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Advent 2023 newsletter


Bob and Liz Cunningham, El Salvador

Bob with the summer school kids at Patronato Lidia Coggiola in El Zaite

Christmas cards often have images of the infant Jesus in a manger in a quaint country setting along with words such as “peace” and “joy,” but they rarely depict the real poverty into which he was born. Poverty doesn’t mix well with the festive mood associated with choirs of angels, toys and gingerbread cookies. Yet, that’s exactly the mix that exists these days in the community of El Zaite here in El Salvador.

kids with crafts

Kids showing off their crafts

With the end of the school year here, Liz and I run a summer school program for the children. We exercise with them, sing Christmas songs and do arts and crafts. The program keeps the kids off the streets and out of trouble. On any given day, the joyful sound of children singing Salvadoran and North American Christmas carols can be heard floating through the humid air in the neighborhood.

The people who established El Zaite were internal refugees displaced by the country’s civil war. As part of the peace agreement, about 100 families were resettled in this valley where there was nothing — no roads, facilities or services. Over the past 30 years, they have built a community for themselves, but it remains poor.

One night recently, I ran into one of the mothers, exhausted but smiling, walking home late from work on the path that leads down to Zaite. A single mother of three children, she works in a chemical plant on the highway. She and her extended family live in a cramped cluster of cinder block houses with metal roofs on a rutted dirt road. She struggles to put food on the table, pay for school and medical expenses and make repairs to her house caused by regular flooding during the rainy season. Her neighbors all face similar challenges.

Enjoying yoga

People in our community have inadequate access to quality education, health care and living wages. They suffer from poor nutrition, a polluted environment and family separation. Many of the children have been traumatized by gang violence. We know two teenagers who saw their fathers being murdered in front of them when they were little.

Gustavo Gutiérrez, one of the founders of liberation theology and its central tenet, “the preferential option for the poor,” talked about conversion to our neighbor as conversion to Jesus. He said, “To make an option for the poor is to make an option for Jesus.”

As Maryknoll lay missioners, we strive to live in solidarity with those who are poor and to join Jesus in the nonviolent struggle for justice. We cross borders, going out in the world to live the Gospel, but the biggest border — the one between abundance and scarcity — lies not somewhere outside of us, but rather within our own hearts.

Adopting a spirit of poverty, trusting in God, and living simply can be challenging, but it brings us into relationship with our neighbors and gives us a better understanding of their struggles.

The third joyful mystery of the Rosary is the Nativity of the Lord, and its spiritual fruit is poverty of spirit, detachment from things of the world. During this Advent season, we might consider what we truly need, what is excess, and what we can share with others. As we consider what gifts to give, we might ask ourselves if we are willing to cross the borders in our hearts and give out of our poverty like the poor widow in the Gospel.

May the spirit of Christmas, a spirit of peace and joy … and of the poor Jesus, grow in our hearts.

What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would give a lamb;
If I were a wise man
I would do my part,
Yet what I can I give Him,
Give my heart,
Give my heart.

In the Bleak Midwinter

Please consider supporting our mission work in El Zaite with a donation through the link below.

We invite you to walk with us as “COMPANIONS IN MISSION.” Companions in Mission are friends and generous donors who give financial gifts on a regular (usually monthly) basis. For more information, visit Become a Companion in MissionThank you so much for your generosity! 


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.