Cancelled Trips does not mean Cancelled Ministry

As we discuss some of the challenges we are facing in partnering during a pandemic, travel seems like perhaps one of the lesser worries on our minds.  After all, most of us are still trying to figure out safe ways to see our kids or grandkids or parents who are across town.  Packing up, getting on a plane, and traveling to El Salvador is pretty far down the planning list.

In the Salvadoran Lutheran Church solidarity network, the US summer is prime time for travel.  Many delegations visit during late July and early August to celebrate partnership anniversaries and to participate in the annual August festivities.  Of course, in 2020, these visits are all cancelled or postponed. 

Throughout the year, delegations visit in coordination with different ministry programs which focus on Sunday School teacher training, health education, health and wellness in communities, sewing projects, potable water advocacy and projects, agricultural projects, community sanitation, recreation activities for families and youth...the list is long and diverse.  From March through August 2020, these visits have been cancelled or postponed.  Of course it is tremendously sad for the Salvadorans and the internationals to miss their times together, and perhaps to loose momentum in some of their joint ministry projects.  Of course, everyone is eager to put visiting and working with one another back onto the calendar.

We folks in the US and Europe plan delegation trips at least 6 months to a year before we do them.  That is our reality.  This means that the planners are thinking about November, December and early 2021 and are starting to communicate with their Salvadoran partners regarding future plans.

I completely understand the urge to coordinate with my sister church and get organized because I am that kind of planner.  I also sit on the other side of the table as a helper in the Salvadoran Lutheran Church Sister Church office (a really remotely placed table at this point!), and around that table, there is concern - big concern - about delegation plans.  

As we internationals ponder the wisdom of travel to El Salvador and how we can do ministry together in El Salvador without actually being there, here are some thoughts which I have compiled. Even if you are not in the Lutheran network, these thoughts may be helpful for you in your context:

The Airport is Closed
Commercial flights are not flying into El Salvador.  The earliest date for opening of the airport appears to be the end of August.  Of course, that date is tentative based on the impact nationally in El Salvador and globally of the pandemic.

Travel from the US
When the Salvadoran international airport opens, it is likely that travelers from the US will be prohibited from entering El Salvador at least as long as the virus remains widespread in the US.  If and when US travelers are allowed to enter, it will be likely that a 14-day mandatory quarantine will be in place (meaning you would need to stay in your room in a hotel for 14 days prior to beginning your actual visit).

Covid-19 in El Salvador
The novel corona virus is hitting El Salvador hard.  Perhaps you are beginning to receive news from families who are getting sick in your sister communities.  Because testing of everyday people is not done, sick people are not really able to tell if they have Covid-19 or another illness from the menu of diseases impacting Salvadorans right now.  It seems like many people are recovering at home, following 2 weeks of misery.  It also seems like people with respiratory symptoms The hospital system is collapsed (meaning there are not enough beds and not enough equipment to care for the seriously ill patients who can no longer recover at home).  If travel becomes possible and you visit El Salvador and contract Covid-19, no flight will allow you board to return to the US.  You will need to rely on the Salvadoran healthcare system to help you.  At last word, the private hospitals were prohibited from treating Covid-19 patients and ALL patients are being sent to the public hospitals.

Salvadoran Government and Covid-19
It is really important to understand that the Salvadoran government's management of Covid-19 is not the same as whatever experience you have had with your local, state or national government.  You cannot make assumptions that you understand what the situation is like in El Salvador based on your own experience or the news from your neck of the woods.  People in El Salvador were arrested for being outside and sent to containment centers - even foreigners.  The government there does not mess around.

Risk Factors
Many of the travel groups which visit and share ministry in El Salvador include or are primarily composed of folks who are older.  In El Salvador, anyone over age 60 is considered high risk and is encouraged to stay home.  Salvadorans worry about elders who come to visit, and in the current reality, the worry is amplified.

