This was our first trip to El Salvador, the smallest of all the countries in Central America and probably the one most dependent on the American Dollar, since they use the dollar as their currency. The only other country that we have traveled in that does that is Zimbabwe in Africa. We have a connection to El Salvador in that our daughter in law is from here, and we used this opportunity to arrive ahead of our mission group and rent a car to drive to her home town in order to meet her Mom and brother.
As we arrived in the country, my first impression was that it was so green and tropical (which of course I thought it would be) but it seemed to be a deeper green than what I have encountered in other tropical locations I have visited, such as Cancun or Puerto Vallarta in Mexico. It was almost like the trees and vegetation wanted to cover the wounds that have been inflicted on this area since the time of the Conquistadores. For indeed this country has a very painful history, a history that many do not want to remember, nor do they want to dialogue about in order to change for the better, to heal the more recent wounds of El Salvador that occurred during the 1930’s and then again in the 1960’s through the 1990’s when so many innocent people were killed, in order for a few to remain in power. The history of El Salvador is a history of oppression and repression of the human spirit in order for the elite to keep their lifestyle on the back of the indígenas through a slave labor type of economy.
We had an opportunity to meet and get to know our daughter-in-law’s mother and other brother. We rented a car to drive the two and half hour drive to La Unión near the Honduran border. We ate lunch at a seaside restaurant and had a wonderful time. Our daughter-in-law has a very nice family. One of the things that I have noticed in our travels is that whatever country we have been in, they all share the same treasure, that is, their people; not their governments, not their political parties, not their religious affiliation, but their people.
We were privileged to have met and talked with many of the treasures of El Salvador. One such person, named Marbel, was on our home visitation list. We arrived at her home (government housing for the poor, what we call “the projects” here in the states), and we were warmly greeted. Her wonderful smile belied the fact that she has breast cancer and because of the lack of proper medical care, probably won’t be here this time next year. She was incredibly upbeat about her life, very proud of her family and how they had survived all the hardship that had befallen her country in the last few decades. Here was a woman who understood that faith is what sustains us, faith that keeps us from falling into depression, faith that ultimately saves us. Her testimony was very humbling to my whole view on life. We went there to visit and to pray for and over her, for her healing and to impart God’s blessings for her and her family. What happened was that I was so moved, that after we prayed, I asked her for a blessing for me. She looked at me like she didn’t understand the petition. I speak Spanish, so I knew she heard what I had said, she couldn’t comprehend that someone, a complete stranger, would ask her to bless them. So I rephrased the petition by asking her to bless me as a mother would bless her son. I could see her eyes start to get that moisture that one gets before the tears start to flow and she gladly fulfilled my request. It was at that moment, receiving a blessing from one of the poorest of the poor, that I realized that Monseñor Oscar Romero is still alive, indeed has Risen in the Salvadoran people, just as he said he would.
One cannot travel to El Salvador without being reminded of the civil conflict that had happened here. How does a government named their International Airport after a Bishop that was killed by a paramilitary sniper because he was a thorn in the government’s side? Archbishop Oscar Romero is a national hero, the people’s hero, and even though the government eventually won a peace accord with the FMLN (who are now part of the government as a political party), they were wise to not forget from whom the people drew their inspiration from.
There were so many stories of inspiration that came about from the Church during this difficult and troubled times. Unfortunately, too many of those stories are stories of martyrdom, being killed because of preaching, or in some cases, just living the Gospel message of Liberation that is found in Christ. We visited the wall of remembrance in San Salvador, where there are 30,000 names of those innocents who were killed during the conflict, and the one plaque that was for the unknowns who were killed and could not be identified. The memorial may not “look” as impressive as the memorials that we have here in the US, but it makes as much or more of an impression on the soul when one considers that these were unarmed, civilian non-combatants who were killed. Every government has some type of genocide in their history, this was El Salvador’s, and hopefully with this memorial, they will not repeat it again.
