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Heartbreak and Glory in El Salvador

By Alyssa Moreland

Mission to El Salvador

Last month, I went on a mission trip to El Salvador. I went with Chi Alpha, the campus ministry that I am part of at the University of North Texas, to work with a ministry there called Castillo del Rey (King’s Castle). In total, my team had 19 people; ten of us from Texas, nine from Castillo del Rey (who were referred to as our Nationals).

Six of my ten days there were spent going into schools and neighborhoods in the Santa Ana area and putting on programs to share the Gospel with children. In those six days, we went into 16 schools, put on 21 programs, and reached 4,404 people. Of that 4,404, 1,455 accepted the Gospel and decided to follow Christ, most of them children and young teenagers.

But so many more were left unreached, unknown, and broken.

Welcome to El Salvador

From the time that I entered El Salvador, I could see the desperate need there. For help, for love, for provision, for salvation. In short, I could see the desperate need for Christ. It hung heavy in the very air. It seemed both fitting and ironic that words El Salvador mean “The Savior.”

We had a long drive from the airport to the Castillo del Rey camp. On the way, I took in the sights of what was, at once, the most beautiful and most broken place I have ever seen. There was more untouched wilderness there than I had ever imagined, and all of it was in bloom, vibrant and in technicolor shades of green, orange, purple, pink. It was stunning.

And then we would drive through a city, and all I could see were rundown, ruined buildings, with bars on the windows and barbed wire on walls and rooftops. There were houses that I was certain were unlivable, until I saw people standing on the porch or laundry hanging from clotheslines. Many homes appeared to be made from nothing more than sheet metal and wooden posts.

Over our ten days there, we drove in towns and villages a lot. I saw many animals wandering around; dogs mostly, but also cats and chickens and sometimes even horses or cows (though people usually tied these on the side of the road). There was garbage everywhere. It covered any part of ground not regularly walked or driven on, sometimes stray pieces, often entire bags. Just looking at the conditions of the towns broke my heart.

Most heartbreaking, though, were the people. They looked devastated, worn down. Some carried heavy loads or sold bread, jewelry, or whatever else they could on the sidewalks. They slept on street corners in the middle of the day. As we drove down a highway, I saw a woman walking with her toddler on the edge of the pavement, cars speeding by mere feet from her child.

The Heartbreak

At the schools, there was more energy, but it was frantic. Chaotic. A roiling mess of shouting, laughing, fighting. The kids there ran around and up to us and away. They asked us questions, and we answered as best we could, some of us in Spanish, some through translators. Sometimes they were eager, sometimes anxious, and always both heartbreaking and heartwarming to me. They smiled at us, giggled at our attempts to speak their language (only three of us from Texas could, and I was not one of them), and looked at us like they couldn’t believe anyone would come so far for the sole purpose of reaching out to them.

In most of the schools, we encountered mixed reactions from the kids. Some of them (usually the younger ones) met us with excitement. Others greeted us with varying degrees of suspicion. Some were eager to see the show we put on, others were uninterested. In the midst of all these different reactions, there were kids who listened carefully, waiting to see how God would show himself.

These different kinds of kids showed up in different places. On our first day doing ministry, some of our team encountered a girl named Maria. When I saw her, something about her stood out to me, but I didn’t talk to her. She stood next to me as I prayed over the group of kids she was standing in. She looked sad. I found out later from the girls who did talk to her that she was 12 years old, came from a large family, and at the time, she hadn’t eaten in two days. They prayed over her, and then we left the school. It was devastating leaving that school. I knew that we had done all we could do for her, but it still didn’t feel like enough.

At another school, there was an older girl who refused at first to join one of the groups for prayer. Eventually, we convinced her to come over, and as we prayed, I noticed she was crying. Because I don’t speak Spanish, I was at a loss. I went and grabbed a girl from our team, Kenya, who did speak Spanish and she translated some of what the girl said. She told us that she felt like she needed God’s presence more than ever, but she wouldn’t tell us why. She was one of the only Christians in her school, and she felt distant from God. We prayed over her and did our best to encourage her.

