Mission in a time of Coronavirus

Ok, so first there needs to be a summary of time between my last post (about Nov. 30), and now. Here goes:

While in New York, saw three independent factors coming together: Political crisis in Bolivia, struggles feeling ‘useful’ in ministry, and concerns over my body’s inability to adjust to high altitude suggested a re-considering of my location.

Decision was made to transfer to San Salvador. Visited Chicago to check in at the school I taught at (who had been praying for peace in Bolivia since October). Went home to Minnesota for Christmas. Returned to Bolivia in early January to properly say good bye and collect belongings. Flew to El Salvador on Jan. 17, and have been here since. More detailed post on all of that to follow (I hope).

And then this damn virus. Yes, I’ve been exploring and starting to accompany a ministry in these last two months (more on that later/in another post). But now everything is at a halt – some physical distancing and other measures have been taken, but I must say that seems to be moving slowly here. About two weeks ago, El Salvador implemented a mandatory quarantine for 30 days upon foreigners entering the country, which later was extended to citizens as well.

(Above) Interior of Iglesia El Rosario, San Salvador.

On Thursday, March 19, all commercial centers were ordered closed; as were maquilas (“sweatshops”) and call centers (customer service contractors), leaving more than 100,000 people immediately out of work. On March 21 the president was reportedly considering implementing something of a ‘shelter-in-place’ order in which supermarkets, banks, and pharmacies will evidently stay open. The mayor’s office in San Salvador has begun work to establish 118 tombs in the cemetery for any deaths. as of today, March 27, El Salvador has 13 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with at least 2,000 persons in quarantine centers. A “State of Exception” has been approved, giving the executive powers to suspend constitutional rights. A move that in principle I agree with, but, in light of his recent action involving the military and the legislature, is at the same time alarming.

As cases rose in the US, the news of course made it here to El Salvador. when the quarantine at the airport was implemented and some started wondering if we needed to start social distancing, many were resistant to it. This is the point of departure for this post.

One of the eight ‘core values’ of Maryknoll Lay Missioners is “Building Bridges with the US Church”; encouraging – indeed calling – missioners to share our experiences with the Church in the US. But certainly mission is a two-way street – often those from the ‘first world’ walk into mission with the idea that they will serve, and are shocked/surprised/uncomfortable/even guilty when they are served or feel as though they are gaining so much more than they are giving. What could we give to each other in this time of universal Lent (both ‘universal’ and ‘lenten’ in so many ways…)?

The current global health crisis with COVID-19 – well, let me back up. There was a global health crisis going on before this; it’s just that now those who are typically shielded from catastrophe and the unknown have had catastrophe thrust (or coughed and sneezed) upon them. In places like El Salvador, the precariousness now visiting people in the US is present everyday. Get bitten here by the wrong mosquito, you contract Dengue fever, Chikungunya, or Zika (remember that?!). Give the CDC’s COVID server a break and check out those pages instead!

Eat the wrong food, or drink spare water from old ‘agua cristal’ jugs sitting next to the shower, and you can contract dysentery – still a thing; it’s not just a figment of our memories of “The Oregon Trail.” And yes, I do know from experience!

Might there be a chance in all of this to reflect on global inequity – especially in healthcare – and how much of a crap-shoot that makes life in an area (like here in El Salvador) where people don’t have access to clean, regular running water and are now told to wash their hands frequently? That is “normal” for many under-developed nations on earth.

(above right) Mural by youth in the canton “La Florida” against the privatization of water.

As we, in and from the developed world, ask about when will things return to ‘normal’, are we sure ‘normal’ is the place to which we want to – or should – return; at least completely?

Alongside – or maybe the other side of – the uncertainty and catastrophe staring down the US now, there is an unintended gift in that for us here: the gift of time. Because of the fact this virus spread faster in the US and Europe*, places in Latin America have been able to see and study those patterns and enact measures accordingly. Oftentimes disasters just happen here, and because so many live ‘on the edge’ in poverty, they’re pushed over the edge because there’s no time to prepare, or no money to buy what’s needed to do so.
*I would mention Asia, but there’s a lot more circulation of persons between here and the US/Europe than here and Asia; and it was that data from Italy, Spain, and the US that moved governments in the region to act.

Is it ‘fair’ that these realities exist and played out this way? Of course not. Just? Hardly. Many of the reasons why El Salvador (and surrounding nations) are impoverished lay in decisions and policies made by the US government during the Cold War; for example, funding and supporting the Salvadoran military with hardware during a 12-year civil war from 1980-1992, when the opposition was ready to negotiate within the first year. Did any of us reading this personally make that decision? Probably not.** We didn’t ask for this virus to visit our shores, either; nor did we personally decide to travel when we were sick; and yet we’re being asked to ‘pay’ for those realities. Maybe this virus is a chance to re-evaluate the ways we live that – at one and the same time, though unintentionally – rob the poor in places like El Salvador of the care needed; indeed of a basic, dignified human existence. Maybe this is a chance to finally realize how connected we are – and freaking ACT ON IT – instead of barfing out one more platitude about “uniting together to overcome this” that just seems like the right thing to say/makes ourselves less uncomfortable in the face of suffering. Now that we’re suffering in ways we usually think to be far away from us, I’d argue we don’t have the choice. Do I have concrete suggestions? No, but I’d suggest looking at the person of Jesus; who didn’t ask any questions, make political excuses, or justify inaction with laws when caring for the sick and outcast.

