Learning from Salvadoran Friends

After the 2006 FWCC Section of the Americas meeting in Guatemala, we joined a small group of other U.S. Friends for visits in El Salvador arranged by Emma Espinoza de Víchez. We packed ourselves into a VW bus with eight other people, some leftover food from annual meeting, display materials, and plenty of luggage—not knowing where we were going, where we would stay, or what we would be doing for the next eight days. We placed our faith in Salvadoran Friends and God to guide us.

For most of the time our group stayed in San Ignacio, a small town of several thousand people in the northern part of the state of Chalatenango. San Ignacio has one of only two Friends schools in the country. Throughout the week we volunteered there, mainly helping with exams and teaching a couple of English classes. In the evenings we went to nearby villages to worship. We often learned what we were expected to do as we went. One night we led songs for a group of children; another night our group led a teen service for the youth of San Ignacio. During the evening worship service in La Reina, a smaller town to the south, the congregation asked our group to preach a sermon. We talked generally about the mission of FWCC and the annual meeting we had just attended. Greg also talked about being led to read the Bible: how at the World Gathering of Young Friends he met many Latin American Young Friends who talked passionately about their love for Jesus Christ and the Bible. Their passion moved Greg to read it for himself.

Worship and Language

During the trip it became obvious to us how devoted the Salvadoran Friends were to their religion. Susan Lee writes of the Friends we met there: "Faith is central to Friends’ lives. I do not mean to say that it is an important part of their lives. I mean that their faith and the Religious Society of Friends are the core of who they are and what they do, infused in every aspect of their lives. Their language, their attitudes, their work, social activities, hospitality, community involvement, missions, conversations, and home life are all rooted in their faith in a way that I rarely see in [my] country."

Every conversation seemed to begin and end with the phrase, "Qué Dios te bendiga." Middles were often punctuated by, "Aleluya! Amen!" We came to realize that this was not simply a nice phrase. It was said as a recognition of God’s presence in each other and a recognition of God’s participation in the conversation. It was a wish that each person present would feel God’s involvement after the conversation, worship service, or activity ended.

We have both traveled a lot, but nothing compared to the generosity Salvadoran Friends showed us. Not only did they try to anticipate and fill every need with love and caring, going out of their way to make us comfortable and to make it clear we were loved and welcomed; they did all this with joy. We did not feel like one more burden in their often difficult lives. They gave enthusiastically, and they gave with joy; they wanted to share with their family of Friends. That’s just what Christians do.

Visiting these Friends made us consider how we used words within Quakerism and our liberal FGC tradition. Several times Salvadoran Friends asked Greg about his mission or they called him a missionary. The word "missionary" has held very bad connotations for him because of his work on the Pine Ridge Reservation and his knowledge of conditions in mission schools there and on other reservations. These missions did much good, but often children were separated from their Native culture, forbidden to speak in their Native tongue, and forced to cut their hair. Greg has even cringed when friends from different religions would tell him about their desire to be a missionary for their faith tradition. Over the past couple years other Quakers from different countries have called him a missionary. After spending a lot of time thinking about the word and its connotations, he began to like people calling him a missionary. To him, it now means that people see how he is trying to live out his faith in his own life. After a lot of discernment, he wants to reclaim the word from people who use religion to repress others and give it a truer meaning, something that has to do with following one’s faith in everything a person does—and with the hope that others will follow a similar path.

One night our hosts asked us when we became evangelicals. We looked at each other, then at our hosts, and we frankly told them that we were not evangelicals. They looked confused. We talked more about the word, and learned that by their definition we were acting and talking like evangelicals. Susan Lee explained that the word "evangelical" often has political connotations in our country. Greg explained that among people he knew, the word "evangelical" meant close-minded. Our hosts explained that they divided "religious" people into two groups: Catholics for whom religion was a cultural activity, and the evangelicals—including evangelical Catholics—who had a personal, life-changing experience of God and who tried to live their faith and love for God daily. By their definition, as Friends we were evangelicals. This conversation made Susan Lee want to reclaim this word too.

Our time in El Salvador made us realize how we often let language divide us without trying to understand how words are being used or what the speaker is trying to communicate with those words. We allow others to claim and define words for us, thereby distancing ourselves from anyone using certain words in what we perceive as negative ways. We become so afraid of how something we say may be interpreted that many of us have trouble sharing our experiences of God. Perhaps it is time to reclaim language that may help describe the Spirit at work in our lives.


During the trip we both reflected on how the world of Friends is divided both by geography and modes of worship. There is a movement among young Friends seeking unity among the different branches. This came out strongly at the 2005 World Gathering of Young Friends, where more than 250 people from all over the world and from the different branches of Friends gathered for a week of fellowship. Two years later we are still struggling with unity among young Friends, as older Friends have struggled for the past two centuries.

The problem of disunity came up on the trip when we reflected on the views of Friends from different cultures. Susan Lee writes about the frustrations she has had with Friends from the global North in regard to Friends in other parts of the world: "I have been very frustrated and angry and hurt by the attitudes of Friends in the United States and Canada toward the rest of the Section of the Americas. I have heard paternalism (treating others like children), strong doubts, and racist remarks. Often very well-meaning Friends make comments that simply reflect the notion that we know best. What we are used to is best, and we try our utmost to get others to be like us and adapt to our ways of doing things."

Susan Lee concludes, "In thinking about my experiences in Central America, it occurred to me that perhaps U.S. Friends’ actions and words simply stem from a need to maintain stability and control in our lives. I don’t find this expectation among the Central American Friends I know. Both Guatemala and El Salvador experienced brutal civil wars. They have also suffered recently from hurricanes bringing floods and mudslides destroying whole towns, earthquakes, and volcano eruptions. Stability, safety, and control are not part of most Friends’ life experiences here [in Central America]. God provides their stability. In particular, the Salvadoran Friends I met are very flexible. They know they’re not in control. They know that God is in control. If plans go awry, God is still at work."

Greg Woods

Greg Woods, a member of Columbia (Mo.) Meeting, currently serves as an FWCC representative for Illinois Yearly Meeting and as a clerk of the FWCC Section of the Americas Youth Committee. Susan Lee Barton, a member of Clear Creek Meeting in Richmond, Ind., is the Midwest Field Secretary of FWCC. She has received a traveling minute from her monthly meeting and from Ohio Valley Yearly Meeting referring to her "ministry of bringing people closer together and building connections so that all can deepen their experience of God."