On Sunday I headed to church expecting Advent services. The night before, I had attended a 6-hour vigil that one congregation held for Advent, the start of the church year. During this four-week period, we look for the places in our lives that could use God's presence. That way we will know how much we need God's gift of the baby Jesus. This community at the church Ríos de Agua Viva identified the need for God in the midst of the terrible violence, the extreme poverty, and the challenging struggles in family life. They identified the need to build a safe, just, and dignified community. We know that God will provide for our needs, just as God provided a baby to save us.
The churches I attended on Sunday did not focus on Advent, but broke from the church calendar for special occasions. Yet the promise of God's coming prevailed in these services.
At the church La Resurrección we had the novenario for a young man from Apopa. In the tradition started by the Catholic Church in El Salvador, after a burial, people have a period of mourning for nine days. Each day they hold a devotional to recognize the life of the fallen and to give comfort and hope to family and friends. A full funeral service called the novenario comes on the ninth day. On this day, we remembered twenty-one year old Juan Carlos Durán Serrano, who died at the hand of gang violence. Gang members broke into his house and emptied their pistols into his body. The Salvadoran people face this reality every day, but that doesn't make a funeral for the victim any easier.
Pastor Abelina Gómez preached that morning from the lectionary texts, including Luke 21:25-36, where Jesus speaks of the end of the age. All things that have a beginning must have an end. This includes creation, civilizations, and each individual life. Doña Abelina noted how Juan Carlos had lived a life according to faith, a life dedicated to his family and to good works. We can take consolation in knowing that God has given him rest from this world, but we cannot deny the horrors of the violence that caused this tragedy.
Jesus speaks to us about these horrors we face, for even though people "will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming on the world," Jesus tells us to "stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near." (v. 26, 28 NRSV) All things that have a beginning must have an end. This includes violence.
If we just look for the signs of God's reign, we will see this truth. We must recognize that violence does not come from God. The destitution remaining after massive flooding does not come from God. A system that encourages the powerful to take advantage of those in deepest need does not come from God. These things come from the failure of all humankind. So we need to ask forgiveness from God for our failures. As a society, we need to ask forgiveness for allowing people to live in substandard housing in areas with a high risk of natural disasters. We need to ask forgiveness for our greedy lifestyles that only serve to pollute the earth and exacerbate the destructive forces of nature. We need to ask forgiveness for the system of violence that murdered Juan Carlos. Society should have been alert. As Jesus says, "Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place". (v. 36)
My brief summary of her sermon fails to convey the full sense of power that Pastor Gómez brought to the congregation through her gentle voice. At first, it seems odd that she would have the victims of a crime ask for forgiveness. Can we really place any blame on them? Certainly not. But this act reveals the hope that the situation will change, that we recognize just where we need God's presence in our lives as we anticipate God's gift in the baby Jesus.
Pastor Abelina, who preached as a guest at La Resurrección, serves as the regular pastor at Fe y Esperanza, a church in nearby Nejapa. We headed there next, but Pastor Gómez had little to do, for the youth had decided that they would lead the service. They had also decided to hold a special service, but for a different reason. They had wanted to educate the congregation about HIV and AIDS for World AIDS Day, which was coming up on December 1st.
HIV and AIDS pose a great threat to El Salvador and Latin American cultures. Too often people see those infected as less than human, and shun anyone with the virus. They do not understand that no one can pass the virus by shaking hands or even kissing. They have been told that HIV only infects prostitutes and bad people. They worry that associating with anyone infected would make them bad or possibly infect them as well. So most people will refuse to get checked for HIV. No one can shun them if no one knows about it. They also won't use protection because they fear that people will think that they have AIDS and engage in the activities of the bad people. So those with HIV have to live separate lives, as their own family will often reject them. They can lose their jobs, even though it's against Salvadoran law. Furthermore, they can't afford the medicines and treatment that would help them to stay healthy and to live a more normal life.
The youth at Fe y Esperanza sought to educate the congregation about the reality of HIV and AIDS. If we know how the virus is transmitted, we can protect ourselves by avoiding those situations and having access to protection should the need arise. Furthermore, we can lean how to include those with HIV. The youth sought to teach us that we have nothing to fear and everything to gain by working together, regardless of anything that makes us different. The affirmation that brought us to communion time shows us that commitment.
"We are all God's Creatures.
We have the right to have rights.
Possibly some of us live with HIV and have every right to have access to essential medicines.
We are all God's Creatures.
We are the sexual worker, the drug user, the person with the transgender or transsexual identity, the person with the lesbian, gay, or bisexual orientation, and we all know that we are accepted by God.
We are possibly the single mother who lives with HIV and has every right to adequate treatment.
We are all God's Creatures.
We are the stigmatized, discriminated, and exploited who have the right to healthy food and an adequate health system.
We are the people in vulnerable situations and we have the right to receive a dignified care from all human beings.
We are all God's Creatures.
We can raise our heads with dignity and walk the paths of justice."
(Affirmation by Lisandro Orlov)
The youth of Fe y Esperanza inspired me. They wanted to make this taboo subject known, to educate the people, and to help make things better. The have stood up where no one else would. They identified a place where we need God's presence, a need that helps us look forward to God's gift in the baby Jesus.
Even though the church services I attended changed from the standard Advent service, they both managed to convey everything that Advent means. Oh God, we welcome your coming.
What places in your life can you identify a need for God's presence?
What places in your community can you identify a need for God's presence?
What places in society can you identify a need for God's presence?
Pick a lectionary text for Sunday (flip a coin twice if you need to): Malachi 3:1-4, Philippians 1:3-11, Luke 1:68-79, or Luke 3:1-6. How does this text help you prepare for the changes that will come with God's gift?
Nicholas Green serves in El Salvador as a long-term volunteer with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of El Salvador. He supports the National Youth, with the Family and Gender Program of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod of El Salvador. He also assists with the Communications Program.