|Posted by H. Mark Smith on September 3, 2014 at 1:35 PM||comments (1)|
“He has shown you, O mortal what is good, And What does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
Throughout the youth conference this verse was a key part in our worships, reflections, and our discussions. Throughout the week I thought about what this question and it’s answers mean and how they apply to the world and my role in it. Soon over the course of the week through discussion, prayer, and life changing experiences did I understand what Micah is telling us when he says to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.
The first requirement that I began to understand is how to act justly. Throughout the week through discussion, historical tours, and a human rights workshop we learned more about justice and human rights. I learned more about how vast human rights are and how easy it can be to violate a person’s human rights. We learned about human rights in our communities, El Salvador, and our world. I learned about the tragic and violent past of El Salvador and the numerous horrifying human rights violations that occurred. El Salvador is a resurrection country because out of their violent past the people of El Salvador have worked together towards justice and peace. To me this served as a perfect example as to how God is calling us to act justly. God is calling us to rise up against the violations of the past and work towards justice and equal human rights through united leadership, peace, and human rights education. Through this I believe we can lead the movement to equal human rights that humanity demands and deserves.
On our mission trip and this year with our projects with YLA we have focused on making that change in the world through loving mercy. Activism is something I have focused on this past year and this trip. One of the main reasons why I went on this trip was because I wanted to see activism and people loving mercy throughout the world and I did. I was inspired by young people rising up and organizing themselves in their community and country to fight rights violations or problems that they face. From saving kids from gang violence, teaching and raising leaders in schools and communities, fighting for women's’ reproductive rights, to educating youth about politics, I constantly people loving mercy and doing God’s work in this world. When we went to church at San Francisco during the sermon the priest talked about how the church isn’t just in the walls of the church it’s in the streets of the world. His words stayed with me throughout the week because it resonated with the work of this past year and the main goals of this mission trip. I realized that the physical is not the church itself. The church is a loving group of Christians dedicated to going out into the world and doing God’s work. The physical church is our school where we come together to worship and learn how to do this work in the world. When I reflected on these moments throughout the week I realized that to me one of the most important things in the world that I love doing and that I must do is to love mercy.
Throughout the week I was inspired by the many people and organizations loving mercy but I was not only inspired by their work but by they did it. All of the activists and organizations were so inspiring because all of them did amazing work humbly. One activist and organization which humbly does their work is Mosés and the Solidarity Leaders. Solidarity Leaders is a group much like YLA in which they run a program in schools called Jaguars. The Jaguars meet every Saturday and the Solidarity Leaders teach them leadership skills. The Solidarity Leaders to me are very humble because even though they don’t have alot of funds or a real office, they still are passionate and enthusiastic about their work and do alot of great work in their community. Mosés is a solidarity leader and like the organization he works with he is also very humble. When I first met Mosés he was very welcoming and was very energetic and enthusiastic about his work. When we visited the jaguars his eyes lit up and was even more energized. I could tell that he has invested countless number of hours to this organization even though he is a volunteer like all of the other solidarity leaders. The fact that he had given so much for this amazing community was simply humbling. The story of Mosés and the Solidarity Leaders is to me a powerful example of how change and activism should be done. Humbly. When I reflect on my mission trip and this verse I realize that these 3 requirements are the foundation and tools needed for change. It is up to us to take this new knowledge learned and follow our God’s call for work to change the world.
|Posted by H. Mark Smith on August 18, 2014 at 1:35 PM||comments (0)|
So now, sadly, we are leaving El Salvador and returning to the US. This has been one of the best weeks of my life and I’ve had a blast the whole time I’ve been here. I think this trip has changed my perspective on the world, since this is the first time I’ve visited a culture that was completely different than my own. I now realize how sheltered we are from the violence that occurs in other countries, like how 30% of El Salvador is controlled by gangs, which explains why so many people go to extreme measures just to try to get to the US. I also feel that after seeing all the youth groups in El Salvador, we need to focus more on having youth as leaders in our communities, because in many Salvadoran communities, almost all youth participate as leaders, but in the US only a small percent of youth do so. I’ve also really enjoyed using my Spanish skills to translate for others who don’t know it as well. But overall, this has been a great trip that has given me a new perspective and I hope to someday return to El Salvador because it is a beautiful country full of wonderful and welcoming people.
