|| By Carol Kaplan
I am in El Salvador for a 10-day immersion experience with Friends Across Borders, sponsored by Maryknoll Lay Missioners. I know little about the country beyond the news stories I recall from the civil war of the 1980s. Visually El Salvador is a beautiful place—a mountainous landscape covered with green growth, lots of coffee plantations and sugarcane fields.
During our stay we visit several projects begun by Maryknoll missioners, including Contrasida, a program founded by Maryknoll Sisters that provides services to family members after an aids patient has died. As we visit families involved in the project, the words of a hymn by Christopher Beatty keep coming to my mind.
“This is holy ground, we’re standing
on holy ground,
for the Lord is present and where
God is, is holy.”
A woman named Valentina sits on a wooden stump on the hardpacked dirt of an outdoor area that makes up both her kitchen and front yard. Before her is the family’s small house with corrugated tin roof and makeshift walls of board, tin and stone. Shirts hang on a clothesline to one side. Smoke from the outdoor fire curls slowly upward. Trees hover overhead, pro- viding shade and another higher roof.
There are stray plastic containers protruding from bushes. Chickens scurry about. At first glance it seems dirty and unappealing. Is this holy ground?
Then I look more closely. Valentina has fashioned flowerpots out of mud, and shoots of red geraniums grow toward the light. Other green cuttings look healthy, their soft foliage a tranquil contrast to the dusty, barren ground. On the small wooden table is a blue-and-white- checkered plastic tablecloth, set out to welcome her U.S. guests.
Her feminine efforts toward beauty in these difficult circumstances touch me. I wonder what she thinks of us. We arrive in a new van. Our tennis shoes contrast with her worn flip-flops and the bare feet of the children. This is holy ground.
“These are holy hands; God’s given
us holy hands,
God works through these hands and
so these hands are holy.”
She greets us with a warm smile and grasps our large soft hands with her small bony hands encased by toughened brown skin. These hands have prepared tortilla-like pupusas for us. Is this the bread of life? Her family sits in the background politely as we eat and drink at the table, where there is not enough room for all. Will there be food left for them? I am reminded of the widow in the Old Testament who has only one portion of flour and oil left. She uses it to make a loaf for unexpected guests.
These hands raised six children and now are raising the two children of her daughter who died of aids. How many pounds of masa (dough) have her hands formed into tortillas? How many baskets of laundry have these hands pounded against rock and scrubbed until they were clean? How many containers of water have these hands transported from a mile down the road? God works through these hands, and so these hands are holy.
“These are holy lives; God’s given us
God speaks through these lives, and
so these lives are holy.”
Her 40-year-old son emerges from the house waving his arms and speaking incoherently. Later I learn he was in the civil war and is mentally ill, probably post-traumatic stress disorder.
I have a 40-year-old son, too. Valentina and I are probably close to the same age. She is half my size. With grey hair, weathered skin, missing teeth, she looks like 85. Her eyes tell a different story. Bright, alert, they see another reality, one I catch only glimpses of—more often here than in the United States. Our lives are so opposite, but for a brief time we meet and share our journey.
I speak in my halting Spanish about my children and grand children, and inquire about hers. She looks at the pictures on my iPhone. She shows no hint of bitterness or resentment. Her face reflects acceptance, fortitude and grace.
“Ours are holy lives; God’s given us holy lives.”
The author lives in Monterey, Calif.
For more information on this program, visit friendsacrossborders.org