Archbishop Romero, who many Salvadorans consider a prophet and martyr, once said that “A civilization of love is not sentimentality, it is justice and truth.”
Flying the red-eye to El Salvador from my home in Portland, Oregon, I wondered about this statement, but also about my own motives for traveling to this strife-torn, perpetually impoverished country. The trip was undertaken, at least ostensibly, to bring relief in the form of volunteer construction labor in collaboration with Habitat for Humanity’s Global Village Program. Over the previous six months, working closely with a group of fellow educators from Oregon Episcopal School, where I am a counselor, and nine high school students, I had pressed myself and my students to address our motives more fully.
The student’s responses ranged from “to help poor people” and “to travel and experience another culture,” to even “to learn how to build a house.” The group’s motives seemed inescapably paternalistic. What we discovered—all of us—by going down there and getting our hands dirty side-by-side with those who live there is something closer to the mystery inherent in the act of giving.
We arrived at 8:00 a.m. on March 17. The El Salvador heat was the first sharp contrast from rainy Oregon. More followed: fruit stands on the side of the highway, billboard advertisements painted on rock cliffs, eucalyptus trees that looked as if they were painted with oil on canvas, people young and old riding like loose beer cans in the backs of pick-up trucks that obeyed no observable driving code. There were the workers in fields toiling to the shrill cry of cicadas. Disconcerted by the unfamiliar, the thought again occurred to me, “Why am I doing this?” I remembered high school Spanish class, and Mr. Hernandez telling us that we needed to learn Spanish because by the time we enter the job market it will be valuable and necessary. I suddenly wished I had paid more attention to Mr. Hernandez.
After two nights in San Salvador, we decamped in Panchimalco, a small town to the south. The next day, our group of twelve was divided and sent to separate work sites. At ours, the foundation was already laid. There we met Alberto and Magdalena, the proud owners of this future home. We set to work hefting rebar and laying it in the road beside the work site. We erected a screen to sift the sand (la zaranda)—removing the rocks and pebbles (chipas). Some of us were taught to bend rebar with las grifas (hand tools for bending), while others continued to sift. Soon a delivery truck arrived with cinder blocks. Curiously, the truck driver unloaded 1,200 cinder blocks up the hill about 150 yards away. Our job for the rest of the day was to carry these blocks, two at a time, down the hill and stack them.
It was hard work, and I found myself questioning the logic of our bosses. Why didn’t the truck driver come farther down the hill to drop off the blocks? Why were we stacking the blocks past the work site, only to carry them back the next day? There was no rational answer. Then I observed our two foremen, Marvin and George, diligently laying the rebar into place within the foundation trench. I watched the women across the street washing clothes by hand and hanging laundry. When the children came home from school, they changed clothes and went to work herding goats and feeding livestock. It struck me that quite possibly the truck intentionally placed the blocks up the hill. This was a culture of labor and there is evident pride and self-identification in hard work, and what seemed to me like gross inefficiency was in fact a gesture of respect: They wanted to keep us busy.
For the next four days we carried blocks, bent rebar, mixed concrete (chispa), organized bucket brigades, poured concrete and laid blocks (pegar). There were no power tools; everything was done by hand.
We took breaks with Marvin and George. They appreciated my effort to speak Spanish, if not my total inability. We shared pictures of our kids. Magdalena, a teacher at Centro Catolico de Panchimalco, hosted a dance and cultural exchange evening at the school. We learned to make pupusas, watched a dance program, engaged in conversation with local students, and members of our group sang a much-appreciated rendition of “Down To the River To Pray.” We visited an orphanage, played games, colored pictures, and learned children’s songs in Spanish. I noticed that my students were discovering the joy of making friends and the possibilities inherent within each new relationship. They were realizing that the people we met were giving more to us than we could possibly give to them. These moments made us all suddenly aware that the house we were building was almost beside the point.
It is enlightening to discover that an act of sacrifice is less about “doing good” for another than it is about addressing a need within oneself, that a selfless act of any magnitude has the capacity to minister this burden we carry over not having done enough, or pride in having done much, which distracts us finally from understanding the difference between Romero’s sentimentality and truth.
If our sentimental intent for traveling to El Salvador had been to help or to discover what it means to be a global citizen, or perhaps even, in a larger context, to bring democracy, then the truth we encountered was simpler and far more useful. The people we met possessed little, yet had much to give, and Romero’s vision of a “civilization of love,” and his conception of justice, has everything to do with building authentic, first-hand relationships between people and cultures.
Professionally, I try to educate and be educated with a conscience. It’s also not a bad way to live personally. Now that my daily life has resumed, when I remember El Salvador, I remember three questions that Ignatius of Loyola put to himself: What have I done in this world? What am I doing now? And, above all, what should I do?