|Posted by H. Mark Smith on August 18, 2014 at 1:35 PM||comments (0)|
Before coming to El Salvador I had been told that this trip will change my outlook on life, and it has. Before we traveled I had a certain mindset (Don’t set any expectations for the trip, keep an open mind and try to participate in everything). With this mindset I believe the quality of the mission trip for me was increased.
The first community we had visited called Lourdes. In Lourdes I saw children with cut trash bags and with those they had created kites. I was moved. If that was me I probably wouldn’t have used the trash bag for any purpose other than trash, but these children were extremely creative and they had a great time while using their kite. Witnessing this helped me rethink some of the things I own: instead of throwing something away or putting it to the side why not reinvent it, give it a new purpose. Secondly in Lourdes Samuel Gould told me about how people in Lourdes were connected in a barter system. In a system like this everyone in the community has to have built trust in each other, with trust comes a sense of love and great friendship.
The next community we visited was the community of Sonsonate. Sonsonate was a very hospitable community, just like Lourdes. Upon arrival we had gathered in a large group and we did various activities. One of the activities was to pass a soccer ball balanced on your shins without dropping the ball; if the ball is dropped the person who drops the ball has to tell an embarrassing story about themselves. At first the Salvadoran youth didn’t want to tell an embarrassing story when the ball was dropped but after a few YLA youth had dropped the ball and told their embarrassing stories, soon enough the Salvadorans felt comfortable with our group and shared their embarrassing stories. About 45 minutes YLA participated in a making pupusas. Naking the pupusas was really fun; after we made the pupusas we had played a game of soccer with mix of younger kids and youth from Sonsonate. In our soccer game the goals on one side were two trees and on the other side was a rock and a tree stump. The soccer game we played was extremely fun, even though we didn’t have actual soccer goals. After our game our pupusas that we made were quite delightful. The pupusas were so good that if I ate pupusas for the rest of my life I wouldn’t get sick of them.
A couple days later we traveled to the Youth Encounter. The Youth Encounter was my favorite experience of the whole trip. During the Youth Encounter we were reunited with youth from Lourdes and Sonsonate, also we had met a new community from Ulutan. The youth from Ulutan were a bit shyer than the other groups, but before we knew it we ended up having a great time. During the Youth Encounter I led a dance class for the whole entire Youth Encounter participants. When it was requested of me to teach the dance I expected that only a few people would understand the dance because of the language barrier, but everyone performed the dance exceptionally after I taught it in a short period of time. In the beginning of the Youth Encounter we had separated into three different groups called districts (based off the movie “Hunger Games”;); I was assigned to district three, our district had the opportunity to visit a radio station. Before we visited the radio station we had met with the staff and volunteers of the station. Their radio station faced multiple conflicts before finally successfully airing in March of 2013. The station has many volunteers who work very hard just to help a cause that they believe in. Unfortunately the majority of the volunteers live nowhere near the station; many of the volunteers walk 2-3 hours just to help out. Hearing this moved me knowing that people walked that far on a daily basis just to volunteer. After we met, Mariana and I received the opportunity to discuss YLA on a live radio station; meanwhile the rest of district 3 toured the town and met the mayor of the town. Afterwards we created pictures for the radio mural.
To close off the trip we went to a resort which featured a great beach, saltwater pool, chlorine pool and a great restaurant. After lunch a majority of YLA went down to the beach. The beaches in El Salvador have very intense waves and riptides, which is the perfect recipe for a great time at the beach. We had also had a wet-sand war which was extremely fun and enjoyable, even though I still have some sand in my hair flying back to Boston.
