June 26, 2009: I wasn’t sure what the next ten days in El Salvador would hold for me, but I was convinced it was going to change my life. While waiting to meet all of the other apprehensive travelers who would be making the trip, I sat down to calm my nerves and settle my mind. Despite the anxiety, my mind drifted to a couple of days before when sitting alone in my dark, abandoned church sanctuary, I cried out to God, desiring to be different. I wanted to see more with my eyes and do more with my hands. I didn’t want this trip to just be a vacation! I wanted to GO out into the world and make a difference. I was raised with godly parents and a pastor who fully supported me, but I truly understood at that point that I had been handed Jesus my entire life. It was now my turn to GO and give Him back to a world that hasn’t been as fortunate as I have been.
I observed the people in the airport come and go as they rushed to meet their family or catch the next flight. The words “you go” kept resounding in my head over and over as I watched. This was AYC’s theme for the entire trip, but at that moment it meant something more to me. I’ve always wanted to travel and show the love of God to the world, but there was always something more to it than just bringing food to the hungry and hugging little children. It was about giving back the blessings that God has given me. It was about loving the unlovable, accepting the unacceptable, and reaching the unreachable.
As the plane was taking off, I couldn’t help but feel as though I was leaving one world and thrusting myself into another one, one that was crippled but also strangely more beautiful because of its weakness. I desperately wanted to just see it for myself. I yearned for change—so much so that I even noticed a difference in the entire atmosphere when I stepped off of the plane in El Salvador. It wasn’t the weather—which was not that much different from the hot and humid weather I am used to in Louisiana—but stepping off the plane, I immediately felt like I was in a whole new world. There was more than just me.
I’ll never forget the bus ride to our hotel. There were three ministers’ wives sitting in the front of the bus, encouraging each other about trusting God and holding on to His promises regardless of life’s circumstances. I knew right then that I’d learn so much about ministry just by being around these amazing women of God. When we finally got to our hotel, everyone crashed into bed and passed out from exhaustion, but I just couldn’t sleep. I remember pacing back and forth in my hotel room at 4:00 AM, wondering who I would meet and what I would do with all my time there. I looked outside my window to see a lit-up city with a few wanderers roaming the streets. I kept my eyes glued to the window for about an hour, because I knew this was exactly where God wanted me to be, and I refused to go home unchanged.
The next day we went into one of the markets of San Salvador. The walls that lined the city streets were completely covered in graffiti, and there was not one building without coiled razor wire on the roof to protect it from thieves and gang members trying to get inside. On almost every corner, a guard or policeman with shotguns and ammunition belts stood guard. The market, when we finally got to see it from the inside, was overwhelming. People were everywhere selling food, clothes, trinkets, and so on. As we walked up and down the street, people came at us from every direction grabbing our arms and trying to get us to buy their products. They would just sit and swat the flies away from their faces and wait for the next person to come walking so they could rush up and beg for more business. I couldn’t help but notice the desperation in their eyes just to have a decent life.
The first church we went to was in Sonsonate. We had about a two-hour drive there, and it was our first chance to really see outside the city of San Salvador. I stared out the bus window, overwhelmed by the beauty of the land. Everything looked so full of life! The trees and grass were so green. Cliffs and mountains lined every distant horizon. The beautiful landscape was littered with tiny shacks held together by almost nothing. A tear fell down my cheek, because I couldn’t help but feel like I could somehow give these people more to live for. My heart broke at the thought of this the entire way to the church, but when I walked out of the bus and onto the street to see the sign “El Faro Iglesia Pentecostal Unida,” I felt like instead of giving, I was about to receive more than I could have ever given. “El Faro” means “The Lighthouse,” and you could feel there was something about the church people that served as a light for the people around them, especially for us. Children were playing and running in the streets, and they greeted us with such enthusiasm, hugging everyone and offering food and chairs. I couldn’t have felt more at home. When the songs started, everyone—young and old—jumped out of their seats and immediately started praising God with every ounce of energy in their bodies. They would sing about ten or fifteen songs and never stop the music once, but no one seemed to care. I had never seen so much passion. Later, at altar call, I went and shook an elder lady’s hand, and I’ll never forget how she pulled me in for a hug and kissed my neck saying over and over again, “Gracias, gracias.” There were people packed everywhere in the altar, kneeling calling out to God. I could barely walk through the front of the church without stepping over someone’s body. That night taught me more about worship and passion than all my years involved in American church.
