I had just gotten home from the Steubenville retreat with the youth group. Every Steubenville retreat is always an unbelievable experience and each one is totally unique. This one was no different. I was definitely on a “retreat high” where I was feeling alive and full of energy. I just wanted to be around St. Cletus as much as possible. So the day after I got back a group of us went up to Cletus to snack on some of the leftover pizza from the weekend. While I was there a fellow parishioner approached me and asked me a question that would forever change my life.
“Have you ever considered going to El Salvador?” she asked. I should preface that by saying that St. Cletus does an annual mission trip and has been doing so for 10 years. So this lady wasn’t crazy and just asking random strangers if they’d been to some Central American country. I was honest with her and said no, I hadn’t. In fact, I had never given it a thought. I had listened to multiple witnesses during masses over the years about how amazing and impactful the trip was. I thought that was cool for those people but not something for me.
I had my reasons. First, I didn’t know the language. I didn’t retain any of what I learned in four years of high school Spanish outside of a few phrases (and really though, when will I ever need to ask “where is the library?”). I figured a language barrier was a pretty significant deterrent. I also didn’t know anyone personally that had gone before. I recognized faces of people that had been, but I didn’t even know their names, let alone anything about them. I’m a person that likes to have at least a person or two with me at events or gatherings. I feel way more comfortable when I’m surrounded by people I know. It’s hard for me to be in a group of strangers and feel comfortable being myself. Those friends are a safety net. So not personally knowing anyone was a big hurdle. And perhaps the most important reason for not going- I had never flown before. I don’t mean internationally. Not ever. That’s right. I, at 24 years old, had never been on an airplane. I wasn’t exactly looking for my first flight ever to be to a country that just had a travel ban put in place.
So long story short, no, I had not considered going to El Salvador before. And that’s exactly what I told this parishioner, Ann. But she told me I should consider it. Why? Because an anonymous donor was willing to pay for the entire trip for someone and they wanted someone associated with the youth group. Now, I don’t know if that donor had me specifically in mind or not. It’s more likely that I was just the first person from the youth group that Ann happened to run into. Honestly, none of that matters. The way I saw it, this was an invitation straight from God. It was just too much of a coincidence for both Ann and I to be there at the same time. If I hadn’t been craving pizza that night I might still be waiting for my first flight. And as I mentioned, I was coming off a soul rejuvenating weekend and was feeling alive. I get home and I have an opportunity like this served up on a silver platter? I couldn’t say no.
That was in July and the trip wasn’t until January. So I had half a year to change my mind and come to my senses. But if you read my last post, I mentioned that I’ll get these gut feelings where I just know something is going to happen. I had a gut feeling about this trip. Even though it was forever away I just knew I was going to do it. I was so excited about the challenge. It was something that was completely out of my comfort zone. That’s something I needed. That was especially true when my retreat high wore off. I was back into the same routine, the same old monotony. My potential trip to El Salvador kept me going. It gave me something to look forward to.
I had definitively decided I was going in October. I told Ann to book my flight. There was no going back now. It’s crazy to think just how at peace I was with this. This trip was a HUGE step for me. Not only had I never flown, I hadn’t done an immersive service trip like this before. I had done service retreats in the past, but those were all in St. Louis. Definitely not for an entire week in a third world country where I didn’t know the language. But to be honest, I was more nervous about just getting on my flight. I figured once I was on the plane I was good. And so I didn’t spend a whole lot of time stressing. In hindsight, I didn’t spend a lot of time preparing, either. I had grand plans of learning Spanish before I left. I laugh at myself for actually thinking I’d do that. When I was first invited to go on this trip it was six months away. I guess in my mind I always thought of it as being six months away, even when it was just a week out.
In the months leading up to the trip I learned a little bit more about what we’d be doing. I knew we’d be building houses for single mothers. That sounds fun, I thought. I knew very little about anything else. I didn’t really know where we’d be staying, what else we’d be doing other than building houses. For all I knew we’d be building from dusk til dawn. Truthfully I’m happy I didn’t know more. I was able to go in with minimal expectations and enjoy the newness of everything. I was able to experience everything without thinking “oh yeah, someone told me we’d do this.” I never knew what each knew day would bring and I loved that.