The Youth Leadership Academy was an amazing experience for me. I feel as if the YLA members went from complete strangers to family within a year. YLA has helped me with multiple things such as public speaking. Before YLA whenever I had to speak in front of a large group of people I would get nervous but now I feel fully confident to speak publicly. From our mission trip I have developed a greater appreciation for life, family, friends, advantages, and my education. Many kids in El Salvador had quite a few disadvantages whether it was a loss of a parent or a money issue etc…, Seeing this inspires me to help out with El Salvador or countries similar in the future and to take full advantage of what I receive in the U.S. and to be more grateful for everything that is provided for me. YLA is one of the best things I have done in my life while I am extremely glad that I participated in this program I am also sad that our great year is coming to an end. I hope the best for my fellow YLAers and their families I appreciate each and every one of you. Adios!
|Posted by H. Mark Smith on August 18, 2014 at 1:20 PM||comments (1)|
Well, my week in El Salvador is over. Looking back on it, I can certainly say that my view on the world has been transformed. Although I don’t think I went to El Salvador with a mindset, I am leaving with one. I could write on forever about what I learned and what I saw, but I feel that it is important to express what I felt.
I felt included and important. The youth that I met opened their hearts to me, and that brings on an emotion I cannot put into words. The stories I heard and the articles I read about this country do not do it justice. El Salvador is so much more than the NPR stories and the tales passed on by veteran YLAers. This place changes people. El Salvador is not just the violence that children are fleeing from. It isn’t just the country of Oscar Romero. This country has persevered and struggled through so much. You can’t see the civil war in the people, only in the things left behind. What you can see is the hope for a better nation. The people there do so much to better their country. I have learned about my rights as a human being, and how they are often violated (even in my community). Through the youth encounter I have seen people my age in action, taking charge of their lives and working to improve their community. My Spanish has surely improved, and I realized that a language barrier is not rock-solid. I actually found myself listening to a story in Spanish and comprehending it! This country has been such a learning experience for me, and I am looking forward to the next opportunity to come back.
Thank you, El Salvador.
|Posted by H. Mark Smith on August 18, 2014 at 1:20 PM||comments (0)|
I have learned so many things from my trip to El Salvador. One of the things is that not everything is so black and white. What you hear before you come to El Salvador is that the people are very violent and to be cautious, but my experience was much different. All the people that I met were so friendly and welcoming. Hearing a new perspective from the Salvadorian youth really changed of what I had thought before. The youth that we met with really wanted to change their country and have safer communities. I really enjoyed talking and just hanging out with the Salvadorian youth. Another thing I have learned on my trip is about human rights. The director of the Cristolsal Foundation came to do a workshop on human rights. He explained the importance of human rights and how some people do not recognize others’ human rights. During the trip we had three youth activists from various organizations come in and talk about what they do. The one that I found interesting was the organization promoting women’s rights. As a feminist this caught my attention. The women talked about how in El Salvador there is a law that criminalizes abortion. She told several stories about women who had gone to jail or is still in jail because of this law. The story that really moved me was the story about a girl who had a miscarriage and was put in jail because the doctor thought she had an abortion. The women spent 17 years in jail because of it. This story really moved me because of how unjust that is and how these women are being falsely accused.
|Posted by H. Mark Smith on August 18, 2014 at 1:10 PM||comments (0)|
Change, it’s something that scares all of us because you never know if the outcome will be better or worse than before. This week though, I learned to accept change with open arms because change is why this trip was so successful. Instead of worrying about my Spanish, I gave it a try and used what I knew and asked for help when needed. I was willing to change the way I look at life. I knew from what I’d heard that this week would change me and flip my world upside down. However, change wasn’t in the places I expected it to be. It happened during conversations and challenges. This trip ensured me that I love to be Christian and that I love to interact with people. Venturing into El Salvador taught me many things. I learned about a community that welcomes you in regardless of what the news says about your country, where you from or even if you’re just a stranger.
