When hearts embrace

by Libby Hyde
libby.hyde.theleaven@gmail.com

El Salvador — As the bus turned sharply off the highway to enter through a squeaky iron gate and down a rutted and muddy dirt road, the 12 travelers could hear cheers and laughter coming from up ahead.

Under the thick green foliage covering nearly every surface in the small Salvadoran community outside the city of Aguilares, they could see a group of women and children eagerly waiting. The travelers later learned they had been waiting for over an hour.
The children, impatient with the waiting, immediately rushed onto the bus to greet the delegation.

“It was so heartwarming when our bus turned onto the road where the entire community was waiting for us,” said Donna Cornett, a first-time traveler to the Salvadoran parish.

“I can’t even describe how it felt,” she added. “I can’t describe how we were embraced so tightly as we walked together up the road to the community.”

First-time pilgrims

Donna said she knew she wanted to make the trip since the very inception of the relationship between her parish — Good Shepherd in Shawnee — and Buen Pastor 27 years ago. The twinning developed as a response to a bloody civil war that left El Salvador reeling from violence and unrest. It is a relationship that has, over the years, been fostered on both sides with financial, spiritual, and emotional support.

Pam Stockman decided this year was the year after considering it over the last several. (A group from Good Shepherd makes the trip to El Salvador every summer.)

“These people are praying for us on a daily basis and we are constantly in their thoughts,” said Pam. “There truly is an emotional connection between the two groups, and that really struck me very clearly [during my visit].”

Paige Galbraith decided, while still at school at the University of Arkansas, that this was the summer she would make the trip with her father — Rick Galbraith — who had been a member of the delegation nine years earlier as well.

“I have heard about [Buen Pastor] for 15 years of my life and it’s been a huge part of Good Shepherd,” said Paige, “but it didn’t seem real to me and I didn’t feel connected to it.”

That changed rapidly. . . . All three discovered that it was impossible to fully comprehend the importance of Good Shepherd’s outreach to Buen Pastor until witnessing its effects in the Salvadoran community.

A simple life
The first thing Americans notice about the community on their arrival — well, second to the boisterous and generous welcome they receive — is the humble living conditions.

Life in Buen Pastor, said Paige, is a far cry from life in Kansas City. The community is fashioned from small, open-air homes with tin roofs, and they accommodate large multi-generational families. Instead of glass windows, they have holes in the sides of their homes with metal bars for security. They also have “pilas” — a sink/water tank combination — which are used for “everything from washing dishes to bathing.”

The roads are dirt, and the children barefoot.

Pam said one family recently purchased a refrigerator — the height of luxury in this poor community. That family now has the ability to sell cold drinks to people in the community. The added income will help them live more comfortably and worry less about having enough money to support their family.

One visitor, however, was not surprised by the poverty. Marcos Navarro and his wife Angela made the trip to El Salvador together for the first time this year. Marcos was born in Singapore and lived in Mexico for a time during his childhood, so life in Buen Pastor did not seem foreign to him.

He did, however, notice a stark difference between the quality of life he is used to in the United States and what he saw in El Salvador.

“The level of poverty, if we try to apply our standards to it, seems very dismal,” said Marcos. “But even after just a few days we were there, it didn’t bother me at all.”

“I could live in that kind of simple life,” he continued. “It gave me time to reflect and think about the gifts that we do have.”

Practical help

Over the years, Good Shepherd has assisted Buen Pastor in a number of very practical ways. The water project gave families access to clean running water in their own homes; the park gave kids a place to play, safe from the threat of the gang violence surrounding the community; and scholarships help students escape the cycle of poverty through education.

This trip was no exception. While there, the travelers participated in an eventful weekend filled with opportunities to serve the community and better understand life in Buen Pastor.
Dr. Rita Hyde, with the help of physical therapist Pam Stockman, held a medical clinic and visited every home in the community. Because they are often expensive, each household was given a bag of over-the-counter medications donated by Good Shepherd.

Donna taught a sewing class for the women in the community, fashioning a new dress for a villager who owned only one. Though only seven women had signed up to attend, said Donna, by the end of her class, most of the women of the community were there, making shirts and skirts for themselves and their families.

