A few years ago, my wife, Ann, and I decided to join a Lutheran church group on a mission trip to El Salvador. We flew to Houston and then on to San Salvador, the capital city of El Salvador.

We were met by 20 very excited children and a Lutheran minister who spoke very limited English. Our ride to the compound was in the cab of a five-ton flatbed truck, while the rest rode on the flatbed in the rain covered with sheets of plastic.

Our driver was Jorge, or George in English. He was a young father of four and the truck was his and used for construction. We arrived at the walled compound and settled in for the week.

Outside the wall at night was a roar of humanity, and we were happy to have that 12-foot barrier between us. We heard hollering, screams, dogs barking, and occasionally what sounded like gun shots. We were joined later by the group from Chicago, including two bilingual ministers who were veterans of El Salvador mission work.

We were a group of six, plus a dozen local kids, and the local minister, Matias. Matias fought with the rebels in the 1970s during the civil war against the corrupt government. The government prevailed and he fled El Salvador for emergency surgery in the United States. He lost a lung. Many of the people we met had been tortured.

Because of the weak and current corrupt government, gangs have taken over. Guns are everywhere. Any business must have a guard at the door. Most tote sawed-off shotguns.

The Lutheran university has a wall around it, but only a single armed guard. Weeks before our arrival, gangs broke in, dragged the guard behind a pickup truck, and then hung him from the front gate.

The Lutheran church and the Catholic church have been critics of the government and the military. They pay dearly for any criticism of the government.

The Lutheran church supports three small churches established by Rev. Matias. The church solicits money to pay for schooling. If you cannot pay the $190 per year fee, your child cannot attend school. The U.S. Lutheran churches pay for more than 1,000 children to attend school in El Salvador.

We visited the three churches in the mountains. Besides money, we brought pencils, markers, books, and backpacks that are unavailable or too expensive in El Salvador. The locals served us the best meal they could afford, usually some of their chickens. They don’t eat the chickens, but we were honored guests. They eat rice and beans for most meals.

The children entertained us with dancing and singing. Some gave speeches imploring us not to abandon them. I gave a short speech in English, translated simultaneously. It had to be short because to look at 50-100 pairs of big brown eyes filled with hope made me choke with emotion.

At the last church there was a party that started in the evening and we spent the night in the house which was the church also. During the party, a little girl in a red dress about 4 years old approached me and spoke Spanish to me. I picked her up and brought her to a translator. Those big brown eyes said, “Will you be my daddy, I don’t have one.” I said in English, “I would love to be your Daddy,” as tears rolled down my cheeks.

Her daddy had to leave because of threats by gangs. Many young men must leave or join a gang. Even when they leave, the gangs threaten the family and extort whatever they can. This is why three countries make up the majority of desperate immigrants at the U.S. border. El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala have weak, corrupt governments that spawn violent street gangs.

We used to give aid to some of the institutions to hire and train policemen, feed the people, and fund schools. The aid was cancelled recently by an uncaring and ignorant government. Our own.

The hosts gave up their bed to us and they slept on the floor. I brought some small toy cars to give to the kids. After watching three little boys take turns playing with a set of wheels, I pulled out three cars to give them. They were so thunderstruck to have a new toy of their own, they just stared at them. I had to encourage them to accept the gift. My eyes watered again to see the pure joy in the eyes of these innocent souls.

We arrived back in the compound the next morning just in time to serve the homeless a meal. Next door to the compound is a building specifically to feed the homeless. We served about 50 homeless people rice, beans, and bread and then sat with them and ate. They were the dregs of the street, mentally ill, crippled and dirty. Most of them tried to thank us as best they could. It was a humbling experience.

Our week went fast and we left the country wishing we could have done more. Our church, Family of Christ, in Chanhassen has embraced the little churches with funds and support. There are more than 1,000 kids going to school because of support from churches around the Midwest. So far, 35 have graduated from college. The kids that were supported 15 years ago are coming back to their impoverished neighborhood as teachers, doctors, lawyers, psychologists, and administrators. The cycle is complete.

On a sad note, months later, Jorge, our driver, was pulled from a city bus at gunpoint and executed because he stood up to the gangs trying to recruit his son.

This is why so many people are so desperate to come to the U.S. They are not drug dealers or prostitutes. They are families, like you and me. We have traveled to most countries in Central America and wish to communicate to those that have not visited these places.

The majority of Hispanics are solid families and deeply religious. They are sweet, honest, and gentle hard-working people. I am not saying open borders, but we need to be more aware and handle these people with more care and more efficiency. They are not the enemy.

President Ronald Reagan in his last speech as president, said, “Immigrants have built this country a are the backbone of our future. We must welcome them with open arms.”

As inscribed on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

John Curtis is a Chanhassen resident who publishes the blog mychildmycountry.com.

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