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Churches' ties open opportunities;

Flor Chavez and Diane Thomas continue relationship through the years.

By Mary Stamp

Simple acts of sharing love between Covenant United Methodist Church (UMC) in North Spokane and Buenas Nuevas Lutheran Church in El Paisnal, El Salvador, opened the opportunity for Flor Chavez to study nursing in Ohio and return to serve her community.

"I hope people appreciate what they have, and if they have enough resources that they find a way to share with others," said Flor who visited Spokane May 13 to 23. "For those who lack resources, don't be discouraged. There are opportunities. God will open doors for us to overcome every circumstance."

Diane Thomas, who with her husband Rick and the Sister Church Ministry Team, hosted Flor for a 10-day visit to their church and community, encourages other congregations to establish partner churches and then find ways to show Christ's love.

As part of the two churches' 30-year sister-church relationship, she visited El Salvador three times, in 2004, 2006 and 2008. Rick has gone twice. On their visits, they met people and learned about their lives.

Delegations of 10 to 12 people go every two to three years—involving about 60 of the 200 church members since 1992. Along with visiting the El Paisnal church and the church where Monsignor Oscar Romero was assassinated, they learn about challenges of life there.

Some delegations also have a mission project. One sponsored by the United Methodist Committee on Relief built block homes to replace homes destroyed by an earthquake. Another with Living Waters built wells for a school with tainted water. A third worked with a local agronomist organization, Aprodehni, to fund a project for church members to plant and grow fruit trees and medicinal plants for personal use and to sell for a small income.

Diane, who grew up in Spokane, has always been interested in social justice. She was especially impressed by the tree-planting project, seeing that the children dug holes and put in plants, and then kept them watered and cared for.

After a hurricane and severe flooding, the church needed a new building, so Covenant UMC sent money for the 30 families in Iglesia Buenas Nuevas to rebuild. Now it is also a center where people come for health care, education and resources.

Over the years, Covenant UMC has donated $120 per student each year for scholarships so 80 to 90 children have books, uniforms, shoes and supplies to go to school. In addition to personal donations, Covenant sells fair trade coffee, tea, chocolate, cocoa and olive oil to support the mission.

Flor was one of the children receiving scholarships. She is one of seven siblings her single mother raised after her father left the family.  She has been in Iglesia Buenas Nuevas since childhood and met Diane and Rick when they came in 2004.

She finished basic education—first through ninth grade—and high school in El Paisnal. Few go beyond basic education, so she feels lucky Diane, Rick and her sister helped her pursue her dream of college. Flor earned a bachelor's degree in education with a major in English at a Pedagogical College in San Salvador.

Back in El Paisnal, she taught Sunday Bible classes for children and did youth work for her church and the National Youth Committee. In 2015, she joined her sister, Yenix, to teach Saturday English and computer classes the church offers children in the church and community. 

Her volunteer work at the Lutheran Synod Sister Church Office led to a full-time job coordinating delegations from U.S., German and Canadian partner churches. The Synod assists partnerships between about 35 churches around the world and 57 churches in El Salvador. Many partner churches help with scholarships.

"Over the years, about 200 students from my congregation have gone to college," Flor said.

In 2017, she first came to the U.S. to Chicago and then to South Dakota as a camp counselor.

In 2021, she came again and now studies nursing in Wapakoneta, Ohio, assisted by church partners there. She will finish the program to be a RN in five semesters and return to El Salvador to work as a nurse and help other students accomplish their goals.

"I see how God's love grows in us and helps us serve others," Flor said.

"When I was young, my faith was not strong. I would hear about God's love and about martyrs in my country," she said. "That helps keep me going and asking more of myself, so I encourage other children to fight for what they want to accomplish.

"Because we have many disappointments, being part of the church has helped me begin loving myself and loving others for who they are," Flor continued. "I have had opportunities in life encountering people in many countries, opening my mind to see that lack of resources sometimes brings us down but, even if we lack resources, having a good community sharing love and friendship can move us from emptiness and fear about not having food for the next day."

Flor has seen how love has sustained communities and families to trust they will have enough for the day. She values sharing love with people she meets every day.

In the U.S., she is impressed with how involved parents are in their children's education, because they are educated themselves. It's hard for a single mother in El Salvador who does not have education to help her children with studies.

She is also impressed with the weather in the U.S., in contrast El Salvador, where they have had severe flooding followed by long dry summers that often dry up the crops.

Flor said 85 percent of El Salvadorans use public transportation. In small communities, a bus leaves once a day in the morning and returns in the afternoon. For health care, it's hard to find transportation to the nearest clinic.

"Many children have poor health because they lack good nutrition. They go to school in the morning without eating breakfast or in the afternoon without lunch. It's hard for them to focus and understand when their stomachs are empty," she said.

"While many have access to water, it's not clean. They drink it and get sick," said Flor, who plans to work in the government clinic in El Paisnal.

Because of violence and poverty, many children think there are no opportunities, but Flor hopes she is an example of opportunities that come from support of people in the U.S. and other countries.

"They help us see beyond our struggles," she said.

In her visits, Diane has learned that a few "ultra-rich families" rule the country and there are very limited resources or government support to build people up through education or jobs. She has seen little change on that level over the years.

Gary Proctor, a Vietnam veteran, went with a 1989 Eastern Washington University delegation to Central America as the civil war was ending. He returned troubled by what happened because of U.S. involvement.

"That was the catalyst for starting our relationship with the Buenas Nuevas church in El Paisnal, located 45 minutes from the capital, San Salvador," said Diane, who retired after years as a counselor and administrator at Whitworth University.

The goal of the partnership is "to implement an active and prayerful interchange with Christian sisters and brothers in El Salvador and accompany them in their pursuit of education and social justice."

"Our congregation is diverse. Many are involved in other ministries," Diane said. "It's a way for me to live out  my Christian faith. Sometimes it's discouraging because there is little we can do to make things different because of roadblocks from the Salvadoran leadership. It's hard to see progress."

"I have become more aware of the impact of our government on other parts of the world," Diane said. "I pray more for El Salvador and the people. I pray for change and hope for there to be a better life for them in the future. It's heartbreaking how challenging their lives are, but the program provides support and education they otherwise would not have."

Flor said the partnership with Covenant UMC has helped her and those in her church see that "life is not just bad things that happen in our town, to see beyond our struggles to know there are many people who are ready to help us find opportunities."

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Copyright@ The Fig Tree, June, 2022