Where does hope come from?

A blog from Wednesday, January 9, 2013:

Mercedes, Laurel, and Alvaro, students from the University of Central America (UCA) in San Salvador. Overhead posters of Oscar Romero, UCA martyr priest Ignacio Ellacuria, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

You’ve been reading about our extra-busy days and extra-profound discussions and experiences.  Today, Wednesday, was no different.  We began the morning with a panel of distinguished invited guests, the heads of the Episcopal, Lutheran, and Reformed denominations.  These are three of the Protestant denominations who supported the people throughout the times of conflict.  In the afternoon, we visited with three theology students from the University of Central America (UCA), the Jesuit university where liberation theology is still taught by the likes of Jon Sobrino.  Later we met with the former Human Rights Ombsbudswoman of El Salvador, a position that was created by the Salvadoran Peace Accords in 1992 to report human rights abuses of in El Salvador.  In the evening, we attended a house concert by Guillermo Cuellar, a Salvadoran musician who worked with Romero writing and performing songs expressing the struggles of the people, including the Salvadoran Popular Mass.

Right to Left: Episcopal Bishop Martín Barahona, Lutheran Bishop Medardo Gomez, Reverend Santiago Flores of the Reformed Church

In the panel of the three church leaders, Lutheran Bishop Medardo Gomez talked about how he was disappeared and tortured for his role accompanying poor communities during the war. International ecumenical pressure demanded his release.  The leaders talked about the role of the church in the more recent history, including how the Catholic Church helped negotiate a “truce” between the two major gangs in El Salvador in spring 2012.  One leader said that these churches understand themselves as united by a common ecumenical “Theology of the Cross”, which is a commitment to never abandon the most vulnerable.  This refreshed a place in me because I understand my own call to ministry to have such a theology, yet sometimes I feel timid to say it in front of church leaders and committees because I am constantly called on to defend how that is a legitimately “ordainable” church ministry position. The Salvadoran church leaders confirmed that an ecumenical and interreligious coordination between the north and the south of the continent is necessary to change the systems of injustice that are continental and worldwide in scope.  What form will and must that take?

The Human Rights Omsbudswoman was the biggest wake-up call yet for our group to the actual reality of El Salvador.  Our group came on this trip seeking to learn the liberative spirituality and praxis of Romero and his challenge for today.  But this takes for granted that much liberative spirituality and praxis based on remembrance of Romero exists here in El Salvador. Up until now on the trip we have been surrounded by the minority in El Salvador who do care about Romero and practice a liberative spirituality.  The Omsbudswoman laid out a frank reality in which the dominant consciousness has little commitment to follow Romero in a justice-seeking way of life and of being church. As I listened to the conversations in the bus after our visit, I heard such things as:  How could the Omsbudwoman say that the Salvadoran people are not a revolutionary people?  How could she say that the people are more status-quo than seeking to change the reality, after all we’ve heard about Salvadoran history during our visit here?

Lest we think that El Salvador is any different in this regard than the United States, I point out the quandary that the Salvadoran leaders with whom we speak must struggle to reconcile: how delegations of concerned people from the United States come to learn from El Salvador’s history; meanwhile, during the war and now, the US government’s policy toward El Salvador seeps life out of the Salvadoran people.  During the Salvadoran Civil War, the US sent $1 million EVERY day to fund the war that killed over 75,000 of the Salvadoran people.  And today, the United States dictates CAFTA free trade laws and norms of “development” and “aid” that benefit the world’s oligarchy more than change the systems sustaining poverty.  Deregulated flow of capital steals the wealth produced by Salvadoran workers in factories out of the country.

“We have to say the truth, without minding who it will bother. -Jon Cortina, SJ”

To reconcile these ironies, the Salvadoran leaders we speak with say “Oh, we know that the US government is different from the US people.”   But I no longer feel excused by that excuse.  The convicting question to us from the United States is thus:  are we a revolutionary people, with all the positive connotations this word can carry—of seeing through the lies to create domestic and foreign policies that work toward better lives for the majorities both in the US and countries like El Salvador?  Is the government in the US really much different from the dominant consciousness of the US people?  Can we use that excuse today?

