We are going to the tree

We are going to the tree.

This is what the people in this community say when someone is nearing death. There is a large tree near the entrance to the cemetery -- a tree which has watched caskets and grieving families pass by, journey after journey.

A young man age 18 had been shot in his own home. His pastor said he was not in a gang, that he was a good boy. How could something like this happen to a good boy?

The invitation to attend the boy's funeral came as an interruption. In the midst of a gathering of international guests, the bishop needed to leave in order to conduct the funeral for the family who needed him, and as he excused himself he asked if anyone would like to go with him, to witness and to learn. I looked at the friend who sat next to me. "We need to go to accompany the family." Like a skipped heartbeat we felt it -- we needed to go. The two of us stood up, whispered some instructions to the rest of our group, and left with the bishop and a pastor from Norway.

God knows what God is doing.

We arrived at the church, and when we saw the grieving family I realized that the mother was a friend - a woman I had met during our first visit to El Salvador and who, over the years, had cooked for us, welcomed us with singing, and showered us with hugs and hospitality. How could it be that her teen-age son was the one lying in the coffin? How could it be that this was her second child to be killed in a violent act?

The funeral happened. The pastor from Norway gave the sermon. Where did he get the words, the best words for comforting this grieving mother and family? With no notice, in a foreign language...

God knows what God is doing.

We went to the cemetery. The children crouched near the open tomb. The family members took time to wail and cast themselves over the coffin. A sister fainted with grief. After time for singing, and praying, and reading and reflecting on scripture, the bishop sprinkled dirt in the form of the cross over the glass window in the coffin, and then it was lowered into the tomb. Women from the family climbed down into the cement block hole and arranged all of the funeral flowers around the coffin. The grave diggers mixed cement in a wheel barrow off to the side. Then shovel-fulls of dirt were thrown into the grave.

In the car on the way back to the city, we talked about the differences in the way families grieve in Norway, in the US and in El Salvador. The bishop said that he thinks in El Salvador, grief is not reserved but let out in the open, because this is everyday life in El Salvador.

Later in the week, my friend and I went to our sister church community. We arrived later than expected, attended the end of a parent meeting and learned that a baby had died. We went to the home and payed our respects to the family, and then had to leave because it was dark.

The next day, my friend returned to the US and I went back to our sister community. The women of the community came to tell me that the baby had not yet been baptized. "You can do it," they said, "you are a pastor, right?" Their pastor was out of the country.

"No, I am not a pastor."

"It doesn't matter," said one of the women. "In an emergency anyone can baptize and we want you to do it."

We got a glass of water. I gently picked the baby up from her little white casket. In rickety Spanish I did my best to lead the family and women in prayer and baptized the baby. I placed the baby back into her casket, took off the cross I was wearing, and placed it onto her chest.

The next hour involved renting a truck and figuring out how to get the community to the cemetery in the nearest town. The children of the community rode in the back of a pickup, caring for the baby and holding the flowers as we rode down the bumpy streets.

The grave was a simple dirt hole. I had my Salvadoran hymnal, and chose the same songs that the bishop had chosen earlier in the week. The women offered an additional song for the children. I asked one of the women, a catechist, if she could say some words. She said that she couldn't (she had buried her own young adult son in the same cemetery just a few months before), but we agreed that God would give her words.

God knows what God is doing.

God provided the words, from one grieving mother to a community of grieving mothers. I picked up some dirt and made a cross over the casket, using familiar words in English which were understood. We placed the casket into the grave and the children shoveled dirt over the top. The children and women arranged the flowers over the top of the grave. This is a responsibility of the older children, to help out when a younger one dies. This is everyday life in El Salvador.

I had never been to a funeral in El Salvador before.

God sent me to one. God gave me the strength to be present at another.

After the baby was buried, I took the catechist's hand, and we walked to her son's grave, accompanied by all the women. We cried. Then we turned around and walked out of the cemetery, the children laughing and skipping on ahead of us.

God knows what God is doing.


  1. This is an amazing story - I feel richly blessed reading this today. Thank you!


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