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.
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.