A big part of this week for me was proving the news wrong. The United States gets a reputation of only wanting materials and being blonde hair, blue eyed and tall. Salvadorans have a stereotype of short, dark with dark eyes. I got the pleasure of working with a tall guy with bright colored eyes. He worked with a short girl with brown hair and brown eyes. Maybe we aren’t all that different. We both broke our stereotypes. The news also talks a lot about El Salvador being very violent and a place to stay away from. You hear about kids crossing into the US to live the “American Dream” when in reality it has nothing to do with the American Dream. These kids are fleeing from gang neighborhoods. This week YLA and the Salvadorans took a hammer and knocked down the stereotypes, the bias news stories, and language barriers. This week filled me with knowledge you don’t find in books at the library.
One last thing I’d like to add. At one of my fundraisers a lady I didn’t know gave me a donation and said, “When you go on a mission trip you’re going to learn something about yourself, GOD, and the group you are with.”
On the plane ride home I thought about this and this is what I’ve come up with:
El Salvador is where I discovered who I am. I’ll be back there in the future and I can say that for a fact. It’s nice to be on the way back home and please ask me any questions you have or stories you want to hear.
|Posted by H. Mark Smith on August 18, 2014 at 1:05 PM||comments (0)|
Sitting on the plane to Miami postponing my Subway sandwich until after I’ve written this, it’s still hard to think that our trip has come to an end. The days have felt long, yet the week so short; I believe I can speak for everyone by saying that we wouldn’t have minded staying another week. During this trip we’ve learned so many things, but there is one story/activity that has stood out to me the most: The Change and Use of Power. In this activity we became animals which, based on size and strength, either had more or less power than other groups. I started as a cat. After closing my eyes and finding my partner, I decided to switch to become a dog. At this point we had: 1 horse, 1 rooster, 4 dogs, 3 cats, and 2 wolves. Since there were only one horse and rooster, we proposed our reasons for wanting to adopt them into our groups. We (the dogs) wanted the rooster so that we could wake up in the morning, the cats wanted the rooster as a friend, and the wolves wanted the rooster to be their ‘eye in the sky’. We didn’t have much of a reason to want the horse but the cats wanted him as another friend while the wolves wanted the horse so they could eat him. You see: the wolves hadn’t eaten in two weeks, so they needed food. After hearing our proposals, both the rooster and the horse joined the cats. Now we had 4 dogs, 5 cats, and 2 wolves.
This is where things get interesting. Unbeknownst to us until this point, there are two wishes to be granted. Now there were three groups but only two wishes: this is a problem. The wolves, being the smallest group, were automatically given a wish. They picked one, but it wasn’t announced to the group. That left one wish between us and the cats. We had two options: fight for it or negotiate (we both had to decide on one wish and it would be granted to all of us). Because we were dogs (and dogs are stronger than cats) we chose to fight for it, being that the only way we could get it. We knew that if we fought we would win. The cats, on the other hand, wanted to negotiate. Now, the wolves still haven’t eaten, and they're stronger than both the cats and dogs, so they had to choose which group to eat. After rethinking and reevaluating the situation, we decided to negotiate with the cats. We, as one group (excluding the wolves) talked and realized that if we together would become stronger than the wolves, then they would not be able to harm us. So our wish was for both groups to become lions.
As lions, we were stronger and bigger than the wolves. The wolves could no longer harm us. When we decided that we wanted to retaliate against the wolves and attack, their wish was revealed: they were werewolves. So, being that it was day, they were now humans. As humans, they also had weapons such as guns. Most of us still wanted to fight the werewolves even though we knew that there would be casualties. Then the person who had before been the horse and almost the meal of the wolves, decided to switch over as a lion to protect to wolves from harm and keep peace. I followed. So now it was 7 lions against 2 lions and 2 werewolves. From this standpoint we were equal in strength. This is where the activity ended.
