Nearly 1,800 miles from her home in El Salvador, Carmen Diaz smiled as her interpreter Joseph Russ introduced her to a group at Gayton Kirk.
As one of PC(USA)’s 2022 International Peacemakers, Diaz was visiting congregations in the United States to share information about her country and her work building peace in her community. During her one-week visit to Presbytery of the James, she spoke at six events.
A small country on the western coast of Central America, El Salvador is bordered on the north by Guatemala and the east by Honduras. The three are referred to as the Northern Triangle Countries.
Like Guatemala, with which our presbytery has a mission relationship, El Salvador suffers from low economic growth, poverty, violence, and natural disasters that cause its citizens to seek opportunity and safety elsewhere, often in the United States.
The population statistics Diaz shared paint a dire picture. At least one third of households live in poverty. More than half of the population is under 30 years old. Because of issues such as war, immigration, and poor health, few exceed age 60.
Thirty-seven percent of children live without one or both parents. This might be because the parents died, abandoned the family, or migrated.
Diaz lives in the heavily populated municipality of Soyapango, a suburb of the capital city San Salvador. In addition to the challenges facing the country as a whole, Soyapango also has environmental concerns.
“Due to population, commercial, and industrial growth, the municipality has high rates of pollution from industrial waste and sewage,” Diaz said.
Diaz’s church, the Calvinist Reformed Church of El Salvador (IRCES), a PC(USA) partner for more than two decades, works to address the challenges facing the community around them. They focus on projects relating to peacebuilding, food security, evangelism, and migration.
Diaz draws on her training in educational sciences and psychosocial care to help her church’s efforts.
When citizens are deported to El Salvador, they arrive with very little. Government support is minimal. Diaz’s church created a reception room to provide temporary shelter along with food and medical care for those in need. However, they are only able to help a few hundred of the 10,000 people who are deported annually.
While returned Salvadorans come without physical possessions, they often have skills that can be assets to the community. These include trades such as cooking and construction. Without proof of training and experience, though, people face hurdles to finding employment. Community organizations are working to establish programs to certify and license these citizens so that they can find jobs and support themselves.
Involvement in gangs is one of the negative experiences some deported citizens bring to the community. Diaz’s church works to deter young people from gang involvement by offering them alternative activities such as sports and social events. They also help the youth develop skills in conflict resolution and goal setting.
The church is seeing returns on its investment in the outreach. One of the participants stopped extorting money from members of the community after joining the youth program. Another, whose biggest dream had been becoming part of a gang, instead attended law school and now works at city hall.
By sharing stories of their work and witness, peacemakers such as Diaz help us understand peace and justice concerns around the world and provide insights that can inspire us to greater faithfulness. Their visits broaden our sense of God’s inclusive family and help equip us to build a culture of peace and nonviolence for all God’s children.