Thanksgiving in difficult times

Almost twenty-fie years ago, I learned a profound lesson in thanksgiving in the midst of poverty.

In 1992 I spent a seven-month sabbatical in El Salvador, six months helping in the parish of Santa Lucía, Suchitoto, where I assisted the Salvadoran pastor and five US women religious.

They sent me out to the furthest part of the parish – a four hours walk from Suchitoto. They arranged for me to stay with Esteban Clavel (May he rest in peace) and his wife, Rosa Elbia, for several days each week.

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Esteban and Rosa Elbia 

The Clavel family had recently moved into the community of Haciendita II and had made a home in the ruins of cattle stalls. The family was large and eight of the children were living there at the time. To avoid displacing someone from a bed I brought a hammock to sleep in.

Life was simple. Each morning I heard Esteban waking the girls to go and fetch water from a source about 30 minutes away. Later the boys would go out with their father to work in the fields. Meals were simple: tortillas and beans (usually with too much salt). I would often bring coffee and a few fruits or vegetables when I came, but the diet was very boring – except when the mangos were ripe. In the rainy season water would come into the house, under the door, and there would be a small river beneath my hammock.

I helped train catechists, visited other nearby communities, and sought to be a pastoral presence. I also went out a few times to help dig the trench for the village’s water project.

What I most remember – beside the love and the hospitality the people showed me – was my experience upon awakening.

When I work up in my hammock, my first thought was “Thanks be to God.”

It wasn’t for the discomfort or the food. It was just a thank you for being there – even in the midst of the poverty. I could even say thank you when my bowels were not functioning well.

I didn’t need to have things work well to be able to give thanks.

This past month I feel as if I am re-learning this message. I have had one funeral for a couple who were killed in their home. I went with my neighbors to the site of two men killed in Plan Grande and prayed at the side of the coffin of one of them. I visited the prison for a workshop on nonviolence and met one young man who has been in prison for more than a year without a trial and two other young men who seem to be imprisoned for what in the US we might have labeled legitimate defense. Yesterday I visited a seventeen-year old who is bedridden, possibly from kidney failure and an inflamed liver, and who suffers from anemia. Her nine-month old child, though, is doing well.

These days it is cold and rainy – with lots of mud.

Yet I feel grateful – to these people who welcome me and respond to me with such generosity. The other day someone gave me a bag of oranges and would not take any money for them. Yesterday, after giving a ride to a few guys returning from their coffee fields, one gave me two oranges.

In all this, God is present, sustaining me.

And for all this I give thanks.

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