations, like Coca-Cola.  Of course, many El Salvadoreans are employed by these corporations, but at what cost?

Growing sugar cane is perhaps one of the worst practices for the environment, especially in El Salvador where climate change is wreaking havoc.  The plant requires copious amounts of water.  If you read my previous blog entry, you would know how this could be an issue.  Not only must the plantations pump water that is hardly accessible, they must spray chemicals – fifty-two of which are illegal in Europe – on the fields to make them grow.

Once the sugar cane is fully grown and ready for harvest, it is burned to the stalks.  The immensity of one of these field fires is difficult to understand until you experience it.  Unfortunately – or fortunately, depends how you look at it – my delegation witnessed one of these burns as we were fleeing the wild fires that threatened our safety in Guajoyo.  We could see the blaze miles away on the horizon on our way back to the capitol city; as we drove next to the field, all in the car were silent.  Like I said, it is hard to put the desolation into words.

Based on my experience, I would say the wildfires dotting the countryside are undeniably linked to these poorly-controlled infernos.

Wildfires aren’t the only consequence of sugar cane farming.  The main river that runs through the country, the Rio Lempa, is completely contaminated.  In fact, 90% of El Salvador’s surface water sources are contaminated mainly due to the runoff of chemicals from sugar fields.  The villagers of Guajoyo told us the upsetting story of one rainy night:  The sugar farmers had miscalculated the weather and sprayed some fields near the river right before the rain.  The chemicals washed into the river and killed thousands of fish, which were washed up on shore the next morning.  Then, people desperate for money gathered up the poisoned fish and sold them to unsuspecting, hungry neighbors while omitting the toxic source.

Due to the water crisis in El Salvador, villagers are being forced to drink water from the Lempa and other contaminated sources.  This is leading to an exponential rise in kidney disease and kidney failure among El Salvadorean villagers.  People are dying at alarming rates because they cannot afford treatment; dialysis itself is incredibly costly, not to mention most El Salvadorean villages are hours from the nearest hospital.  To get to the hospital on the bus for one trip alone costs more than most families make in a week.

This is clearly a multifaceted wicked problem.  As you can imagine, my take on sugar has drastically changed.  Coming back to the states where I have unlimited access to food pumped full of the sweet stuff feels so wrong.  Every time I eat a cookie, all I can think of is the huge fire we drove past in devastated silence or the friends I made who are suffering from immense health problems due to the sweet ingredient in my pastry.

What are we to do?

We may say, “Oh, it’s just the big companies that are doing this.  We aren’t doing this individually.”  But if we are supporting these companies, aren’t we funding the exploitation?

I’m not pointing a finger saying you are the problem.  I’m saying we’re all the problem.

As I said with water, I simply hope we can all become aware of inequities such as these.  Next time you add sugar to your coffee or eat a pastry, remember the El Salvadorean people who are caught in this viscous cycle.

I will be writing one final reflection on my time in El Salvador.  Where is God in all of this? Check back in a few days to walk alongside me as I sort through this mess of emotions and experiences.

xo Kailen

agua

How much water do you use in a day?

Most of us go throughout our day without really thinking about this question.  We wake up in the morning, flush the toilet, take a hot shower to wake up, dress, eat a quick breakfast of bacon and eggs, and then drive to work.  We go about our days drinking purified water from plastic water bottles, or if we are lucky, we drink tap water from our reusable water bottles.  We do our laundry, wash our dishes, and take out our trash.

We do all of these things without realizing that they each use copious amounts of water.

Just a couple of weeks ago, I wouldn’t have thought twice about this regular day to day schedule.  I thought I was aware enough of our privilege surrounding water, but spending a few days in El Salvador truly opened my eyes to the real and alarming water crisis that our planet – yes, our entire planet – is experiencing.

I knew coming into my delegation to the village of Guajoyo that we would have limited access to water.  I have traveled to Mexico a few times in the past, and I knew that the tap water isn’t purified to US standards.  We couldn’t even brush our teeth with the tap on these trips.  I expected the situation to be similar in El Salvador.  I wasn’t wrong, but boy, was I naive about the extent of the water scarcity we would encounter

Guajoyo has not had sufficient rain in nearly a year and a half.  Normally, El Salvador experiences a dry season and a rainy season.  Last year, the rain simply never came.  As a result, the farmers of Guajoyo lost their entire corn crop, and their natural springs dried up.  Before this, they had a pipe system and running water in many homes.  It had been nearly a month since the village had water flowing through their pipes when we arrived. Fortunately, the village had dug two wells near the town to alleviate their desperate need for water.  Although the wells provide sufficient water for now, the village must ration their water use (more than they already do).

