In a 1998 article titled “Values,” Washington Post columnist William Raspberry described the newly arrived immigrants to the U.S. as viewing America, “… the way a youngster views a candy store: with nose pressed to the glass and an attitude that says, ‘If only I could get in there!’” I can understand that feeling.
San Salvador, my birthplace, is the capital city of El Salvador, the smallest and most densely inhabited country in Central America. The state of the nation is such that about 60 per cent of the rural population still lack accessible health services, and their living conditions are below what is considered the poverty level in the rest of developed countries. Many see as their only hope to leave the country in search for a better environment, a place where the basic rights of health and security are provided. This is where I grew up, in a place where there are no guarantees, where life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are not treated as unalienable rights. This is where most of my worldview comes from, from the experiences and observations growing up in El Salvador.
While living in El Salvador, I often translated for medical missionaries who came from America in order to help my country. Often the clinics would be set up in the poorest and most isolated areas of the country, and it was on one of those occasions through an encounter with a patient that my desire to help people and seek God’s purposes for my life turned from a mere desire into a mission.
The memory of that day plays vividly in my mind like a movie. It is as if I am still there, I can see the patients who had been waiting for hours to be seen; while the American volunteers, working in the heat characteristic of my country, try to make the most of the limited resources in order to help those needing glasses and other medicines. I remember that in spite of the harsh conditions, I had enjoyed working at this place because it was the town where my grandfather and father came from.
That day, I met a patient who changed my perspective on life as I perceived it. When he came, the first thing I noticed about him is that he was a very poor man, no shoes, and old clothes that testified of his living conditions. I started a casual conversation, almost automatically by asking where in La Union was he from. Through this, I realized he came from the same place as my grandmother. I told him about my grandmother’s background, and what he told me took me by surprise, “Your grandmother must be from the Benitez family,” he said. He was right, I was amazed, and asked him “How do you know?” He said that all the Benitez girls where white … so it was obvious by my tone of skin. Furthermore, he knew who my grandmother was, and he said he was related to my grandfather … who was a distant cousin of his.
Through this conversation, I came to a realization; there is a very thin line that sets apart the less fortunate of those who are in a better situation. This ignited in me the sense of appreciation of what I have been given, a sense of responsibility towards those in need. It was as if time stood still and I could see myself sitting across the table from that man. I looked at his life, which was filled with hardship and scarcity and looked and realized the value of the hard work of my grandfather for the first time in my life.
While growing up, I was often told how my grandfather at a young age had to become his household’s provider and this prevented him from going to school. I cannot recall the countless occasions where I was reminded that my grandfather came from very humble origins, working so that his children would not have to go through life without an education. As a result of all the hard work of my grandfather, my father was able to complete his studies and become a doctor, participating and encouraging me to participate in medical missions. All of these truths became tangible as I was sitting in the table across from a man who lacked the means to provide himself or his family for glasses and who happened to be related to me.
This encounter has been the best experience of my life, because it challenged me to be less complacent, opening my eyes to the value of the opportunities I had been given, such as accessibility to health and education. Since then, my goal is to prepare myself academically, and spiritually to help provide others with similar opportunities. The parable of the talents narrated in Mathew 25, (which I had heard several times before), took on a new meaning in my life. It has become my mission to one day hear the words:
“Well done good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!” (Mat 25:23)