Accompaniment is a term about which I am learning that I have much to learn. According to United Church staff, my time in El Salvador is to be a mission of accompaniment and not accomplishment. When I first got told that, I thought it was bit "airy fairy" and "rose coloured glassish". I understand that it is part of the movement "to be" rather than "to do". As someone who has spent a lot of time "doing" I found this a bit daunting, a bit odd and incredibly refreshing all at the same time. However, I was game to give it a try. Interestingly during my time in Mexico, two different people, who have both done a lot social justice work throughout Central America and Mexico, spoke to me about the importance of "acompanar" the Spanish equivalent of the English verb "to accompany". The idea is that simply act of being together and accompanying one other is transformative for both. Certainly this time spent in Mexico with people sharing their everyday life and experiences has been transformative for me and I hope it has been transformative for others around me. My host mother Angeles asked me to thank my friends, family and church for sharing "Lynn" with her and her family for the past five weeks. She believes that God chose for us to be together during this time. It is hard for me to find fault with that logic. Being able to learn about and watch Angeles' and her husband Fernando's deep and persistent commitment to living out liberation theology has been an amazing experience for me. It inspires me to continue to work hard at learning Spanish because I know there is so much more they could and would teach and share with me if I had the language capacity. I expect that I write more about accompaniment as I continue to explore its meaning in El Salvador.
As many of you know, I have really struggled with the term "missionary". While I have no doubt that I have been called by God to serve and that the United Church of Canada is my employer and facilitator of this experience, I struggle with all of the historical legacy attached to this term. I am very clear that my "mission" has absolutely nothing to do with coverting people to my set of religious beliefs. Clearly, I have very strongly held set of beliefs, but I don't think that everyone has to think the same way I do. However, I do find people with a strong belief about the supreme importance of conversion to be very frustrating --- deep down I do want everyone to agree with me about that point! On the other hand, using the term missionary let's people know that I am open to discussing issues of faith and spirituality. This has lead to some really interesting discussions. Angeles for example finds it astounding that I as a non-Catholic would attend her Church. I think it is her way of living out ecumenism, that at every service I have attended she has asked me to participate in some way. Twice I processed with the wine and water. I was very honoured to have been asked to help with the service and to assist in a small way with communion. I also thought it was a really good metaphor in reverse. For many, many years missionaries with good intentions came to countries like Mexico to "save souls". However, at the same time, there was a clear cultural bias against non-Europeans. In Mexican churches, the Spanish sat in the main and beautiful chamber with the indigenous converts sat in a smaller, darker much less ornate area. So I have enjoyed the irony of being asked to present the gifts of water and wine and knowing that I am not welcome to partake of the elements of communion! (For your information, the Catholic and Protestant churches have some different beliefs around communion and so non-Catholics are not allowed to partake of communion in Catholic churches, while the Protestant churches are generally more open on this issue).
Totally changing the subject, some of you have asked about drugs and violence in Mexico. Firstly let me say that I am not an expert on this topic. While I have learned a lot about this in the past five weeks, there is absolutely a lot more to know than I will explore here and there are much more authoritative sources. On a personal note, I have had no safety concerns while I have been here, nor have I seen any "sketchy" or concerning situations. There is a much greater police and military presence than I am used to seeing. I have not been bother or harassed by anyone. Having said all that, the "narco trafficking and narco violence" as it is called here, is a very real and persist ant problem. However, it is also a very complex problem. I am told that in certain areas of Mexico, the local farmers make a lot more money growing marijuana than any other crop. For a subsistence farmer who can't feed his family growing other crops, it is not hard to imagine why they switch to growing marijuana. Also, Mexico is the pipeline supplier of drugs into Canada and United States. Both of our countries want Mexico to do something about this problem. At the same time it is important to remember that our countries have not be particularly successful in decreasing the consumption of drugs by its residents which drives the need for production and delivery. Also, the violence here is often carried out using guns brought in from the USA. It is a very real problem, but it is a very complex issue.
Finally, I'd like to say something about the economy. The minimum wage in Mexico is $55 peso per 8 hour day. the rate of exchange is roughly 11-12 pesos to one dollar. This makes the minimum wage equivalent to about $5 per day in Canada. I am told that the average wage is higher than this at about 2500 pesos per month. While things cost a lot less here, that not nearly enough for people to survive. In Cuernavaca, there are many people who have moved to the city, away from family and therefore have to pay rent. Once again, I am told the lowest rent possible for a small family is about 1000 pesos/month. There are very few social programs. While theoretically school is free, all students wear uniforms, pay a yearly registration fee and must provide there own school supplies. It is a very sobering thought that I am receiving from the United Church, a stipend so low by Canadian standards that it can't be considered a wage that is significantly higher than the average Mexican family income. In addition to my stipend, my housing costs are paid.
Without getting into all of the boring details, earlier this week, I felt very overwhelmed and anxious about going to El Salvador on Saturday. Everything seems to be on track and there was nothing specific that upset me, rather it was just worrying about the unknown. So I pulled out my "special book" and read a few entries. They were indescribably helpful and reassuring. My anxiety quickly subsided. Thank you to everyone who took the time to share with me in my book.
I look forward to writing to you from El Salvador.