Habitat for Humanity in El Salvador

Thanks to colleague Kathy Haueisen for this guest blog post. Blue Ocotillo will be publishing her novel Asunder this spring. Check out other posts from Kathy at her website, “How Wise Then: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Problems.”    

            Two days before I was scheduled to fly to El Salvador for my third Thrivent Builds-Habitat for Humanity trip I got an e-mail from our State Department warning me of escalating concerns about safety there for U.S.A. travelers. Were this my first trip I might have cancelled my flight.

            Since this was not my first trip, I deleted the e-mail and continued packing. Both Thrivent (a not-for-profit financial services organization for Christians) and Habitat in El Salvador run excellent programs. The work, though physically challenging, is manageable. We get two breaks and a long lunch plus encouragement to rest when we’re feeling tired.

            Our task was to help dig an eight foot-deep hole and deepen a trench around the house for a new septic system at a Habitat home. We spent much of the week moving dirt out of the way and then moving it back in to fill in around newly laid pipes.

            The week wasn’t all work. Habitat encourages getting to know the Salvadorians we met. For that reason each work site includes an interpreter. This is essential as the building project managers are hired for their construction skills and ability to work with international volunteers, not for their English skills. Some volunteers speak Spanish, but few have an adequate vocabulary to negotiate building instructions.

            One of the Habitat workers was a young man, David. At one point David was pitching dirt out of the pit that was now deeper than he was tall. He could pitch dirt out faster than five volunteers could load it into a wheel barrel and haul it to the empty lot next door.

            One young local woman, Glenda, came by every day to help because she wanted to practice her English. I wanted to practice my Spanish so we spoke to one another in both languages frequently during the week. I was immediately drawn to Glenda as she is the same age as two of my granddaughters.

            Luis Viscarra is the Habitat staff person charged with welcoming each international team at the San Salvador airport. He gives each team a brief history of El Salvador along with practical tips for staying healthy and safe while in country. He starts by explaining that when Spain conquered El Salvador several centuries ago the country was divided up among fourteen colony families. By the time of the 1980s’ Civil War, descendants of these original fourteen families literally owned all of El Salvador. These few were wealthy while the majority of people were living in desperate poverty.

            The Civil war broke out in 1979 when the military-led government, representing the interests of the fourteen families, fought against a coalition of guerrilla groups fighting for a more equitable distribution of the country’s resources.

            Many fled during the twelve-year conflict. Both sides recruited child soldiers. There was extreme violence, including deliberately terrorizing and targeting civilians via death squads. Martyr Oscar Romero, a Catholic priest, campaigned on behalf of the poor. For his efforts he was assassinated in March 1980 as he led worship. We saw photos of him everywhere, including on the stole of Lutheran Bishop Medardo Gomez who presided over worship at Iglesia Luterana Cristo Rey (Christ the King Lutheran Church) in Santa Ana, our first Sunday there.

            The years of extreme violence and the disruption of families as many fled the twelve years of extreme violence have resulted in a generation of young men who have grown up inadequately educated but with much experience of violence. That combined with extreme poverty, has led to the formation of gangs.

            So yes, gangs are a serious problem in some parts of El Salvador. However, Habitat leaders know where they are active and keep the international volunteers far away from those areas.

            Because we were team number 250 through the Thrivent-Habitat of El Salvador partnership, we were given extra special attention. The week started with a worship service at Cristo Rey in Santa Ana. An earthquake destroyed their church building in 2000. For many years the small congregation gathered in an old cinder-bloc building that survived the earthquake. It had originally been a chicken coop.

Cristo Rey.Santa Ana (1)

            When Joe and Bonnie Reilly started taking volunteers to El Salvador as part of Joe’s work with Thrivent, they took teams to worship at Cristo Rey since many of the homes they worked on belonged to members of that congregation.

            A few years ago they sat with their team in folding chairs in the cinder-block building and asked Pastor Carlos what he needed most. His obvious answer was, “A new church.” There were only two problems: the congregation had no funds and little hope of raising them to build a new church; and, Habitat for Humanity builds homes, not churches.

            The best way to handle a problem is to get rid of it. With a lot of prayer and enthusiasm Partners in Faith was formed. Funds were raised. Habitat for Humanity gave permission for teams to slow down on building homes and pick up speed on construction of the much-needed new building. International volunteers and Cristo Rey members worked side by side for several years to build what Bishop Gomez claims is the best Lutheran church in all of El Salvador.

            As we worshipped on the one-year anniversary of the completion and dedication of the church I held back tears, as did many of my fellow team members. Most of us had played some small part in the construction of the new building. In addition to Bishop Gomez, several other honored guests participated, including the president of a Baptist seminary, an Episcopal priest, two USA Lutheran pastors, and a pastor from Guatemala. Sitting next to me in the pews was the German Lutheran church’s ambassador for Central America.

