In this first article of a two-part series, Octavio describes his role as translator, spiritual assistant, and general assistant for a mission trip in June sponsored by the Church of the Resurrection in Ellicott City, Md.
“A trip like this puts you in touch with your own reality and makes you realize your value,” he said. “It also shows how one can be an instrument to help others believe that God is always present in our midst.” Octavio, a native of El Salvador who is shown at right in photo, had gotten to know Resurrection parish through a friend. This was the third trip in which he participated.
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Right after our Chapter of Mats in June, I had another busy week with a delegation of 23, that included doctors, nurses, dentists and non-medical support personnel, from Resurrection parish in Ellicott City, Md. For the past 17 years, Resurrection parish has been “twinning” with a sister parish in El Salvador, Our Lady Queen of Peace in San Bartolo City on the outskirts of San Salvador, the capital.
This parish cares for the spiritual well-being of at least 100,000 people, who are mostly poor. There are virtually no governmental programs for the poor and even public school for the children is expensive. The parish provides many social welfare programs and offers the children an opportunity to go to school. Resurrection parish has long supported the parish daycare center. This center provides care for young children who might be otherwise locked in their homes while their parents were at work. Most of these children are from single mothers who work at the local maquiladoras, which are, in essence, sweat shops.
Other ministries include outreach to senior citizens, the unemployed and gang members. The parish also has a healthcare clinic, a sewing cooperative, and educational programs for new mothers, adult literacy, and religious instruction. On this trip, our mission was to provide medical care for people at the clinic, which was built by the generous donations of the parishioners of Resurrection parish.
Why was I there to provide medical care to other people, when I am reluctant to see a doctor myself? When you have a delegation where 80 percent of the members are not fluent in Spanish, it makes sense that they would invite a native Spanish-speaker like me. Also, because it is a Franciscan-administrated clinic, the group leaders thought that my involvement would make communicating with the friars smoother. Some of these ventures have surprises, but for the most part, this trip was as good as my last two trips.
Challenging Trip with Warm Welcome Dinner
On June 9, I had an early start from my home in New Jersey to Kennedy Airport, just to realize that due to the weather, my plane was delayed. Was I surprised? No, but disappointed that I was not going to coordinate my schedule with the rest of the delegates, who were flying from other airports. Patience and a good book paid off, as I traveled to my native El Salvador. Upon arriving at my destination, I saw a group of people with at least three bags each trying to check through Customs. Imagine “Gringos” at the Customs counter trying to justify the importing of 50 big bags of medicines. Since I recognized some of them, I knew that was the group I should be with, and I began translating for them. There was a sigh of relief for everyone, as there is nothing worse than being misunderstood by Customs in a foreign country. The rainy season, which lasts for six months (May/November), did not do much to temper the intense heat wave that hit as we exited the airport. Three hours later, we were at the clinic, with the welcoming committee and in-country support group that included the parish pastor and the director of the clinic, Dr. Rosa Leiva.
Wasting no time after the formal introductions and greeting that come along with those kinds of welcomes, we all were hands-on the job. The doctors and the nurses set up the pharmacy while the other members of the delegation sorted out the antibiotics from the vitamins and painkillers. It was something to see, how in just a few hours, the pharmacy looked like it had been there forever. I was amazed at how well organized these kinds of delegations are. Ever since I joined the first time, it has been like that. Like many of the other buildings in the neighborhood, the clinic lacks air-conditioning, but not even the new comers complained about the 80- or 90-degree weather. After all, a week goes by fast.
That evening, we were scheduled for a welcome dinner at 6 p.m., given by the parish. But not everything is on time, and dinner did not start until 7 p.m. Even though the restaurant was only a half-mile away, it took us almost 30 minutes to get there because of wrong turns made by the school bus carrying the 23 of us. Getting out the bus was an adventure. When we arrived, there was a severe thunderstorm and welost electricity more than a few times. However, we had a nice candlelight dinner that Mother Nature provided us.
As if all of these activities and the travel time included were not enough, we had to go back to the hotel, or I should say the guesthouse, where we were staying. Upon arrival to our temporary headquarters, we had a long meeting, which gave us an idea of the itinerary for the rest of the week.
The Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and the Blood of Christ
For some of our members, Sunday, June 10, the feast of Corpus Christi, was going to be the first time they participated in a procession of at least 300 people. At 5 a.m., one of my roommates, Dr. John Barona, quietly got up from bed to go downstairs and do his morning spiritual reflection. I am always amazed by the spirituality of the lay people who, in spite of their many responsibilities, take time to talk with God
At 6 a.m. we boarded the bus for the 45-minute ride from the hotel to the church. This particular Sunday Mass was not beiing celebrated at the parish, but at one of the chapels called “La Cima” which means the highest point. By the time we got to church, all the chairs had already been taken and many were standing outside the chapel. At first sight, it did not quite make a difference to be inside or outside. This chapel does not have any walls and the only practical difference from being outside rather than inside was that those inside were protected from the sun. Since we were the guests, we had enough chairs in front of everybody else, right in front of the altar.
