This is a sermon I preached at Emmanuel United Church, Waterloo on May 5, 2013 for their annual service which is run by the M&S Committee – they asked me to be the guest speaker that week. I’ve finally had some time to reflect on the trip and I think this starts to explain some of the thoughts and feelings I have surrounding it.
So, a month or two ago, I was asked by Emmanuel to come and talk about the trip Vanessa and I helped lead to El Salvador. We spent about 10 days in the country leading a troupe of 18 teenagers with two other adult leaders, making for 22 of us in total. Our group came from all over Waterloo Presbytery and was the culminating event for a program which is called “Two Countries One World” or TCOW. TCOW is a presbytery committee that I’ve been involved with as registrar for the last four years or so. To quote from our website, the mission of TCOW is to change lives and produce globally aware students to help shape a more just and sustainable future. What sets our group apart from what others might call “Mission Trips” is that TCOW is not about converting the heathens in a foreign land, or about bringing our way of life to another country – instead we are trying to make deep connections with persons in Latin America, we’re learning from the people in the countries we visit, we aim to develop a more justice-oriented world-view for participants, andwe make an effort to learn about the ways that Mission and Service dollars are spent outside of Canada.
From a participant’s perspective, the TCOW program is about 6 months long, while the organizing committee works for almost two years to prepare for each trip with a few months of break between trips. The committee hosts 5 or 6 pre-trip events where the participants are exposed to the realities of poverty in Canada, First Nations issues such as the effects of residential schools and treaty obligations, First World – Third World relations and problems with Free Trade exploitation, and general preparation for a trip to a developing country. After all this preparation has taken place, we spend March Break exploring a Central American country – past trips have been to Mexico, Guatemala, twice to Nicaragua, and now twice to El Salvador. Two years ago the trip went to Nicaragua where Vanessa joined the trip as the videographer and leader while I helped organize and coordinate from Canada.
The TCOW committee got me hooked originally because there had been talk about doing a trip to a Northern community in either the Yukon or the Northwest Territories. That had my interested piqued right off the bat… This is mostly driven by my desire to connect more within our own country, but it may also have a bit to do with the fact that hot climates are really not my favourite place to be! Unfortunately, so far, a northern trip has not been able to come to fruition for various reasons. I’m starting to think that I might take it upon myself to organize an intergenerational trip through Emmanuel – if you’re interested, let’s talk!
So one might ask – why would I have led a trip to a tropical country at the hottest time of the year there? To keep the story short – a leader dropped out, then that leader’s replacement dropped out a couple of months before the trip was supposed to leave… all eyes turned to me because the committee knows about my youth work in Waterloo and London Conference, and my familiarity with TCOW’s mission… and so, after a lot of prayer, sighing, and maybe a bit of gnashing of teeth, I accepted the call by my fellow leaders to come be a leader on the trip rather than working strictly behind the scenes. And, as I’m sure you guessed… I didn’t die from heat stroke, and I have returned from the trip a changed person.
This morning I’d like to tell you a bit about one of the many organizations we visited in El Salvador which is connected to the Mission and Service fund: Radio Victoria.
Radio Victoria is a community-owned, community-run radio station in the town of Victoria, which is in the north-central part of El Salvador, not far from the border with Honduras. The idea for the radio station came about in 1987, after many members of the Victoria and nearby Santa Marta communities returned to the area after fleeing to Honduras as refugees during the civil war. The reason for the station was to get the word out about how the rural population in the area was being marginalized and to give a voice to those very people. In 1993, after the peace accords were signed, the station went on the air – first with a lower power transmitter that was made from bamboo, and later with a shared frequency to reach a wider audience. More recently the station was able to purchase its own frequency and now is one of the few stations that are not owned by the two major media corporations in El Salvador. The station is mostly run by volunteers, though they do have a few paid staff, and their programming varies widely – they do local music shows, educational programs for children, investigative news stories. There is a distinct effort to spread and preserve Salvadorean culture and history at the station along with a desire for justice in their community.
The station’s connection with the Mission and Service fund comes through another community organization, ADES, which receives some funding from M&S. ADES helped get the station off the ground with the help of local youth initially, and continues to work in partnership with the station on getting the word out about local issues. Over the last 7 years or so, ADES and Radio Victoria have had to take up the fight against a foreign mining company which was making plans to construct a gold mine in the area. The company, Vancouver’s Pacific Rim, would use cyanide to expose the gold in the mine which would likely pollute the Rio Lempa, which is one of the prime water sources for the Salvadorean people. Obviously Pacific Rim has made promises to the contrary, but the track record of multinationals when it comes to respecting the laws of third-world nations is abysmal.
During our visit with Radio Victoria, they told us about how the board of the station decided that they would not air any publicity for Pacific Rim despite offers of huge amounts of cash in return. Their citizen journalists also spent a significant amount of time in exposing Pacific Rim’s bribery tactics, sponsoring patron saint festivals in the small communities around Victoria, and donating to churches for renovations.
As you can imagine, this negative press has had serious consequences for the workers at the station and the activists with ADES. There have been death threats against people working at Radio Victoria, and there have been murders of two activists working with ADES. Unfortunately, despite the obvious political undertones of the murders, the Attorney General of El Salvador has only treated these as individual murders and has not pursued a wider investigation. The man we spoke with from Radio Victoria is about my age, and he told us how he has had to sleep in a different home every night in order to stay safe and under the radar. We also heard about how community volunteers have in the past taken shifts overnight to be a presence to deter firebombings which have been threatened.
Right now things have stalled to a certain extent with the gold mining issue as Pacific Rim has taken the government of El Salvador to an international free trade tribunal for what it sees as unfair treatment by having been denied approval through an environmental assessment. The current leftist government, the FMLN, has even implemented a five year moratorium on new mining permits as of 2009. Unfortunately, all it would take is a return to the previous ruling party to move these roadblocks out of the way, so the community has had to remain vigilant through and through.
So, the most important question remains: Where in all of this do we find God’s hope? Where is God acting in this story of oppression and violence?
I see God at work in the community of Victoria, and particularly in the volunteers at Radio Victoria who when they found themselves being marginalized and targeted, fit themselves together into a community which is focused on justice and equality for the people of El Salvador. I see God’s hope in the workers of ADES who work tirelessly in the areas around Victoria and Santa Marta in development projects and community-driven activism. And for us, I see hope in the Mission and Service fund, which helps channel the gifts given to us into programs and organizations all around the world which are working each in their own way to create God’s Kindom here on earth.
This brings us back to where we began – TCOW and why it exists. You’ll notice that when you talk with the participants and leadership from the trips that they don’t tend to focus on the times that they were working painting a school or digging trenches for water lines, but instead the parts that are most important in the TCOW experiences are those where we make connections between Canadians and Central Americans. On this trip we met the people from Radio Victoria and ADES, members of the communities of Santa Marta, Caluco, Perquin, San Salvador, La Mora and others. Our biggest contribution as Canadians is to let the people of these communities know that they are not alone in working to build God’s Kindom. In Radio Victoria’s case, we contribute both by our Mission and Service dollars, but also through hearing and passing on their story. Thanks for listening.