Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Visit with Katherine - Poverty of Family and Hope for the Future

I saw true courage today. The courage of a Mama trying to hold her marriage together for the sake of her children and future generations. The courage of a couple sharing their struggles so personally with someone they just met. I also displayed courage today. The courage to ask hard questions of a woman I’d just met, not knowing how or if she’d respond. The result of this courage was that I now know this family on a whole new level and I’m starting to get a true picture of just how significant a sponsor is, not just to the child, but to the family.

At breakfast, my Compassion host and translator Jorge shared with me some interesting things about poverty in
El Salvador. While the physical poverty is evident everywhere, the deeper issue is “poverty of family”. Marriages everywhere are breaking down, and as a result the children do not feel secure, safe or loved. This goes on for generations. I took it on board and stored it in the memory bank.

Little did I know I would soon be face-to-face with this “poverty of family” in an incredibly personal way.

I have been sponsoring 6 year-old Katherine for a year. She’s one of the newer additions to my Compassion family. Katherine lives with Mama, Papa and Older Bro (11) in the east of
El Salvador.

Today’s visit was going to be short, due to having to drive three and a half hours back to
San Salvador to catch a plane. Therefore I wanted to make every minute count. I had to quickly catch and destroy my local “Negative Attitude Monster” when we didn’t get to the Project until 9.30am.

Katherine's Project has been operating for five years. They started with 150 kids, and now have 266, aged 3-14. The Project Director is a friendly young guy who loves what he does and clearly has the respect of the children and families.

I was welcomed by a relatively small contingent of children in the church, since it was a school day. This didn’t matter one bit, as I still felt very loved and accepted. They had stuck red, white and blue streamers and balloons around the place (seems to be a common theme), and had “Very Welcome Mr David Chalmers” projected onto a wall.

I met Katherine, and she presented me with a foam square painted like the Australian flag, with outlines of her hands on the back. Some children recited Bible memory verses, then I introduced myself, taught them to say “G'day Australia” as well as jump like a kangaroo and sleep like a koala. They invited me to get on the drums (to which I never say no), so I had a quick bash while they clapped along. A little guy who would have been 9 or 10 also got on the drums and did a very good job.

We then went on a quick tour of the Project and met kids and staff. There was a lot of construction and extension work going on, which indicates growth. The staff told me a bit about the programs run by this particular Project. I’ve found it interesting how each Project has a different “focus” in terms of the activities, skills or workshops offered. This Project has three main workshops, aimed at giving kids income-generating skills for the future: bakery, computer class and “electricity” was how the third one was translated to me. I can only assume it’s to do with basic engineering or fixing things.

The next stop was Katherine’s home. I was pleased to hear that the neighbourhood is considered very safe, and they have no real problems with gangs. In the house they have a front living area with a large hammock stretched across it. There is one bedroom, and the “kitchen” is outside, what we might call the “back verandah” or “patio”. Except it’s definitely not a patio. The roof is made from iron sheets, held down with rocks and whatever other heavy-ish objects they can find. The backyard is a courtyard filled with crud, and shared with three or four other houses. There are two “toilets” to share. These are basically hollowed-out concrete blocks, which are raised up in order to be able to sit on them. I don’t recall seeing a door in front of either toilet. They have running water, but it’s incredibly unreliable. When we visited, they hadn’t had water for 2 DAYS! When I heard that I thanked God that both kids are registered and sponsored through Compassion.

Papa was not there when I visited. He earns $175 a month working as a cleaner/security guy at the local school, where Katherine is about to start First Grade. There’s a bit of symmetry there, since I am also about to starting teaching First Grade. I understand Mama does not contribute financially to the family at the moment, but she told me she sometimes makes and sells tortillas.

For lunch, Katherine chose Pollo Compestre, which is the El Salvador version of Pollo Campero (from Guatemala, but in El Salv also). Every three months the Project takes the kids there for birthday celebrations. On the way there we did something that wasn’t in the schedule, but turned out to be incredibly significant. We stopped at the school to meet and talk to Papa. We met outside the front gate, which he initially left open. In no time, half a dozen faces had appeared and he motioned for them to get back inside. Apparently some of the students like to try and escape, so, seeing the open gate, thought they’d seize their opportunity. Papa is in his mid-30s, and seems like a nice guy, though I can imagine him being quite intimidating if you got on the wrong side of him.

We talked about his job, and then asked for prayer requests for the family. The reply came “Please pray for my family. My wife and I sometimes fight.” I was taken aback by, but appreciated, his honesty, and made sure I told him this. Later, as we were sitting in the children’s area of Pollo Campestre, I wondered how I was going to follow this up with Mama, or even if I should.

