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Street Smarts: Being transformed on the streets of San Salvador

September 27, 2007

By brianr

A reflection from El Salvador

One never knows.  Working with at-risk-youth on the street, one just never knows what might happen to transform a meeting, even a moment, into an event.

With our more volatile group of at-risk-youth, reaching the end of our meeting-on-the-street with none of the passers-by having been accosted, either verbally or physically, is amazing, something for which we truly give thanks.  There is always some reason for whomever having been accosted by some member of our group (“she’s a cantankerous, ornery, crazy old lady”; “he’s a thief, he’s stolen stuff from the mini-market, even from the school”; “he made a pass at one of our guys, he must be gay”), any of which points out the low level of tolerance with which these guys have grown up and learned to live.
The incident in itself is troublesome enough.  To add to the unease, one never knows who might be following in the wake (immediate or extended) of each particular victim and each particular incident.  The police?  An equally-volatile mob of the victim’s allies?  Offended and even irate family members?  Such possibilities seem not to be considered in the heat of the moment.

Many meetings bring accounts of the violence suffered by one or more members of any group during the previous week, at the hands of assailants, police, even family.  Sometimes it takes on more of a “show-and-tell” nature, with telling wounds and dressings, casts and crutches . . . and tales of experiences which no youth should have to live, especially in his home neighbourhood.

What might be called a shack–except that it is without a roof, if you don’t count the corner that might be called the kitchen, minimally sheltered by a once-trashed, now-scavenged sheet of corrugated metal–served as our cinema during a providential 2-hour gap in the rain on an unusually wet, hurricane-provoked, rainy day.  We started to gather near the appointed time of 7:30 p.m., Beto with a CD player under his arm; myself with the movie for the evening (“Diamante de Sangre”–Blood Diamond, concerning the recent war in Sierra Leone, provoked and financed by the clandestine trade in diamonds); and no one with any TV to which to connect it.
Another of the guys showed up with a tentative offer–his family TV . . . but the sound wasn’t working.  Perhaps they could rig up some other music player with speakers to furnish the sound?  After all, this resourceful bunch had hooked up the electricity and provided light for us in the kiosk in what might be called the neighbourhood park (well, a tiny, somewhat green space), providing us some shelter during this rainy season (May-Nov).
After half an hour of innovating, this plan was abandoned.  Huddled back on the narrow sidewalk, the only division between the rows of 2-story apartment blocks, an older, dignified, quiet man, seated right behind us on a cement block which might be called his front step, asked unobtrusively what our dilemma was.  Another half-hour of pursuing his offer of his TV had us huddled around the tree in the middle of his courtyard, which might be called his living room, seated on a bunch of plastic stools we had recently acquired for this group.  Open-air cinema during the rainy season should always be Plan B, but in this case it worked fine for us, and has even brought “Peter” (Pedro) closer into the community circle of friendship.

The next week’s plan was to reflect on and analyze this movie, and draw some connections with the mining being envisioned for El Salvador by Canadian company Pacific Rim.  And who should be accompanying me to this meeting but an Angolan, who has suffered through their own civil war of 30 years, a war also sparked in part by an illegal diamond trade.
Agostinho is studying orthopedics / prostheses for 3 years in El Salvador, in order to help the land mine victims in his home country to be fitted with feet, legs, hands, arms.  At his 25 years of age, he didn’t have many positive remarks to make on the subject of war–or on the subject of manipulative mining, for that matter.  I had met Agostinho at a concert at the UCA (Jesuit University), 10 days earlier, celebrating the 22nd anniversary of IDHUCA, the UCA’s human rights department.  He quickly became an eager colleague and resource person, intuitively comprehending the members of our at-risk-youth groups, and responding with eloquence, simplicity and animation to their enthusiastic curiosity.
To put this in context, there are no black people in El Salvador–not even Caribbean, let alone African . . . except for the occasional athlete visiting for some game or meet.  In such cases, they are subjected to racist comments . . . even by this same youth group while watching a soccer game on TV a couple months earlier.  My hesitation about bringing a black visitor unannounced proved to be totally unfounded.  Their gracious and warm welcome was unmistakable.

