Rita Amberg Waldref, 62, and George Waldref, 57, got married 34 years ago today. They vowed from the beginning to “live simply that others might simply live,” as reads a plaque on the wall of their modest home on Spokane’s North Side.
They both chose professions of service. George is a nurse at Providence Holy Family Hospital. Rita directs the social justice ministry at St. Aloysius Parish in Spokane.
The couple have traveled to El Salvador five times since 2005 and helped establish a sister-parish program there.
They raised their two daughters, now grown, with the values of service and simplicity. Their oldest daughter, Amber Waldref, was recently elected to the Spokane City Council.
The Waldrefs sat around their kitchen table one recent Monday and explained how they’ve maintained a debt-free lifestyle, and what they’ve learned in El Salvador about the true nature of riches.
Rita: When we got married, we said we weren’t going to spend a lot of money on a wedding, and we didn’t.
George: Our girls call it the hippie wedding, because Rita’s dress was made by her secretary. My sister made my open-collar shirt. It was the ’70s. We had a potluck reception. We didn’t have a wedding cake. The joke was we’re going to have a keg, not a cake.
Rita: I just carried one rose. We didn’t get off on the flower bit.
George: I ride my bike to work. We have one car. We made that decision almost 30 years ago. We did not have a credit card for years. We talked about larger purchases and we didn’t buy them until we had the money.
Young couples now look at magazines and then buy furniture and appliances, and then bingo, they lose a job and pretty soon they’re downsizing. It’s easy to think, “Oh, I’ll have this job for a long time so we can pay this stuff off.” Sometimes, it doesn’t happen.
Rita: In terms of money issues, the girls knew we weren’t going to buy another car. And we didn’t need the latest clothes. They love second-hand stores. Vanessa is coming home next week, and the first place she’ll be is the thrift store, because there aren’t as many in Silver Spring as here.
They both got full tuition rides to Georgetown University. The first year, we paid for their room and board and transportation, and every year we weaned them so by senior year they were paying almost everything themselves. They worked during the school years, and they worked summers.
George: How did we get interested in El Salvador? There’s a group every year from the Providence Health system that sends down a delegation. Usually, there’s a medical component – doctors and nurses. I was working at Holy Family, and Rita got invited along, thanks to the encouragement of Sister Fran Stacey.
Rita: I wanted to go because our JustFaith group wanted to establish a sister parish for the idea of solidarity. I went down and I knew this parish, Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe, was going to work. It took four years for all of this to come to fruition at St. Al’s. It is my passion.
George: How do people live there? A lot of these areas are new settlements built after the 1992 peace accords. Many people from El Salvador weren’t able to resettle in the communities they originally came from. So this was a place they could get a fresh start.
They live in basic little homes with a dirt floor, two rooms. Sometimes they have a porch area where people do their cooking. There are no doors. There are windows, but no window panes.
Most of the homes have electricity. They have outhouses. And they have chickens and goats and pigs that are running freely throughout the whole community. They all know to come home at a certain time.
Rita: How do they live there? With hope. One gentleman talked about how in May he had lost his corn to the floods. We were there in October, and he had just lost his corn to the floods again. But he said, “God will take care of us.”
They share this deep faith of theirs. And that’s why I need to go every year, because they give me hope and they help me to live my faith.
George: Even though the war ended in 1992, their memories are still raw. Even though the United States was instrumental in supporting the government that committed so much atrocity, they have no connection that we are part of it. They say: “That was your government. We are blessed to have you here with us.”
Rita: I appreciate the slower pace of life in El Salvador. The heat and humidity are part of the reason, but mostly it’s because the Salvadorans are not caught up in the complexities that pull us in many directions. They focus on relationships with family and friends and not on getting this or that project done or on going shopping.
George: Some have illnesses they can’t treat, because they don’t have access to the care they need or they have no money for transportation or medications. So someone who has bad arthritis, or a wound that won’t heal, or a heart condition, they just get by. They don’t dwell on it.
They say, “Tell people our stories. When you go back to the States, tell how we struggle to get by,” and they don’t say it in a whiny way, but just to say that if people knew how we lived they would understand why so many of our family members go to the United States. It’s a major source of support.
Rita: What’s happening as a result of the recession in the United States? We are looking at others who are in need and building relationships. The needy can be those who have lost a $200,000 job, and they are living in a way they have not lived in a long time. We don’t need all this stuff. What it is all about is relationships.