One of the most poignant scenes on our parish mission trips to El Salvador is breaking bread on the final evening of the trip in the home of one of our hosts. Our delegations stay in a modest hotel in the town and eat dinner in modest restaurants near the hotel where the chefs “know how to prepare the food” so us Northerners do not get sick.
But on the final evening, we travel into a simple home of our Salvadoran hosts. Yes, a house with a dirt floor, metal roof, and walls made of bamboo. We sit at a very modest table low to the ground. Chickens, dogs, and cats run through our feet. Outside, a big pig and turkey that the family is growing for next Christmas roam about as our security guards.
Patricio and his wife, Maria, come forward presenting our group with sopa de pollo, bowls of chicken soup with vegetables grown from behind their tiny home. With grace and dignity, Maria places a bowl in front of each of us. Then she brings hot tortillas that she made by hand. Finally, she brings salt to season the tortillas just right.
People in the group look at one another anxiously. They know the itinerary says we are eating dinner at Patricio’s house. The reality, however, of eating in abject poverty is a total shock to the system. One of the travelers passes hand sanitizer to the person next to her. Others murmur about whether or not Patricio’s wife “knows how to prepare the food.”
Patricio offers grace. He thanks us for visiting his humble home. He considers it an honor to host us. A blessing from God. He prays for us, that God might reward us for our goodness.
I am half listening, preoccupied with the bowl in front of me. Is the water clean? A sister hen stops at my feet looking upward at me. I can’t help but think this chicken in my bowl was alive just a few moments ago. I quietly thank God that I do not live in a home like this. That I am not poor. That I am not like Patricio. Suddenly all of the solidarity that we have been practicing for the week is out the window.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus presents us with the parable of the “Pharisee and the Tax Collector” – the Pharisee thanking God that he is not like the rest. The parable should be called the “Mission Director and Patricio.”
Sadly, even with our best efforts and with all the good that our parish has accomplished in Santo Domingo, if we do not have a humble and joyous heart, the work is for naught. We experience it every day, connected to the Ignatian family, attending Jesuit schools and parishes. It is tempting to think that we have the best universities, best sports teams, and, yes, best mission programs.
Being the best is empty unless we accompany others, hand-in-hand, along the way. It may take us to some strange and scary places. To the margins. To a hut in a remote part of the world. Humility invites us to ask for mercy for our own shortcomings with the willingness to have an open heart so we might grow and change and learn and see the world differently. Humility invites us to see each other differently too, as true sisters and brothers.
The reality is that we receive far more than we will ever give to the people of El Salvador. It is the secret and truth of immersion. I am grateful to Patricio and Maria for teaching me this lesson.
Our translators bring forth their guitars. Moments later, there is not a dry eye in the house. Even the chickens are crying, moved by the enormity and spirit of the experience: united in love, in the breaking of the bread, and the sipping of the soup.
Jodie Bowers serves as the Director of the El Salvador Mission Program at the Church of St. Dominic in Cleveland, Ohio. St. Dominic sends eight delegations annually to learn from their sisters and brothers at Santo Domingo Parish in Chiltiupan, El Salvador. The parish supports ministries in education, health care, organic farming, microenterprise, college scholarships, women’s empowerment, infrastructure, faith, and justice. Bowers is a graduate of St. Ignatius High School in Cleveland, OH, Loyola Marymount University, John Carroll University, and Boston College.