Paso a paso — restoring hope with small things - Maryknoll Lay Missioners
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Flowers amidst barbed wire in San Salvador.

Lent calls for prayer, almsgiving, fasting, and a conversion of heart as we seek to follow Christ more faithfully. On the one hand, it sounds like challenging sacrifice and deep soul work. On the other hand, it can seem trivial. What impact could any person’s action have on the problems here in El Salvador or in the world today?

The people of El Salvador suffer from a myriad of problems — poverty, violence, pollution and historical amnesia, to name a few. Pervasive violence, for example, can be traced from the Spanish colonial era, through “La Matanza”, the massacre of tens of thousands of people, most of whom were indigenous (1932), a bloody civil war (1979-1992), up to today’s killings, disappearances and forced displacements.

Of course, problems like these exist all over the world. They seem intractable and can be overwhelming at times. What does Lent have to do with any of this?

As I was standing on the bus the other day, a woman sitting next to me smiled and offered to hold my backpack on her lap. The buses here in San Salvador are often packed, sweltering hot, and either stuck in gridlock or weaving in and out of traffic at high speed. Although I would never give up my bag in New York, I had seen it done here a number of times before, so I gave the woman my backpack, smiled, and said, “¡Gracias, que amable!” (thank you, how kind).

This small gesture on a hot crowded bus, like water in the desert, refreshed me immeasurably — physically lightening my load, emotionally restoring hope, mentally reducing my worries, and spiritually helping me feel more connected to those around me.

Goodness and beauty seem to shine more brightly in the midst of darkness and suffering. Brightly colored flowers poke through garbage-strewn lots. People passing on the street regularly say, “¡Buenos días!”, and if you are with someone else, they say it twice, a small yet significant gesture. A teenager who lives in a poor village controlled by a gang starts to leave a youth program meeting and then turns around and walks back to thank me for visiting her community. In the face of great challenges, the culture of community and small everyday kindnesses here restores the spirit and inspires hope.

Paso a paso” (step by step) seems to be the prevailing modus operandi. And so, I think, it can be with Lent, and for that matter, with being “on mission,” accompanying Jesus on his way as we accompany those living on the margins. The Bible is filled with stories of people doing little things to help Jesus on his way. He does not need a lot of help, just a little — a drink, a towel to wipe his face, an expression of faith. Little things making a big difference, like a mustard seed.

After my father died, I found a small card in his wallet with a list of “Everyday Things To Remember” (see image at right). It reminds me of my father, his easy smile and good nature. I do not know who wrote it, but it strikes me as a good list. I especially like the smallness of it.

Conversion of heart sounds like a lot, but hello and a smile seem doable.

If you want to awaken all of humanity, then awaken all of yourself, if you want to eliminate the suffering in the world, then eliminate all that is dark and negative in yourself. Truly, the greatest gift you have to give is that of your own self-transformation (Lao Tzu).


Bob Cunningham
Working together with his wife, Liz, at Patronato Lidia Coggiola, Bob Cunningham accompanies and supports the education and empowerment of the people in El Zaite, El Salvador, particularly children, adolescents and women.