**William Walker, et al., if you’re reading this, I’m flattered; please give me a call. There’s an event involving Jesuit priests in 1989 that I’d like to discuss. (Mr. Walker was the US Ambassador to El Salvador 1988-1992.)

I began writing this on March 21 (Saturday) in the afternoon, and above, I hinted at the possibility of further quarantine measures. Now, I’m writing on the simple back patio of my host’s home where I expect to be spending a lot of time in coming weeks – because we have been placed under an absolute quarantine for the next 30 days. No one is to leave their houses for a month, with exceptions for workers deemed essential. There is also an exception for buying groceries – which I’ve learned means one person per household on two days a week, an ID must be carried, as well as a receipt from the purchase, and even a utility bill to prove to police and military checkpoints that you live nearby. Unlike other shelter-in-place orders, such as those in Chicago, there is no allowance (at least at this time) for going outside to exercise while maintaining distance from others. Has that stopped some of us from going out within our residencial (gated neighborhood – they all are) to “get tortillas” from the woman down the street (read: walk around the block)? I’ll answer that by asking: what you would do after being cooped up for a week?

My initial response to the national quarantine (though I knew some kind of restriction was coming) probably should not be repeated verbatim in this format; but suffice it to say that I was not pleased. I felt like freedom was being taken away (of course it is), and I only pray that I can weather the psychological storm that is ahead being quarantined, in a foreign country; one where I was just beginning to find friends, explore work, and settle into a more regular routine. But, I do have hope that the fact this government started taking these precautions with 3 confirmed cases, that El Salvador’s curve may turn sharply to the right and flatten in comparison to the US. Right now, this is what uniting together means – giving up our personal freedom to give ourselves the collective best shot we can have to keep infected cases manageable. To date (March 27), no Salvadorans have died from COVID-19 within the nation’s borders. One did die in New York City, and so gets counted in that city’s grim tally.

The option of returning to the US was presented before all of us, and is one that I declined for the time being. Another ‘topsy turvy’ reality is that I can say something that I never thought I’d say with respect to El Salvador: I currently feel safer here than in the US! There’s a lower risk of contracting COVID-19 here (at least now), entering into a US airport now – as I see it – is almost guaranteed to result in contraction of the virus, and there is a good chance I would not be able to return to El Salvador for a few months. And that last fact, is the main reason why I will stay as long as I can. Transitioning into and out of mission life is difficult – and I’ve done transitions like that three times since November: once when I returned (unexpectedly) to the US then; again when I returned to Bolivia for one week to say goodbye; and then to adjust to life in El Salvador. If I was to leave now for more than a couple of weeks, I doubt I could successfully transition back into life here. Because I don’t have plans to visit the US until this Christmas anyway, I’m banking that nine months is enough time to let this virus subside – to let the curve flatten – and be able to come back to the US and return to El Salvador safely. (but who knows what could happen between now & then.) In the meantime, please pray for the safety of all of our missioners worldwide, and take care not only of yourselves, but all of your family and friends – in other words, stay away from each other. Go out to get food and pharmaceuticals, go out for walks around the block/farm, but other than that, STAY THE HELL HOME!

Meanwhile, enjoy a few images from my first few weeks here:
(descriptions below – still can’t get wordpress to let me put in captions!)

Top to bottom:
1) Sometimes mission starts with the basics!

2) A lovely ceramic plate/paten in the popular art style of Fernando Llort, Salvadoran artist. The plate encompasses Jewish, Christian, and Mayan traditions: the twelve tribes of Israel are represented by the outside ring of houses, the twelve pyramids below them represent the twelve Apostles, and the Mayan culture is incorporated in the overall layout with the addition of figures between the Israelite tribes & Apostles, and the pyramid with Eye in the center.

3) Hipster Romero. Enough said.
Well, actually these busts are all over the place, and many have ‘glasses’ that were affixed on the ceramic and then painted over – others are without glasses, thus giving the people of a given parish the chance to add their own old pairs of glasses to Monsenor. In either case, they are almost universally too small for the head!

4) Alejandro, Office manager / ray of sunshine at Maria Madre de Los Pobres parish, shows me how to work the computer (read: play video games).

5) “Farmacia Dios Sana” = Healthy God pharmacy. I certainly hope so.

One thought on “Mission in a time of Coronavirus”

  1. Joe, thanks for your powerful piece. The one thing Corona is giving us is a different perspective on life and values. Your comment about being safer in El Salvador than in Chicago is a clear testament to that. Values in the western/1st world are being completely shaken. We can no longer do what we want or have what we want…not a bad thing at all. Our lockdown continues and is being enforced stringently. Louie Gonzales, father of Tommy Gonzales, NDCP ‘14 & big football star, has become the 1st victim close to any of us in the “safe and sheltered” northwest side/suburbs. Also, no public Liturgies of any kind for Holy Week, Triduum or Easter Sunday… something else that makes the message clear. In my lifetime, I can only compare it to the polio epidemic of the early’50s in terms of total fear of the unknown…but then, along came Dr Salk and his vaccine. I pray that the Salvadoran government is doing what it can to stockpile medical necessities. Failure to do that here or in Western Europe has cost thousands of lives already. Despite it all, have a blessed Easter. Keep you beautiful words flowing. All the best,

    Dan McCarthy🙏🙏🙏

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