We also visited the memorial for the four US women who were kidnapped, raped and murdered in December of 1980, the same year when a snipers bullet took the life of Oscar Romero. Three of the women were religious sisters, two from the Maryknoll order, the other was an Ursuline Sister, the forth was a lay missionary with Maryknoll named Jean Donovan. The short documentary, Roses in December, reminds us that following the commands of Jesus just might cost us everything, but Jesus himself said, “If you lose your life for my sake, you will find it”. Six Jesuit priests would find their lives nine years later on the night of November 16, 1989, along with a housekeeper and her 15 year old daughter (because the soldiers were given orders to leave no witnesses in order to blame the FMLN).
But the civil war in El Salvador is not just a story of killing and of martyrdom, but of redemption and salvation too. I was given permission to share this story with the caveat of keeping the identity secret for fear of possible reprisal (there is still some persecution by those who carry a grudge). As a youth, Rafael (not his real name) experienced the war first hand. He was at the funeral of Monseñor Romero when the bombs went off and the snipers started firing from the top of the government building. I stood on the spot where many had been shot and the phrase “shooting fish in a barrel” describes perfectly the clean lines with which the snipers had in order to take advantage of the situation (100,000 people packed the plaza and the Church where the funeral was taking place). Rafael was also present at the massacre at the Church of the Rosary, where twenty one are buried inside the church, those killed by the violence that was tearing the country apart. There came a point in Rafael’s life where he had to make a decision; he saw what was happening in his country and did not like it one bit, but he did not want to take up arms against his countrymen. He confided that the “guerrillas” made it impossible to refuse their offer, so he joined. He says he hated America and Americans for their involvement and support of the Salvadoran government to be able to kill so many innocent people at will. But Rafael developed a medical condition so severe, that it needed to be attended to in America, so he was able to get an emergency visa to the US in order to be treated, and cured of his condition. It was during his life in the States where he met and married another immigrant from a different country and they began their life together. There is something about hate that tends to fester in the soul for so long, and it takes the surgeon’s scalpel to extract it. The surgeon, of course, is Jesus the Great Physician, and he was able to remove that cancer from Rafael’s soul. Rafael went on to become an ordained Deacon in the Roman Catholic Church in the US and I was honored to see his homecoming when he served as a deacon in a Mass in San Salvador for the first time in his life. This was redemption for Rafael, who never thought he would ever be able to come home and serve as a deacon, to share the love of Christ with his people and to be blessed by those with whom he visited. It was an honor and blessing for me to be able to pray, and weep with this brother. When we visited the Church of the Rosary, where the 21 innocents are buried, he was knelt in prayer at the marker inside the church where they are buried and he was sobbing, he was deeply moved by his remembrance of the events that he had witnessed. I could do nothing but go, kneel with him, put my arm over his shoulders and weep with him (blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted). Rafael received some sanctifying healing in his soul that day, healing that has been decades in the making and I am humbled to have been able to be a part of it.
The economic reality in El Salvador is that there are those who have money, and have a lot of it, and there are those who have no money. There is no middle working class, those fortunate enough to have jobs are the working poor, those who do not have jobs are just poor. Granted, there are many expats living here in the US who send money back home to help out family members, but from my conversations with both the missionaries and Salvadorans, there are many who go to the US and just forget their families back home. In fact, they just start new families here, which compounds the problems that both families now have. I recall driving up to see the Volcano that is right outside of San Salvador and seeing million dollar homes, with the barbed wire on top of the high brick walls and the armed guards keeping constant watch over the property and the owners, right next to hovels made of corrugated sheets and plywood that are so flimsy, I was surprised they did not fall during the short thunderstorm that we had that day. That, above anything else, showed to me that extreme economic divide that is still connected in this small Central American country. This reminds me of what St. Basil the Great said back in the fourth century, “When someone steals another's clothes, we call them a thief. Should we not give the same name to one who could clothe the naked and does not? The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry; the coat unused in your closet belongs to the one who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the one who has no shoes; the money which you hoard up belongs to the poor.”
This is just a part of my reflection of our trip to El Salvador. I will be unpacking the memories of this mission for many months and pondering the ramifications of it in my life for years to come. Not only through the marriage of our son to a wonderful daughter of El Salvador is my life now connected to this country, but I am connected by my personal experience with this land and her people. May God continue to pour out his mercy and blessing on the people of El Salvador, the true treasure of the land.