Joe’s Trip to El Salvador

Early in November, I made my third visit to El Salvador, my first as chair of our Global Missions Advocacy team. The occasion each time was to attend the Encuentro, a management consulting meeting hosted by the Salvadoran Lutheran Church with mission partners (sister parishes and companion synods across the United States and from other countries) to hear reports about the ministry since the last Encuentro, and to help develop 1 strategic plan for the next three years.

Each time, I’ve been able to pair my attendance at the Encuentro with a visit to First Lutheran of Palo Alto’s sister parish, Rios de Agua Viva, for Sunday worship and an ensuing fiesta.

This time, I arrived after an overnight flight from Los Angeles at 6:45 on Sunday morning, November 6th, the day before the meetings were to begin.. A Synod van met me at the airport and brought me to the Synod headquarters. Then my hosts brought me to a coffee house/restaurant where I had a tasty, and quite inexpensive, breakfast. We got back in time for Pastora Vilma Rodriguez to pick me up and bring me to worship at Rios de Agua Viva.
Rios is a lively and now quite young congregation. Most of the worshippers are kids, teenagers and young adults who were kids when I began my visits. The first Sunday of the month is Youth Sunday, with the worship led by the older young people, some of whom are on the pathway towards eventual ordination. It was a challenge for me to recognize who was who, since they’ve all grown much in the four years since my last visit!

A new group in the congregation is several adult women who busy themselves weaving hammocks for sale to benefit the church. They gifted me with two of them, which I have brought back to First Lutheran. After the service we had a fiesta with cake to celebrate the month’s birthdays and a piñata. After the party, Pastora Vilma and her daughter Adrianna, who visited First Lutheran with a group from Rios when she as a teenager, her husband Jose Rendon and daughter Pauli, went out to lunch at a great little brew pub. Then it was time to go back to Synod headquarters to board busses to go to the retreat center up in the mountains very near the Honduran border, in La Palma. Pastora Vilma had meanwhile gotten word that her sister had just passed away, so she did not attend the meetings.

The agenda for the meetings was similar to that of the previous Encuentros. We spent a day hearing reports about the ministry of the past four years. That was preceded by a brief worship service and an appearance by Bishop Medardo Gomez, who is ill with advancing Parkinson’s disease. Originally, it had been intended to have a new bishop in place, but there had been no process for an election – Bishop Medardo has been the only head of the Synod since its formation as a mission within the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church. So the long process of establishing an election procedure had to be created from scratch and has taken longer to work out than expected.

Since Bishop Medardo was so ill, he left the presiding of the rest of the Encuentro to a very able assistant, Rev. Christian Chavarria, who has visited California on a number of occasions as Bishop Medardo’s chief emissary, including our Synod Assembly last spring, where he gave a keynote speech and preached at the concluding worship service. He is the one who makes decorative Salvadoran crosses, both small ones to wear, and large decorative crosses, like the 6-foot cross that graced Sweden’s 500th Anniversary service of the Reformation at which Pope Francis preached. He owns a guesthouse and is a parish pastor as well. He is also fluent in both English and Swedish. He is a very smart and talented person.

The second day of the Encuentro, we split into two groups to visit one of two parishes. My group visited Spiritu de Guzo (Spirit of Joy) in the southern part of the Northern Microregion, on the slopes of a dormant volcano (Guezapa) near the town of Guezapa. It was a couple of hair-raising miles off of the main north-south highway up a narrow dirt road. Our small bus nearly got stuck at one point. The church is surprisingly large building, about the same size as First Lutheran. Several nearby congregations exhibited aspects of their ministries and there was a video program from a number of other congregations as well. Also, a very tasty lunch was served.

Afterwards, we got on the bus and made our way back to La Palma, visiting the downtown shops for a while before returning to the retreat center for dinner.

The third day of meetings was devoted to strategic planning for the next three years of ministry. We broke into smaller groups to develop plans in a number of areas, and compiled specific goals, then we relaxed over dinner and a party.

The last day, we packed up after breakfast and rode back to a closing worship service and lunch at the Resurrection Church in San Salvador that is now the Lutheran Cathedral and just about completed after years of renovation. After many farewells to both old and new friends, it was off to the airport for another overnight trip home.

Our Synod’s delegation consisted of me and Sue Hertless, a member of Good Shepherd in Concord, who has been very active with El Salvador and is also on the Global Missions Advocacy Team. We were also joined by a member of St. James in Redding, which is considering taking on a sister parish, and her daughter, whose tenth birthday we celebrated.
Joseph Haletky