To use a toilet, these steps had to be followed:

  1. Walk from your house to the edge of the village where the well and pump are with a cántaro (big jug).
  2. Fill the cántaro, then walk back to your house while carrying the VERY heavy cántaro.
  3. Fill the pila (fountain/big tub) with the water. Sometimes it takes a few trips to fill the pila. 
  4. Grab the big bowl next to the pila and fill the toilet tank with three bowlfuls of water. If you fill it with any less than three bowls, the toilet will not flush. (I was appalled that it takes that much water to flush a toilet…I had no idea.)
  5. Do your business.  If you want/need to wash your hands, you have to use the big bowl again, being careful not to contaminate the water in the pila. 

To shower, we used one bowl of the water from the pila and gave ourselves a sponge bath.  Although it felt like we were using no water at all, we used up two and a half pilas of water throughout the three days we were in Guajoyo.

The big wake up call my delegation had was when we were making the 11 kilometer venture up a mountain to see Guajoyo’s springs.  Of course, we were driving in the back of a truck, but normally the villagers walk.  About halfway up, we started to smell smoke.  Once we were nearly at the springs, we overheard el incendio in conversations…wildfire.  We looked around a bit at the springs, but then began to hear the telltale popping noises of an approaching fire.  Although me and my delegation colleagues were terrified and eager to drive back to Guajoyo, the committee that brought us up insisted that they must go and try to contain the fire – with only one bucket for water. 

Thankfully, everyone made it back to Guajoyo safely.  To our disdain, they were unable to contain the fire, and discovered two more fires that were headed towards the spring and village.  Over lunch, we discussed the severity and seriousness of these fires with members of the community’s water committee.  They claimed that they had never had problems with wildfires like this in the past.  Because of the drought, the brush was incredibly dry, and the wind was much stronger than usual. Unfortunately, due to the uncertainty and danger of the situation, my delegation left Guajoyo earlier than anticipated.

I see these experiences as examples of the dangers of climate change.  Many of us have the privilege of shopping for food at grocery stores and drinking privatized water.  But the reality is that most of the world is experiencing water shortages just as the El Salvadorean people are, and they have no fancy ways to escape it.

Again, I ask you: “How much water do you use in a day?”

If you would like to be more aware of the amount of water you use day to day, I would suggest you use this calculator.  I don’t have grand suggestions to reduce water use, but I do think that awareness is the first step to change.

Keep an eye out for my next reflection on my El Salvador experience on azúcar – sugar.

xo Kailen

mattresses and tea

Here are three things that I had never done before working at Casa Marianella:

  1. Drive a Dodge Ram 2500.

  2. Drive a Dodge Ram 2500 with three queen sized mattresses haphazardly strapped to the bed.

  3. Drive a Dodge Ram 2500 with three queen sized mattresses haphazardly strapped to the bed through rush hour traffic on highway I-35.

Part of my job description at Casa Marianella is the title of Donation Coordinator.  Every week, I get a dozen emails from people throughout Austin hoping to donate their used mattresses and other large furniture to our organization.  About once or twice a week, I reserve Casa’s very large Dodge Ram truck and pick up these donations throughout the city.  I then drop them off at our storage unit.  At later dates, residents who are moving out of Casa stop by and pick out a mattress.  We believe everyone deserves a nice, comfy bed in their new home; the generous mattress owners of Austin make this a possibility.

Six months ago during my first run, I was shaking at the wheel.  What if I couldn’t figure out how to load the mattresses? What if I got lost? What if I unknowingly ran something/someone over with the inelegantly large truck?

Now, I am pleased to report I can maneuver that truck through tight parking garages and rush hour traffic like a pro.  It’s always fun to see the look on people’s faces as they realize that the driver of the truck is a very small woman who has to literally jump from the driver’s side door to the ground.

To date, I have successfully completed dozens of donation runs.  Along the way, I have met many wonderful humans and their pet dogs, cats, birds, and one teacup Yorkie Poo that desperately wanted its tiny tummy rubbed.

Each run is fun in its own unique way, but yesterday I did a very special pick up/drop off.

A few months ago, I met past Casa residents Yonas and Sara (names changed for privacy reasons).  They are an Eritrean couple who, at the time we met, spoke nearly zero English.  The first time I had a conversation with Sara, we were trying to find a job application online.  It was like pulling teeth figuring out exactly what she was looking for:  a very frustrating time for us both.