We visited several churches in the next couple days, and they were all different yet all connected in some way. We were always offered food and treated with uncommon hospitality. Every person there seemed to have a true servant’s heart that is very rare in our American churches. They didn’t think of serving us as a duty or something they should be praised for; to them it was just their reasonable service. For instance, in a church in Centro Vida on a very hot Sunday morning, many people were getting baptized. An elderly lady was terrified to get in the water and started to panic, so a young lady from the church, without hesitation, jumped into the baptismal with her, and held her the whole time she was getting baptized to comfort her. Just moments before during service, this same girl and a few others got up on the stage to read scriptures and greet us. One of them said something to us in Spanish, and then in broken English said the words, “This is your church.” They had never seen us before in their lives, but we were welcomed just like we were lifelong friends. This same church opened up a health clinic and gave care to the sick for only five dollars. They didn’t think twice about the sacrifices of time and money they were giving, because they knew they were here to serve the needs of others. It was their purpose and mission, and every one of them was dedicated to that cause. Every time I would look into the sanctuary, no matter what time of day it was, there was always someone either praying or working and cleaning the building to make it look nice again after service. If we, as a blessed American nation, could grab hold of this selfless attitude, we could bring true revival to the world.
As well as going to city churches, we often went outside of the city into little villages where the people weren’t so fortunate even to have houses that stood on their own. Many of their houses had tin walls that were tied down to keep them from blowing in the wind. In one particular village, the church was rebuilding, because they ran out of space for all their people. I was amazed to see that they were having service in a building that had no windows, no doors, half a roof, and dirt floors. The platform was a wooden box decorated to fit right in the middle of the front of the church, and all the musicians were in one corner. And although the dirt floors were turned into mud because of the rainy season in El Salvador, when Brother Scotty Slaydon was finished preaching to the church in Spanish, almost the entire church ran to the front and fell on their faces before God. Their passion exceeded their need to be comfortable.
We went to one church just outside the city where there weren’t many people. During worship service, I noticed that the worship leader was particularly passionate. She was singing alone, but she was singing so intensely that veins in her forehead were starting to show, and her face was turning red. I was already in a state of admiration when Sister Krista Slaydon leaned over to us and told us that in 2002, a gang walked in the church and attacked and tied the pastor to a chair, then shot him in the roof of his mouth. She then pointed out that the lady leading worship was the same pastor’s daughter, the young man on the keyboard was his son, and the current pastor was his brother. Even after such a tragedy as this, his own family members took up the responsibility of nurturing and leading his church without any bitterness or remorse. This spoke volumes to me, because I know that if it were my father or my pastor, I would have a hard time accepting it so easily. Oh to have a passion like that!
One of the last churches we went to was at the end of a seven-mile hike up a mountain. Pastor Juan Carlos led us as a group up the same trek he made about four times a week. It took us about an hour and a half to walk the steady incline, but he insisted that it took him only twenty minutes each time if he was alone. It seemed like forever until we finally reached the little mountain church, but the smiling faces that were peering at us once we stepped into service made it worth the climb. They were hot and sweaty, and most of them carried a rag of some sort on their shoulders to wipe the pouring sweat off of their faces. We watched as Brother Bruce Howell preached to them, once more in Spanish, and at altar call he asked us to pray with the people that needed the Holy Ghost. I distinctly remember praying for a young girl about the age of fifteen or sixteen and trying to get her to understand the fullness of what the Holy Ghost means, but I couldn’t speak her language so I had to just pray for her in English in her ear. Despite the language barrier, I watched as she cried out in desperation with hot tears rolling down her cheeks. She didn’t know what I was trying to explain, but I know she felt the same power that I felt. After hiking down the mountain, I remember looking out the window, watching them wave as we drove off. At that moment, I knew the El Salvadorian people had stolen a big part of my heart.
At the last church we visited, a nine-year-old boy, Johann was sitting outside. I walked up to him, took a picture with him, and told him that Jesus loves him as best as I could with my terrible Spanish accent. He then latched on to me with a very strong grip, and he didn’t let me go for over an hour while service was going on. When I asked him where his father was, he told me very slowly that he didn’t have one. I just hugged him even more tightly and hoped that he could feel that his Heavenly Father was hugging him too. That moment changed my life!
I came back from El Salvador with lifelong friends, new role models in ministry, and memories that will last forever! However, I took something home with me that was even deeper than all of that. I came home knowing that the world goes beyond my needs and wants. My heart broke at the overwhelming thought of my selfishness, but it wasn’t the hot weather, or the long and tiring mountain hikes that changed me; it was the people’s spirits that showed such an intense passion for worship when they had almost nothing. They weren’t concerned so much with the politics, talent, or programs that we try so hard to produce here. They were simply in pursuit of something greater than themselves. They wanted nothing more than Jesus! There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about those people I left behind in El Salvador, and I may never see them again in this lifetime, but I will always be grateful for the chance they gave me to GO and be changed.