Universal Language of Smiles and Hugs

March 31, 2017

I dropped my wife off at the airport this morning. She is headed on a spring break mission trip to El Salvador with fifteen students. I am so proud of Carol and her dedication to the people of Guarjila, El Salvador. The following is a reflection I wrote five years ago when I had the opportunity to go with her on one of her trips:

Over Spring Break I was able to travel to El Salvador with my wife and seventeen of her high school students. It afforded me a number of unique opportunities: some out of my comfort zone, some deeply spiritual, some surprisingly familiar, and some serving as gentle reminders of how truly blessed I am.

Out of my comfort zone? It was my first trip to El Salvador. I am an introvert who speaks no Spanish – how’s that? I have been an introvert my whole life, but when I was suddenly surrounded by people who do not speak my language, it proved to be quite a challenge.

Last year in Haiti I was able to remember enough of my high school French to muddle my way through the Haitian Creole spoken by the natives. No such luck this year. I found out very quickly, however, that gestures, smiles, hugs, and prayer are universal. Most of my communication for the week was non-verbal and it worked out just fine.

It was a very spiritual week. We had the opportunity for daily prayer and Mass. We learned about the civil war that ravaged El Salvador for more than twelve years. It was a conflict during which countless Catholic priests and religious were killed – “Be a patriot, kill a priest” serving as a slogan of the government militia. We celebrated Mass at the altar where Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated and sat on the lawn at the University of Central America where six Jesuits were brutally murdered in 1992. We visited the cemetery where the bodies of the Maryknoll sisters who had been raped and murdered were buried. It was such an awesome witness to the faith that we often take for granted, that we practice freely. It was such a fitting lead in to Holy Week and Christ crucified.

The challenges and hardships facing this third world country were similar to those I experienced in Haiti: Poverty, dirt mountain roads, lack of hot water and flushing toilets, and if lucky, a daily diet of tortillas, beans, and fried plantains. But my experiences in both Haiti and El Salvador proved that there are some things people everywhere hold in common: the universal language of the aforementioned smiles and hugs, the desire to connect with other human beings, and the value of faith, perseverance, and hope.

Perhaps the greatest gift I received last week was the opportunity to fall in love with my wife all over again. Carol (or ‘Caro-leena’ as she is known in El Salvador) has made this trip many times. The trips are her passion and it showed in everything she did – in how she served as a stand-in Mom for her students; how she joyfully interacted with the people of El Salvador, and how love and service were at the heart of everything she did and said.

I know Carol well (nearly 34 years of marriage gives me that advantage), so I always assumed that her passion for El Salvador brought out the best in her. But to be there with her and see her in action reminded me why I love her and how blessed I am to have her in my life.


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