The delegation also heard from the scholarship students sponsored by Good Shepherd, the women’s committee, and the leading committee in the community. Through these meetings, the travelers were able to better understand life in Buen Pastor and the everyday struggles that community members face, like their difficulty traveling to work or school, or their fears for their children’s safety and future.

‘Connecting on a 
human level’

The travelers agreed that it is very important to continue to nurture the relationship between Good Shepherd and Buen Pastor.

“The continued participation of Good Shepherd is part of a larger partnering with a country that has suffered greatly,” said Marcos. “The biggest contribution that we can make is not the money, but the fact that we go there and show that we care. It’s the solidarity that we have with them.

“The government can do what they can,” he added, “but it is connecting on a human level that really counts.”

Angela Navarro agreed that going to visit Buen Pastor is the most important way to nurture the sistering relationship.

“The one thing our church teaches us is to love all people, no matter what their situation,” said Angela. “This was an opportunity for me to experience, for just a small period of time, how others live. Our relationship with Buen Pastor is important because it allows us to live out [the church’s teaching] of caring for other people.”

‘Not yet finished’

Now home, the travelers agreed that every parishioner should someday make the trip if they can.

Now that she’s been to Buen Pastor, said Pam, she realizes “there is an emotional connection that people [at Good Shepherd] just aren’t very aware of.

“I feel like our spirit is with them, and they feel us with them on a day-to-day basis.”
Paige Galbraith agreed.

And she was saddened to leave the community she now considers a part of her family.

“It is kind of incomplete. . . . There wasn’t enough time and I just wasn’t ready to go,” she said. “I felt like we were just getting to know everybody.

“I know my experience of the people of Buen Pastor is not yet finished.”


A love too big for words and pictures

By Libby Hyde
Special to The Leaven

I heard it in the barefoot, chaotic soccer games filled with bursts of deafening laughter and raucous shouts of “GOL!!!” I experienced it with the women in the community as they learned to sew their own clothing. I saw it in the faces of the people when they were provided medicines to help with everyday aches and pains, as well as prescription medication that is either not available to them or too expensive to afford. I felt it in the deep sadness in my heart when I left.

The love that is shared between Good Shepherd and Buen Pastor is astounding to see. This generous love and openness gave me the opportunity to immerse myself in El Salvador and truly be a member of Buen Pastor, if only for a few days.

Being a first-time traveler to El Salvador, I knew little about this country, filled with violence and crippling poverty while still recovering from a long civil war. I heard a great deal about Good Shepherd’s sister community of Buen Pastor outside Aguilares in El Salvador from my mom and sister who have both been there before, but I was still unable to fully grasp what it would be like to go there and experience it for myself.

Photographs and stories cannot come close to capturing the reality of what it was like for me to go there. The stories of joy and happiness when the community members greet delegations at the entrance to the community did not compare to the joy I felt when we arrived.
Likewise, the accounts of saying goodbye did not compare to the tearful goodbyes I said to people I now consider my brothers and sisters.

This was a time during which my abilities as a journalist failed me. My experience of the people in Buen Pastor cannot be summed up in an article or piece of writing. My experience transcended words.

Before I traveled to Buen Pastor, my perception of what it would be like was one-dimensional, like the photographs I had seen of the community. However, putting a human face to suffering has changed my perception of what poverty looks like.

I ate with the poor, talked with the poor, played pingpong and soccer with the poor. I saw the wholeness of each member of the community, rather than defining them by their economic situation.

This experience of putting a human face to suffering is the exact reason it is so imperative for parishioners to continue to travel to El Salvador. It provides an opportunity to go and listen — not to teach, not to fix — but to learn, and become more aware of life in Buen Pastor.

Before my travels, I liked to think that I knew what poverty looked like. I sat on my bed in Shawnee, Kansas, used a fancy laptop computer and complained about unloading the dishwasher or folding the laundry. It didn’t often occur to me to think about those who don’t own a computer, a bed, or household appliances. Even when I did call them to mind, it was never concrete, and I did not feel empathy for them, because I didn’t understand what their lives were like.

I no longer have the comfort of thinking of poverty in the abstract. I have seen it in the faces of the mothers and fathers who cannot provide their children with the luxuries I am accustomed to.

I have come to better know what it truly means to live in poverty, and I am blessed to have had the opportunity to understand the struggles of the Salvadoran people and their need for solidarity with Good Shepherd.

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