Yesterday, I picked up an over sized armchair and ottoman that was to be directly delivered to Yonas and Sara’s new apartment.  Sara is expecting a baby in March, so I was counting on Yonas being home to help me carry the large chair up the flight of stairs to their home.  But, alas, Sara was home alone when I arrived.  Crap. 

I went to the apartment complex’s office to see if any maintenance men were around to help, but they had all gone home for the evening.  As I walked up the stairs to tell Sara I would have to put the chair in storage for now, a very kind man walked past and greeted me with a smile and “¡Hola!”  I automatically responded with my own jubilant “¡Hola!” and then hesitantly stopped him and asked if he spoke English.  He replied no, and so I awkwardly asked in Spanish if he could help carry a big chair up the stairs to Sara’s apartment.  He noticed my self-consciousness concerning my Spanish abilities, and said, “Por supuesto. Hablas español muy bien,” which made me blush and quickly exclaim I only spoke a little bit.  He smiled, went straight to the Casa truck and hoisted the chair onto his shoulders and carried it up the flight of stairs like he was carrying a bowl of water on his head.  Sara and I gawked and gave him many thanks.

After the kind miracle man had left, Sara insisted I stay and have a cup of tea with her.  She also brought me an Eritrean trail mix to munch on as we had a long conversation about what her and Yonas want to name their baby.  She wanted me to help her with some American names since, of course, their baby will be an American citizen.  I convinced her that their baby could have two names: one American, and one Eritrean.  She was overjoyed that middle names were the norm in our country!

In hindsight, the incredible circumstance of this experience is the undeniable growth in both Sara and myself.  Not only has Sara’s beautiful baby bump grown, but her English has improved exponentially.  We went from sitting confused in front of a computer screen to being able to converse about her baby for half an hour without a hitch.  My ability to ask the kind stranger to help and his genuine compliment was needed assurance that my Spanish skills are stronger than I may think.

T’was a very special donation run, indeed.

Soon, Casa Marianella will be hosting a baby shower for Sara and her baby.  If you would like to purchase any gifts for them, here is a link to their Amazon wishlist:

Baby Shower Wishlist

You can send any gifts to:

Casa Marianella
821 Gunter Street
Austin, TX 78702

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nature is God’s poetry

The Trees

They always say
There are no straight lines in nature.
As we walk down the straight
Paths
Streets
Hallways
and Sidewalks
We have created, do we reflect this in our
Lives?
Do we follow no curves
No dips
No dead ends
No unexpected detours?

I look to the trees
Their lives displayed through their
Roots, their
Branches, their
Winding, tangled, yet
Beautiful structures.
There are no straight lines in nature,
They always say.

Why would The Creator make us an exception?

As I walk along the straight path,
My path follows that of the trees.

lake

heartache

I have typed and re-typed this blog post over and over the past two and a half months.  I came into this year of service knowing that my heart would be transformed, but I had no idea that would include it being broken and scattered to pieces.  It is incredibly difficult for me to squeeze the happenings of the past few weeks into a decently written blog post, but I am finally ready to share with my friends, families, and support system what is on my heart.

The last I wrote, I was starting to get the hang of my work at Casa Marianella.  Shortly after I published my last post, I took on the new job of being a case manager to three young men.  One from Eritrea, one from Somalia, and one from Cameroon.  I quickly grew to love each of them for their unique personalities, hilarious musings, and especially for their quick respect and trust in me – a stranger in this new and strange country.

The Eritrean, who I will refer to as Jon for privacy reasons, was my first.  His case was a difficult one: he had been in detention for nearly two years, but was ordered deported.  Long, complicated story made short, the US couldn’t deport him in a timely manner due to lack of documents, so he was released from detention on bond without any status.  He arrived at Casa with the shirt on his back, a backpack with his documents, and an ankle monitor.  Although our lawyer warned me that his case was one of the worst that they had seen, I quickly got attached and was determined to get him acquainted to the American lifestyle.  So, it came as a complete and devastating shock when we got a call that Jon had been arrested at one of his ICE check ins.  The government had given him a month and a half of “freedom,” only to re-detain him after his demeanor and hopes had finally lifted.

This news deeply discouraged me; we all work so hard at Casa, and seeing one of our friends being taken back to one of the darkest places he has known made me wonder if it was all worth it.

