Pink soccer cleats aren’t cool in El Salvador. I just learned that one the hard way. But before I tell that story, let me back up a bit and tell you about a single word.
I started studying Spanish about three months ago on Duolingo and I’ve been in language school here in San Salvador for slightly less than two weeks. If someone speaks really slowly and uses words a first-grader would know, I can usually get by. Despite my minimal understanding, I already have a favorite vocabulary word: the verb esperar.
Esperar has two meanings (if you think that’s strange, just think about the word right in English). The first meaning of esperar is “to wait” but it also means “to hope.” I love that.
In my limited experience, having the patience to wait and the capacity to hope are two foundational elements in a missioner’s life. While these two concepts are seemingly disparate, they often inhabit the same space.
For example, when the COVID pandemic hit in February 2020, I, along with many other future missioners, was forced to wait to embark on this terrifyingly beautiful adventure. While we waited, we also hoped that the opportunity would eventually come to fruition and hoped that we could find good and growth in the constant delays.
Esperar also applies to this current stage of the process. As a Maryknoll lay missioner, one of my primary hopes is to truly become part of a Salvadoran community and to do some substantive good. My severely limited ability to speak the language, however, means I have to wait. Before I find a long-term community and mission project, I am spending three months in language school.
It’s hard to build relationships and integrate into a new culture when you can barely order food off a menu. That can be a real struggle, by the way; particularly when the restaurant is out of half the food on the menu.
There are, however, ways to understand a new culture, even without speaking the language fluently, which brings me back to how pink soccer cleats aren’t cool in El Salvador.
I love sports (I always have), and I grew up playing soccer. I am fluent in the universal language of athletic competition, and I’ve spent a lot of time during my first two weeks here looking for a good pick-up soccer game. I got a tip that there is usually a game at the local park early in the morning on Saturdays.
So there I am at 7:40 a.m., sitting on a hunk of concrete watching 10 people play soccer, waiting and hoping that they’ll let me play. About 30 minutes later, one player steps out of the game. The remaining players scan the park for a replacement player and eventually, their eyes rest on me. They wave me in.
I’m so excited I don’t even tie my shoelaces but as I take my first steps onto the field, all I hear is laughter. They’re laughing at me. Not mean laughs, but definitely laughs at my expense. Then I hear the word “rosado.” I don’t know a lot of words in Spanish but I know that one. It means pink. And yes, my cleats are bright pink.
Here lies another key to the beginning of a missioner’s time in a new country — humility. When you don’t know the culture and don’t speak the language, you have to be open to looking stupid sometimes… OK: a lot of the time. It’s human nature to try to avoid looking dumb or weird, but hiding from those moments only stunts growth and often prevents rich experiences.
Back on the field, I tie my cleats, stand up, and start playing. Plays are made. Goals are scored. There are fist bumps and high fives and laughs about things other than my cleats. Eventually the game wraps up.
It’s not important how well I played or if I scored the winning goal or not (I did). What mattered is that when the game was over, I was told over and over again to come back next week because they play every Saturday at 7.
Oh, I was also told to get new cleats.
I didn’t catch much else of what they said, and next week I’ll still be wearing those stupid pink cleats. I guess I’ll just have to wait and hope for those things to change. Esperar once again.