Saturday, October 18, 2014

Faith and Reason

Last Sunday I was in Seattle for Cristosal’s Executive Committee meeting. We were hosted by St. Thomas in Medina, where the Rev. Lex Breckenridge spoke during the Sunday forum about the intersection of religion and science. Lex was one of the first folks to open my eyes beyond gut reactions to words like conversion, transformation, even Jesus. To the idea that these are just words, and spirituality is a personal experience, and therefore a personal interpretation of what we want those words to mean to us. They can be offensive, neutral, healing, transformative, challenging… it’s up to you.
 Much of this past year has been a personal journey to unify three seemingly disparate worlds that I walk in: the lofty scientific, the inner spiritual, and the very real lived experience of Cristosal’s human rights work with marginalized communities in El Salvador.
 Lex highlighted the problem that when we choose between scienceor religion, we hold these fields to a moral ideal, an absolute standard as the answer. Yet both are flawed: technological innovation brings us nanotechnology and the hydrogen bomb, religion inspired the globe-shifting acts of both Martin Luther King and the Crusades. To pursue one without the other (faith without reason, reason without faith) is to lose those checks and balances that mean we make choices for the benefit of others, not solely ourselves.
DSCN1363 DSCN1358
  One of my favorite philosophers says that change happens when we look at the world as it is, and compare it to way we think it should be. And that starts with recognizing that we don’t truly understand the world as it is. Lex highlighted recent studies in quantum physics showing that our world does not operate as mechanistically as we’d like to believe. Quantum particles, separated over light years, continue to have an inexplicable influence over one another, to be connected despite every basic law that would suggest otherwise.
I moved to El Salvador with the understanding that reason alone would not allow me to understand the world, nor give me the complete skill set I needed to change it. One of the great opportunities of working with Cristosal is the opportunity to understand human rights in a faith-based context. I’ve realized that our work is truly an expression of faith – a belief that all humans are created equal in dignity and rights. We then take that belief and design programs to ensure it is upheld in realty. Which quickly becomes a very messy, and very human, process. And through that experience, I have made a very calculated, and very comforting deduction. It cannot be done alone.
In a culture where we value individual achievement beyond all else, I (like those quantum physicists) have come to the conclusion that nothing exists in isolation. Whether we pursue a better life, a better world, through science or faith (and any other field besides), we will find that nothing can be achieved without the other.
A dear friend of mine Ashley Cameron, who just returned from her YASC year in the Philippines, sent me this quote from Archbishop Desmond Tutu that sums it up perfectly:
“A person is a person through other persons. None of us comes into the world fully formed. We would not know how to think, or walk, or speak, or behave as human beings unless we learned it from other human beings. We need other human beings in order to be human. I am because other people are.”
Noah, Lex, and I outside of St. Thomas
I return to El Salvador on Monday for my second year with YASC. Though there are arbitrary date markers of start and stop, this year will continue as a process, a continuously evolving product of the relationships I share and the conversations we have together. Thank you to all of you who have been a part of that incredible process so far, and I hope you will continue to join me in the year to come.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Las Bravas Noticias - Post #1

(This is an old post that somehow got lost amid the travel and the crazy. Apologies!)

Post: September 27th

I spent the past week in Syracuse, NY - my first time up to this glorious upstate hermitage (also home to the great orange and black, but we'll ignore that for now). I saw a Wegman's for the first time, I met an ex-ambassador, I gave several lectures, I bought my first suit, and while doing all these wild and scary things, I was very, very far away from the people who otherwise support me and tell me it will all be ok... my family, my boyfriend, my friends, my mentor.

It was just me.

And that's the first time that's really happened before. I've always had others to mentor me, give feedback, tell me what's right, what's wrong, where the boundaries are, someone to fall back on, someone I know will catch me if I screw it all up. But this time, there were no dear friends as I pushed onwards unto the breach. I just had to inhale deep, cross my fingers, and in the words of my favorite high school teacher, fake it 'til you make it.

So that's why Las Noticias Bravas, right? 'Cause it means brave?

Actually no. Nice try though.

When I attended my first Episcopal service in Spanish, they didn't translate "the good news" as las buenas noticias, but rather la buena nueva. Not news like newspapers, but "new" as in fresh, never-done-before, hot-off-the-presses. I always thought "the good news" was like the Jesus version of extra, extra, read all about it... Jesus has come, he's got some good stuff to say, so listen up.

But no, in Spanish we get this whole new thing. La Buena Nueva - like a fresh horizon, a fall-out type tidal wave of invisible karma that washes the world clean. I imagine people sitting in the aftermath of the shockwave, simply pausing, observing their surroundings, and smiling a rich, deep smile. They had smiled before, but the richness of a new experience, of a new perspective, of a new hope, makes the everday fresh and bright.

