Six members of a Buffalo church are spending next week in El Salvador, traveling first to villages in the mountainous Cabanas region and then to the agricultural lowlands, to meet with farmers harmed by international gold mining.
But these churchgoers won't be there as missionaries seeking to spread the word of God or roll up their sleeves to lend a hand in public works projects to improve the lot of the peasants.
Instead, they will make the trip to reinforce a relationship that started several years ago at Trinity Episcopal Church to advocate on behalf of Salvadorans when the needs of Western culture collide with their simpler way of life.
The Rev. R. Cameron Miller, rector of the historic church on Delaware Avenue, says the solidarity that Trinity's congregation has forged with citizens of the Central American country has paid off.
When controversy heated up over a Canadian company's gold mine in Cabanas, several church members joined with other groups to participate in fact-finding visits to learn firsthand about violence against those opposed to the mining and environmental hazards it created, Miller said.
"The country's main river, which starts in the mountains, actually halted downstream because the mining company was using so much water," the rector said. "The mining also became a source of pollution. Seven people in the mining opposition were murdered or disappeared."
Pressure from the nonprofit organization Voices on the Border and other groups, Miller said, has resulted in a temporary halt to the mining. But because of gold's increasing value, he explained, mining companies are more willing to push into remote regions for smaller payloads of the precious metal.
"It's an issue in developing countries. The companies say they create jobs, but the peasants don't really benefit, and then the companies abandon the land," Miller said.
So when North Americans, even just a handful -- a banker, social worker, attorney, nurse, clergy member and college student from Trinity Church -- show up next week in a far-flung region like Cabanas, it is a big deal.
"We're going back to Cabanas to see what progress has been made. Just solidarity and being witnesses to the problems and hearing testimony from the organizers of the opposition is important," Miller said. "We learn their concerns and then come back to the United States and advocate for them."
They do not travel as missionaries.
"Most churches go down with the idea that, as wealthy North Americans, they can do some good -- and that's not all bad, but it is very paternalistic. It assumes that because people have a lack of material goods that they are impoverished.
"We have relationships with Salvadorian communities that Americans would consider poor but are thriving, because they live in community," Miller said.
"They have a quality of life that is better than most North Americans who have money. Depression is not a major mental health problem there as it is here."
And that's where the benefit of solidarity, he explained, flows both ways.
"We go to learn about community. In the United States, the whole economy is based on the isolation of individual families, whereas in El Salvador and other parts of the developing world, villages still know how to be interdependent on each other."
Members of Trinity Church, he said, were so inspired by how villagers live, that they decided to partner with the Massachusetts Avenue Project (MAP) on the West Side to become more interdependent.
The MAP focuses on gardening and food programs.
"We're actively working to increase our interdependence with the West Side," Miller said of the church's congregation.