Going Down the Mountain

By Joel Certa-Werner

I wasn’t really sure what to expect from the mission trip to El Salvador with Bishop Jung and those on the cabinet - one of whom is my wife, D.S. Rev. Barb Certa-Werner.  It wasn’t a destination location on my radar - at all.  But this land of coffee trees and dormant volcanoes deepened my love for our United Methodist connection and demonstrated the transformative power of social holiness.  I flew home exhausted, but also renewed and transformed!

Sue D’Alessio asked me to share my impressions of the trip as someone from outside the cabinet.  And, in many ways the trip was as expected:  a week filled of team building (among the bishop and cabinet), site seeing (Mayan Temple, capital city San Salvador sites, Ataco tourist trap packed with street vendors, crossing a bridge to Guatemala), mission projects (painting the Methodist school, distributing food to destitute families, and leading VBS), education experiences (learning about the brutal civil war spanning the 1980's, the Jesuit martyrs slain in the political unrest, the assassination of national hero Archbishop Oscar Romaro, and meeting with theologian Fr. Jon Sobrino), and relationship building (visiting Methodist congregations, schools, clinics, pastors, conference staff, and missionaries).  But, what surprised me was the impact of what John Wesley called social holiness - especially with those “down the mountain.”

In the Bible, Jesus took time away - up a mountain - with Peter, James and John.  The disciples’ experience there was so powerful that they wanted to build structures and stay at the top of the mountain.  But, Jesus told them that they were to go back down.  Why?  I am confident it was because life and faith ought to engage people where they are.

In El Salvador I was stunned to learn, when visiting Gloria Methodist Church, that there were many denominations and congregations “up the mountain.”  But, no one would go “down into the valley” because that was where the degenerates, the undesirables, the sinful, the irredeemable dwelt.  I was thrilled to learn that those kinds of neighborhoods were exactly where Methodism had, and was continuing to plant new congregations!  I heard stories of how the Methodist congregations then helped transform entire neighborhoods from violence, destitution, gang action, and hopelessness to social reform, growing hope, economic change, and deep faith.  I was bowled over by the vision, passion, and tenacity of El Salvador’s Methodist Bishop Juan de Dios in bringing the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the community as a whole, but especially to the overlooked, the outcast, the forgotten.  This truly is social holiness at its finest!

All this has been since 1995 when Rev. Juan Mayorga and family returned from their time in the United States.  They, as described by Rev. Jorge Mayorga, had experienced the holiness movement within The United Methodist Church and worked to bring this kind of relevant and transformative faith back home to El Salvador, launching the Evangelical Methodist Church.  The Mayorga family then went on to help launch new Hispanic congregations in the Wisconsin Conference!

Currently, Methodism in El Salvador has grown to 13 congregations with 1,300 members.  The most significant experience for me was to be able to lead VBS with a sanctuary full of beautiful children from “down the mountain” with crazy songs and stories of Jesus Who loves them so deeply.

One comment stood out to me from our conversation with the theologian Fr. Jon Sobrino at Central America University in San Salvador.  He said, “I was raised and theologically trained in Spain, and then in Germany.  But, it was when I came to the poor in El Salvador that I truly experienced the presence and power of Jesus.”  I, too, am so grateful to have experienced the presence and power of Jesus transforming lives in and through El Salvador.  I hope others will consider being part of a mission trip there!

In Christ,

Joel Certa-Werner