Being Supportive
There certainly are many ministry programs which can happen with or without the presence of an international delegation.  Some of these may need to be re-imagined a bit to make sure Salvadoran leaders and participants stay safe.  An example of a ministry which falls into this category is Education Support, including scholarship programs.  Many of these programs include special events such as Day of the Child parties and Vacation Bible School during August and/or December, as well as support for kids going to school.  I have already written about the importance of continued support for families as school happens at home.  We could also imagine a Vacation Bible School happening in the home with a bag of fun art supplies and coloring pages dropped off by the local pastoral team with each family, and youth leaders or team members putting out a little Bible study on WhatsApp.  If you were planning to travel to help orchestrate that kind of special event, you could consider sponsoring it from afar with the economic resources to make it happen.  

Being Creative
There are some ministries which simply cannot happen in the usual way due to the pandemic.  An example of this which specifically impacts Milwaukee area churches with which I work are the Mission of Healing Family Wellness Fairs.  Bringing together 300 Salvadorans into a community health education fair run by 60 volunteers is not going to be safe for the foreseeable future.  The Salvadoran Lutheran Church has told us that the Mission of Healing Family Wellness Fairs "cannot happen in the usual way due to safety concerns" and "certainly no one should travel."

In this particular example, the first important point to note is that the Milwaukee team is taking its cues from the Salvadoran Lutheran Church.  Mission of Healing team leaders are meeting during the month of July to put together a proposal which responds directly to health education needs identified during the recent lockdown, the tropical storms and the ongoing pandemic, by the Salvadoran Lutheran Church health ministries team .  This plan will not include travel by a US team.  This plan will not include large gatherings.  This plan will be creative and include fun, creative educational videos which will include charla components filmed in the US and filmed in El Salvador.  Youth groups, medical professionals, media folk and teachers are all putting their heads together to create an effective and deliverable education fair to families. 

So, the annual trip is cancelled.  The Mission of Healing is ongoing and the fairs are being re-imagined.*

Listening, Imagining and Planning
As ministry plans are worked out for 2020 and 2021 in the presence of an ever-changing pandemic landscape, we will need to evaluate travel critically and respect the advice of our hosts.  I think it is very likely that delegations will not be able to travel safely until well into 2021 or until there is global access to a vaccine.  In the meantime, church ministries which help Salvadoran families to survive and to thrive spiritually, physically, intellectually and emotionally will continue, hopefully with good encouragement and support from their partners and sister churches.  

With all of this conversation in mind, delegation planners and their Salvadoran companion leaders may wish to explore a few specific travel-related questions as they look ahead for 2020 & 2021
  • What do we do when we are together in El Salvador?  
  • Which of these things do we value the most and why?
  • Can we do any of these things remotely and how?
  • Is there a big event or ministry experience we typically do together during a delegation visit?
  • Does this ministry/event meet a need or have important value for the local community or micro-region or national church?
  • If so, can the ministry/event be re-imagined (time, space, delivery model) and still take place safely and without the physical presence of the delegation?
  • Are there ways in which the delegation members can participate? (e.g. recording a song, making a video, sending something via email)
  • Are there ways in which the delegation members or their church/organization sponsor the re-imagined event financially?
If financial support for an event is needed, of course it is important to create a clear, agreed-upon budget.  Delegation planners might consider asking delegation members who have travel money set aside to give some of that money in support of the ministry/event.  Churches and sponsoring organizations can also be asked to allocate funds for a previously planned ministry/event to the new, re-imagined event. 

We hear over and over again from Salvadorans how important the visits we share together are for building up sister church and companion relationships.  Salvadorans often say they are "animated" (given life) through visits.  We know, if Salvadorans are telling us not to travel, that they are not saying it lightly.  We also know that sometimes we internationals can be a little pushy when it comes to moving our agenda forward.

We are disappointed when we have to cancel plans.  We are sad.  That's real.   Eagerness to make new plans is real too.  Let's remember how important it is to listen, have good information, and use our creativity along the way.

*For those of you who have annual delegations in support of health, wellness and preventative health education, I will be writing about the specific plan which is developed with the teams from Milwaukee as soon as we have some details in place.  Hopefully it will be helpful for you as you are thinking about your plans for 2021.


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