Earlier this year I joined our founder and CEO, Jason Law, and a handful of friends on a quick, whirlwind trip to El Salvador. We went to help build a house with a local family in partnership with ENLACE, our partner organization there. Most of all, though, we went to build relationships and to learn.
Here are six takeaways from an amazing week in a one-of-a-kind place.
1. El Salvador is a country of contrasts.
San Salvador has everything you’d expect to find in a large city anywhere – banks, hotels, embassies, chain restaurants, you name it. By contrast, the isolated town in western El Salvador where we served has only one road in and out, and it’s only partially paved. From topography to socioeconomics, this country is diverse.
Image: El Salvador is home to beautiful beaches and some of the best surfing in the world. Unfortunately, these luxuries are beyond the reach of many Salvadorans.
Image: While San Salvador has all the amenities of a modern city, many families in rural El Salvador lack adequate housing.
2. Hard work is a given.
It’s no secret migration from Central America to the United States has been in the news recently. While there are many misconceptions about immigration, the reality is that most migrants from El Salvador are fleeing threats of targeted violence (and therefore seeking asylum) or are pursuing better economic opportunities. Those who head north simply want to provide for their families and keep their children safe – whatever it takes.
One thing that’s unquestionable is the Salvadoran work ethic. The men and women we met were mixing cement, digging ditches, hauling bricks, and bending rebar in the hot sun before we got there in the morning, kept going while we took water breaks in the shade, and continued after we’d left for the day. And we were just there for a few days. This is their norm.
Image: Community members hard at work mixing cement for a new house in a rural community in El Salvador.
Image: It takes a lot of rebar to build a house, including carefully bent pieces like this.
3. History is alive.
In the 1980s and early 90s, the people of El Salvador suffered a devastating civil war. According to the UN, more than 75,000 civilians were killed during that 12-year period and an estimated 20-30% of the population of this small country fled to the United States and other countries.
During our time in El Salvador, we worked alongside José and Maria (pictured in the header photo above), an older couple who were receiving a safe, secure house where they will live comfortably for the remaining years of their lives. During one of those (much-needed!) water breaks I mentioned a minute ago, I asked José if he had any memories from the war. He paused for a moment, then turned and pointed. “See that hill?” he asked. “I remember hearing gunshots coming from right over there.”
José and his family were fortunate to survive. But the wounds of war don’t heal overnight. And not all wounds are obviously visible.
Image: 1MISSION founder and CEO Jason Law with Fabiola de Rivera, a church coach with ENLACE, and pastor Marvin Rivas, who actively leads his congregation to extend its concern beyond the four walls of the church.
4. Small churches can make a big impact.
Pastor Marvin leads a congregation of 60 people in a small town in La Libertad department. That may not constitute a large church by our standards, but this church has a big vision. In partnership with the local mayor’s office and community association, this congregation has impacted more than 2,300 people – many of whom live in extreme poverty – through sanitation, street repair, housing, and other initiatives.
The members of this church gather several times a week for prayer and worship. But this is not a navel-gazing bunch. Instead, serving neighbors in practical, life-changing ways has become a natural extension of their faith.
5. Pupusas are where it’s at (yeah, I may be biased).
If there’s one iconic Salvadoran food, it’s the pupusa. At first glance, it looks like a simple corn tortilla, which is delicious enough. But the magic is in the meat, cheese, or beans in the filling.
One day during our visit, some local women – gifted culinary masters themselves – organized a pupusa-making contest during lunchtime. Things got competitive. But ultimately, in an extremely scientific, unquestionably correct ruling, it was decided that my pupusa was the best of all* the pupusas.
(*Salvadoran-made pupusas were excluded from the contest. But still.)
Image: Pupusas are the national dish of El Salvador. Think fresh corn tortillas but somehow even better.
6. Community development is contagious.
Fabiola is a coach who works with ENLACE’s church partners in one region of El Salvador, training and equipping them to become agents of change in their communities. She told us that even though the members of these churches are often living in poverty themselves, they sacrificially give time to serve their neighbors through various locally-led initiatives.
None of this work makes headlines. It’s long and slow and hard, as Fabiola will tell you. But as people hear about what’s happening in neighboring towns, new initiatives are springing up all across El Salvador.
Community development is about hope. And hope is contagious.