Last fall, on a Sunday afternoon, as I walked out of the church, a young man tugged on my Franciscan habit. It was Miguel, a member of our Latino choir.
“Father,” he said, “please, pray for the people of my home parish back in El Salvador, especially for one of the priests who has received death threats.”
Startled, I asked: “What is happening there?"
“These priests are organizing against the multinational companies,” he said. “The companies are looking for gold. What will be left for our people? Only poisoned water, a wasteland, and death.”
A few weeks later, I had another similar conversation with a group from Guatemala. Theirs was a similar tale of how indigenous communities were being threatened by mining projects.
As a Catholic and a member of the Franciscan Order, I believe that we are called to “read the signs of the times” and to listen to the cry of the poor and the “groaning” of God’s Creation.
In sharing with me their concerns in El Salvador and Guatemala, these parishioners shared the reality of the Cross crucified. I see them as summoning us to respond not only with private prayers but also with prophetic preaching and action.
My inital response was to educate myself on mining in El Salvador and in other countries of Central America. I watched a 2011 documentary, Oro o la Vida (“Gold or Life” in English).
Still, I felt overwhelmed by the enormity of the problem. Because this is intimately tied in to global trade, powerful extractive industries, and larger-than-life financial systems, I questioned what impact I could have. I was not quite sure what — if anything — I could do to help my parishioners carry their crosses.
One day, very providentially, I received a phone call from Oxfam America. The organization was looking for faith communities in Metro-D.C. that were home to a large diaspora of people from El Salvador. Oxfam, I was told, was very involved in dealing with the mining issue in El Salvador. They wanted to build up relationships between faith communities and other members of the civil society in El Salvador and in the United States.
“What a wonderful opportunity for being involved in the global solidarity and being universal church,” I said to myself. Later on, as I was praying at night, it occurred to me that prophetic preaching on the issues of justice, peace, and care for creation — integral to Catholic Social Teaching — requires more than being able to rouse the crowds with powerful words and moral indignation at abuse of power. If prophetic preaching is to be effective, it has to take up strong collaborative efforts, creativity, and opportunities for specific actions that instill hope.
My first step was to enlist the support of the lay leaders of the Latino Justice, Peace, and Integrity of Creation (JPIC) committee at our parish. They, along with the Franciscan friars, organized a public forum for an environmental activist visiting from El Salvador.
In addition to promoting the event from the pulpit, the Latino JPIC committee reached out to our large charismatic group. Framing the mining issue in Scriptural terms helped overcome an initial hesitance on the part of the charismatic group who feared “getting involved in things too political.” This collaboration produced a creative solution. We hosted an event that combined a “witness talk,” uplifting music from the Charismatic choir, prophetic preaching, and a “healing ritual” for the earth and its people. The event concluded with more than 200 people signing a petition urging the leaders of El Salvador to ban mining.
St. Camillus’s Cursillo Movement was another parish group that rallied to the cause. When I spoke to that group, I brought shared several video clips from Oro o la Vida.
After watching the video, people broke into small groups. In my talk about mining, I made scriptural references, particularly mentioning Genesis 2:15 — demolishing a mountain to retrieve a couple of ounces of gold clearly violated our responsibility to care for God’s Creation. Participants next examined passages in Exodus describing how the Israelites succumbed to worshiping the golden calf.
In Romans 8:20-25, St. Paul challenges us not to fall into despair in the face of widespread suffering around us. St. Paul reassures us that our cries for justice will not go unanswered.
Easter is a time for the disciples of Jesus to take up his mission.
Additionally, a Franciscan young adult group at St. Camillus created a large mural conveying that Easter is a time when we are invited to accept a Creation broken by sin or seek a Creation healed and restored.
Banning gold mining in El Salvador has become a unifying cause for our parish. So far more than 1,200 people signed the petition to ban mineral mining in El Salvador.
Jacek Orzechowski, OFM, is a Franciscan priest and chair of the Justice, Peace, and Integrity of Creation Directorate for the Franciscans of the Holy Name Province. He serves at St. Camillus Catholic Church in Silver Spring, MD. If your faith community would like to join in this effort, please consider adding your prophetic voice:http://www.stopesmining.org/j25/index.php/campaigns/letter-to-the-world-bank.