As the trip drew nearer I began to battle with my intentions. I knew the work we’d be doing was good, but who was it really for? Was I actually going on this trip because I wanted to serve and help others? Or was I doing it for my own selfish reasons? I’m not going to lie, there’s just something that felt good about saying I was going to be a missionary. But that just made me feel guilty. It almost felt like I’d be using other peoples’ unfortunate circumstances to boost my own ego. I shared this internal struggle with my friend, Chris. He told me there’s always a selfish element to going on a missionary trip. Anyone that goes on a mission trip hopes to get something meaningful out of it. However, that shouldn’t keep me from going. I’d still be helping people that are in desperate need. I shouldn’t feel like a bad person because I want to have an impactful experience. That definitely made me feel better.
It also made me feel better knowing that two of the teens from the youth group, Jake and Gloria, would be joining us. I can’t say enough about how incredibly proud I am of them. I was told there were a couple more spots open that would be covered by donations. I was asked to see if there would be any teens that would be interested. I asked the two of them to consider going literally two months before the trip. They both signed up within a week.
It wasn’t until two days before I left that it really hit me. I’m about to leave the country. I started packing, just knowing I’d forget something. I said earlier, I was more stressed about getting onto the flight than anything else. That is 100% true. Getting through that first round of security was one of the best feelings of my life. Next thing I know I’m on the plane. Okay, this is real. This is actually happening. I have no idea what this next week is going to hold. I should be terrified, right? What if I hate it and want to go home as soon as I get there? My excitement trumped any negative feeling I could have. I couldn’t wait to land. Unrelated note: I’m already sick of flying. Waiting to board is the worst.
It’s a surreal thing to go from freezing cold temperatures and snow to 80 degree weather and the sight of palm trees. I had been tired from the early wake up and the mental fatigue from flying for the first time, but that sight woke me right up. I had stepped foot into an entirely different country and culture. It wasn’t too long until our ride arrived and along with our leader and guide for the week, Lynette.
Lynette is hands down one of the most incredible people I’ve ever met. I’m convinced she’s going to be a saint one day. Originally from Philadelphia, she’s been in El Salvador for 12 years, devoting her life to people who are less fortunate. I don’t think I’ve met a more selfless person, nor do I think I ever will. Meeting and getting to know her was by far one of the highlights of the trip.
We ended up at the volunteer house that we’d be staying for the week in San Salvador. From the moment I stepped off the bus I felt at home. Lynette has a staff of local Salvadoran men and women that were with us all week and they immediately made us feel welcome. Over the course of the week they’d prepare and serve us meals, translate for us, teach us about their culture, and so many other things. The trip wouldn’t have been nearly as eye opening, or as much fun, without them. One of the best nights of the trip was when we had a dance party. We’d teach them an American dance and then they’d teach us one of theirs. We also talked a lot about different aspects of our cultures, like food and animals. I also learned a popular Salvadoran phrase, que chivo, which means how cool.
We had about a day and a half to get acclimated before we got to work. We were able to explore San Salvador and visit a few stunningly beautiful churches. I had the opportunity to test my Spanish when we visited the market. I successfully bartered and managed to save myself $2! Over the course of the week I learned a lot about the El Salvador Civil War that took place in the 80s. As a result of that war there’s still a lot of discord and disconnect between the people and the government. So it was pretty jarring to see military officers just strolling through the market carrying rifles and shotguns. That’s not something I’m used to seeing back home.
On Monday we finally got to work. We drove an hour each day to a little village called Las Delicias. We would stop by the community center where all the kids were and drop off those in our group that couldn’t do the physical labor. The next stop was the work site. It was a tiny little “neighborhood” with six houses that had been completed with two more that we were working on throughout the week. One of the houses was farther along and we were able to actually lay the cinder blocks and construct the house. The other we were still in the process of digging and excavating the foundation. That was by far my favorite bit of work. We had to dig to a certain depth and width all the way around. The problem is that we’d come across some pretty big rocks that we had to get out. Needless to say I got a little dirty. One of our other projects was to cut the knee high grass that was running down the middle of this neighborhood. If we had a lawn mower we could’ve knocked that out in half an hour. But instead we got to use machetes. That was so much fun!