It made me and everyone else in the group, wonder why someone who would’ve been killed by someone later go and protect them. When we asked him, he said that he wanted peace: he didn’t want to fight the dogs; he switched into a lion so that the wolves wouldn’t hurt us; and then he switched to protect the werewolves when we were threatening revenge. This activity made me see the change of power, the abuse of power, and the use of power create peace. It reminded me of the Salvadoran military during their Civil War and their abuse of power through massacres and assassinations. Talking later with our sub-groups for YLA, we decided that since we saw the misuse of power, we wouldn’t go and abuse it as leaders. This is something I am taking home with me from El Salvador.
|Posted by H. Mark Smith on August 18, 2014 at 1:00 PM||comments (1)|
Before this amazing trip I was at home living my sheltered little life. I’d never been on a plane before, and I’d never ventured farther away from home than New York. The only knowledge I had about the outside world came from the internet or the news. However, the internet and the news often lack a lot of knowledge.
What the news never told me is how great most of the country of El Salvador is. The communities we visited had the most welcoming people I’ve ever met. They were very hospitable and overall glad to have us there. The youth were all very shy at first, but after the first day or two we all really connected and enjoyed our time together. Even though I knew very little Spanish and the Salvadorans knew almost no English, we still talked to each other and found common interests. I can honestly say that I made a few really cool friends this week.
Back at home we hear about the wars in different countries. We also hear about the other brutal things that happen to the civilians before, during and after the wars. It’s sad to think about the many lives that have been lost in El Salvador alone. It also breaks my heart to think about the people (especially youth) that try to come into the USA as refugees, and to think that my new friends might have to go through this.
When we learned about the awful things that had happened in El Salvador I couldn’t imagine living in fear of my life or my loved ones’ lives being taken away. No one should ever have to live with this incredible fear. But when we first met the Salvadoran youth I didn’t see that fear. They seemed just like normal kids that liked the same things as us, but just spoke a different language. It was then that I realized that these people are just happy and grateful for the things that they do have.
This trip was truly inspiring to me. Meeting the youth changed my outlook on the ways I choose to live. The Salvadorans choose to live in the moment. They spend as much time with their family as possible. They use things that we would normally overlook (such as an empty soda bottle as a soccer ball) to have fun. So why can’t I? Why can’t I put down my phone and go for a hike with my family? Why can’t I go to school and then come home to help my mother prepare for dinner? Why can’t I use an empty soda bottle as a soccer bottle?
Well… I CAN!! And I will. Seeing these kids who are the same age as me so happy to be alive and healthy with a great family made me realize that I can do these things because we all have the ability to put aside the negative thoughts and build up a statue of positive ones. Good leaders have this quality, and I saw it in all of the Salvadoran youth that I met. So when I get off this plane I’m going to be the leader that we all have the capability to be. I’m not going to take what I have for granted. I’m going to live in the moment, because we never know how much time we have on this earth.
|Posted by H. Mark Smith on August 18, 2014 at 8:50 AM||comments (0)|
Coming into this trip, I expected a lot of things. However, I didn’t expect that at the end of the week I wouldn’t want to go home. What began as a foreign country has come to feel like a home to me, just like how a year ago a group of strangers became a family to me. Reflecting on this, I realize that it isn’t the country so much as the people I will miss.
Sitting here in the plane to Miami, it starts to sink in that YLA is over. We all say we’re going to hang out in the future, but at this point it’s inevitable that the group will begin to drift apart. I’ve seen it happen too many times. It’s terrifying, knowing that the group of people who have been my closest friends all year will begin to dissolve. For some of them, I might see them for the last time at the airport tonight.
In many ways, today feels like all the other times my former friends have left me. But deep down, something about it feels different. Like maybe we will stay in touch. Maybe we will talk to each other. Maybe our group won’t fall apart.
Then again, maybe it’s wishful thinking.
|Posted by H. Mark Smith on August 17, 2014 at 10:35 AM||comments (0)|
[Posting this was delayed due to technical difficulties, but we wanted to upload it now for full record of trip.]