Don’t suppose that sexual diversity–read, same-sex anything–is not of interest to Salvadoran at-risk-youth.  It is one of their favourite themes, regularly requested by every group, and discussed at great length, breadth and depth.  One such youth participant, Cito, more concerned about posing shirtless whenever a camera is drawn, indicating that he spends many more hours lifting his weights than he does reading his Bible, came up matter-of-factly with a matter-of-fact explanation for sexual diversity, which he drew straight from Scripture (Ex. 20:5, to be precise) . . . one which I had not heard espoused (no pun intended) in the endless dissertations and opinion-pieces in which North Americans have immersed themselves in the never-ending study of “the issue”.
So I initially dismissed it offhand as silly . . . until I got home and picked up a book left by Jesus (not the Nazarene).  Within a couple days, I was taking Cito’s street wisdom more seriously.  The point of the book, “Me Pesan Mis Ancestros”, (My Ancestors Weigh on Me, translated into Spanish from the original French), is that family secrets and family silences are often lived out in mysterious ways by some unsuspecting descendant, from one to several generations down the family road.  As a member of a family where male ancestors seem to have died with inexplicable consistency on Oct 8, who am I to deny such a theory?  So much for the never-ending nature/nurture debate.  As Cito knows, with no need for debate, it’s always been great-great-grandmother who’s been responsible for all this sexual diversity.

In prisons, body tattoos make for great personal discussion-starters.  With these at-risk-youth, fewer have tattoos, and if they do, they are more often covered by clothing.  But t-shirt slogans sometimes provide a lead.  As in many parts of the world, folk wear such slogans in delightful ignorance and naïveté, unaware of the trouble they could be inviting.  I could digress at length with such encounters over the years, but I’ll just mention one such very positive moment from a couple weeks ago.
One guy was wearing an ELCA 2006 Youth Gathering, San Antonio, TX, t-shirt, one which he had picked up from some used-clothes rack on some local street, because he liked the logo design and the colour.  Having no idea what the Lutheran Church is, he certainly knew nothing about this event.  It provided for an interesting 20 minutes of dialogue, particularly reflecting back on Salvadoran drama troupe “Luz de Luna’s participation in the ELCA’s Youth Assembly back in 2000.

The near-fatal illness of one participant inspired a deeper level of bonding among the members of one of these groups.  Calling themselves “Nomadas”, since they are a disperse, wandering group with no particular area to call home, and having been driven out of whatever area they’ve tried to claim as home, we began meeting in the home of one of the members.  Their living room could comfortably seat 6, though we regularly squeezed in 12 to 15.  The same was true for his mother’s tailor shop in the apartment above.
When the group grew to a couple dozen, we were back on the sidewalk, impeding heavy pedestrian traffic and hoping it wouldn’t rain on us.  When this friend ended up in Rosales Public Hospital, they all wrote him letters and organized themselves to visit when possible–not an easy challenge, when each patient gets only 2 visitor cards, and visiting time is limited to one hour at noon each day.  He was suddenly transferred to the ICU ward, understandably an even more heavily-restricted area where, with my white face, I was able to wangle my way in for several visits.
Miraculously, and thanks to the wonderful support of these friends and his unusually-supportive parents (for these folk, it’s most unusual to even have two parents), he has recovered almost completely, though he is still awaiting a delicate operation when circumstances permit.  Their mural-painting of the past couple weeks has transformed a wall directly outside his family’s front door.  It seems the “Nomadas” have found a home.

For a significant portion of my life, I was of the mind that God spoke primarily through pipe organs and 8-part choirs, preferably in cathedral-type spaces.  For the next significant portion of my life, I was of the mind that God spoke mostly from pulpits, preferably before throngs of enthusiastic worshippers.  In more recent times, I have become convinced that God speaks most passionately in jail cells and hospital AIDS wards.  I’ve now come to be persuaded that God, ever the “Nomada”, speaks in a still, small voice even on the street and every bit as transformingly.

Brian Rude
Brian is a Pastor / Missionary of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada who works with PWRDF partner CoCosi.

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