On Nov. 16, 1989, six Jesuit priests and two bystanders (their housekeeper and her daughter) were murdered in El Salvador, by the Salvadoran army. They were staying at the University of Central America while working for a peace settlement between the Salvadoran government and the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), the guerilla organization that had been fighting the government for a decade.
The government officers entered the home of the Jesuits, searched the premises, and removed various photographs and documents. They ordered the inhabitants of the house to lie face down in the back garden, and shot them each multiple times. As the soldiers left the grounds, they shot at the front of the home. In an attempt to frame the FMLN group for the brutal murders, the army left a cardboard sign that read, “FMLN executed those who informed on it. Victory or death, FMLN.”
On Nov. 4, 2017, more than 2,000 high school and college students gathered in Washington, D.C., for the 20th annual Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice (IFTJ). The IFTJ is a place for young people to learn, reflect, and advocate together, and to honor the legacy of those martyred in El Salvador.
The Teach-In started as a gathering in Georgia to protest the U.S. Army School of the Americas (SOA), now known as The Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC). The WHINSEC is a combat training school for Latin American soldiers, instructing them in interrogation tactics, psychological warfare, counterinsurgency tactics, and military intelligence. Graduates of the school have gone on to commit various human rights violations, including torture, rape, and assassination. The soldiers who murdered the Jesuits and their companions were graduates of the SOA.
The vast majority of the students who gathered in D.C. this year for the IFTJ were not alive when these murders took place. They have no reason to feel personally impacted and responsible for the legacy of these martyrs. But a record number of students and educators gather each year at the Teach-In because this kind of violence is still all too prevalent in today’s world. What these students have come to recognize is that we must continue to talk about these atrocities. The work of justice is the work of a lifetime, and participants of IFTJ are starting as soon as possible.
Sr. Patricia Chappell (“Sr. Patty”) of Pax Christi USA was one of the mainstage speakers at this year’s Teach-In. She opened her time on stage with the simple statement that her main objective at the conference was to “keep it real.” She wasn’t there to coddle or to dance around the root of the issue — she was there to call out current atrocities and disordered events and actions, and to make sure that we regained our rage in the face of injustice.
The call of the martyrs and the IFTJ (and Sr. Patty) is to remember what has happened, to name aloud the problem, and to let these past and present injustices inform our actions. Violence happens every day, but that doesn’t mean that it’s an everyday occurrence. When the shock value of violence has faded, we must dig back into our shared humanity and remind ourselves that there is much work to be done, and that martyrs from 1989 still have much to teach us today.