Once again, as custom requires, each one of us had to say a few words about why we were inclined to come to El Salvador. Hard to believe, but I did not have much to say, as every time I was introduced to the people, Fr. Graziano, whom I met for the first time during this trip, had much to say about me. I did not like that, but I just did not find the time to tell him to let me say what I thought it was necessary for the people to know about me.
The main celebrant was Fr. Domingo Solis, OFM, who, in his homily, greeted the delegation with very kind words. “Today, besides celebrating the solemnity of Corpus Christi, we welcome our brothers and sisters from Maryland who arrived yesterday. They are here for a very humanitarian reason, which not only will benefit our parish but also other institutions.” Fr. Domingo said.
Fr. Domingo also cited John Paul II alluding that the word of God could not be preached to a person with an empty stomach.
“In today’s Gospel,” Fr. Domingo noted, “Jesus fed 5,000 men not counting women and children. This passage helps us to understand that the heavenly bread comes after the tortilla and the beans.”
Food and Health Key to Dignity
Fr. Domingo pointed out, “When we lack bread, we lack health, education and dignity.” He also mentioned the newest apostolic exhortation of Pope Benedict XVI Sacramentum Caritatis, or Sacrament of Charity. In this document according to Fr. Domingo, Pope Benedict points out that the Eucharist is the “sacrament of communion between brothers and sisters.” This sacrament “urges those in conflict to hasten their reconciliation by opening themselves to dialogue and a commitment to justice. It is this restoration of justice, reconciliation and forgiveness,” the pope says, that “are the conditions for building true peace.”
People in El Salvador are used to long homilies, unlike here in the United States where homilies have to be no more than 10 minutes. Occasionally, they are a little bit longer, but when that happens, usually someone complains.
Right after Mass, we all processed through the streets of the city of San Bartolo. Along the way, there were number of stations (little decorated altars that people set in front of their houses where the Blessed Sacrament is reposed.) After the second station, the group headed back to the clinic where there was already a long line of people waiting to see the doctors. Many other meetings were scheduled with different committees. I had the opportunity to sit and listen to the discussions that went on in the various committees. I was so upset to hear that some of the communities depend on rainwater collected in metal barrels for their daily needs. It was ironic that during the time of our trip, the former head of the office in charge of supplying water to the people in El Salvador was standing on trial accused of stealing $35,000,000.00 while these poor people do not even have potable drinking water.
As soon as I got to the clinic, I started translating for some of the doctors. It is always nice to be back on these kinds of mission trips. With time, you start finding yourself identifying people by first name, and seeing familiar faces from other trips.
Not much in-depth examination goes on during medical mission trips; cases that require more attention are referred to the local hospital and are brought to the attention of the doctor who administers the clinic.
By working side-by-side with the doctors or nurses, I really was able to listen to the aches and pains of the people. It was very interesting to find out through the week that most of the physical symptoms people complain about were due to the emotional challenges caused by the difficult living conditions in which these poor people live. Almost everyone came complaining about a headache, which according to the doctors, in most cases, is due to lack of food. Backache, physical weakness, stomachache and knee ache are for the most part some of the common problems people come to see the doctors. Always in their mind is the thought that an American doctor could give them hope to cure their illness. After so many years and because of proper statistics kept by previous delegations, we had the right kind of medicines for the illness. In a different room of the clinic, Dr. Jack Baronas, assisted by the local dentist Dr. Carla, were busy doing quality dental work for kids and adults, who otherwise could not afford to see the dentist.
Reflecting on Details to Appreciate the Big Picture
Another project worth mentioning is the mural that the young people who accompanied the delegation were painting at the daycare center. Most of these projects we were involved with in one way or another are close to each other, some are within a short walking distance but others require public transportation. It is important to mention that foreigners attract the attention of locals who would like to engage them in conversation, even though; in many cases no one speak the other’s language. Safety is the most important part on these kinds of trips; you never know who would take advantage of your vulnerability. As the full day faded out, everyone at the clinic got in the bus back to the guesthouse, where we had a typical Salvadoran dinner — fried beans, rice and meat.
One of my duties was to bring the group together into a spiritual reflection, to digest what happened during the day and find meaning in the experience. In other words, finding God in the experience and to realize in what moment we were instruments of God to the other person, and vice versa. The first day was a little difficult for some people to talk, but as the days passed, more people shared their inner experiences, which enriched us all. It is like putting a puzzle together and looking at the big picture, which reflected the effort of everybody.
June 11 was another busy day; I will share our experiences in a future issue of HNP Today.
— Br. Octavio is a photographer in Holy Name’s Communications Office.