First Christian Church’s pilgrimage to El Salvador

First Christian Church’s pilgrimage to El Salvador


First Christian Church, Des Moines, Iowa

“We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.” -Martin Luther King, Jr.

By Tim Diebel

We saw the legacy of violence and the enduring diminishment of poverty. Our eyes widened at the sight of razor wire atop the fences and garbage in the gutters. We grew claustrophobic in the overcrowded compression of houses and people and traffic and stray dogs and blaring horns. Our spines may never forgive us for the jostling and jolting endured on numbingly bad roads. And then we unloaded our bags from the van, having just arrived at the guesthouse from the San Salvador airport.

The impressions, the reactions and emotions only intensified as the eight days unfolded. And we met, worked with and lived with some of the kindest, most generous and gracious people I have ever experienced-an inexplicable precipitate of the tragic alchemy of bloodshed and deprivation that has been their history. Constantly mindful of the shameful role my own government played in subjugating and almost annihilating these humble people throughout the 12-year Salvadoran civil war, I was humbled at the welcome reception we received. Bitter hostility would have been more understandable. I couldn’t shake the knowledge that by the war’s end in 1992, the U.S. was supporting, to the tune of $1 million per day, the ruling government that made martyrs out of priests, nuns and faithful citizens, and terrorized and imprisoned countless for vocalizing a cry for justice. Mortaring the blocks of this house that was built for a mere $3000, I couldn’t help toying with the math-wondering how many such houses could have been built with simply one day’s-or one week’s-worth of that former U.S. support. I can’t speak for the others; perhaps I was there doing penance.

And so we built a house.

Or perhaps the passive voice is more revealing: a house was built. I’m not sure how much credit our group of nine can claim. Yes, we rose early, got to work, and worked hard throughout the day-on a couple of days past dark. Yes, we mixed concrete and lifted blocks and cut and bent rebar and pulled wire and hung windows and doors. But we did it all alongside the beneficiaries who will live in that house and the other nine that are being built in this particular phase of the project. Frankly, they were the ones with the skill and the practice. They had the know-how. We had the extra set of hands, the extra set of muscles-such as they were; we had the capacity to be, for them for a week, some mules. They were appreciative. They were helpful. They were patient and kind. And they were probably slowed down by all our extra “help.” I can’t help but suspect they were as ready for us to go home as were we.

Hopefully we contributed something useful. Hopefully we gave to the good people of Guadalupe, El Salvador, something of value. For their part, they gave us an education into what it means to minister “with” someone rather than “for” them or “to” them. With God’s help, it is an education we can employ in the Drake neighborhood in Des Moines, Iowa.

Our trip to El Salvador was a wonderful experience-thanks primarily to Marco, the Global Ministries missionary in residence in El Salvador, and his patient, good-natured expertise and commitment.