“Never give up.”

The community of Perquin, capital of the FMLN during the war.

Our final day in El Salvador found us waking up in Perquin to head to Mass led by Padre Rogelio Poncel, the Priest we had met the day before over breakfast. Padre Rogelio preached about John the Baptist, calling particular attention to the differences between the messages of John and Jesus. For the Baptist, Rogelio claimed, the stress was “on the rights of God” and therefore of the need for all humans to cherish God and follow his demands. For Jesus, the focus was on “the rights of human beings.”  For Jesus we can respond to God only if we are responding to our fellow human beings. He concluded that it is in loving our neighbor that we love God and that in cherishingthe rights of our neighbors that we respect the rights of God. There is no going to God without going to our neighbor.

The mass was also punctuated with lively singing, in the popular style, further reflecting an impulse we had experienced time and time again in our travels: the impulse of the Salvadoran people to make their worship responsive to their community’s historical and present context. From the community of Romero’s crypt, to the Christian Base Communities and their formation schools, to now the parish mass in Perquin, Salvadoran religious leaders and lay people had a strong confidence in their own assessment of their liturgical needs, and a willingness to carry on as they needed to, even in opposition to the ecclesiastical hierarchy.

Following mass we loaded onto the bus and Daniel drove us to a short way to the community of Agua Blanca in Cacaopera, Morazán, where we met with Acción y Vida, an organization of youth leaders seeking to improve quality of life through sustained social and political engagement. We heard from a new generation of leaders who, while inspired by their formation in communities of resistance, feel unrepresented of the language and models of their parents. They are engaged in inspiring work to offer sexuality education to their communities, educate people about HIV/AIDS, and continue to insist that the voice of rural youth be a part of the formation of El Salvador’s future. Still, like many of the groups we have met with, their voices are on the distant margins of the national conversation, out of the boundaries of the hierarchical Roman Catholic Church, and maybe even not central to the discourse in their local communities, still they continue their work with impressive energy and a gentle but persistent spirit.

Finally, after a 5 hour ride back to San Salvador, we gathered for dinner with Fr. Jon Sobrino, a Jesuit, who taught at the Catholic University. He is alive today only because he was out of the country, at a conference in Thailand, the night that is colleagues and their two housekeepers were murdered by the death squads. Sobrino’s talk captured the spirit of so many groups and individuals we had met. His theological affirmations were rooted in the reality of the lived experience of the people of El Salvador, and he was insistent that all true theology must be grounded in experience.

The people of El Salvador call Romero a Saint. While it may take generations for the Catholic Church to agree, Sobrino told us “reality makes things obvious.” Those who are grounded in reality know that “in Romero, God walked with us in El Salvador.” Sobrino spoke beautifully, clearly, and succinctly, without straying into complex reasoning or cloudy questions of ontology and metaphysics. He insisted that we all keep our eyes squarely on the suffering of the world, and act to end it, drawing on the stories and teachings of Christianity to reflect on and frame that action. Finally, he offered a perfect closing mantra for the fullness of what we met in El Salvador. Quoting from Micah he reminded us that our task is to walk humbly with God. Like Madre Alicia who walked into the teeth of an empire for the sake of truth, sustained by the potent power of a mother’s anguish; walk. Like the women who carry on a weekly mass in Romero’s crypt despite pressure from the Archbishop to stop; walk. Like the 6 year-old Children in formation schools in the countryside, learning the tragedy of their history and the hope of their parents struggle; walk. “The one thing we have learned here” Sobrino said, “is never to give up.”

The Union delegation with Fr. Jon Sobrino (front center).

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

Faith in Action

Reflection by Vandalyn Kennedy – Day 4

Every minute of every day has been amazing here in El Salvador, however today’s experience resonated with me in a POWERFUL way. If you are reading this blog you know that a group of 12 students and 3 Faculty members from Union have traveled here to study the Liberative Spirituality of Bishop Oscar Romero. One of our classmates, Blanca Rodriguez, made a statement this week that is symbolic of our time here.  She said, ”We cannot solely be educated through books but must have experience.” This statement became truth to me today like no other. Before coming to El Salvador, we spent the semester in a Guided Reading group learning about the life of Romero, examining the context of the country both before and after his death, seeing films, reading books and analyzing the impact Romero had on this war torn country. However today, WE LIVED IT!

