“They have no electricity… Wow.”
That’s what one of our visitors said after visiting the community of 30 de Abril (3oth of April) in El Salvador. It’s true, the residents have no electricity in their homes, which are primarily composed of sheet metal and tarps bolted to bamboo. There is no running water, and even the well water is severely contaminated. The only high school is miles away across the highway, a dangerous journey in the country with the most car accidents per capita. Yet these homes are on land they fought hard for, and they are proud to have won the land in a struggle with the local government.
Several years ago, a massive flood displaced a community of people who now make up 30 de Abril, leaving dozens of families homeless and with no other options. They pleaded for access to land from the local government, but they were met with silence. Without a home to return to, they squatted in a sugar cane field, living homeless and constructing shanties out of whatever they could find.
As the years went on, they began to organize as a community. They advocated for their right to safety and land, and finally, on April 30th, 2015, they negotiated their rights to the space with the local government. It was a struggle, but the success and satisfaction of this accomplishment is commemorated in the very name of the community. It is true, they may not have many amenities, but they have something invaluable: the skills to organize and advocate for their rights.
The next challenge is the struggle for clean water. Currently, the well water is undrinkable because of contamination from nearby agriculture and the toxic chemicals they use, such as pesticides and herbicides. The community board continues to organize the citizens in lobbying their government to ensure their access to clean water, but the fight continues. Their strength, perseverance, and organizing skills are inspiring as they persist, and they have a lot to teach all of us.
The visitor mentioned earlier came to learn from them. He wasn’t a tourist or a philanthropist who came to save the people of El Salvador, but a participant in a seminar on human rights and community development. This seminar, hosted by the non-governmental organization Cristosal, was an opportunity for U.S. citizens to come down and learn about the work the community is doing to advocate for their rights. It’s not an opportunity to marvel at the poverty and destitution before them, nor is it a chance to bring the solution to any problems. Here, participants learn from people doing some of the most amazing grassroots organizing under extremely difficult circumstances. These people have skills we need.
Especially at a time when cities like Flint, Michigan, lack access to clean water from their taps, and when oil pipelines have spilled into the water sources of thousands just in the past few months, the people of 30 de Abril have much to share. We are finally realizing just how many communities in the United States also lack access to clean water, something we often take for granted. We in the U.S. pride ourselves on our freedom and rights, but are victim to the same human rights violations many other countries are, even though it is difficult to conceive of the great America allowing such violations to exist.
When the participants say “Wow,” they are marveling not at the destitution before them, but at the accomplishments the community has achieved. They are amazed at how, without things we consider so basic, people continue to fight and win. They are inspired. They realize they have much to learn. This is the power of the human rights approach to Christian mission. It honors the true work of Jesus Christ in our world: a ministry and mission by the marginalized for the marginalized.
In this interaction is typified our relationship with Christ, that we learn to lead lives of love and righteousness from a man who was born on the margins and stayed there to teach. A man who spent his time with lepers, prostitutes, and tax collectors. These people we push to the edges are the ones from whom we can sometimes learn the most.
GMF International, Class of 2016-2018