Guillermo Cuellar, a Salvadoran musician who worked with Romero writing and performing songs expressing the struggles of the people, including the Salvadoran Popular Mass.

Sometimes when considering these difficult questions, I wonder if, and how, we’ll ever change dominant consciousness in the US enough to improve our own conditions and those of El Salvador.  It’s a question we’ve asked to many of our speakers:  from where does your hope come?  How do you keep doing the work you do amid frustration and violence?  In a meditative service at the Chapel where Romero was assassinated, our facilitator asked us what word we think best describes Romero. I responded “Inspiration” because I think that he was inspiration to people of his day and to us today to summon the courage needed for the required work to counter the normative power relationships and consciousness.  I accepted the facilitator’s suggestion to adopt this as a commitment in my own life for the next segment.  Thus, in the night, Guillermo Cuellar’s songs washed over my body and into that space where fear and courage negotiate.  He interwove his songs with the stories that inspired them.  He told stories of encounters with Romero and of the faith, suffering, and resistance of the Salvadoran people.  Contained within the Salvadoran organized “pueblo” and in the music that sustains them is the sometimes unutterable, often unspoken, assumption that we will ever seguir adelante (continue forward).

Having been in the city of San Salvador up until now, we have most of the country undiscovered—both its geography and its conditions.  Thus we head to the mountains today.  We have yet to have encounters with so many more things that are the realities of El Salvador:  poverty, young adults with fifth grade educations, scorched earth massacres, communities built in refugee camps.  Que nos vaya muy bien.  (May we have a good trip.)

- Jennifer Wilder, MDiv 2013

The Eloquence of Maps

By Elizabeth Bukey:

Dr. Machado, who organized our pilgrimage to the border, is fond of telling students how important maps are. They can help us understand why wars were fought, the value of certain locations, and, often, tell us something about the mapmaker’s worldview. Certainly the map I found on a postcard in San Antonio speaks volumes about how Texans see the world, and the borderlands in particular:

A Texan Map of the United StatesAs you can see, Texas has swallowed up most of the United States and Northern Mexico, with the other continental states relegated to insignificance. (Alaska and Hawaii don’t appear; Puerto Rico and the other territories have certainly not been considered at all.) This self-centered worldview is not really that unusual in the U.S.: New Yorkers certainly are guilty of thinking the world revolves around us.

I was more struck by the way the borderlands are completely missing. Brownsville is, after all, a fairly large city, but it’s cut off. South Texas has been erased. The countries with the highest poverty rates in the Texas are gone. The “no-man’s land” between the Mexican border and the internal Border Patrol checkpoints has been left off this map, just as it has stayed hidden from most of the people in this country. The borderlands, it seems, do not exist in the “Texan’s Map of the United States,” just as they do not exist in the “American” imagination.

When our group visited a curandera this week, I was told I had problems with my eyes. I don’t know about my physical eyesight, but I certainly have realized how blind I have been to the reality of the border. I hope that your eyes—like mine—are starting to open.

Youth….”A New and Unsettling Force”

I feel called to work on the role of faith communities in social movements to end poverty, led by the poor.  Martin Luther King, Jr said, as he initiated the Poor People’s Campaign:

“We can’t back up, we will overcome. We are overcoming because ours is a revolution of the mind and heart. –César Chávez” A sign at The Union of the Entire People (LUPE), founded by César Chávez, in McAllen, TX.

“The dispossessed of this nation…live in a cruelly unjust society. They must organize…against the injustice, not against the lives of the persons who are their fellow citizens, but against the structures through which the society is refusing to take means which have been called for, and which are at hand, to lift the load of poverty. There are millions of poor people in this country who have very little, or even nothing, to lose. If they can be helped to take action together, they will do so with a freedom and a power that will be a new and unsettling force in our complacent national life.”  (MLK, Jr, 1967)