Today we visited the Divine Providence Hospitalito, the place Romero was killed. We filed into the Chapel and were met by a young religious woman (nun) Mercedes, who facilitated our session. Students from Dayton University also joined us as she took us through a moving account of events of the day of Romero’s death. She also gave us a clear history and timeline of events from his early priesthood to death – for me the clearest that I have heard so far. She described his conservative background but how he slowly converted to becoming the people’s pastor after seeing his people suffer unjustly at the hands of the oligarchy and military. She was very engaging and gave full account as to the physical place he was standing and exactly what he was doing at the time he died. She also pointed out that he had to have seen the shooter, as he was standing behind the altar in the center and the doors of the modest sized church were open. During his homily, a red car pulled in front of the church but instead of Romero running, screaming, or doing what most of us would do if someone was pointing a gun at us, he continued his homily. The reality was that Romero received many death threats and could have had bodyguards and taken all precautions to protect his life. However, that day, he told the altar boys and others who usually serve at the altar with him that he wanted to serve alone. In essence, he offered up his life, and in a homily given a few days earlier said, “If they kill me, I will be resurrected in my people.” Like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., he knew the imminent danger, however he chose to sacrifice his life for his people.  If I had to put him in US context, Romero is definitely the Martin Luther King Jr. of El Salvador.

The Chapel at Divine Providence, El Hospitalito, the site Romero was killed.

When Mercedes began the session she told us to choose a word that represented our thoughts about Romero. One by one we gave the word we felt embodied Romero, and at the end, she asked us to come to the altar, say our word one at a time, then take a place in a circle around the altar. That was simple enough – I chose the word COURAGE, and proudly announced it before taking my place in the circle. Then, as we stood in the exact spot Romero was killed, she challenged and charged us in an unexpected way telling us to think about our word and how it applies to our lives and the struggle against social injustice. She asked us to take the word home with us and make it our business to utilize that word in a way that will make the world better. My eyes, like many of my classmates’ were filled with tears. With all the talk about Romero, King and every other person who has helped to make the world better, we have to ask ourselves, “What about me?” Am I just learning about others or have I made a personal commitment to fight against political and social injustice? This is not just about Romero, but how to apply the principles of Romero’s life and use his example as a way to integrate faith with social justice issues. I may not have to physically die for a cause, however, I ask myself, as I ask you- what are our lives being used for?

After that experience, we went to Romero’s house, on the campus of the Hospitalito. Though he could have had a big house elsewhere he chose to live in a very modest home, furnished with only the necessities. The home has been converted into a small museum that houses his clergy attire, church papers, and other personal articles.

Romero’s bedroom in his modest house on the grounds of Divine Providence. He wanted to stay with the people instead of moving to the larger home offered to him by the Diocese.

We then headed to the Monument to the Truth and Memory at the Cuscatlan Park, dedicated to the victims of the civil war. The site that has over 30,000 names of people disappeared and killed during the years of political unrest and is a result of the Peace Accords signed in 1992, in which the government agreed to give reparations and honor victims by at least acknowledging them in a public way. This is significant, as many families do not have graves to visit, as many bodies have never been recovered. On the National Day of Remembrance, many Salvadorans go to this monument to honor their loved ones. (This monument is missing over 45,000 names, as it is documented that over 75,000 people in total were killed or disappeared).

Monument of Truth and Memory at the Cuscatlan Park, dedicated to the civilian victims of the civil war.

We then boarded the bus and headed to the beach where we spent the afternoon. After such an emotional day, it was the perfect place to reflect on our word given by Mercedes as well as everything we witnessed thus far in El Salvador. We ate dinner beachside and ended the evening with our nightly class reflection, again beachside as the sun set.

