Bishop John Arnold visits our friends in Puentecitos.

In November 2016, the Chair of CAFOD, Bishop John Arnold, visited El Salvador and Nicaragua. The last stop of his 10-day programme was to visit our friends in Puentecitos. These are some of his reflections.

Chair of CAFOD, Bishop John Arnold visits Connect2 El Salvador
Closing ceremony of the women’s workshop

We set off for a day in the rural area of Guaymango in the Department of Ahuachapan. It was about a two-hour journey to the West, almost to Guatemala. The good roads lasted until just a few miles from Guaymango and the last couple of miles were really nothing more than a single track of unmade road.

The scenery, however, was magnificent with mountains and volcanoes dominating the plain which stretched across to the ocean, which was clearly visible. Everything here is green and manages to remain so for most of the year. Agriculture is the basis of all livelihoods here though factories and assembly plants are increasingly present, together with small hotels which are hoping to see an increase in the tourist trade, particularly for what is apparently excellent surfing. This part of El Salvador was not so much directly affected by the war (1980-92) but many young men here were “pressed” into the army. The area has suffered in recent years by the increasing control of gangs.

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We arrived in a hilltop village to attend the closing session of a year’s workshop for women. It is all too evident that this society has been and continues to be “macho” with little regard for the role and rights of women. The CAFOD partners here, Solidarity CVX, have been working to eradicate domestic violence and reinforce women’s rights. The women in this group were giving testimonies about how their lives have been transformed by the course and how some of them had been virtual prisoners in their homes with no choice or decision and no access to means of making money. The project now promotes no less than 38 different trades among the women. The Cooperative began with 70% men and 30% women. It is now 70% women. There is a fully functioning credit system, and plenty of training provided for members wishing to begin a trade of their own. At this final meeting certificates and prizes were distributed and a lunch provided which included slabs of highly decorated cake.

Bishop John meets Fidel and his family

For some years I have had meetings in one of the conference rooms at Romero House (CAFOD’s Headquarters in London) where there is a lovely picture on the wall of a beautiful and smiling family. Today I met them! Fidel Ramos and his family were in the photograph in London. His wife, Julia, and two eldest daughters were at the meeting and instantly recognizable – along with a little boy and girl who have since been born. Two other boys and a girl were waiting for us later, as we visited their home. The house is a self-built shack but is spacious enough. They live surrounded by their animals and most of the animals, including tiny chickens, dogs, cats and piglets roam around the living space completely at peace with one another. The covered living space was without walls and a little cramped because they had stacked 140 sacks of corn there – the good harvest. The job for the whole family during the school summer holidays which have just begun will include the shaving of the sweet corn from the husks by hand.

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While it was so good to meet the family that I have seen for years, it was a joy to see them together, all with gentle smiles and a great love within the family which was tangible. Fidel is the local catechist and the community has just finished the shell of a new chapel – about four times the size of the one that they had before. It will need more work, and decoration but the little group that met us there were so proud of their achievement. The “Director” of Social outreach is a simple farmer but he says that he organises work to be done for a local family who might be ill. There are some widows who need help with the harvest and he compiles a rota. If someone is ill then he ensures that there is someone to cook for that family and look after any children. I think this is exactly what Pope Francis would recognise as the social outreach of “missionary disciples”! The liturgical secretary is Carlos, an accomplished young man with his guitar. He happens to have been blind from birth.

There are a lot of images collecting in my mind as this trip comes to an end. I was suddenly aware yesterday – as always happens to me on a CAFOD trip – that I have reached the furthermost edge and the elastic band can be stretched no further. That happened in the house of the lovely Ramos family. What a great privilege to be there, in a typical home in the hinterland of El Salvador. Although so simple, the house was welcoming and the family content with what they have. When I asked about what they might be striving to achieve or to have, the answers were all about their Faith and their family.

It is always good to see the very practical work of the cooperatives, where people are learning the skills that make them independent and give them some economic security. It seems a particular tragedy here that, while the Catholic Church is so important to so many people, there is a very disruptive and unjust “macho” structure to many families.

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