Salvadorans’ joy abounds whether in slums or thriving new communities
Salvadorans’ joy abounds whether in slums or thriving new communities
SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — In December of 2022, a group of supporters toured multiple Fuller Center for Housing sites — including the largest community, the 131-home Nuevo Cuscatlán II in the San Salvador metro area.
Over the next two days, they would also visit homeowner families in the 50-home Juayuá community and in the combined 145 homes of the Ahuachapán I & II communities, each of them two hours west in the rural highlands of the country. Their homes were not only sturdy and safe, but the families had the pride and empowerment of home ownership that most did not have while renting shacks in slum areas.
In each of these new communities, supporters found smiling faces, festive music and happy children playing. Families were friendly, welcoming and exuded joy.
Before that, however, they visited the slums of Nuevo Cuscatlán. Streets were dusty and muddy. The hillside was crammed full of shacks pieced together with tin, plastic and pieces of wood. It was an extreme example of poverty housing.
In that poor community, the supporters found smiling faces, festive music and happy children playing. Families were friendly, welcoming and exuded joy.
As shocking as the poverty housing conditions were, the visitors seemed more taken aback by the joy. Where was the despair? Where was the hopelessness?
More than 200 families have escaped the slums of Nuevo Cuscatlán to start new lives in the Fuller Center communities of Nuevo Cuscatlán I and II. Though the conditions of the shacks they left behind would horrify many Americans, some Salvadoran families actually moved into the vacant shacks that they considered an upgrade from their previous poverty housing.
Encario, who lives with his nephew, was one of the first residents to greet visitors as they strolled the narrow, uneven dirt path between dozens of shacks. He invited them to tour the dirt-floor shack he called home. He apologized for just one thing — he had no treats to offer his new American friends.
It struck the mostly American delegation as a strange dichotomy — the palpable joy set against the backdrop of extreme poverty housing. Many of them knew plenty of people back home who lived in modern American homes with two stories, pools, large yards and every modern convenience. Yet, many of their neighbors did not have the same sense of joy they witnessed in every part of El Salvador.
“People can still have joy whether they have a lot or a little,” noted Pastor David Hull. “They’re very appreciative of every little thing we do for them. Then we come to America and sometimes we’re not as appreciative of what God’s blessed us with. It’s a joy to bless them because they appreciate everything. They have a very joyful spirit.”
“I can’t believe how friendly and nice everyone is,” Jodi Lewis said. “They’ve been unbelievable. There’s joy and happiness here that we don’t have in the United States. They’re very appreciative, and I love them.”
“They’re happy to see us, and they have joy even though they know their living conditions are not good,” Kathy Carrier said. “It tells me that it’s not things that give us joy — it’s peace and family and God.”
Her granddaughter Maci Applegate echoed the sentiment.
“We’re always focused on what we don’t have, and everyone here is just focused on living and being happy,” she said. “There’s such joy and contentment here that we don’t have in America.”
The joy in the slums seemed to be a little less jarring to those who have traveled to such places before.
“I’ve done a little bit of traveling to other third world countries,” Steve Wolff said. “It always gives me that perspective of how people with nothing treat each other much better than people who have everything.”
“I think it’s the same throughout the world — we don’t know what we’ve been denied or what we don’t have,” added Rich Van Paris. “We gain an appreciation for every little thing.”
Fuller Center for Housing Vice President of Communications Chris Johnson, who was in El Salvador to document the visitors’ experience, also has witnessed such joy in other third world countries.
“The culture shock of these kinds of trips, for me, is coming home to — um, how shall I put it — a less-than-generous overall spirit and definitely less joy,” Johnson said. “I know folks back home in standard 2,000-square-foot homes that would be considered mansions here and, yet, are focused on the few things they don’t have or are envious of those who accumulate more things. Maybe their joy is hidden under all that stuff in their homes. Maybe they keep it in a box in the closet.”
Johnson was quick to add, though, that joy does not mean the slum-dwellers of Nuevo Cuscatlán do not understand their situation.
“They have joy but not necessarily satisfaction,” he said. “They know that not far from here are people living in sturdy homes with safe electricity and water — and they know that those people also were once in their shoes. While they have joy, they also hope for a better future. And they understand that these people visiting are committed to helping manifest that hope into reality. They’re not here to gawk. They’re here to help.
“When the people on this trip see these poverty housing conditions and see that these good people have so much joy nonetheless, it just makes them even more determined to help.”
MaryAnn Kolb was one of those for whom witnessing the joy amid such poverty further steeled her determination.
“I think the fact that we’re able to give them hope and give them safety and security, and running water and safe electricity, that changes their lives forever,” Kolb said. “With all that we take for granted in our country, people need to come here and witness what true poverty is. Then they’ll have a sense of gratitude for everything that we have in our lives.”
While supporters were able to witness the tremendous growth of Fuller Center projects in multiple areas of the country, they also saw there remains much work to do to ensure families have simple, decent places to live.
“I think this is a very humbling experience,” Van Paris said. “You don’t necessarily go back to the United States and be so grateful for what you have; you just wish you could be part of giving more down here and El Salvador and giving to the people so that they can move up socio-economically and do better for their children and their families.”
“It is heartbreaking to see what is out there — how blessed we are and how many of these people don’t have anything,” Lewis added. “My prayer is that more people would donate and give. This is just heartbreaking. I am blessed to have been able to be here. It has been an honor to be here and serve these people. We’re definitely coming back.”
Perhaps no one on the trip had a perspective quite like Pastor Hull, who was on just his second trip to El Salvador. The first was 32 years ago.
“It’s great to see the progress in the country, and, yet, there’s so much more that needs to be done,” Hull said. “It’s great to see such a great vision. We’re grateful for what God’s already done, but there’s so much more to do.”
We'd love to hear your comments!