Hola! Yesterday was a big day with a lot of moving parts for the Youth Encounter as we all went in different groups to visit various communities and organizations throughout El Salvador.
District 1 comprises Kyle, Kayleigh, Briana, Dr. Don, and Mark went to Arcatao, a community near the Honduran border. There we were met with applause by the youth group there, then brought to a museum they made in memory of a massacre that happened near their community at the Sumpul River. The woman guiding us at the museum told us that people from the community had been fleeing across the river into Honduras to go to refugee camps, and were shot at by both the Salvadoran and Honduran armies. They also told us that if it hadn’t been for the American government sending money and training the Salvadoran soldiers, the Salvadoran government wouldn’t have been able to continue the war for the more than 12 years that they did. The woman guiding us spoke for a long time, and by the time we finished with the museum we were all hot and tired, but we were glad to be able to learn so much. We also learned that some people who couldn’t make it to refugee camps had to live in caves in the mountains, but the town was repopulated in the early 90’s when refugees returned and others came to live there. Afterwards we had lunch, amongst some dogs and a chicken, and afterwards everyone had to wash their own plates, except Dr. Don, who had a nice lady that offered to wash his plate. After lunch, we went to a mural that the youth group had been working on for the past week to cover up graffiti made by gang enthusiasts. They had already drawn beautiful paintings and written bible verses discouraging violence, and they left a panel open for us to fill. We eventually decided to put a bible verse from Micah we have repeatedly read, and we then put our handprints and our names on the wall. We then had a closing discussion and then left for the 3 and a half hour ride back to the Encounter. It was a long ride both ways (we left at 6:30 in the morning and got back at 6:45 in the afternoon,) but we had a great day and enjoyed sharing our experience with everyone else.
District 2 consisted of Mary, Dan, Mila, Avery, Jilleen (honorary member for the day), and other Salvadoran youth. Our breakfast was at 7:00, and we left at 8:30 towards the first destination. We were met by an energetic man named Moses. He led us in a workshop that showed us the change and use of power. In it we became animals who had different levels of strength (pig, dog, wolf, lion). Then we left to go to the school and meet Jaguars (a group of kids learning to become leaders with Moses’ program; it was basically their version of YLA). There we were asked about what we fought with our parents about (for instance: cleaning our rooms, music we listen to, clothes we wear) and realized that we weren’t so different after all. Following that we went to a part of the government district that housed Injule, a company that empowers youth and have even made El Salvador’s first Youth Congress. Driving back we had a lot of free time, so we decided to take an unscheduled trip to a museum where we watched a video about the rebel radio during their Civil War. To conclude the trip, we stopped for ice cream at Pap’s and reflected about the day.
District 3 contained the self-proclaimed best members of the YLA, Abraham, Sarah, Mari, and Alex. After a two and a half hour long bus ride, we met up with the staff and volunteer members of a radio show. Most of these volunteers had to walk two hours to work, and as volunteers they didn’t get paid. We thought this was really inspiring for us. We then explained about what YLA was and our reasons to come to El Salvador to which they were moved. Following our talk, we went uptown into the radio station. We split into two groups: the majority who went and toured around the city, and a select few who were able to talk on the air. Mari, Abraham, Fransisco, and Amilcar were grateful to be able to talk on one of their segments. The group which toured the town got to meet the Mayor but Sam (who was acting as the translator) didn’t get the cue that he was the Mayor, so they didn’t realize it until after the group met up again. Once together, we drew pictures to decorate the radio station. After that we headed home.
Today we closed out the Youth Encounter with a Eucharist, time for many pictures to help remember our new friends, and then went our separate ways, the Salvadorans to their respective communities and the YLA to the beach. We’ve spent the day relaxing and reflecting on what has been an incredible experience.
Stay tuned for personal reflections from each YLA member to hear what they’re taking away from this experience.