Garden of Love Deeply Planted: St. Sebastian Parish and Teosinte
by Phelia Lorenzen, SHARE Supporter
To think that in 1991, a citywide delegation from Milwaukee to El Salvador planted the first seed for St. Sebastian Parish to partner with Teosinte — a small, isolated village high in the hills of Chalatenago.
At the time, Teosinte, a repatriated community from a refugee camp in Honduras, was only three years old. In great need. Fifty-two families, starting from scratch to farm the mountainous hills of the area, had begun a long journey to create a viable, sustainable, cohesive community. St. Sebastian people’s hearts were touched, and a strong, loving partnership began and continues to strengthen. The garden flourishes.
St. Sebastian immediately adopted the “three pillars of accompaniment” that were the guidelines of The SHARE Foundation (coordinator for sistering programs in El Salvador): physical accompaniment, spiritual accompaniment, and financial support.
Physical accompaniment takes form in many ways with St. Sebastian. They arrange regular delegations to the community so delegates can walk the garden — live in home stays with the families, play with the children, dialogue with the Directiva, taste new foods, hang out with the kids, and share mass, along with general community fiestas. At home in Milwaukee, the Teosinte/El Salvador Committee prints a quarterly newsletter for all parishioners that includes events in Teosinte and personal letters from community members and scholarship recipients. It provides information on national events in El Salvador that affect Teosinte, such as human rights, mining issues, trade issues, and elections. In advocacy, the parish devotes time to Romero week, and it embraces U.S. issues such as shutting down the School of the Americas where so many graduates murdered and disappeared Salvadorans during the hateful civil war of the 1980’s. This is an active parish, ready to walk with the residents of Teosinte on whatever level is needed. Nothing seems to diminish the nurturing of this garden.
St. Sebastian walks a very spiritual path with Teosinte. Their faith is deep, and they share common beliefs with the Salvadorans. When in Teosinte, they share songs and services in the parish, they pray with the community, and they share their hearts and deep hopes for the community with everyone. At home in Milwaukee, there are steady reminders of this partnership. They have a special “Teosinte Corner” in their gathering place where letters and photos are posted. They write weekly petitions of current news of Teosinte and El Salvador in general for all to read. And what is especially beautiful? Each year during Lent in their parish in Milwaukee, they walk the “Salvadoran Stations of the Cross” at exactly the same time Teosinte is walking the Stations of the Cross in their little parish! This garden is steadily fertilized with faith and love.
Along with faith, St. Sebastian is very practical. They know that financial support is imperative to help the community grow in dignity and empowerment. Therefore, over the years they have supported the building of homes for the residents to live comfortably, and they have completed the building of a new church, which is a center piece/community gathering place for all. In addition, St. Sebastian helps to support a sewing enterprise. They help provide a U.S. market for a variety of sewn goods, with the profits being fed back into Teosinte as material aid or used to support delegations. Importantly, the parish feeds into a provision of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee that allows their Mission Sunday donations to be used for projects in Teosinte and within the region through SHARE’s regional projects. Finally, one of the greatest gifts of all is financial support for education, both in the form of scholarships and advocacy training for the community. They have celebrated students graduating in computers, teaching, nursing, business, and law! The garden grows and spreads across the region.
One cannot “report” the existence of the heart and soul of this relationship. In fact, the rewards and effects of this partnership can best be expressed by the parishioners themselves. Below are a few quotes that capture the depth of this relationship:
Father Dick Allen, priest of St. Sebastian who was profoundly affected by the general poverty in spite of having basic necessities: “…but usually just the barest minimum and always on the brink of falling apart. The challenge for me right now and out into the future of my ministry is to continue to confront the injustices in El Salvador…and to bring about justice wherever and however I can.”
Rhonda VanPembrook, recent delegate: “What came as a surprise, however, was the realization that truly more important to the people of Teosinte are the gifts of our solidarity, friendship and shared faith. They are like pillars of joy, inspiration and strength that lift and support the spirit and work of the Teosinte community.”
David Goehner, reflection from 1999 visit: At a mass in a then war-damaged Parish, the delegates were to sing to the congregation “Pan de Vida.” But night fell quickly, the church was dark, and they could not read the words. “The high school girls and women of the choir picked up the candles around the altar and stood among us, shining the light and helping us sing. I will never forget that connection…I believe sometimes God reaches down and touches us directly with His/Her finger…and I’m pretty sure God touched me in Teosinte.”
Jackie Swietlik, Senior, University of Wisconsin-Madison: “This trip reinforced my belief in the importance of living life as a global citizen. One cannot live life fully if they are stuck in the belief that what they do here and now does not affect other people around the globe and in the future.”
Karly Swietlik, Junior, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, captures the spontaneity and fun of it all! “All of us arrived (at Teosinte) in the back of an open air pick up truck! The entire village was waiting, cheering, and sending off firecracker(s) with welcome signs hanging. I had no idea I could feel so much love from people that I had never met before. I celebrated my 17th birthday in Teosinte and never had such a great birthday as the community gave me!”
Beth Hammer, former delegate: “Often times people go to various parts of the world on mission trips to build something (homes/churches) or provide a specific service (i.e. Healthcare). People traveling to and from Teosinte are building something more fragile yet more enduring than any building. They, we, are focused on building relationships. Our work is driven by the commitment to sustain a relationship that is reciprocal in which we all learn from each other.”
This garden of love is deeply planted. It spreads throughout Teosinte and the parish of St. Sebastian. It is planted and nurtured with so much faith and love every day, month, and year, that it yields harvests of bonded hearts year after year after year. To St. Sebastian, we shout, “Hurrah!”
Many thanks to Beth Hammer who provided most of the material, along with sending quotes from delegates, and arranging for newsletters to be read for background and information.
1) St. Sebastian Delegation by the Teosinte River in 2007
2) Monica from Teosinte visiting the Saint Sebastian food pantry in Milwaukee
3) St. Sebastian students in front of a banner they made for Teosinte
4) Teosinte students welcoming the St. Sebastian delegation
5) St. Sebastian Delegation in Teosinte