Missionary Stories – Tom and Dianne Wilson – El Salvador

DSC_0022Hi, we’re Tom and Dianne Wilson. The last 2½ years of our lives were spent in serving God’s Mission in El Maizal, El Salvador. It was and will always be a decision that we are so glad we made and never regretted for a moment. It wasn’t always rainbows and unicorns, but it always fulfilled us in different ways. At this time we’d like to share some reflections on that mission.

We are almost always asked the questions, “How did you end up in El Salvador?”, “How did you know you were called for mission?”, and “Why did you do it?”

These types of questions seem to beg for some spiritual and moving responses. The problem is that although we’ve answered these questions hundreds of times now, the answers feel flat and forced. The simple reason is that it was one little step after another in a journey that we didn’t even know we were on. We don’t know how to say to people in a moving way that “…it just happened and we’re still trying to figure out how and why ourselves”. We feel kind of embarrassed at times that we didn’t have that big epiphany that we can point at and say that was the call. We didn’t even have that subtle call as far as we can remember.

Before we went to El Salvador we didn’t really know or focus on The Five Marks of Mission. In our reflection we thought it would be helpful to go back and see how we fared compared to those bullet points.

To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom: -What a great bullet point! It makes perfect sense, too. But what do you do when you don’t speak the language of the community you will be part of? Dianne and I didn’t speak Spanish before we went to El Salvador. Bishop Martín Barahona (retired Bishop of El Salvador) gave us a simple answer. His reply was comforting and perfect: “Tom and Dianne, many people speak the same language but they don’t communicate – just communicate with the people”. It was all we needed.

DSC_0023We took a limited number of Spanish classes, but we learned our Spanish “on the fly”, the best we could with the community. We pointed, we gestured, we made lots of mistakes, and we learned two important lessons: in the process of learning from the community we served, our relationship was deepened with the people; and a language barrier does not inhibit the spread of the Good News. As the quote attributed to St. Francis goes, “Preach the Gospel at all times; if necessary, use words”. Trust us when we say that words aren’t needed. Actions truly speak louder than words, especially when it comes to living our faith.

To teach, baptize and nurture new believers – It sounds great but in our humble opinion, let’s change it a bit so it more accurately applies to mission. ‘To teach and be taught, to baptize and be baptized, to nurture and be nurtured as new believers. Mission is not a one way street and if it is, then we’d say it’s not very good mission. We served in a rural area with not many reminders of modern life. We were strangers, and they invited us is in. They shared their food and drink with us. When we were sick, they comforted us and they visited us regularly to see how we were doing. Do you see where we are going with this? Do you see the irony? We were the U.S. Missionaries coming from the land of plenty with all the answers. We were ready to serve “the least of these”. But now we were “the least of these”. Our faith and theirs was enriched because we gave and received as brothers and sisters in Christ.
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To respond to human need by loving service – Where do we start? We taught English and Christianity; we labored in fields and cooked meals; we led services and bible studies; we visited the sick and the grieving. With our vehicle, we served as an ambulance, taxi, bus (I had 23 people in a 4 door pick up) and hearse. We attended funerals and brought new babies home from the hospital. We led community meetings, we coordinated maintenance and repair projects, we helped bring an unlimited amount of potable water into the community. I was Santa and Dianne my helper; we attended birthday parties, quinceañeras, weddings and high school techno dances. We played board games with the kids, taught the kids Frisbee, and taught them card games like “Go Fish”. I was the delivery/harvest truck. As you might have noticed this list is all over the place and chaotic. It’s what our days were like, and we would have had it no other way.

Now, did we always have great big loving smiles on our faces? Well no, this was real life and sometimes you get tired of the demands on your time, stamina and patience. We never stopped responding, but sometimes the loving service was hard. When we were at the end of our rope and just wanted to stop and relax a moment after a very long day, we’d ask each other “well, what else would we be doing?” And we’d suck it up and do the work God has given us to do with gladness and singleness of heart, the best we could.

DSC_0005To seek to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation – What makes this mark so complicated is that we came to realize that unjust structures existed throughout the country of El Salvador, within the Church and within the community we served. It wasn’t the vastness of the problem – it was the effect that it had on the people.  This is not meant to shed a harsh light on where we served. It’s just part of our human condition on earth, and it’s important to not wear rose-colored glasses. For example, as missionaries in this community, whether we liked it or not, we were “los jefes” (the bosses). There was a perception that we would be the leaders. In their world, bosses/leaders had a history of being dictatorial. We were told to be dictatorial by different people who thought they were helping us. We followed our beliefs, and not advice like that.

Being dictatorial assumes that the people are not capable of self-determination, and makes them subjects of our will. We could see that people were very surprised that we insisted on hearing their opinions. If they were not going to be actively involved in the planning of events, we wouldn’t plan events for them. Sometimes the events didn’t happen, and the people were disappointed. It was a tough lesson for the community, but necessary if they were going to have true community development.

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Did our approach make major changes in lives? We don’t know. We only know that we treated them as equals, and the people told us that we were different. The difference to them was that we took the time to care. They also knew that we could be trusted with complaints that were sometimes very sensitive or difficult to address. We weren’t all business- and results-oriented. We wanted to know about people’s lives, their children, their hopes and dreams. As missionaries, we tried to remember that we weren’t called to get results. We were called to have faith in Jesus’ message of justice in our world, and proclaim the need for that justice.

To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth – In El Salvador, the pollution problem is extensive. Littering is an accepted practice, and our community mirrored the society at large. It’s not that the people didn’t care, it was just they had few examples of people who didn’t litter. We made a difference, not by instituting any specific program but just by example.

Our hope is that the mission we served motivates others to seek mission and service in our Savior’s name – and do it in ways that they don’t think they can. It’s important to remember that our fears inhibit us from doing so much. Not just in our secular lives, but in answering the call of our Baptismal Covenant. We have these assuring words from Jesus: “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” We urge you, don’t be afraid of what you don’t think you can do – be excited about what you can do with God’s help.

En la paz de Dios,
Tom & Dianne Wilson

Proclaim, Inspire, Ignite the Joy of God's Mission