A museum display by Salvadoran artist Walterio Iraheta in El Salvador related to person who have "disappeared." The shoes were arranged in a circle on the floor. The piece is titled "Mandala." (Photo: Sue Smith)
Our Mission Immersion Experience group through the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond was well aware of the immigration conversation in our country and its impact on our immigrant friends and neighbors.
What we weren't aware of was how decisions to leave one's home in El Salvador for safety and economic opportunity abroad could devastate those left behind.
On our second day in the country, Pastor Zorina Masferrer of the Iglesia Comunidad Cristiana Bautista in Zacatecoluca introduced our group - five seminarians and two adjunct professors - to six members of her congregation who bore the emotional scars of losing a family member to northern migration.
Loss is really the best way to describe it. Even though decisions to leave were due to gang-related violence and economic distress, the pain of separation was still fresh and possibly would always be so.
Those left behind take on new roles in the family and try to fill the shoes of those who leave.
Sons become "the men of the house;" grandparents take on grandchildren to raise; older children care for and protect younger siblings. And lonely parents seek new relationships, which adds to the pain and resentment of the children.
Pastor Zorina told us that this was the first time some had told their stories. She knew better than any of us what was about to take place.
She knew recounting the time when their family members left would hurt deeply and sharply. Of course, she was right.
Sitting beside his older brother, one young man told of his father leaving when he was 8 years old.
Sobbing at times uncontrollably - hearing the words from his own lips for the first time - he relayed how his father couldn't find it in himself to tell his sons why he was leaving. One day, he was simply gone.
And though he sends money back home - money that has paid for the brothers' home and both sons' education - it was clear that nothing replaced his father's presence.
Family left behind worry for their relatives living and working in a strange, harsh land.
One young woman spoke of the three jobs her father works in the U.S., the toil his work takes on his health, and the fear that he has no one to take care of him. In El Salvador, his family would care for him. In the U.S., he has no one.
Her father left because he could not find work. He and his wife only knew extreme poverty, and they wanted a better life for their daughters.
"Sometimes you have to make hard decisions," his daughter, now 25, admitted, before adding, "but we have to stop sometimes and wonder if we made the right ones."
For another young woman, the departure of her mother 12 years ago may have seemed to her the right decision at the time, but at only 10 years old, her daughter begged her not to leave.
But local gang members had threatened her mother, and everyone knew when gangs target someone, they are not playing around. You take them and their threats seriously.
So, she left her daughter and 7-month-old son in the care of her grandmother. Her mother has not been able to return home since. Today, this young woman is caring for her aging great-grandmother and her younger brother.
In the U.S., some might be tempted to wag their fingers at the parents and say they themselves caused their children's pain.
They were the ones who decided to leave. "Nobody put a gun to their head and told them to leave," we might hear.
But in actual fact, for many Salvadorans who flee their country, someone did put a gun to their heads, figuratively and literally, by demanding extortion for the "right" to live in their own houses or operate their own businesses.
Or by threatening death if they don't join the gang.
And for others, grinding poverty suffered year after miserable year builds over time to create the need to look beyond what can be seen in order to imagine what might be possible "out there."
Is it always the right decision to leave? Perhaps not. But who are we, with full stomachs and life's amenities, to judge the economically distressed and disadvantaged? Who are we to tell them to stay where they are? To "just have faith?"
Yet none of us can deny the price Salvadoran families pay when a loved one emigrates from home.
What loved ones may send back to pay for a child's school supplies or repair the hole in the roof cannot approximate their touch, their smile and their direct gestures of love. Not even close.
No one can ever fill the void left by their absence. The tears on the faces of their children prove that.
And the tears on our faces after hearing their stories demand of us not the guilt of feeling sorry for them, but compassion, respect and a warm embrace both for family left behind and for their mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers forced to give up home, nation and often their relationship with their family.
Greg Smith is a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field personnel in Fredericksburg, Virginia, an accredited immigration legal representative through the Department of Justice and co-founder of LUCHA Ministries Inc. He serves as an adjunct professor of mission at Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond.
Editor's note: This article is part of a series of reflections on the BTSR Mission Immersion Experience to El Salvador in January 2018. Previous articles in the series are:
How the Pupusa Church Serves Town in El Salvador by Nathanael Blessington Thadikonda
A Horrific Slaughter That Must Never Be Forgotten by Cadance Tyler
How U.S. Exports Violence into Heart of El Salvador by Joseph Furio
U.S. Decision Leaves Salvadorans 'Running for Their Lives' by Sue Smith