Not long after this heartbreak, my YAV roommates and I took a trip to the U.S.-Mexico border to work alongside Frontera de Cristo, a border ministry organization in the border towns of Douglas, AZ and Agua Prieta, Sonora.  I was in no way prepared for the onslaught of painful experiences we were a witness to.  We were presented with a perspective of migration that so few people in our privileged nation are exposed to.

The most painful for me was having dinner across the table from a pregnant mother and her thirteen-year-old daughter from Honduras.  At the time, they were staying in a migrant shelter in Agua Prieta called C.A.M.E.  As I conversed with them in my broken Spanish, they shared their hopes of presenting themselves at the port of entry the following morning so they could request asylum.  As they excitedly discussed their plans of taking a bus to Georgia to see their family,  I thought to myself with sadness that in reality, their destination was going to be a detention facility.

The next evening as my group crossed from Mexico to the U.S. for a prayer vigil, the mother and her daughter were still sitting on the curb on Mexico’s side.  The U.S. border officials were not allowing them to even step foot on U.S. soil, because it is illegal to turn away someone seeking asylum . . . if it is on American soil.  Later that evening, we brought the mother and her daughter some food, water, coats, and blankets to stay warm.  They waited until 4 am that morning.  They waited nearly twenty-four hours to be allowed to request asylum.  There was no line.

These experiences, along with the difficulties of intentional community and relationship maintenance have made for the most challenging months of my life thus far.  Although I have spent the past two months dwelling on the inequities our administration and systems directly and indirectly place on the lives of the vulnerable, I am finally catching my stride.  Jon being re-detained now encourages me to cherish the time I spend with my residents and casees that much more.  My experiences in Mexico and Arizona have shifted my perspective on which type of ministry I hope to pursue.  The heartache I experience from broken relationships of the past push me to appreciate and fall deeper into the friendships I still hold, and to work to strengthen the new bonds I am creating here in my community.

My heart has been broken, but it is on the mend and is beating stronger than ever before.

mi casa es su casa es nuestra casa

Precisely one month ago, I parked my car in front of my work placement, Casa Marianella, for the first time.  It took me a few minutes to build up the courage to climb out of my car, but with the help of some deep breaths and a quick prayer, I did it.  Merely seconds after walking into the crowded and disorganized office, I was pulled into a tight hug. Jennifer Long, the director of Casa, said, “You must be Kailen. Welcome home.”

It is hard to believe that day was only a month ago; it feels like it’s been years.  That day was such a whirlwind of information and emotions.  In that one day, Jennifer and I went over the entire Casa training manual while simultaneously driving a couple residents down to San Antonio for an ICE check-in.  I remember thinking to myself that there was no way in hell, heaven, or anywhere in between I was going to be able to remember and apply all of the information we went over that day.

Well, y’all . . . I was wrong. I’m doin’ it.

My job title at Casa Marianella is Operations Coordinator/Staff/Donations Coordinator/Detention Support Letter Coordinator/Case Manager/Encargada/Sister/Friend.  In simpler terms, this job can be described by Casa Marianella’s mission statement: To welcome displaced immigrants and promote self-sufficiency by providing shelter and support services. 

To understand Casa’s work, it is important to (try to) understand our country’s immigration system.

In the past month, I have learned the plethora of statuses an individual can achieve upon arrival to the United States (asylee, withholding under the Convention Against Torture (CAT), withholding under 241(b)(3), parole, bond, Release on Recognizance . . . ).  I have learned that until an individual is granted one of these statuses through a court hearing, they are often kept in detention centers sprinkled throughout the country.  Most of the residents we house at Casa come straight from these detention centers.

Above all, my job at Casa is to welcome immigrants of any and all statuses to America as hospitably and warmly as possible.

Of course, I do so much more than smile and say, “BIENVENIDOS.”  This job is exhausting, but I have already learned so much more than I could have ever dreamed.  Casa Marianella is a magical place full of life; as my fellow staff newbie, Ellie, said, “There is so much culture clash that there is almost NO culture . . . we are all stripped to our purely human selves.  Here at Casa, we are all just humans being humans.”

On any regular day, I hear about five or six different languages being spoken.  I smell traditional foods from dozens of countries in Central America and Africa being cooked.  I come up with new handshakes with residents and hand out ungodly amounts of eggs and coffee.  It truly is my new home, their new home . . . our new home.

Below are pictures of the artwork that lines the fence in Casa’s backyard.  I see these every day, and every day I am struck with their beauty.  Many are painted by past Casa residents.  Enjoy.

Until next time. xo Kailen