It’s 10am and sweltering hot inside the little black Nissan Sentra where I am sitting. Through the windshield I can see six heavily armed soldiers in full camoflouge right in front of us. The guns they carry are the biggest I’ve ever seen. They make an AK-47 look like a little kid’s bb gun. The soldiers have a tense look written on their faces. They are patrolling this gang infested neighborhood in San Salvador that we just entered. As they walk past the car, I turn my head and watch them approach two young men standing around idly. One of the soldiers motions them to put their hands on a cement wall adjacent to where they are. Two of them pat down the men, searching for guns. A few years ago, the police and the military never entered this neighborhood due to fear of the gangs.
A hundred feet away is a school called Semillitas, Little Seeds in English. Inside, 30 young children age 4-6 are coloring and drawing. Their bright white collared shirts somehow are still sparkling clean. Two teachers and an assistant accompany them in the classroom. The room is inundated in the energy of youth, the children laughing and smiling with a glorious innocence.
The classroom looks like it could be any other in Latin America. But there is one major difference: the children here are the daughters and sons of gang members. The gang that controls the community where the school sits is considered one of the most violent and ruthless on the planet.
The teachers know not only the kids, but their parents–the gang members and their partners. The teachers live right there in the community where they work. Their life is here, amid the violence and chaos of this place where soldiers with gigantic guns patrol 24/7.
The Salvadorean run organization that we are visiting facilitated the birth of this community based project. In my mind, this project epitomizes what mission is about: run by local leaders, grassroots, sustainable, bottom up, small. Hidden almost, barely perceptible amid the chaos and guns. I am certain that a project such as this could never have been started by a foreign missionary. It would be impossible for someone from outside this context, even outside this neighborhood, to come in and create a thriving program such as this; no NGO or missionaries needed.
Because this is real mission.
These leaders are birthing the gospel in radical ways. They are choosing to participate in the dire realities of life here with creativity. They hope against darkness. It makes me wonder what kind of imaginations they have have, one that can hold the thought of new life, hope, and love despite the crudeness of spilled blood. This is what living missionally is all about. This is what mission done well looks like.
Katie and I were given the opportunity to bear witness to what can be when the assets, relationships, expertise, knowledge and integrity of local people is leveraged for the work of transformational development. In the midst of a community torn apart by poverty and violence, there exists an image of beauty and transformation in Semillitas. It is real and enfleshed. You can see it, touch it, feel it. You can sink your teeth into it. It’s alive and active and animated. It is the gospel narrative enfleshed into the now and here. It is a story of peace and hope amid violence and chaos.
It is the small seeds of the Kingdom, even with the soldiers still out front.