Lunch was okay (not as good as Pollo Campero). We traded questions and the conversation flowed. Mama was beautiful and engaging. I asked Older Bro some questions and found out that he is in 6th Grade, wants to be a professional football player (who doesn’t?) and his favourite player is Lionel Messi (not a bad choice). He has sponsors from the
US, who he hears from regularly. I gave him the Australian football to have a look at, and told him a bit about the game. They mistakenly thought I was giving it to him to keep, and later on put it in their bag to take with them. I had to sheepishly retrieve it. I then gave out gifts to the family, and I’m pretty sure the other patrons of the children’s area of Pollo Campestre were wondering what was going on at our table, and where they could get a necklace, teddy bear, Australian flag and snowglobe, among other things.

Mama started talking about her relationship with her husband. They got together 13 years ago, when she was at school. She was selling bread at the same time, to raise enough money to keep going to school. She said she always knew, when school finished “The bread was waiting.” Papa laid eyes on her and it was “love at first sight.” Ah yes, that old chestnut. He did not attend the school, but would go in just to see her. They are together 13 years later, but one gets the sense all is not well.

Finally, when the two kids were off playing, those remaining at the table were Mama and three males. Me, Jorge (host) and the Project Director. I decided to ask the question.
Your husband said that you and he fight a bit. Can I ask what you fight about?”
"He’s seeing another woman.”
Silence. Me: “But he’s married to you?”
Me: Baffled silence. Then: “I’m just trying to understand how that works.”
This was “poverty of family" come alive right before my eyes.

Questions go round in the head. Scenarios, solutions. The reality that she couldn’t really leave him at this point even if she wanted to (not that that would be the solution), because he’s the one financially contributing to the family, and selling tortillas is not going to provide for two children.

I look at Mama. She is strong, patient and understanding. I would also add brave and courageous for sharing it with us. Three males, two of whom she’s only just met.
But it’s a testimony to the trust she has in the Project Director, who’s built a relationship with the family over the five years they’ve been involved with the Compassion Project.
It’s a testimony to the trust she has in me, her daughter’s sponsor, who speaks words of love and encouragement into her life, and loves them enough to travel halfway round the world to see them and BE WITH them.
It’s a testimony to her trust in Jorge, who has been much more than a translator for me. He also considers himself to be an advocate for Compassion, and does a standout job of connecting with families he’s just met.

I am fighting for my marriage for the sake of my children; setting an example for them.” I learned that Mama’s parents were in the same situation. This “poverty of family” is a generational thing in
El Salvador, but Mama is determined it will stop here.

With God’s help and Compassion’s support, it can. But there is one more step they need to take. Older Bro listed his favourite Project activity as “learning about God”. Katherine, being a life-loving, enthusiastic six-year-old, loves everything about the Project, especially the God-stuff – singing songs and learning the Bible. However, neither Mama or Papa have fully committed themselves to the church or to Jesus. Yet. That is the Great Unknown. Or, depending on how you look at it, with their two kids being cared for like they are with Compassion, the Great Inevitable.

I’m not suggesting that by becoming Christians all their marriage problems will instantly disappear. Being “perpetually single”, I’m no expert on marriage, but I’m pretty safe in saying that marriage requires hard work on both sides. Papa has a decision to make in regards to committing completely to his wife.

However, the first thing I thought of when I got in the car after saying goodbye was the incredible contrast between the two families I visited in the last two days. Both families live in
El Salvador. Both families have children sponsored and supported through Compassion. Both families are in economical and living situations which are not real flash (hooray for understatements).

Here’s the difference: In Rosa’s home (the one visit so far where I have gone away with my heart completely full and joyous) I felt love, joy, peace, dreams, positive ambitions and contentment. This is due to one simple fact: They are a committed Christian family with a incredible faith and trust in God to provide for them, and are part of a church community. That’s where their Hope lies.

And that’s what I believe is missing from Katherine’s family. Mama and Papa both love their kids, but when the marriage is not strong, the family disintegrates. And trying to fix broken relationships is the sort of problem that if you try in your own strength, you will fail. If they really want to solve their conflicts in a way that won’t lead to a continuation of the “poverty of family”, they need to commit their lives, marriage and family to Jesus.

If I had not come to visit, I would not have known any of this. In such a short time, we went deep. I had the courage to ask hard questions, and Mama had the courage to answer them. I am now better equipped to pray, and trust that God will work in the lives of the family. The final decision lies with them.

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