During July the Anglican Alliance visited the Episcopal Diocese of El Salvador to learn more about its mission and development activities. In every part of the Communion, the Anglican Alliance seeks to understand local models of holistic mission which can be shared for mutual inspiration and learning. This article reflects on the visit of Revd Rachel Carnegie, Co-Executive Director, and Dr Paulo Ueti, Regional Facilitator from Latin America.
“It’s hard to get a job as an older woman,” said Sylvia. “This cafe has helped us to get work again and to value ourselves.”
Sylvia is one of six women who run a cafe set up by the Episcopal Church of El Salvador. On our visit they were practising new skills in pizza production, proudly showing off their new oven. Members of the community came and went throughout our visit, stopping for a snack and a drink.
This community, part of the Parish of St Andrew the Apostle, located in colony of Amatepec in the municipality of Soyapango, is populated largely by people displaced in the violent conflict in El Salvador in the 1980s. The people remain poor but hopeful and the church with its nursery school is at the heart of the community. Sylvia and her colleagues in the cafe also cook lunch for the children in the nursery school of Saint Augustine of Canterbury.
“It is important we are wearing clerical collars,” Bishop David Alvarado said as we drove through the community. “The gangs operate here.”
The daily work of the Church in these areas brings hope but also takes courage. This is the land of the Archbishop Oscar Romero, martyred in 1980 for his committed work for justice and peace – remaining to this day a powerful influence and inspiration.
Sylvia was one of many women we met whose lives were changing for the better. Far away in a rural area called Canton El Maizal we met Gloria, a local facilitator with the Church’s community initiative called Divine Providence.
Here the Church has literally built a new community, for families made homeless after the 2001 earthquake. 30 families were resettled in an area of land which has become a model for the church’s approach to integrated community development, with support from Episcopal Relief & Development.
Gloria described her work: “As women we’ve been working as a cooperative. We look after a small plantation of Moringa trees and harvest their leaves to sell for tea. We have savings groups here and in other communities. We also train women on their rights, on community development, on conservation farming and on small businesses.”
“It is very important for women and men to have equal rights, but in our country there is much sexism.”
Bishop David shared his vision for the El Maizal community. “We consider this as a model, providing housing, education, agriculture support, savings groups and preventative health,” he said. “It is also about justice and dignity. 33% of Salvadorans live below the poverty line. Food security is a great problem in our country, but the main issue is lack of education. 40-50% of people in the area are illiterate.”
The lands of El Maizal include flat and hilly, rocky terrain. One third is farmed by the 30 families. The women’s cooperative also has its own fields. The church agronomist, Jose Cabezas, has also been working with the community to develop productive forests on the land too steep to farm. There is a thriving small forest of teak, moringa and fruit trees. The Church also has a demonstration site, growing spices and medicinal herbs, tomatoes, and other non-traditional crops, to encourage a more diverse diet. The crops are grown organically, avoiding pesticides and GM seeds.
The church’s doctor brings her equipment to visit the local clinic every fortnight. And there is a small primary school for the children, the walls covered with hand painted posters about the environment.
Jose also works with young people, aiming to provide alternative skills and values to help them avoid the pervasive gang culture, which continues to traumatise El Salvador, making it the second most violent country in the world after Syria. Jose runs workshops at El Maizal and elsewhere in the country, helping young people in practical skills for farming, environmental conservation and team work.
The Church advocates for peace and collaborates with peace organisations reaching out to young people both in prevention and in rehabilitation. The bishop plans for the community building at El Maizal to become a youth centre.
“For me it is always good to come here,” said the bishop. “This was my first field of mission in the community’s church, La Divina Providencia.”
There are more plans for further development, including building houses for 30 more families. The church and community are also aiming to create a reservoir for irrigation as well as starting a fish project.
El Maizal is one of four similar community initiatives supported by the Church in El Salvador. Currently, the Church has 18 churches, with 8 priests and some lay ministers, with plans for national growth. “In all we have about 3000 Episcopalians, but we support 3-4 times that number,” explains Bishop David. “We may be one of the youngest and smallest churches in the Anglican Communion,” he said, “but together we can grow in friendship and connections.”
Meanwhile, back at the city cafe, Sylvia has no doubt about the power of these church initiatives to transform lives. “We connect with local people who come here to eat. We are not just selling food. We are taking time to talk with people. Everyone can change by coming here.”
Reflecting on the visit, Paulo Ueti said: “For me, visiting the diocese and community projects is experiencing God´s incarnation into the context of El Salvador in a very challenging and liberating way. The mission is made flesh and changed their lives, inspiring others to do the same and challenging those who are still looking for what do to fulfil God´s will.”
“I was amazed how little initiatives, such as the small restaurant, can make such a difference in the life of people and their community. It is not only about profit but changing the community itself,” Paulo concluded.
- The bishop and local priest stand outside the café by the Church of St Andrew the Apostle.
- Boy from La Divina Providencia School shows his cricket