I have burning in my bones just a little taste of the rage that must burn in the undocumented youth and their families, and indeed the whole Latin@ community.  Immigrants and Latin@s are the object of so many injustices and downright hate.  Consider the youth.  Half of the population in this S. Texas county are under 23.  Immigrants and Latin@s are, on average young, young people with vigor that can be developed as leaders that bring about change.   Immigrants have as core values buying land, building houses, and staying, committed to creating a better life for their families.  US Hispanics are hard-working, in fact, the hardest-working people group at this time in our country—look around at who’s carrying, cleaning, picking, and sweating these days.  Numbers of Latin@s in the US are increasing rapidly, becoming majorities in many areas.  And they are culturally a communal people, valuing strong communities, families, and relationships.  I recognize potential in all these factors for a base for a “new and unsettling force”, a social movement that can lead change for the most poor in society, if the silent rage, youth, hard-work, relationality, and growing numbers can be made purposeful and leadership developed.


“Jesus sees his mother” (John 19:26-27) in the Stations of the Cross at the Basilica in San Juan, TX. Mothers grieve and protest the plight of their undocumented youth.

“My daughter graduated from college last year, an excellent student, but now she can’t get a job in her degree because she is undocumented.  She’s lived here for 21 of her 23 years of life, worked hard in school. But now, there’s no hope without the DREAM Act.”

“He’s a good boy, a good student. But without his immigration papers, he can’t get a professional license.”

$37,000 for one half acre

Two mothers described to our groups the ceilings forced upon their young adult children, who have lived their whole lives in the US but are undocumented.  We’ve heard many stories this week of people being trapped:  Three families living on a bone-dry, polluted half-acre that cost them $37,000. One woman telling how she came to the US inside a tire.  Trapped.  Suffocating.

Border Patrol and the fence between Texas and Mexico. The fence cost $2million a mile to build. There are 20,000 Border Patrol on the border at all hours.

If you’re undocumented in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas, you’re literally trapped. There’s no “spreading your wings and flying” if you are young, and no American dream.  Because the DREAM Act has not passed, undocumented students graduating from college cannot be hired.  The DREAM Act would grant legal status after 6 years to graduates of US high schoosl who complete a college degree or military service. Undocumented immigrants can’t attain professional licenses.  One literally can’t leave the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas because the Mexico border is to the south and 70 miles north, there is an unavoidable police checkpoint, where documents are checked and the undocumented arrested.   Most don’t even drive a car because if pulled over, they will be arrested and deported.

18-year-old Joaquin Luna

Trapped, Sweltering, suffocating.  Where is hope? On November 25, 2011, the day after Thanksgiving, 18-year-old Joaquin Luna committed suicide.  Joaquin had lived in Hidalgo County, TX since he was 6 months old but was undocumented, and he killed himself in despair because he could not complete his dream of going to college and becoming an engineer.

On our Borderlands trip, we are no longer in Mexico.  The conditions described above are specifically US.  And the cognitive dissonance it is creating for me is horrible.

Healing a Community in Fear

by Elizabeth Bukey:

Yesterday afternoon we met two women who both work on healing in the Brownsville community: one a curandera and the other a medical doctor. An outsider, particularly an Anglo Seattleite outsider like me, might think that Maria and Marsha would be very different: a faith healer and an MD, a trance medium and a pediatrician. Instead, I was struck by the similar themes in our two visits.

Both women have a deep love for the community in which they work: the poor, Mexican-American, often undocumented population in this borderland. Both women connect spirit and health: Maria, deeply rooted in Catholic religion, is a medium for the spirit of a 19th-century healer; Marsha brings her background in theology to her work as a doctor. Both are affected by interacting with the illness affecting this community: Maria is exhausted after working and has to expel the bad energy she has received; Marsha spoke several times of the deep rage she feels over the injustice of the border, and needing an outlet for this rage “besides four-letter words.”

Most strikingly, though, was the way both women address the fear of the people here. People often come to Maria and other curanderas to heal illnesses which to me sound like symptoms of a community under enormous stress: overwhelming fright, panic, nervousness, upset stomachs, and many others. Marsha told us of the high level of fear affecting this community, affecting people who are effectively trapped here between the U.S.-Mexico border and the border patrol checkpoints 70 miles north of it. Wouldn’t you get sick if you were afraid to drive, afraid of being separated from your family, afraid of losing your job, afraid your children will have no future?