Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue was never meant to be heard as background music for an instructional video on what to do in the event of an emergency water landing. Still, I discovered it there last week as I flew on a United Airlines flight to El Salvador with a group of college students on an immersion trip. It was odd to hear the dramatic piano staccato I’ve always loved paired with images of seat-belts buckling, oxygen masks dropping and life vests inflating, images that almost always make me leery about the impending flight. Yet it wouldn’t be the last strange pairing during our immersion experience. How could it be when 15 Americans are dropped off in a Central American country when few of us speak the language, none of us had been had been there before and many were born after the events of their civil war?
The itinerary for the week was filled with visits to places I had long known and prayed about, sites related to the brutal civil war fought between 1972-1992. We visited the vibrant University of Central America where 6 of my Jesuit brothers were shot and killed by government forces as well as the simple roadside shrine and chapel where four American churchwomen were raped and murdered. We spent some time in the bright, marbled hospital chapel where Archbishop Oscar Romero was killed while celebrating Mass and made the long trek out to the eerily empty village of El Mozote where over 800 men, women and children were brutally massacred by the national army.
As we arrived at each site our little group remained in silence for several minutes, overwhelmed by the sadness and the sacredness of the places where we stood. The lively group of loud American students who had only minutes before been idly gossipping in the air conditioned van stood silently sweating, contemplating the death that seemed to surround us at all times. It was another strange pairing, the juxtaposition of life and death.
On our third day in the country our group visited a women’s cooperative and they invited us to stay in their homes for a night. We paired off and, with overstuffed backpacks and foodstuffs purchased from the local tienda, we followed our host mothers to their homes for a night of real immersion, no more guided tour stuff. The home I stayed in was simple, humble: behind the makeshift gate at the end of a dirt path far off the main road, my partner and I found a haphazard building, a single unfinished room really, with 4 beds and no running water. An old TV with a jerry-rigged antenna loudly played a telenovela and a single bare light bulb hung from the tin roof ceiling. You had to cross the path of two mangy dogs to make it to the latrine in the front yard. We were far from the lives we normally led and there with the host family–a mother and her 3 girls–we became another strange pairing, the haves and have nots.
But as we sat outside the simple, single room, we began to chat with one another, and even with my terrible Spanish, we managed to communicate. Our host mom, Noemi, told us that her youngest daughter was what we called a ‘scutch’ in my neighborhood growing up: an antagonizer who tortured her older sisters. I related a story of my own about my brother who would bite his own arm and then run to my mother, blaming me. Noemi eyes brightened. “I’ve watched her do that, too! She thinks she’ll get away with it!” We all laughed, and in that moment I became aware that the strange pairings of the previous days– American and Salvadorans, life and death, haves and have-nots–fell away. The shared stories revealed commonalities, the familiar experience of human nature in action and on display.
Some things will never go together. Gershwin will never sound right as part of an advertising campaign or instructional video. But with humanity it is, literally, another story: we were meant for each other and our stories belong together. Sitting outside Noemi’s simple home and laughing over shared experiences occurring thousands of miles apart reminds me that we’re not that far from God’s dream that “all might be one.”
We’re not far from the kingdom of God, but the things that separate us–poverty, violence, the endless -isms that impoverish our common life–stubbornly keep me thinking about these strange pairings as if we’re on opposing sides, us and them. In truth, in the struggle of humanity, there are no sides, or ought not to be. There’s just us. One. God’s pure dream, pushing onward to fulfillment, one soul at a time. Not a strange pairing, but a mysterious one.
The cover image from Flickr user ian-bogdan dumitrescu, can be found here.