The girl who broke my heart the most was a little girl named Carla. We met her when we were going out into a neighborhood gathering people for one of the programs we did in the streets. She was playing with a bunch of other kids. I noticed that there was a younger girl with her that she seemed to be watching out for. When it started to rain, Carla made sure the younger girl was under the shelter of a building before she was. When they walked, Carla either had an arm around the younger girl or constantly looked back at her. As we knocked on doors to gather more people, the pastor of the church we were working with noticed Carla walking next to me. He pointed out that Carla looked like she could be my daughter. Maybe that is why I felt drawn to her.

Whatever the reason, I kept my eye on her as we walked back to the church and throughout the program. At the end of it, when we were asking the kids if they needed prayer for healing or problems, Carla raised her hand. Her eyes were red. We prayed, and then one of our Nationals, Soto, took her aside to talk to her. I found out that night that Carla was from an abusive household, and her mother seemed to be in and out of the picture. Soto told us that as she prayed over Carla, God was telling her it was only the beginning. That the little girl would go through so much more, that her life would not be an easy one.

These are only just a few of the kids we met there. There was a girl whose grandmother was so sick she couldn’t even walk, and a boy who heard voices. There was a boy whose parents were killed by a gang. Another was about join a gang himself. I heard so many stories of pain and hurt. My heart broke for all of them.

The Glory

About three days into the trip, I heard a song that summed up exactly what I was feeling and gave an answer to my questioning. The song was “You Hold it All Together” by All Sons and Daughters, and the lyrics are about times when we feel sorrow and pain, and how there is hope even then, because God holds everything together. We can look ahead, past the darkness, to the light and rejoice.

I cannot count the number of times I replayed this song throughout the week. It spoke to me so much, and I was able to begin to see the ways God was moving there. There was still a weight that sat in my chest, but it was a little lighter.

I saw that in the school where we met Maria, a boy was delivered from darkness. The school where we met the older girl, a boy turned away from joining a gang and accepted Christ. And the church where we met Carla, there was so much glory there, I can’t even fully describe it.

But let me try.

There were two little girls from that church who came with my group to gather people from the streets, and they were on fire. They knocked on doors and called people to come out. There was no fear or hesitation as they ran from one gate to the next, their Bibles in hand. It was amazing to see.

After the program one of the pastors asked us to stay a little longer. They served us tamales and juice, and then offered to make more when those ran out. As we ate, a group of members of the church and some of our team crowded around a man in a wheelchair and prayed over him fiercely.

We learned that when the church was planted, the community had only two believers. It had grown immensely in the span of about a year and a half. At one point, it had been shut down because one of the pastors had been badly beaten by gang members. The little girls who were so eager to evangelize were part of a children’s ministry there that taught them to do so from the time they were babies.

Prayer Fortress

One of my favorite places (though I only went once) was at the Castillo del Rey camp. They called it the prayer fortress. It sat high up on a hill at the back of the property and it looked, well, like a fortress. For nearly 20 years, there has been constant prayer, 24 hours a day, in this building. I could feel the power of it the moment I stepped inside.

It took a while, but once I started to see the evidence of God’s presence, I couldn’t stop. I still felt overwhelmed by the brokenness, but I was just as overwhelmed by the beauty of what God was doing. The week turned into this strange combination of contradictions, a mosaic of shattered pieces and Spirit restoration.

A Blaze in the Darkness

I believe one of the reasons God sent me to El Salvador was to see firsthand the way light is meant to expel darkness. The darkness there was suffocating to me, but it cannot survive if there is even a flicker of light. Because of Castillo del Rey, there is much more than a flicker. There is a blaze that makes the darkness flee and shadows run, and I am certain that it will only get brighter and brighter.

There is a passage in Ecclesiastes 3 that talks about seasons, about there being a time for everything. Because of people like our Nationals, the Spirit of God is moving in El Salvador, and I believe that it is entering a new season. One of light, growth, and love, in place of the darkness, destruction, and hate. There will be beauty where there was once brokenness, renewal where there was ruin.

“Yet God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end.” Ecclesiastes 3:11.

If you want to learn more about King’s Castle Ministries (Castillo del Rey), and how you can help, click here.


Article first published in Austin Christian Voice

About the Author
Alyssa Moreland is a creative writing major at the University of North Texas. She is active in campus ministry through Chi Alpha.

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