At the biweekly pastors' meeting yesterday morning, the leaders quickly pointed out the low attendance. Although several factors could account for this, including that this meeting started the cycle again after taking several weeks off, only one culprit, according to the meeting leaders, could account for the low turnout. Certainly, the pastors all had something more important to attend to, namely the World Cup soccer tournament. Indeed, I myself had debated between arriving on time and waiting to see if
Spain would come back to beat Switzerland. (I did decide to attend the meeting, lest you consider me a complete slacker. If you only have the updates to the Global Ministries website to use as your measuring stick, I can see how you'd come to that conclusion.) Whether the tournament had caused low attendance at a pastors' meeting, I don't know, but I do know that its possibilities played in everyone's minds.
Soccer fever has swept the world. Every four years, the best players from thirty-two different countries come together to compete for the sport's most coveted prize. Something about this event intoxicates even those from a country who did not qualify. El Salvador had lost its bid to the United States, Mexico, and Honduras last fall, but its people still take interest in the tournament, and many still know which teams they want to win. I had an easier choice, since the team from my homeland did make it.
I missed the game between the United States and England, though, because I spent last weekend visiting some friends in their home in the mountains of Chalatenango. As exciting as the World Cup may be, nothing beats a chance to visit a new place full of clean air, good hiking, trail running, chess playing, and dancing. The village we visited celebrated the day dedicated to its patron saint, and held a dance festival in its honor. Several members came together to show their talents with skits and dances, from traditional to modern. Afterward, they set up a DJ booth and dance lights over the local concrete basketball court. Then we danced. The youth and many adults moved to the hip-hop beat, enjoying themselves. The people of this community take pride that they have no problems with violence of any kind, so we spent the evening in the carefree presence of each other, in the open air with a well-placed tarp to protect us from the rain storm lit by periodic flashes of lightning. I felt a peace in that moment that such a close community could invite and accept me, a stranger who looked and talked differently from everyone, into their celebrations.
On Sunday we headed to a nearby town to attend the Lutheran church before returning to San Salvador. As we arrived early, we immediately launched into a discussion of the latest rounds of the World Cup and flipped on the tube to watch the current match between Ghana and Serbia. But my friends really looked forward to the upcoming game between Germany and Australia. The pastor and his wife had come from Germany as missionaries, and my friends knew they would support the team of their pastor's homeland. Seeing their enthusiasm, I asked if they would join me in support of my team, the United States of America. The unanimous response came without hesitation, "No. We can't."
"Now wait a minute, you're willing to support your pastor's team, but you can't support mine?"
One friend jumped in, "The United States has such bad policy."
I didn't need to ask any more. This friend's brother had died due in a large part to U.S. policy. Another friend had never met his father for the same reason. In fact, most people I know here have family or close friends who have died from Uncle Sam's bullets and bombs, the side effect of spreading freedom and democracy in the world. My well-educated friends also look out and see the United States still pushing its weight around in the world, taking full advantage of its military and economic might, and building walls to separate itself from the world. The World Cup may keep some pastors from attending their meeting, but it can't keep some deep-seeded feelings from overtaking the spirit of international sportsmanship.
I brought this up to another friend who met us at church. She also responded that she couldn't support a team that picks on the poor countries for its own success.
But didn't Germany pick on the whole world at one point?
But, she quickly pointed out, Germany lost, and they have since changed their ways. The United States still maintains its power. I understood what she said, and I did not deny any of these claims, nor did I ask anyone to accept them. I just asked for some help cheering on my soccer team.
As we rode home in the pastor's pickup, those in the cab had the game on the radio. A great shout of joy arose as Germany scored its first goal. Not much later, we'd found a restaurant along the highway where we all watched on a large flat screen television as Germany cruised to a 4-0 victory over Australia. The pastor and his wife bought lunch for all, and we cheered together in a beautiful display of international fellowship. In the right context, soccer can bring people together.
On Tuesday I found myself hoping that North Korea would come back from their 2-0 deficit against Brazil, and not just because of my natural tendency to pull for the underdog. I realize that sometimes you're from the bad country, the one that causes so much trouble, and that you still need support. For I know deep down that it's just a game of soccer, that each player wants nothing more than to put the ball through the net. We can't judge them for the flag they bear.
As I watch tomorrow's game between the United States and Slovenia, with possible ridicule as I cheer on the red, white, and blue, I will remember that it's just a game. I know what is really important, dancing in the carefree presence of each other, under a rain storm lit by periodic flashes of lightning.
Nicholas Green serves in El Salvador as a long-term volunteer with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of El Salvador. He supports the National Youth, with the Family and Gender Program of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod of El Salvador. He also assists with the Communications Program.