While I really enjoyed the work it was definitely challenging. We were out in the sun for hours doing a lot of manual labor. Over the course of the week I could absolutely feel my energy running low because of the work. But I absolutely loved it. It was so cool to be able to see our progress. I could see how deep we dug, how much grass we cut, how many bricks we laid. It was incredible to think that the work we were doing would someday lead to a home for a family.
We would typically be at the work site for about three hours in the morning and then we’d go to the community center for lunch and then head back to the work site. I can’t explain how heartwarming it is to get off the bus and be greeted by a crowd of kids eagerly waiting for you. Literally as soon as we’d step off the bus they’d run up to hug us and grab us by the hand to lead us inside. Once inside we’d begin playing games. We’d kick the soccer ball around, play catch, and play lots of Uno. One of the kids, Fernando, would pretend to be Spiderman and he and I would get into play fights. Although he definitely landed a couple of his kicks.
For me, playing and interacting with these kids was the most beautiful and pure experience of my life. It didn’t matter that I didn’t speak their language. They didn’t care about that at all. All they cared about was having fun and sharing their joy with us. Everything the people of El Salvador did, especially the children, was genuine and pure. They way they played, the way they worked, they way they played music. Everything was pure. I will say, it bothered me when I heard people say that the Salvador people were always happy. No one is always happy. They have things that anger and upset them just like all of us. However, I will say that they are far more joyful than we are in the United States. Joy permeates in El Salvador. I can’t say that it does here.
I’m so incredibly blessed to have seen that firsthand. The people I encountered everyday at Las Delicias lived in extreme poverty. There were men and women at the community center that sold bracelets for $1 apiece. That was their livelihood. And yet they welcomed us each and every day with enormous smiles and welcoming arms. They would have shared their food with us if we had asked them. The kids were dirty and many of them didn’t wear shoes. Do you think they cared? Of course not. What they cared about was chasing the kite across the field, laughing the whole time. You can make the argument that they don’t know better. That’s just what they’re used to. Sure, there’s some truth to that. But what struck me is the fact that we were strangers and yet they loved us. We looked different than them and yet they loved us. Sadly that’s not the way it is here.
I also gained incredible perspective on what is really important. The kids there were happy to chase a kite, or kick a soccer ball, or play with bubbles. They didn’t care about getting the latest iphone, or finding Wifi, or having all the apps. They were present. That’s something I struggle a lot with because of all the aforementioned things. I’m always so concerned with staying “connected” that I forget to be truly present with the people I’m with. The kids reminded me that it’s more about who you’re with rather than what you have.
I was bragging earlier about how awesome it was to see the work we were doing. But the good we did for the people there was quantifiable. The good they did for us simply cannot be measured. Both the people that guided us at the volunteer house and the people at Las Delicias taught me so much. Even a month after this trip it’s still so hard to put into words everything I got out of this experience. One of my biggest takeaways is that love is a universal language. I do regret that I didn’t learn more Spanish because I think it could’ve enhanced my experience. But at the end of the day it didn’t really matter because I still made connections with the people there that I never in a million years would’ve expected.
I only spent a week there and yet I feel a sense of pride for El Salvador that is hard to comprehend. I never thought I’d feel so much love and admiration for another country. I have the people I met to thank for that. In this world full of so much hatred and evil, it’s encouraging to see people that still stand for love and good. They were a breath of fresh air. They were hope.
There is sooo much that I’m leaving out. I could literally write for hours on end about how life changing my week in El Salvador was. Even after a month to process it’s almost impossible to truly convey everything I’ve experienced and learned. My advice to everyone is to say yes to invitations. At the very least consider them. If the invitation is to do something out of your comfort zone, good. All the more reason to do it. It’ll push you to expand your boundaries and to see life in a different way. I left El Salvador with a much greater respect for other cultures and a much greater appreciation for my own. For years I couldn’t imagine going on a trip like this. Now I can’t imagine not going. I already can’t wait to go back.