Making Harmony in a Foreign Land

Saturday, January 12th, 2013 -  Perquin, Segundo Montes: Father Rogelio Poncel, Christian base community, Governor Miguel Ventura and Evelyn Ventura, visit with children.

A surreal wake-up call:  4,000 feet above sea level, roosters and crickets belt – harmonizing with my roommate Meghan’s buzzing travel alarm clock. In the mountainous village of Perquin, a place once controlled by guerilla forces (the FMLN) during El Salvador’s civil war, my anxious eyes open to another day of unknown adventure. Although unable to recall today’s exact itinerary, I have a feeling that the next twenty-four hours will somehow shake my life.

I snap yet another picture of my breakfast plate; it has become a harmless obsession. Refried beans, eggs, tortilla, avocado, watermelon and freshly squeezed orange juice.  Our group chats and chuckles between bites and gulps. We then head up the hill to a conference hut for a meeting with Father Rogelio Poncel.  He introduces himself as a Belgian priest who came to El Salvador some forty years ago.  Despite innumerable death threats from the government and serious criticism from the Vatican especially during the war, he has dedicated much of his life to accompanying the poor living in the areas once controlled by the guerillas. Accompany, a word that I would hear echoed throughout this day, describes the act of someone who walks alongside those in need during their struggles.

The Christian base community in Segundo Montes sings a welcome song

We pack into our trusty van, and head out to meet with a Christian base community in Segundo Montes. As we approach the simple adobe church, we hear voices boisterously singing a misa popular hymn.  When we enter, we are greeted by dozens of grinning faces, mostly women. The walls are covered with evocative words, like liberation and faith. There are also pictures of priestly martyrs; Oscar Romero’s photo hangs in the center. Yolanda, one of the group’s leaders, invites introductions. Then together, we sing a welcome song: “Buenas nuevas, buenas nuevas a mi pueblo (Welcome new persons, welcome new persons to my town).”

Just as we seminarians take our seats, we are asked to rise again and share an English song.  What? Our startled eyes frantically search for someone with a bright, albeit instantaneous idea.  “How about This Little Light Of Mine?” Sold!  We timidly raise our out-of-harmony voices, and sporadically clap our hands. God help us – three more verses to go!  Vandalyn, our impromptu choir director, sways her arms – madly attempting to organize the disorganized. And then, miraculously, our discordant voices start to blend, our claps are in sync, and our bodies enthusiastically bop up and down. Roaring applause follows.

The Salvadorians before us then tell us about the deep wounds left from the war: a weathered-looking Celina explains that her son is one of the thousands who disappeared; as a child, Rozanna’s parents left her behind while they fought with the guerillas; Yolanda was forced to take refuge in neighboring Honduras. Their stories are told plainly – without a call for pity.  What’s more, their pasts seem to fuel their commitment to improve their community’s present.  Some of their efforts include Christian formation classes for children, and a weekly mass held even when a priest is not present. They talk of wanting to build a library, and establishing a long-lasting partnership with our Union group.

Our group with the Christian base community and Governor Miguel Ventura (third from the right)

We share lunch with Governor Miguel Ventura and his wife Evelyn. The governor, once a beloved priest, is still called Father by the region he serves. In a country that was once run by 14 families, he says that he is committed to keeping his door wide open to those in need.

His wife Evelyn tells us that during the war, her town was on the brink of starvation – everyone quartered tortillas to share with one another. She explains that troops were under order to massacre them, but when they arrived she managed to convince the troop’s leader, Francisco Mena [whom our group met days earlier] to defy his superiors; he called off the massacre, arranged for food and water to be sent to the village, and then, incredibly, changed his allegiance – joining the guerilla forces.

Children pose with their ‘This Little Light of Mine’ “candles”

We end our day by splitting up and visiting some of the Christian formation classes for children.  The smiling students have exemplary manners and are intrigued by the visitors who have “really seen snow”.  We are told that the curriculum includes learning about the similarities between the martyred Oscar Romero and Jesus of Nazareth. One youngster explains that Romero was a prophet who lived and died for the Salvadorian people. Before we leave, we are inspired to teach the kids our new group anthem: This Little Light of Mine.

After a filling pupusa dinner, our group reflects on the events of the day. I find myself thinking back on our impromptu musical performance, and how, to my mind, it connects to the El Salvadorian resolve: no matter how daunting the circumstances, it is imperative to collectively persevere. Just sing, and the harmony will eventually follow.

-Samantha Gonzalez-Block