From my journal. More from day 1 of my trip to El Salvador to observe what Compassion International is doing and how they do it:
Less than ten feet from a railroad track stands a small mound of wavy metal resembling a collapsed shed more than someone’s home. But it is a home. Santiago’s. We just toured Santiago’s Compassion International project. We visited his classroom where he’s learning how to read. He beamed with pride showing us how well he can write and giggled at how poorly we spoke his language. In fact, Santiago giggled at just about everything today.
I’m told he’s poor, his family being clothed and fed by the church Compassion partners with in his neighborhood, one of over a hundred in El Salvador. But it’s hard to believe. He looks like an ordinary eight year-old, just with an extraordinary charisma.
Santiago walked quickly with us from his Compassion project, eager to show us the way. But we took our time, our guide watching out for gang members that patrol the neighborhood. We passed a small witchcraft operation a hundred feet from Santiago’s home. The hand-pained sign draws the downtrodden to the “temple”, a house concocting a brew of Catholicism and magic spells promised to smite enemies and protect anyone willing to pay. Everywhere we turn it seems like good and evil, despair and hope, live next door to each other in San Salvador. And both have growing armies of converts.
Past trash heaps. Past the same breed of “third world dog” again and again. Past shoeless children and open fields shadowed by brooding clouds. Thunder warns us from a distance.
We open the door to Santiago’s house, peeling back one five foot tall rectangle of tin with no handle, and walk across the dirt and rock floor. “Hola,” I say to his aunt and take her hand. Roberto, a local administrator from Compassion, knows this family but asks them questions for our benefit, translating into English as he converses.
“Who here takes care of you, Santiago?”
“Just my aunt.”
“Where is his mother? His father?” he asks the aunt.
“His mother is with a gang and his father is a drug dealer. They aren’t together and left Santiago when he was small. They don’t care for him.”
The families we meet here talk about cruel realities in front of children like I ask my wife to pass the salt.
“What about his grandfather?” Roberto motions towards a shadowed man across the small room buttoning his shirt and leaning hard on a pole that holds up one corner of this plastic quilted house. The grandfather I assume. He laughs to himself but doesn’t look up.
“No,” the aunt answers, “I take care of Santiago alone.”
“Who pays? Who works here?”
“Santiago does odd jobs when he can find them. I do laundry for people.”
“How much money are you able to make?”
“$4 this week. It’s been good,” she grins.
“Good. Good. Santiago, what are your dreams?”
When we stepped into his home Santiago’s demeanor immediately melted, his frame bent, his steps shuffled, his eyes drawn to the floor. The happy child at the project devolved into a slumping boy doing his best to disappear. Something tells me he isn’t safe here. He isn’t at ease here. There’s tremendous fear or embarrassment or something weighing him down under this roof. But this question about dreams resurrects him.
He smiles and looks up again.
“Come on, Santiago! Tell us your dreams!” Roberto lifts Santiago off the dirt floor and sets him on a stump. And Santiago confidently and quickly answers, “I want to be a policeman. I want to help people.”
“Bueno. Muy Bueno, Santiago,” I said. And praise pours from the other white faces who came with me. “Muy Bueno.”
“What is a good thing about your project, Santiago?” Roberto asks.
“I play with my friends. I eat. I read.”
We talk more with his aunt and his cousins, all living in this small space with few walls, one bed and rusted tin roof balanced on sticks and bent poles someone threw away once. They tell us they’re grateful for the Compassion project and say we can pray for them. Roberto asks grandfather to join our circle and we take each other’s hands.
“Will you pray for us, Shaun?” he asks me. And I agree but don’t know where to start. Words, even words to God, seem trite and inadequate in this place. And after a long pause, longer than any I may have ever taken in my life, I pray. Small words. Simple. Love. Protect. Feed. Clothe. Teach. Thank You. Roberto translates. And we all say, “Amen”, then hug one another and I look at every set of eyes trying to nail these faces to the walls of my mind. I hope they never come down and I never stop talking with God about them, asking big things with small words.