What is your first name? What country are you from? How many years did you go to school?
Several times a week, I repeat these questions to new mothers and father who walk into our school. Some show fear of the unknown. Others express joy for the new community they have found. Some bring a stroller with two young children, and a bump showing a third on its way. Others bring tears for the children they left behind. Some have years of experience in the US, with stories from before I was even born. Others share that they arrived last week or last month, their eyes still tired from their treacherous journey. And to each person, I ask the same questions: What is your first name? What country are you from? How many years did you go to school?
Why, you may be asking, am I sharing this? Or what am I even talking about? As some of you know, both Eliberto and I are currently employed by schools in DC that serve adult immigrants through English language learning and wrap-around services. When we moved to the US last summer, we both found jobs “in the meantime” as we waited on our application process with IM. The “meantime” has turned out to be much longer than expected, which I will write about another day. However, back to school.
One of the many parts of my job at school is registering new students and performing an English language placement test. During the month of September I registered over 100 families, filling out forms and orienting each new student. I love hearing their stories, even when their stories are full of pain and challenges. It is important for me to listen to them and remember the realities they have and continue to face as immigrants. Many came to the US fleeing violence or conflict. Most share dreams for brighter futures in the US, with varying levels of optimism. Hearing their stories keeps me connected to them.
Again, you may still be asking why I am sharing about my work in DC, seemingly unrelated to IM and El Salvador. The truth is, my experiences here are very closely connected to El Salvador and MVP. First, Eliberto and I have the opportunity through our current jobs to see the other side of the journey. Our work in El Salvador is all about peace. MVP was born on the premise that we, the people of our community, have the resources necessary to weave peace into the framework of our neighborhoods. And while we strive to build up young people who believe that peace is the best path to choose, Salvadorans continue risking their lives to journey to the United States, seeking to escape threats and violence that prevail in their communities. So now, we are seeing the end results for those who have no option but to flee. On a daily basis we hear the stories of their struggles in El Salvador, the challenges of their journey here, and the difficulties of life as an immigrant in the U.S. Instead of collaborating with churches in their efforts to make changes in their communities, we are sitting with the victims who could never find peace in their homes. We are on the other side.
For me, this has been an important part of our time in the U.S. While we moved here in order to join a larger organization and build greater support for our work in El Salvador, we find ourselves learning more about the need for programs like MVP through our interactions with immigrants here in the U.S. Don’t get me wrong, everyone in El Salvador knows stories of people who have left fleeing violence. Most people could name family members and friends who have migrated to the U.S. But there is something different about working directly with those who have fled El Salvador and now find themselves in the U.S. that makes the need for peace in their homelands even more urgent. With every story I hear there is a deepening sense of need, a growing anger within me and burning desire to change the brokenness that causes migration. A mother should never have to decide between staying home with the risk of death threats for her son, or traveling to the U.S. and risking the lives of her family to the dangers of the journey through Guatemala and Mexico. These two options just seem unfair. And my experience in DC has heightened my awareness of how many people are forced to make these decisions. The stories I hear affirm my own conviction that God is calling us back to El Salvador, and that MVP has the power to make changes for peace.
I recently stumbled upon an old book that I read during my first trip to El Salvador in 2013 – Liberating Jonah by Miguel A. de la Torre. I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to think critically about power, privilege, reconciliation, and faith. Towards the end of the book, Torre talks about storytelling as a tool for the work of reconciliation:
While reconciliation may still be found someplace in the distant future, the telling of stories becomes an important step to building bridges by fostering empathy for those who suffered. While finding solutions is crucial and should never be underestimated, listening to stories must by the first step in the praxis of reconciliation. (p. 130)
Torre refers to storytelling as the first step towards reconciliation, but not the stories of just anyone – he refers specifically to the stories of those who suffer. Listening to their stories allows us to know them, to feel with them, to begin trying to practice empathy. And that through that, as we hear their stories, we may just begin the process of healing, reconciliation, and restoration that Jesus teaches. Stories are not enough to bring about transformation, but they are indispensably one of the first steps in recognizing the voices of the oppressed and embracing an attitude of humility and empathy to truly hear them.
If we do not listen, we cannot know. Like I mentioned earlier, we hear stories regularly in El Salvador about those who flee violence in our communities. Yet the stories I have heard from those on the other side, those who have made the difficult choice to journey to a new country seeking rest from the threats and violence – these stories begin to move me towards a deeper attitude of empathy. Truly God desires peace in our world. Truly we can work to diminish the suffering we as humans cause one another. Truly the people of our community have the resources necessary to weave peace into the framework of our neighborhoods. If only we could stop and listen to their stories.
MVP was not created because of the decision of one person; it is the result of listening to many stories, and allowing those stories to be the first step in our own praxis of reconciliation. Peace, reconciling all things to God’s order of shalom, is not a simple process. It is intricate, long, and many times painful. Yet our first step was and must always be listening to the stories of those who suffer violence and fear. We must choose to let those stories be what drive our work and mission, based on the truths we hear by those who suffer.
So today, we are grateful that our time in the U.S. has provided rich moments of connection to build up our network of support for MVP. But we are also grateful that this time has offered opportunities to listen to the stories of families who pleaded for peace but could not find it. We feel invigorated as these stories expose the urgent need for peace building work in El Salvador. And we trust that God will use MVP to offer a hope-filled answer to those who plead for peace in El Salvador both this day and in the years to come.
May we listen to the stories of those who suffer, and may we allow those stories to inform our praxis as a people who seek peace and reconciliation in our world.