Making the Maine-El Salvador connection

By Dagney C. Ernest | Apr 11, 2018
Photo by: Dagney C. Ernest Members of Our Lady of Good Hope’s Social Justice & Peace Committee stand near photos of their sister community in El Salvador. From left are Debra Milliken, holding a photo of a water cistern in San Ramón; Pauline Johnstone, Chris Mazza and Mary Kate Small.

Mother Nature is struggling to raise spring temperatures on the Midcoast, but the local Roman Catholic parish will bring the warmth of Central America to Belfast Friday night, April 20.

Dean Stevens, a familiar face from the annual David Dodson concerts in Camden and Sweet Chariot Music Festival on Swan’s Island, will perform with Dodson and other musical friends at St. Francis of Assisi. His benefit concert at the Belfast church completes a St. Brendan's Parish circle that began at Camden’s Our Lady of Good Hope Church in 2009 and continued in 2010 at Rockland’s St. Bernard’s Church.

The three Midcoast churches, along with missions on North Haven, Vinalhaven and Islesboro, became the St. Brendan the Navigator Parish in 2009, per the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland. Two priests serve the three mainland churches in rotation.

“We never know who's going to be at which Mass, but it does work out,” said Pauline Johnstone of Camden the first week of April. “We all do some things independently and some things jointly.”

Another thing that rotates is the parish’s contribution to the individual churches’ charitable projects, which focus on communities as far away as India and as close as the Midcoast. Johnstone is a longtime participant in Our Lady’s support of El Pueblo de Dios en Camino, a faith-based community that facilitates extensive programs for children, youth, couples, single mothers and the aging in San Ramón, outside the capital of El Salvador. The April 20 concert is an individual fundraiser for that work.

Our Lady’s connection to El Pueblo began around the century's turn, when the Camden church was seeking to form a sister church connection with a community in another country.

“We eventually worked our way down to a couple of spots in Central America and ended up with this community in El Salvador. We partnered with them, signing a covenant in 2000, and it's been going on since then,” said Johnstone, who has been to San Ramón several times.

The series began at the suggestion of Our Lady parishioner Mary Kate Small, bringing Massachusetts-based folksinger Stevens up to perform a concert focused on El Salvador at Our Lady with Small’s husband, Midcoast musician Dodson. Stevens has his own connection to Central America. Born and raised in Costa Rica — his parents were missionaries — he first traveled to El Salvador in 1987, when the country’s brutal civil war was in full swing.

“And I started to be interested in taking groups to interpret the conflict and to get people to understand better the situation,” he said, calling in from one of his five jobs — interim administrator of Community Church of Boston, where he also is the music director.

Stevens, whose main job is as a Spanish/English interpreter in the courts of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, sings songs in both languages, original and traditional. He also tells stories of the people he has come to know in a different village in El Salvador over the past 27 years.

In the early 1990s, as the conflicts were coming to an end, there was a movement of “sister” projects as a way to support refugees who were returning to their devastated villages.

“The peace accords were signed in 1992, and the refugees started returning in earnest and resettling and rebuilding. I just got really interested in their circumstance, in visiting the villages and seeing how we could be helpful,” he said.

He also saw how transformative traveling and interacting with other people was, so he began bringing small groups of people to El Salvador.

“I do the same four villages twice a year, taking groups. The last trip was in February, there were nine people that went; and the next trip is in August. I go in winter and in summer,” Stevens said.

Johnstone last visited El Pueblo de Dios en Camino four years ago, and she agrees that the experience can be transforming. “People who have been able to go down there really have had their eyes opened; it's enriching. It's hard to convey that when they come back,” she said.

Unlike mission groups that make annual visits to other countries in order to provide direct services or build infrastructure, the sister church connection to the community in San Ramón is a partnership focused on supporting the war-torn region’s own efforts. In addition to supporting students, who have to go to larger communities for secondary education and beyond, the church group has set up a micro-fund project for small businesses, “which they manage beautifully,” Johnstone said.

The micro-funds have led to reroofing homes, building latrines and putting water cisterns on the slopes of the nearby volcano; Johnstone said the farther up the slopes people live, the more destitute they are, so the villagers are doing their own charitable work.

“So we go down and get to see the fruits of their labor. They're exceedingly capable of doing all that work themselves, they just don't have the resources for it,” she said. “They're poor, but they look out for the people even more poor than they are.”

The community of El Pueblo de Dios en Camino — it means The People of God on the Way, Johnstone said — is certainly rich in spirit. When the church group spends time in San Ramón, they mostly meet with individuals and groups of people, listening to their stories of survival, community and progress. They’ve come a long way from very distressing circumstances.

“During the war, there were government troops in the community during the day and then at night there were guerillas. People were on both sides, so there was a lot of healing that had to go on at the end — trust being built and people working together again,” Johnstone said.

One of the villagers who have hosted Johnstone lost 11 family members during the conflict. As the Mainers have returned over the years, they have formed relationships with villagers that have led to story-sharing on both sides.

“A lot of it is bearing witness to what they do and then bringing that message back home,” Johnstone said. “They really live their Christian faith, helping each other. They're remarkable, inspiring and, really, very joyful people.”

Stevens likens his visits to opening “a really beautiful window into rural village life.” The subsistence farmers he visits grow corn and beans and practice animal husbandry to feed their families. One of the small mountaintop communities grows coffee, which he imports and roasts and sells at farmer’s markets and at his concerts. Concertgoers also will find items crafted from backstrap weaving from a textile cooperative in Sololá, Guatemala.

Stevens has performed in Belfast before, at a house concert with his longtime friend Jennifer Armstrong, the city’s singer, fiddler and storyteller extraordinaire. She is among the musical colleagues he has invited to join him on stage.

“I play guitar and do songs from Latin America, especially Central America. And some written by a lot of different friends of mine, including David Dodson, whose songs I absolutely love,” he said.

The April 20 concert will begin at 7 p.m. at St. Francis of Assisi Church, 47 Court St., Belfast. Johnstone said the St. Brendan parochial consolidation has a correlate in San Ramón.

“They had three chapels during the civil war, and then they ended up joining together to become one church, [Parroquia] El Buen Pastor. The community of El Pueblo de Dios en Camino grew out of that,” she said.

Suggested donation for the concert is $15 (sliding scale/no one turned away). Proceeds will benefit St. Brendan’s support of education, a soy protein project and more. But Johnstone thinks she and others who visit these Central American sister communities get the bigger benefit.

“You know, coming from here, you'll be sitting on a cinder block listening to somebody's story and they'll go out and get a bottle of soda. You think, that's the last thing I want to drink, but it's like half a day's wages for them,” she said. “They're just so generous and so giving, and they have so little to share. It's very humbling.”

Listen to Dean Stevens’ “Stories”
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Staff Profile

Dagney C. Ernest
A&E editor for Courier Publications, LLC
(207) 594-4401/4407, ext. 115
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Dagney has been providing Courier coverage of the local arts scene since 1985 and has helmed the multi-paper A&E section since it debuted in 2003. She has been a local performing artist, community and professional for more than 30 years; and spent a decade writing, producing and announcing on-air for several Midcoast radio stations. When not in the NewsNest, Dagney likes to be in motion.

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