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Newman Catholic Student Association goes to El Salvador on mission Colin Omilanowski

Over the second half of Spring Break, The College of Wooster’s Newman Catholic Student Association embarked on a mission trip to El Salvador, a predominantly Catholic country, basking in a culture brimming with opportunity for cultural exploration.

One of the goals of our trip was to interact with students and understand how El Salvador is growing as a country since it was once fraught with a civil war that claimed 70,000 lives, 30,000 of which were never found, called the “los desaparecidos.”

We stayed at the Community of Oscar A. Romero (COAR), a parochial school hosting more than 900 students. Ranging from first grade to high school, COAR teaches these students for a half day, providing lunch for $1 per day.

The COAR village provides permanent residency for certain children until their 18th birthday. These students, called “internos,” have been officially declared by the government to be safer at COAR than with a relative, if they have one at all.

Because the U.S. government put a travel advisory on El Salvador, groups are discouraged from making the journey there. Yes, we recognized the danger of traveling within a country where the world’s worst gang, MS 13, resides, but we always took precautions to avoid any trouble. Since COAR has armed guards to protect the community, they have not engaged with the gangs for many years.

We spent our time at COAR teaching English to high school classes during the day. While their English skills were at varying levels, most students knew enough for basic communication. If they were stuck on a word, we or their friends helped them out by explaining it in Spanish.

The kids were really cool! They know American pop culture by listening to U.S. music, movies and TV shows. They laughed when others and I failed at speaking Spanish but were appreciative that we spent time and played with them.

In order to grasp El Salvador’s recent violent past, we visited sites where El Salvadorians and U.S. residents were martyred for wanting peace and an end to the war.

El Salvador as a country is deeply religious and acknowledges people such as the famous Archbishop Oscar Romero who stands as a martyr and hero for the country. He was assassinated in 1980 on May 23, and the Catholic Church has blessed him with the next step of canonization, officially declaring him a saint.

While we never had any encounters with gang members, a local nun leading us through the town’s Stations of the Cross in Zaragoza reminded us to always be alert throughout the evening’s activity and be aware of where our group members were at all times.

Showing the dichotomy between rich and poor, we visited a mall similar to one in the U.S. with name brand stores selling wares at American prices. Across the street was a shanty town fastened together with sheet metal and anything available. Knowing that the average daily working wage is $2-3, it was a hard reminder to be in a place so familiar to us but foreign at the same time.

While in the mountains, our group encountered a hospitable elderly lady who invited us to see her house nearby. She welcomed us inside, allowed us to look around and take pictures.

It was fairly simple with one room, sheet metal supported by wood for walls, a dirt floor, a tin roof and a mattress for her and her husband. We were taken aback, but she was so proud of her house, and she wanted to show that it was good enough for guests.

That same day my group members were welcomed as friends to mass in a church similar in structure to the shanty town, holding a capacity crowd of 60 people. At the sign of peace before Communion, these people hugged us, shook our hands and after mass, a spokesman formally and heartily thanked us for wanting to witness how most people without our modern amenities live in the world.

Since I’ve been at Wooster, this is the third mission trip that the Newman Community has sponsored. You don’t have to be Catholic to join our trips or believe in God because it’s much more than religion.

This is a chance to break habits, biases and experience the world! You realize the importance of human rights, education, living conditions, a living wage and what makes people happy.

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