Shawnee and El Salvador parishes celebrate 20-year relationship
by Jill Ragar Esfeld
SHAWNEE — When Marlene Alvarado of El Buen Pastor Parish in El Salvador made a visit to sister parish Good Shepherd here last fall, she asked her host to pinch her because she thought she must be dreaming.
“The changing leaves are beautiful!” she exclaimed.
When it was time to return home, her greatest regret was that she wouldn’t get to see any snow.
What Alvarado would have made of Kansas since then can only be surmised. But the 20-year relationship between her parish and Good Shepherd has weathered more than ice storms and single digit temperatures.
Over the course of last 20 years, various combinations of 85 Good Shepherd parishioners have made the trip to their sister community in Aguilares, El Salvador, an amazing 149 times.
Last October, when the parish celebrated the 20th anniversary of the relationship, Alvarado and fellow parishioner Serbando Hernandez, joined by Yilda Calles from a regional organization called UCRES, made the trip north to join in the celebration.
Hernandez and Alvarado, said Good Shepherd pastor Father Francis Hund, were the perfect choice to represent the Salvadoran parish.
“The two were just children 20 years ago,” he said. “Now they’re parents and sharing their relationship with the community here as well.
“It’s an intergenerational experience.”
How it began
Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the 20-year relationship between these two parishes is its chance beginning.
In late August 1986, Good Shepherd parishioner Gigi Gruenke was a member of the Catholics for Justice Latin American Task Force. El Salvador was embroiled in a brutal civil war and some people from the group were exploring the idea of traveling there to lend support to the poor.
“I went to Father George Seuferling (then pastor of Good Shepherd) to discern if I should go on this trip or not,” recalled Gruenke. “He said, ‘Do you think I could go, too?’”
Both wound up making the trip, and within a year, Good Shepherd Parish voted to enter into a sister parish relationship with a faith community in Tres Ciebas. The group later moved to its present location and in the spring of 1989 changed its name to El Buen Pastor.
“I think I would have been very surprised if someone had said to me, ‘This twinning relationship will still be alive and flourishing with deep, deep relationships on both sides 20 years from now,’” said Gruenke. “I think I would have been very surprised . . . and delighted.”
The beginning of change
With the establishment of the new relationship, the Johnson County parish pledged 2.5 percent of its offertory collection to assist the sister community. Even with the Americans’ assistance, progress in the poor parish was slow until 1992 when the peace accord was signed.
“[Then] there wasn’t the constant fear of the military, and there seemed to be a lot more hope,” said Sarah Stephen, also a veteran of that initial trip. “More development could take place in the community, and they started to take on projects and better themselves.”
In the following years, help and funding from Good Shepherd would bring many blessing to El Buen Pastor, including housing, running water and irrigation systems, poultry production and dairy cattle, a medical clinic and community center, an elementary school and even scholarships for higher education.
This progress, Stephens said, has been despite the continued negligence of the poor by the Salvadoran government. Yet many obstacles to prosperity remain.
Hernandez owes her education and, ultimately, her profession as an English teacher to the financial support of Good Shepherd over the years.
Without that support, she said, higher education would have been impossible.
“Schools are government-run, but in reality, that doesn’t mean free because people have to pay for books, supplies and transportation. Grade school is not so bad, but economically, most people don’t have the funds to go beyond that.”
Calles, who works with community health care through UCRES, said the government-run clinics aren’t really free either.
“When people go to a health care center, they are asked for donations of money,” she explained. “Then they get a prescription for medication, and it’s very expensive. People can’t afford it.”
The visitors described a grim scenario of unemployment, low wages, and government policies that keep the poor in desperate straits. Just as the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) has robbed small farmers of their local market, a Beltway project has robbed them of land and funding meant to help the poor.
Many of the Good Shepherd visitors’ Salvadoran countrymen have chosen to escape these difficulties through illegal immigration, an option they consider too risky.
“Many people pay very high fees to get across the border,” said Alvarado. “Some have their money stolen; some make it but get deported. Many are simply never heard from again.”
Hope for the future
Rachel Flener is one of the many Good Shepherd parishioners who participates in the El Salvador ministry. Host to Hernandez last fall, Flener has been to El Salvador twice. She acknowledges that even though Good Shepherd has done much to improve its sister community, the continuing difficulties for the poor of El Salvador can be discouraging.
“It’s a very eye-opening experience,” she said. “You feel really blessed, and then really guilty, and then sometimes that guilt can turn into despair.
“And so you have to channel that energy into something more productive — like advocacy and awareness.”
The visitors said they cope with their own despair by pinning their hopes on a better future for their children.
“We all fight and work for our children,” said Alvarado, “for them to get educated and get themselves better jobs, so they won’t live like we live now.”
Faith, she said, is what keeps their community going.
“Faith plays a very important part,” she said. “It helps us all to get along and be united as one community. And it’s important to me that I will be able to pass on that faith to my children.”
Father Hund believes that it is that common hope for a better future and their mutual faith that has united the two parishes in understanding and solidarity of purpose.
“We hear their stories of carrying the cross in their lives,” he said, “and also the stories of faith and how important family is.
“And the hopes they have are the same hopes we have. I think financial gifts are important, but I think more important than that is the relationship of coming to know one another — accompanying one another on the journey.”
Throughout the group’s 10-day visit, the Salvadorans met with various groups to educate people about conditions in El Salvador. The social highlight of their visit was a fiesta hosted by Good Shepherd, with a dinner provided by the teachers and staff of Holy Name Parish in Kansas City, Kan.
The emotional highlight, however, said Stephens, might have been the prayer service at which Father Hund anointed the feet of several of his own parishioners who were leaving for Fort Benning, Ga., to protest the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (formerly the School of the Americas).
After the service, Alvarado came up to Stephens with her eyes filled with tears.
“I think that you may love us too much,” said Avarado emotionally.
But it’s that love, said Father Hund, that has transformed this ministry from one parish supporting another into two parishes walking together.
“It’s not that we come with the answers or the solutions,” he said. “We come as brothers and sisters supporting them on their journey.”