Passing through many doors - Maryknoll Lay Missioners
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A recent workshop on flower making at the Women’s Collective in El Zaite.

I remember the first time I went into a prison. My husband, Bob, had been an active volunteer at Concord Prison in Massachusetts for many years, and after much encouragement and praying, I decided to join him. We joked that in our busy lives of work and raising three kids, volunteering together gave us an opportunity to spend time together.

Bob and Liz at a Tú Decides event

For volunteers, physically getting into prison is a process that takes time. There are multiple doors and checkpoints (it may remind older folks of the opening scene of the TV show Get Smart). I remember feeling many emotions — anticipation, excitement, fear. I felt the same emotions every time I went in, but I always left feeling great joy, as though I had spent time with Christ.

Bob and I are now living in Zaragoza, El Salvador, as Maryknoll lay missioners. Ending up here has also been a process of passing through many doors and required a lot of discernment and prayer. We attended the 2018 discernment retreat at Maryknoll in Ossining and felt called to serve, but ultimately decided it was best for our family to defer a year. When COVID hit, we joined other candidates for multiple Zoom sessions. Finally, in October of 2021, we were back in Ossining for orientation. We landed in El Salvador in January. I felt the same emotions of anticipation, excitement and fear.

After three months of language school and visiting several potential sites to live and work, we settled in Zaragoza. Our neighborhood reminds us of where we raised our kids — a friendly, supportive community, where you can hear kids playing and laughing. Our neighbors welcomed us with tamales and cookies. We were home.

We work in the El Zaite community, part of Zaragoza that was settled following the civil war here in the 1980s. It is one mile from where we live, and although there is great poverty, there is also great community. We work in the Patronato Lidia Coggiola Community Center, where we help out at the Refuerzo (Reinforcement) afterschool program, work with a teen group called Tú Decides (You Decide), and assist with the Women’s Collective. We feel that part of our ministry is our commute, the hilly walk through the El Zaite community, as we get to know the people and families along the way.

El Salvador has a long history of violence and poverty. El Zaite is in a gang-controlled area, but El Patronato is at its center. I have always believed that education is the key to nonviolence. It affords children a future beyond being a gang member, getting pregnant by 14 or ending up in jail.

Carlos Diaz, Director of Patronato Lidia Coggiola, planting seeds with some boys from the Refuerzo

Most students here spend only half a day at school, allowing for a lot of free time. The children of El Zaite head to the Refuerzo at El Patronato before or after classes, for homework help and time to play. Our supervisor, Carlos, the director of El Patronato, and his dedicated staff have provided a safe, loving and fun environment not only for the children here, but for the young adults and women, who are great roles models for the kids. And Carlos is always finding extra things for everyone to do (including us) such as working in the community garden, participating in litter-removal days, and even painting murals on the community center walls.

Are Bob and I really helping them? I don’t know. My Spanish is quite limited and my math abilities pretty much stop at multiplication and division. But ours is a ministry of presence more than anything else. They know we choose to be part of their community and contribute where we can, and I pray that means something. We are spending time together, and we always head home full of joy.

And yes, we have found a prison here where we are volunteering. Every other Sunday we attend Mass at Mariona, the largest of many prisons in El Salvador. Although these men have experienced violence and have limited prospects for a bright future, they are full of faith and hope, and we feel God’s presence inside the walls.

We also are grateful that on the on the other side of the walls, we are part of the El Patronato community that provides hope and opportunity for a nonviolent future that all kids deserve.

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