By Brenda Kame’enui, First Congregational UCC, Eugene, Oregon
Some of us in the United Church of Christ (UCC) flock tend to shrink from God/Jesus/religion talk in public. Mission is a word we’ve steered clear of since James Michener’s novel Hawaii. Webster defines mission as a “specific task or duty; calling in life; delegation; being sent on some service.” I like the American Heritage Dictionary definition: “a body of persons sent to conduct negotiations or establish relations with a foreign country.”
First Congregational Church UCC Eugene was not intent upon negotiating with a foreign country when members first went to Tasajera Island, El Salvador in 2006. This tiny island, about an hour’s boat ride from the mainland of El Salvador, is home to a small, poor fishing village. That first group from Eugene looked forward to meaningful health care work with Salvadorans on the island, surely a “foreign” place to the North Americans.
Who knew this visit by a few doctors would blossom into a continuing relationship that flourishes on both sides of the border? Since that first trip, FCC-UCC Eugene has sent another half-dozen delegations, from 3-year-olds to 65-year-olds, who live and eat with islanders and work together on a variety of projects.
In the first year, FCC UCC Eugene conducted a special offering to build a health clinic on Tasajera and planned with islanders the best way to proceed. That summer, island residents and a large group from Oregon built a health clinic, where the local health promoter and visiting doctors have private space to see patients. Following delegations connected islanders with ELAW, Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide. Concrete paving of a section of the beach on this small island sent rumor and fear through islanders that development was underway by wealthy people in power. While deeds to their land are hard to come by, the islanders became committed to maintaining a national environmentally protected area for the nesting and nurture of endangered turtles. This project caught the imagination of many on Tasajera Island and halted development on the beach. The turtle sanctuary ties the people to the land in a way far more powerful than an illusive deed might.
FCC-UCC Eugene now works with Tasajera Islanders to install water filters and further a small sewing industry. Earlier this summer, Eugene hosted the island’s health promoter, Rosa Mendoza. Rosa is a warm, talented, and ambitious woman, the one who administers vaccinations, provides well-child exams, offers preventive care, and consults with a doctor on the mainland of El Salvador. FCC-UCC took full advantage of Rosa’s visit to regale her with all things Oregon and return the hospitality of this delightful Salvadoran friend. After church on August 4, Rosa shared the story of the people on Tasajera, as well as her dreams for future health work. Rosa left with new hopes for telemedicine on the island and a promise of medical equipment to come.
Rosa’s visit made evident the “family” in the FCC-UCC Eugene-Tasajera relationship. This working partnership is a continuing dialogue and lasting friendship that mean far more than a single mission.