SUNDAY, JANUARY 6TH
As our bus made its way to the national cathedral on Sunday morning, my mind was flooded with images of the various events we had read about taking place there. I had read and seen images of these events so many times that my thoughts came to me as if they were memories. But the reality is that these memories are not my own. The crypt, located under the main cathedral is where the body of Monsenor Romero now lies- but the Monsenor is hardly at rest. We were there to attend a special mass organized by a group of local lay women who have named themselves “Community of the Crypt.” The first thing I noticed was the cloth hanging on the lectern, which displayed one of the many powerful statements of solidarity with the people made by Oscar Romero. Aware of the many threats to his life, Romero proclaimed to the country that even if he was to be killed he would be resurrected in his people.
Coinciding with the sound of a thundering fire cracker (or two) which signaled the start of a protest on the front steps of the cathedral, mass began with statements from members of the Community of Crypt. During the service there was a constant flow of motion around Monsenor Romero’s tomb and even though a mass was taking place (seemingly unperturbed), so were many other things. This is perhaps a good reflection of what Romero’s ministry must have been like. Daily dedication to the eucharist (i.e. the sacrifice of Christ) surrounded by seeming chaos.
Following mass we were fortunate enough to talk with some of the women from the Community of the Crypt. They explained how the group was founded, how they went about planning weekly mass, and the challenges they sometimes face in their relationship with the diocese of San Salvador and its officials: a challenge rooted in the tension between living the gospel of the poor as Oscar Romero did in his life and serving dogmatism, as the hierarchy of the institutional Roman Catholic Church so often does. After paying respects to Romero’s tomb we also spent some time in the cathedral above. As we departed from the national cathedral, Dr. Knitter pointed out the irony of how accurately the cathedral/crypt placement mirrors the predominant dynamic in the Catholic Church. The church of the people which preaches justice, peace, and solidarity takes place in the “basement” while the traditional mass of the institutional church takes place above in the grand cathedral. Fortunately, Monsenor Romero, as he did in life, takes his place with the people, in the basement, where his presence is palpable. Although I had expected to find a place of mourning and sadness, the tomb of Oscar Romero was a space overflowing with joy, hope, and purpose. I felt immediately that Romero was correct. He has been resurrected in his people.
A less spiritual encounter with Salvadoran culture filled our afternoon: grocery shopping for snacks. As we 13 Americans filed into the Super Selecto a Salvadoran man struggled to get past us. With an exasperated look on his face, the man whispered to himself “OH…MY…GOD!” which immediately triggered memories of many times I have done the same exact thing, annoyed by groups of tourists in New York. Although the experience seemed to connect he and I in some way (how similar we human creatures are) it also stirred a feeling that had been simmering since we arrived in El Salvador: trespass.
Although it would be easy enough to dismiss this sense of trespassing as simply reflective of feeling awkward as a foreigner (not knowing the language or custom, travelling in a pack, etc.), I suspect the feeling goes much deeper. What is obvious from even the little time we have spent in this country is that El Salvador is a land and a people defined by the atrocities of war and the demoralization of denial. Generations of people in El Salvador have only horrific crimes against human rights as the historical points of reference in their lives; massacres, assassinations, disappearances, capture and torture. It is upon this sacred collective experience that I am trespassing. The remnants of a country brought to it knees by American capitalism, the same society to which I belong.
Gene Polumbo, a journalist who has lived in El Salvador since 1980 (the year Romero was assassinated), expressed this concept well when he told our group that the blood of the 75,000 Salvadoran men, women, and children who were killed in the 1970s, 80s, and early 90s is on our hands. By “our” he meant the United States. By “our” he meant himself and those of us surrounding him. By “our” he meant most (maybe all) of the people who will read this blog. Our foreign policy has caused the massacre of tens of thousands. Our failure to act allowed 8,000 people to be disappeared. Our ignorance allowed these crimes against humanity to remain unknown. Of all the things Gene shared with us that evening, and he shared MANY things, this stuck with me the most.
In light of all these realities, I hope my trespass here in El Salvador will also be a true journey of solidarity and accompaniment, a mission to simply be with the pain of this people so that I might come to know truth better. I pray that the burning hope which I see vividly alive in the Salvadoran people will light aflame hope within me as well.