New Cristo Rey.Santa Ana

            Our team of twenty-seven worked on three housing projects in the planned community of Getsemaní near the town of Ahachapan, in western El Salvador, near Guatemala. We stayed at a lovely lodge resort in the mountains that featured a large dining room complete with dance floor, a miniature zoo, horse-back riding, a spa and swimming pool, a playground and a couple of game rooms.         

            Luis told us that approximately two-thirds of Salvadorians live in sub-standard housing. Thanks to the twenty-five years of effort on the part of Habitat in El Salvador and the volunteer work of a thousand volunteer teams, that situation is slowly, but surely improving.

            Our media loves to cover violence and corruption. They miss some of the many truly beautiful places we saw on our trip. The people, the food, the hospitality, and the community of volunteers all working on a common mission make traveling to El Salvador well worth the effort it takes to go.


Kathy Haueisen is an ELCA pastor who lives in Houston, Texas. She has authored two books and served as editor of two others. Asunder is her first novel. Taking an intimate look at the emotions involved in divorce, it will be released April 2016.


“Just a Little Bit More” Study Guide and Summary Version Now Available!

Quick link to Study Guide and book purchase page http://www.blueocotillo.com

jalbm svsg picThe fifty-two page summary version and study guide companion to Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good is now available! Ideally suited for book clubs and faith community education groups (high school to adult), the summary pamphlet is akin to a Reader’s Digest version of the full-length book with the addition of discussion questions at the end of all eight chapters. Now readers of both the book and the summary version can enter the same discussion on social and economic inequalities and consider together what can be done to uplift the common good.

From Dr. Craig Nessan of Wartburg Seminary and his review of JaLBM in the April 2015 edition of Currents in Theology and Mission:

How did we as a society arrive at our current state of extreme wealth disparity? T. Carlos Anderson, pastor of St. John’s/San Juan Lutheran Church in Austin, Texas, presents with measured judgment his findings based on extensive historical research and astute cultural analysis. Anderson proposes a return to the value of egalitarianism and practice of economic democracy as the way of deliverance from the regressive and even violent inequality under which we suffer. The reader is provided incredible detail and documentation of our current economic, cultural, and religious crisis. He expresses confidence that as in previous eras the pendulum finally shifted to correct the drive to economic excess through the mechanisms of political democracy, so our awakening to the present crisis can lead to an urgently needed corrective in our time.

From Dr. Phil Ruge-Jones of Texas Lutheran University:

Anderson’s book is an extensive chronicling of the people, movements, and streams of thought that have led us on the quest to want just a little bit more. In the role of a theologically aware social critic, he reminds me of Niebuhr. He is deeply embedded in the Christian tradition, but has listened carefully to many other voices and thus speaks a reasonable, balanced, and authoritative public word. Anderson shows us the way back toward a commitment to egalitarianism that has become lost over the last century.

From Rev. Kathy Haueisen, author of A Ready Hope and 40-Day Journey with Kathleen Norris:

A masterpiece . . . I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to live in a world with a more equitable distribution of the world’s assets and resources. It ought to be required reading for every church leader.  

Thanks to the book clubs at First English Lutheran (Austin), Living Word Lutheran (Buda, TX), Triumphant Love Lutheran (Austin) and Holy Cross Lutheran (Houston) for reading and discussing JaLBM.

Thanks to Abiding Love Lutheran (Austin), St. John’s/San Juan Lutheran (Austin), and Chapelwood United Methodist (Houston) for doing adult education sessions with JaLBM.

Thanks to ELCA Campus Pastors And Staff (Regions 3, 4, and 5) for the invitation to present JaLBM and related themes at their 2015 Mid-Winter Retreat.

Other churches in Austin, Houston, San Antonio, and Chicago are planning to carry out study discussion groups of JaLBM in the fall of 2015.

For the month of June: Purchase book (regularly $14.95) and the Study Version/Study Guide (regularly $6.95) together for $16.00 (plus shipping and handling, and sales tax for Texas residents). Offer available only at the Blue Ocotillo Publishing website http://www.blueocotillo.com.

A few centuries ago a well-known Jewish rabbi offered this prayer to the Creator of all there is: Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. What does the intersection of common good and God’s realm look like today? Put JaLBM on your summer reading list and prepare yourself to participate in or lead a study/discussion group with the purpose of seeking out answers to that important question.

Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good is available on Amazon as a paperback and an ebook. It’s also available on Nook and iBooks/iTunes.