When the Kickstarter campaign for Shot: The Book got funded, and I realized I could actually travel to El Salvador on a research trip, my goal was to absorb every bit of the country and culture I could cram into one short week. I hoped to interview all the key people. I wanted to see the houses Pete and Dara lived in, the playgrounds where they took their kids, the streets they walked on, the food they ate, the weather they experienced, the hardships, the beauty. Any and every detail that could help me bring their story to life. I ended up getting all that, for sure, and in addition, I ended up being changed by everything I saw.
Several weeks ago, I wrote a blog post about embracing the mystery of life. The whole post was a bit abstract -- an idea, a concept that made sense in my head but was difficult to pin down and make tangible. Then I went to El Salvador and suddenly it wasn’t. Trusting and letting go became very practical, as the opportunity to do so was in front of my face like twenty times a day.
In El Salvador, rule number one is to expect that everything you do will be challenged. Cars will break down, mosquitoes will bite you, accomplishing small tasks will take longer than anticipated. Torrential rains will arrive with little notice, your breakfast will be infested with bugs because you failed to wrap it properly. The toilets will stop flushing and need to be filled with buckets of water. Showers will be cold because hot water is unavailable. Illnesses will occur at the most inopportune times. Traffic will be a mess; streets will be shut down.
This is all on a good day.
On a bad day, you will be challenged by witnessing or experiencing violence, getting into a car accident, seeing a dead body on the side of the road. Of course, none of the above are specific to El Salvador. All of these occurrences are a part of life and could happen anywhere at any time. But in most places, that list of challenging events might take place over the course of months, years, or even lifetimes. In El Salvador, all of the above might happen in three or four days. The hits keep coming and are woven into the ebb and flow of everyday life.
In the US, I often find my comforts and conveniences are so plentiful I begin to expect and rely upon them. They make me feel safe and secure and even lull me into a place where I am confident I have control of my life. In El Salvador, however, there is a pervasive sense of lawlessness. Little makes you feel secure other than God, and the illusion of control is laughable.
But that is precisely what’s so beautiful about it.
When I asked my husband Paul what his big take away was from our trip -- if he could pick just one theme that stood out --he said it was the value of relationships. Indeed, much of our time revolved around the many beautiful friendships Pete and Dara had forged over the five years they spent in El Salvador. We rode in the back of pickups with locals from the agricultural communities. We ate bean soup and corn on the cob with pastors, we sang worship songs in English with a group of American expats, and drank beer with old friends. We exchanged memories with Dara’s former Spanish teacher and shared tears with others who were instrumental in saving Pete’s life.
When rumors emerged that one of the men involved in the shooting was now attending the local church and had given his life to Jesus, Pete even went so far as to invite him into relationship. Yes, that’s right. We showed up on this man’s door step while his kids were playing barefoot in the dust. Whether or not he was actually involved with the shooting, and what transpired over that afternoon, I will not say. I have a book to write, after all, and what fun is it if I ruin all the surprises?
What I will share is that my takeaway was a bit different than Paul’s. For me, the trip was marked with moments of freedom and clarity. I was able to recognize some lies I had been believing -- lies that had been holding me back and causing me stress for quite some time. I’ve had these really narrow ideas of what my life as an adult is supposed to look like. I’ve felt pressure to have a stable job, to buy a house, to build my savings account and have kids by a certain age. To chase the American Dream, essentially. Of all the American expats we met in El Salvador, none of them seemed to care much about any of that. They just cared about following Jesus and figured he would cover all their major needs. It turns out buying a house is NOT a major need. Neither is having kids when everyone else says it’s time.
I was also faced with the reality of my own apathy. Prior to El Salvador, if you were to ask me if I was an apathetic person I would have said, “Of course not! I’m a passionate person; I care about fighting for things.” Yet, by the end of our trip, I realized my passions don’t always run deep. I scare easily. I doubt. I tend to flee from discomfort, throw my hands in the air, and conclude that certain problems are just too big to be solved. Gang violence? Extreme poverty? What could I ever do to combat any of this? Very little, I assume. Then I shut down, block it out, and walk away.
What I learned about Peter in El Salvador -- and about Pastor Miguel and the entire staff of ENLACE (the nonprofit Peter worked for) -- is they don’t do that. No matter how crazy, far-fetched, or insurmountable a project seems, they are willing to try it anyway. And a lot of times they fail. Little about their work is perfect and much of it has been trial and error. This didn’t work, they say? Let’s go back to the drawing board then and try this. Or this. But they don’t seem to give up.
In the process of being utterly relentless over the past twenty years, beautiful miracles have sprung forth. Rural villages now have electricity. Violent gang members are being rehabilitated. Change is occurring, but not in a flourishing and dramatic way. It’s more like watching a glacier melt, or watching an established oak tree continue to grow. You can’t see it at first, but if you stop looking and then come back to it years later, the before and after pictures are striking.
So, I guess my one big takeaway is this: It is worth it to not be apathetic. It’s worth it to care and to try and to fight.
Brene Brown puts it this way: “If you are brave enough to love people, you’re going to get your heart broken. If you’re courageous enough to care about something, you’re going to be disappointed. If you’re creative and innovative enough to try new things, you’re going to fail. So the bravest among us are always the brokenhearted because they took a chance.”
Yet, being brokenhearted doesn’t last forever. It’s a temporary state. And if we stick around long enough and continue pushing forward, what we’ve been striving for may finally emerge.