Still, I wasn't about to call my blog post La Buena Nueva. (I think that not-so-subtely would imply that I am the bearer of the Gospel via blog... let me set the record straight... this ain't no Gospel). So I kept googling Spanish adjectives until I came toLas Bravas Noticias - a term used in a Brazilian newspaper as slang to refer to the messages, the gossip, the propoganda passed within a company. Like the inside scoop - the dirty, gritty, security clearance type stuff. Plus it's from Brazil... do you know anything from Brazil that isn't awesome? The correct answer is não (pronounced "now" ironically enough).

So welcome to Las Noticias Bravas - an inside look at the year to come. I could call it a second year, but already I know that would be inaccurate. The next 365 days will in no way replicate the past 365 days, and I in no way can prepare you for what will come (because I certainly don't know myself). You might just have to sit back and follow along for the ride...

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Home Again Home Again Lickety Split

Yes, this post is a tad overdue.

I've been home for about a week and change. That strange title you see above is a darling phrase of my mother's. For the first time in a year, I can use it and no one looks at me like I'm a crackpot. Ok, that's not true. But fewer people look at me like I'm a crackpot.

Rather than postpone the inevitable, waiting for some lightning of inspiration or insight to strike and perfectly sum up my YASC year into a Nobel-worthy oration of Hemingway proportions, I have finally succumbed to the basic fact that such a thing does not exist. And whatever I write will just have to do (it is September for goodness sakes).

Also, SPOILER ALERT. I'm staying a second year. I return on October 20th to San Salvador, and until then, I am making the most hodgepodge route across both coasts sharing Cristosal's work (on a map it looks like very enthuasiastic but very drunk hopscotch).

So, how was it? That's like asking how it was to be a teenager. So if I give you a deer-in-the-headlights expression, it's not you, it's me. Because it is very difficult to sum up what has so far been the greatest and, I would say, most influential experience of my life, not because of one pivotal moment, but because the whole is greater than the sum of each individual part. And you don't realize that until you land in the United States, and like the Millennium Falcoln dropping you off on your home planet, after the rush of wind and debris, you look at your surroundings and think, well that was sweet.

Unfortunately, I suppose sweet isn't a great summary, nor does it do jutice to Cristosal, my friends, or even to me. The grand moral of the story is I left to be a concrete part of, participant in, and contributor to global justice. And I wanted, at the end of my year, to have a far mor specific and personal understanding of just what this "global justice" thing really is.

And I feel deeply blessed to have found that place. I fill a role in Cristosal that allows me to engage with, contribute to, and to be taught by a truly unique group of individuals that are, in many ways singlehandedly, reshaping the way we think about mission and citizen engagement in Central and North America. Though Noah (Exec. Director boss-man) warned me we would fail 9 times out of 10, I showed up just in time to witness that elusive number #10, Edison's 2,000th try at the carbonized cotton filament lightbulb.

When the child migrant crisis hit, I like most North Americans had that deep blow to the intestine somewhere above the belly button that went something like this, "How aful! What do we do? Someone tell me what to do!" In moments of crisis, we need people with that very rare combination of skill, experience, vision, connections, and a stubborn-bar-nothing will to never give up. In my own unbiased way, I say that is exactly what Cristosal represents. The ability to transform first-hand experiences with victims of violence in El Salvador to a regional strategy with the potential to save lives and demand good governance, all the while empowering state actors rather than take center stage... this is an art form, a dance both carefully choreographed and oxymoronically (yes it's a word) open to improvisation, and I have a VIP pass. No scratch that, I get to be on stage too. 

That's what sweet means. (If you want to learn more about Cristosal's strategy to address the child migrant crisis, please email me at, check out our website at and sign up for the monthly newsletter).

Another thing you can do is... drum roll... DONATE! As you might have guessed, second year with the Young Adult Service Corps = fundraising. But there's good news! Only $8,000 this year, to pay for stipend (food and liquids), safety considerations, housing, flights... you know the drill. 

In all seriousness, and with as much humility as possible, I am asking you to consider giving to support my second YASC year, and another 365 days with Cristosal. The last 365 days have given me a deep and inescapable love for El Salvador, which at the end of the day, I think is more valuable than any amount of correctly conjugated verbs or points on a resume. Because I now know how to be in El Salvador, how to speak to someone in such a way tthat hey feel respected, honored, and comfortable enough to work with me as an equal, and not just a crazy volunteer gringa.

If you donated last year, please consider giving the same amount (plus $25 for you over-achievers). If you did not give last year, there’s no time like the present! Please visit Cristosal’s website at (your gift will be designated to support me) or mail a check to:

Foundation Cristosal
Memo: Hannah Perls YASC
9641 Carousel Center Drive
Syracuse, NY 13290

As they say in El Salvador, "Thank you for reading me."

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