A Surprise Visit: A Little Dose of Real Life and Accompaniment in Global Challenges

A friend stopped by the church offices today.  We did that thing that women friends sometimes do when they have not seen each other for a long time - little screams, arms wide open, run toward each other, big hugs and big smiles.  We met when she was just a girl.  She was my Amiga Secreta (secret friend) at one, long-ago Valentine's Day party.  We have stayed connected via social media for sixteen years. 

She explained the reason for her visit.  Back in October she had been robbed and her identity document was taken.  In November, she had organized all of the paperwork necessary (which includes a document from the Bishop because she works in a church), and she went to the government office to get a new document.  She waited the hours in line, as is customary, to find out that because her old one was going to expire in early 2020, there was no use in replacing it.  Instead she should wait until the new year to get a new document.  So, for a few months, she has had to navigate life in El Salvador without an identity card.  That means no access to all kinds of services, including banking.  Because months had passed, she needed to re-assemble the paperwork and get a new letter from the Bishop before she could return to the government office and wait in line for hours and get her new identity card.

I invited my friend to wait in the office I use while her paperwork was in process.  We chatted about our families.  She shared updates about life in some of the church communities in and around San Miguel.  She mentioned that a young man, age 19, had just died of renal insufficiency, and a young woman, age 25, had just died of stomach cancer.  She asked if I had heard about a pastor who had lost three young family members to renal disease.  I had not.

The high number of cases of renal insufficiency in El Salvador is frequently noted in casual conversation as well as in the media here.  There are a few studies and some theories which point to working in the agricultural sector with toxic chemicals and also contamination in water and some foods.  I asked my friend for her thoughts about why so many people, especially in the east, have kidney problems.

It's so hot.  Look, we have been walking around here this morning and it is 9 or 10 o'clock and we are fine.  By 8 o'clock in the morning, if we are outside walking, we are burning. It wasn't like that before. We have to get up in the wee hours to get things done before it gets hot.  But the people have to work, and the problem is they are not drinking enough water.  They carry water, but after a short time it is hot and it doesn't do any good to drink hot water.  In the houses, when they have water, they fill up the big blue jugs with water from the spigot.  They don't have refrigerators.  By noon it is like soup.  You know, hot as soup.  No one wants to drink that.

I asked what kind of work the people in her church do.  She is in the city.

The women make tortillas.  I think all of them do.  That is their work.  They have to work in the heat and over the hot griddle.  The men work in trucks, like delivering agua cristal (bottled water).  They have to work all day.  There is one guy who works in a room like a refrigerator.  He works all day chopping ice.  When he gets home, he always says he wants to go back in the air-conditioning.  

We agreed that the ice-chopper was the winner when it came to working all day in a hot zone.  When I asked about what kinds of water bottles the people carry to work she pointed to a couple of old water bottles we had laying in the office for a recycling project.  She, and the people, know that hot sun causes chemicals from the plastic to go into the water.

Yes, they put water from the spigot (she made a face, noting that the water from the spigot is not exactly clean) into plastic containers and it is like hot, smelly soup.

She shifted the conversation to tell me about another problem for the communities closer to the San Miguel volcano, Chaparrastique.  She said the volcano is not exactly sleeping.  The people are feeling burning in their noses and throats due to the increase of sulfur in the air; maybe we should tell the sister churches, she suggested.

I asked her if there was a way the church could accompany the people in their struggle with water. 
We chuckled about the need for tecomates (gourds used as canteens by the ancestors and country folk).  People in the city can't really get those, but maybe there is a way to find a better water-carrying system for people.  People who deliver pure water all day in the hot sun, but do not have access to pure water to drink either at home or during the work day is unjust.

It was time for my friend to go; her paperwork was ready.  We hugged and promised to stay connected until the next time.

Fifteen minutes of conversation.  It's burning by 8 AM and it hasn't been like that.  The water turns hot like soup.  Young people are dying. 

As the church we often find ourselves chipping away with little projects at the consequences of natural phenomena like volcanic gases and global issues like climate change and water contamination.  On the ground these little projects can make a big difference in the lives of families.  We can try to find little masks for the people suffering with sulfur.  We can try to find a source for insulated water bottles.  We can teach how to set up water filtration devices in the home.  But these little projects are just a spit in the ocean if we are not also actively working to improve the root causes of these problems. 

Quality studies surrounding the high number of cases of renal insufficiency and digestive system cancers in El Salvador may be ongoing, but it seems like more answers are needed.  There are lots of suspicions surrounding the causes, but without real data there cannot be real solutions.  The solutions will no doubt be multi-faceted and include actions such as the rehabilitation of water systems and drastic change in labor practices (providing water and water breaks, protecting laborers from heat and sun, limiting use of toxic chemicals and providing protection to workers who risk exposure to toxins). 

These active solutions cannot just be based in El Salvador.  Global industries bear a responsibility, global consumers bear a responsibility and the global network of sister churches has a voice which needs to be raised.  One excellent opportunity for this in the US will take place in April 2020 at Ecumenical Advocacy Days in Washington DC.  This year's theme is:  Imagine!  God's Earth and People Restored.  Part of the work during this event is to train citizens in advocacy.  This training is applicable to any issue, equipping those of us who do not feel brave enough or skilled enough to step up, step out, and speak up for systemic change - this year, to restore our common home.


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