Edina Community Lutheran Church Takes Eye-Opening Trip to El Salvador

Greyson Mize, page editor

After 15 hours of travel, I, and six other tired teenagers from my church, arrived at San Salvador’s airport immigration services. Just barely sustained by caffeine, our chaperones waited impatiently at the front of the group, with pink slips that would grant us entry into El Salvador held tightly in their hands. At the immigration desk along with us were eight strangers: a mother and her son, a family of five, and an old man carrying a chest. After we passed through the exit, our brief friendship ended and we parted ways.

As a group from Edina Community Lutheran Church, our mission was to travel about El Salvador learning about its history and to hold a service with members of our sister church, Cristo De Paz. It was tiring to think that our trip had only just begun as our church group filed out into the humid July air, greeting Cesar, the eccentric and exhausted middle aged man that would be our translator for the week. As we drove to our hotel, looking out on colorful hilltops watching the occasional passerby stroll down the street we collectively had a startling realization; for most of us, pale white Lutherans from communities of other pale white Lutherans, this was the first time we had been the minority. Time seeming to pass quicker than it should have, we soon stood in front of a green garage door leading out into the street. Inside were a series of rooms and hammocks, and a breakfast area near the front door. For $30 a night, this is where we would stay for the five of our six nights we would be in El Salvador.

Travelling around with us were two members of our sister church, Juan and Edwin. Our small group of boys became fast friends with the pair, staying up for hours teaching each other games until the hotel cleaners stormed in to throw us out. A group favorite was King Frog—or in Spanish, Rey Rana—a repetition game that was very popular amongst the children at the church. You played the game by imitating an animal with a silly gesture, and then doing the movement of another person’s animal. If the other person failed to continue the trend, they would be sent to the back of the line. After teaching this game to the children at the church, we ended up playing for four hours straight.

Twice we drove to Suchitoto, the go-to tourist location for the average Salvadoran citizen. Among colorful parades and open marketplaces, Juan dragged me to a friendship bracelet vendor. In black marker, the bashful vendor wrote my name on a band that he presented to me.

Throughout the week I grew close with Juan. He would regularly show me photos of a boy, gesturing back and forth, trying to explain something to me. I thought nothing of it until Saturday, when Edwin explained it to the group. “You look very similar to a friend of Juan’s whose family was pushed out by gang violence. He misses him,” he said, and everything seemed to fall into place in a devastating sort of way. It occured to me that although we had talked and laughed and sang with these kids for days, our lives were, and always would be, vastly different.

Initially, I was hesitant about flying down to El Salvador, preoccupied with other summer events and responsibilities. However, halfway through the year I learned that an El Salvadorian elementary school student I had been communicating with had been injured in a hit and run. After that it was sealed. I met this student, a little girl, and her parents on the trip. Their gratitude for the financial aid my parents had provided their daughter was almost suffocating in its sincerity.

The trip wasn’t without toll. Everyday, as I was surrounded by barbed wire and spray painted gang tags, I was contacted by my family asking if I felt safe. The truth was, no, I wasn’t safe. In fact, right in front of us on the road to Suchitoto, a market town, we witnessed officers kicking a handcuffed man in the bed of his truck for resisting a traffic violation ticket. In Galilea, the town in which our sister church resides, our soccer game with local kids was cut short by the threat of gang members going back on their deal to leave us be. Every action we made was evaluated and re-evaluated by our guide, but at the end of the week, we got to fly away. We got to go back to our suburbs and our country clubs and think back fondly on the trip, while hoping our pastors never made us go again.

Despite this, I can easily say El Salvador was the most educational and fun trip I could hope for. It’s hard to describe the streets of San Salvador in a way that people like me, used to a certain standard of pristine living, would appreciate. However, there was a magical feeling in the small corners and narrow sidewalks we explored. If you ever get the chance to travel into a culture with which you’re unfamiliar, don’t hesitate to take the opportunity. The experiences and friends you’ll collect along the way will be well worth any physical cost.