To say that my life will never be the same would be a gross understatement. I am so thankful and blessed to be here, learning and growing with this community of students and faculty-things I could have NEVER learned from a book. I am also thankful that Dr. Knitter and his wife Cathy Cornell chose to share their experience of solidarity and love for the El Salvadoran people, Romero and social justice. Unfortunately, I had never heard about Romero before this class but believe that EVERY seminary student should learn about this man who embodies Union ideology. He is a perfect example of faith in action. In learning about the strength and courage of a Priest, I also discovered the fortitude of the people this priest served. Romero has risen in his people, and they have taken his principles, organized, and now continue the fight for the poor and marginalized. I pray that the spirit of Romero will rise in me as I seek to do my part in fighting against injustice and helping to make the world a better place.

Painting in Divine Providence chapel by Artist, depicting Romero’s love for the people and faith in action.

Resurrection and Trespass

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.

Romero in the Borderlands

On Wednesday, March 24th, communities all around the world commemorated the 30 year anniversary of the assassination of Salvadoran Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero. Instead of spending time talking about who Romero was and why his life was significant (if you are wondering, at the bottom of this post there are a number of links to give you an idea), I want to share some of his words that that feel particularly relevant in light of an event I attended this Tuesday on the Union campus entitled “People with a Mission, People with a Vision: Pentecostalism in the Borderlands.”

One of the signs of the present time is the idea of participation, the right that all persons have to participate in the construction of their own common good. For this reason, one of the most dangerous abuses of the present time is repression, the attitude that says, “Only we can govern, no one else, get rid of them.”

Everyone can contribute much that is good, and in that way trust is achieved. The common good will not be attained by excluding people. We can’t enrich the common good of our country by driving out those we don’t care for. We have to try to bring all that is good in each person and try to develop an atmosphere of trust, not with physical force, as though dealing with irrational beings, but with a moral force that draws out the good that is in everyone especially in concerned young people.

Thus, with all contributing their own interior life, their own responsibility, their own way of being, all can build the beautiful structure of the common good, the good that we construct together and that creates conditions of kindness, of trust, of freedom, of peace.

Then we can, all of us together, build the republic – the res publica, the public concern – what belongs to all of us and what we all have the duty of building.”

Óscar Romero, July 10, 1977

This “driving out” of people that Monseñor Romero speaks of happens here in the United States on a number of different levels. It happens when we detain and deport people who don’t have the documentation we deem necessary to be here. But it also happens when we decided who gets included in conversation, particularly a conversation about the common good.

Another focus on Romero’s ministry revolved around the idea of church. It is abundantly clear that for Romero, the church was a body of faithful who are committed to live out the gospel, not a building or denominational structure. This is particularly important given that who we consider the church has significant implications for how we live out our faith.

It has been my experience that often in the liberal protestant world, our noble intentions often blind us to who we see or include, or make space for, to participate as we seek to work for the common good. We miss out on seeing other communities that must be part of the conversation, and become uncomfortable with the possibility that this presence may actually change the way we have the conversation. The reality is that if we don’t work collectively towards the common good, the conversations happen separately and we are denied the opportunity to truly be the church that Romero speaks of and Jesus calls us to. Latino protestants, or rather evangelicos/as, are among those that are not engaged when we have these conversations. Because of a lack of understanding the history of evangelicos/as in the United States and internationally, as well as assumptions about their theology and culture, have deemed them to be non-participants by the predominantly white liberal protestant church.

Participating in the Borderlands Pentecostalism lecture series was an opportunity for me to engage in conversation about the common good with people of faith and religious leaders whom I too seldom engage. I am encouraged by events such as this at Union and thankful to be stretched and pushed in my understanding of the evangelico and Latino pentecostal community.

Links for further information about Salvadoran Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero:

Wikipedia entry on Romero

Romero Trust – for homilies and tons of other information

Feature film “Romero” starring Raúl Julia – great teaching tool!

links to articles about Romero in U.S. Catholic Magazine