A group of dedicated, long-term volunteers from the South Central Conference of the United Church of Christ is ready for a week of work to help underprivileged people in El Salvador. The Rev. Liz Nash and Beth Gleason, two of the nine mission workers from the conference will work with the Salvadoran people as they build basic housing and revitalize the mountain community of Alegria.
"I went [in previous years] because I have a heart for mission and interfaith work, but I also fell in love with the place," said Gleason. "I fell in love with the people and what we are doing, and it's very UCC-centric – not a top-down [working environment]. We're shoulder-to-shoulder."
Gleason, a seminary student, and Nash, the Brazos Association minister for the South Central Conference, are organizers of this year's mission trip. Nash has gone four years in a row and this will be Gleason's third trip. The group leaves Texas on Saturday, Jan. 25 and returns Feb. 1, spending a week working with the rural poor in the mountains of El Salvador.
The Rev. Tom Neilsen, now pastor at St. Peter UCC in Knauertown, Penn., started the idea 30 years ago when he lived in Texas, making mission trips to Mexico. He continued those trips as a pastor in Wisconsin, forming groups that would make annual visits to Central and Latin America, working with the underprivileged to understand their struggles. A group from Wisconsin made a mission trip to El Salvador earlier this month.
"Sometimes the trips coincide where we go together. Sometimes we go separate, like this year," said Neilsen, who will join the South Central Conference group with his wife, Joan, for his 15th trip to El Salvador since 2000.
"[The mission] has had a life of its own in some sense," Neilsen said. "Some groups and individuals get it, and some don't. For some it's a Boy Scout camp, but that's not what we are trying to do. We are trying to be in solidarity, from a realistic and theological point, in identifying with the people and living with them, and living their plight and becoming their voices here in this country."
The South Central Conference group will fly into El Salvador, rent rooms with basic lodging and buy food locally to keep the costs at a minimum as they support the local economy. Each of the participants must pay their own expenses.
"It's something I had wanted to do for years," Nash said. "The guy we work with, Oscar Rodriguez, his father was a journalist and was killed, and he feels he needs to do this work and keep that alive. I feel a sense of holiness down there, not that it's about worshipping, but it makes us feel good.
"And we're friends with the people in that area now. To be part of that is a privilege and I want to support it."
Nash and Gleason said they've raised about $1,500 to take with them. That money will be spent on the projects and the people of Alegria, used to buy the construction supplies necessary for the projects they work on all week, as well as to hire locals to help them as they lay bricks, mix cement and hang drywall together to build their homes.
When they arrive in Alegria, they'll sort out exactly which projects they'll tackle with their community co-op partners.
"They don't need us to build the houses for them, but it wouldn't be a partnership if we weren't there helping," Nash said.
"Our motto is that we hire in-country tradespeople to supervise us while we work," Gleason said. "The tradespeople hire volunteers and we work together."
In previous years, UCC mission workers have built family houses, a community center, and have done clinical and agricultural work in the community. They've also brought school supplies to the region for children, which they'll do again this year.
"It's amazing to go up there where these kids are in uniform, and they come down these trails down to this school," Nash said. "A lot of them won't go to secondary school because of the long distance."
Nash and Gleason plan to blog the 2014 trip, with daily postings from a tiny internet cafe in Alegria so readers can follow their adventures in mission.