By Jean Easterly, Maryknoll Affiliate
I grew up reading the Maryknoll Magazine. I loved reading about people in different parts of the world and the work of the priests, brothers and sisters among them, but I never dreamed that I would become part of that special world. Last June I heard about a pilgrimage going to El Salvador and felt called to respond. Sixteen lay people from around the country responded and flew into San Salvador on Monday, November 15th, meeting each other for the first time. Our one-week pilgrimage would take us to see the work of the Maryknoll Lay Missioners, people like ourselves but dedicated for a minimum of three years to the people they serve.
We visited ContraSIDA, the AIDS Clinic that serves approximately 100 patients in San Salvador. Since the year 2000 this ministry has served the people “who fall between the cracks.” Debbie Northern, one of the Maryknoll Lay Missioners, explained and demonstrated how she teaches her AIDS Prevention Classes, a vital part of this ministry that is coordinated by the founder Dr. Mary Annel, MM.
On the evening of November 16 we attended mass at the UCA (University of Central America) in memory of eight martyrs who died twenty-one years ago on November 16, 1989. Hundreds of people gathered for the outdoor mass led by the Archbishop. We worshipped together with the people of El Salvador.
For me, the highlight of the trip happened high up in the mountains southwest of San Salvador where we visited the home of Antonia. Tim Morris, Maryknoll Lay Missioner, lives with Antonia, her son, Raul, and their family in this gracious home without electricity or running water. When the family wants to get water, they go one kilometer down the mountain and one kilometer back up in the wet season. In the dry season it’s three kilometers down the mountain and three kilometers back up.
After lunch we walked up the road a little further to see the people coming down the steep mountainsides with heavy sacks on their backs. Many young children came down the hills bent over with their loads. I remember sucking in my breath and feeling that I had come upon a mystical site, privileged to see the people at work. Once down the mountainside, they spread out their coffee beans by the side of the narrow, rut-filled road and began to sort out the leaves and twigs. Families of different ages worked together, happy to have their picking done for the day.
The most difficult part of the trip was when we made ready to leave El Salvador and all those who had shown us such warm hospitality during our stay. Most of all, it was difficult to say goodbye to my fifteen fellow travelers, especially to Grafton and Marisel Olivera, (Maryknoll Lay Missioners, Class of 85, Venezuela) who served as our Friends Across Borders guides – our gentle, loving and joy-filled guides. We had gathered as strangers, yet drawn together for a common purpose. We leave as a community bound together by the shared experiences of this holy week. We are committed to tell the story of the people of El Salvador. We are committed to tell others what they can do to improve the lives of the people of El Salvador. We have committed our resources to support the work of the Maryknoll Lay Missioners. We have committed our resources to support one student through the University of Central America to graduation. We are no longer strangers but people whose lives are intertwined. We have chosen to be called Presente con El Salvador.