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El Salvador 2008: T minus 10 days

Who is going? The team includes six people from St. Mary’s – Reverend Peter Chase, Ariel Acuna, Tim Green, Paul Pyzowski, Tom Riley, Ann Wessel – and five from St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Natick – Reverend Mark McKone-Sweet, Mary Erickson, Ron Burns, Sandy Hall, and Joan Hellmuth.

When are they going and what are they doing while they are there? The team will depart Saturday May 10 and arrive home late Monday night, May 19. They will be based in a dormitory room adjacent to San Juan Evangelista, the largest Episcopal parish in El Salvador, located in the capital city of San Salvador.

The time in El Salvador will be split between two work projects. One is to help rebuild road access to the church in San Marcos, located in a rural mountainous region in the western part of the country. The second is to work with our sister parish, Santa Maria Virgen, in preparation for building a new church building.

The schedule also includes time to visit historical religious sites in San Salvador, meet Bishop Barahona, and worship with local parishes.

Santa Maria Virgen, San Salvador

Why is a team of six people from St. Mary’s spending ten in a Central American country that has the highest rates of crime and violence in the Western Hemisphere? St. Mary’s and the Diocese of Massachusetts have a long history of involvement in El Salvador. Reverend Larry Walton, who was our rector before Peter Chase, had been a missionary in Central America. After retiring from St. Mary’s in 1991, Larry spend two years in El Salvador as the rector of what is now our sister parish, Santa Maria Virgen.

The Diocese of Massachusetts has a long-standing history of involvement in El Salvador. Our bishop Tom Shaw is personal friends with the Salvadorian Bishop Martin Barahona. Other parishes in our diocese also have long standing sister parish relationships as well.

What is the background to the situation in El Salvador? El Salvador’s history has not been kind to the vast majority of its people. The Spanish colonized the country and set up a system of large centrally owned and controlled farms for export crops (coffee). Into the twentieth century, land ownership was very concentrated and there was little economic opportunity for the majority of the population except to work in harsh conditions on one of the large plantations. Attempts at unionization, land ownership reform, and other needed economic reforms were stifled by an unusually tight link between the landowners and military. Waves of civil unrest were common throughout the twentieth century.

This situation was coming to a head in the 1980s, and the prospect of a major civil war was forcing the hand of the government to implement needed economic reforms. However, the US intervened by providing military and economic aid to the Salvadorian government, seeing El Salvador as a front on the war against communism. This aid was used by the government against its own people, leading to an internal civil war that ultimately left one in six Salvadorians a refugee.

After a large international outcry, in part due to the continued assassinations of clergy seen as sympathetic to the poor, the Salvadorian government was pushed to sign a peace accord in 1992. Although this marked the end of the civil war, and the beginning of modest economic reforms, the country was and continues to be daunted by gang violence and a lack of viable economic alternatives to coffee production.

What is the Episcopal Church in El Salvador doing to help its members and communities with respect to their economic needs? The Episcopal Church in El Salvador is active in its efforts to improve the lot of its members in both urban and rural poor settings. Examples that Paul Pyzowski saw firsthand on his eleven-day trip in June 2007 include: * Organizing “Artisans for the Lord”, a collective that lets urban women at St. John’s sell handicrafts at market rates directly to organizations in the U.S. and Canada * Providing seed financing for a program of microloans for farmers in the rural flatlands to buy fertilizer for their crops * Rebuilding portions of access roads to mountain regions that the local authorities are unable to maintain so that the Diocesan doctor can reach the church’s clinic during the rainy season – last year, a member of one rural mission parish died as his family was unable to get across a river to get him to a hospital

Artisans for the Lord

Why spend money to send a team to El Salvador instead of sending the money directly? The message Paul Pyzowski heard from the church leadership there – from Bishop Barahona, the Primate of Central America, to Father Julio Rivera, rector of our sister parish Santa Maria Virgen – is *not* to send money. They are keen not to create a culture of dependency.

Instead, they have asked us to come and visit, to “walk with them in Christ”. The efforts of mission teams, and the funds they can raise for targeted programs like road building and microloans, can and do make a difference in the lives of the people of the Episcopal Church in El Salvador. However what the church leadership wants most of all is our physical presence there – sharing their lives, hopes, and dreams – and sharing this experience with the church family outside of El Salvador.

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