In a few days' time, people all over the world will commemorate two Catholic feast days, All Saints and All Souls, with exuberant parties, celebrated with special foods and dances, and quiet candlelit vigils, marked by contemplation and prayer.
The history of these days is fascinating, but having grown up in a Protestant household and community, these celebrations were not a part of my religious or cultural experience. For me, it wasn’t until November 2001 that I was able to see the power that these remembrance days could have.
In the course of that year, two incredibly tragic events took place. One occurred on September 11, when airplanes were highjacked and terrorists caused the deaths of thousands in the United States. The other, for us in El Salvador, had occurred eight months earlier, on January 13, when a 7.9 magnitude earthquake struck. Over a thousand people died in landslides and hundreds of thousands were displaced. In both instances, lives were turned upside down and inside out. The resulting horror, sadness and fear, the very incredulity of it all, shook us to our very foundations.
When November arrived that year, everyone at ENLACE was exhausted. For months we had been coordinating relief efforts and working to rebuild and repair hundreds of homes. Not only had the work taken its toll, but the loss of dear friends and family members in the quake had hollowed us out and left us brittle. It was difficult for any of us to believe that joy could be a part of life again.
Dear friends and colleagues were among those who lost their family members; sons, brothers and cousins. The youngest, Rodrigo, had been just fourteen years old; his other brother, Edwin, just nineteen and newly married. Their sister, Yese, lived with us.
By now my family and I had lived in El Salvador for six years, and the November celebrations were familiar to me. I knew I would see families gathering in large cemeteries, tending to their loved ones' graves, replacing last year's plastic flowers with new, brighter ones and brushing fresh coats of turquoise, yellow or pink paint on the ornate mausoleums. But this would be the first time one of my friends would be gathering with her family at new gravesides.
Before she went, Yese explained to me aspects of her family's preparation, telling me what they would bring and why. They would make and share together Rodrigo’s favorite food; They would bring brooms and cloths to sweep the leaves away and clean the grave markers; They would bring brushes and repaint in Edwin's favorite color. As she spoke, her eyes shone with fresh tears and something deeper.
Her words and the tenderness in her tone conveyed that caring for her brothers again brought relief to the profound sadness created by their absence. Baking their favorite treats and maintaining their graves were small but incredibly important acts of service that she and her family could still do for them. And she and her family looked forward to these days that were set aside for these rituals.
After walking through that season so many years ago I now realize that it is no wonder that these days are cause for celebration. Serving together is like a salve that brings healing. Serving together is an act of faith, a whispered promise of joy renewed. These feast days are celebrations of new life.
This November, as many remember the lives of saints and souls, our prayer at ENLACE is that all those who are walking through grief and hardship will find joy and life again.
Serving each other in our darkest times can bring healing and unexpected joy. Why not reach out to a friend or neighbor with this post and start a conversation about who you might serve together in this season?