El Salvador

What Would Oscar Romero Say Today About El Salvador?

Photo via Wikimedia / Public Domain
Photo via Wikimedia / Public Domain

Central America needs help expanding education opportunities, building child welfare systems, and sheltering victims of violence and witnesses to crime. But none of these reforms can be sustained unless Central American governments also work to eradicate corruption and reform their judicial systems.

As Romero said during a time of similar urgency, “On this point there is no possible neutrality. We either serve the life of Salvadorans or we are accomplices in their death. … We either believe in a God of life or we serve the idols of death.”

From the Archives: December 1990

THE ODDS that this note will arrive for your birthday are poor, but know that I’m with you in spirit as you celebrate 16 big ones. ... What I want to say—some of it isn’t too jolly birthday talk, but it’s real.

Yesterday I stood looking down at a 16-year-old who had been killed a few hours earlier. I know a lot of kids even younger who are dead. This is a terrible time in El Salvador for youth. A lot of idealism and commitment are getting snuffed out here now.

The reasons why so many people are being killed are quite complicated, yet there are some clear, simple strands. One is that many people have found a meaning to life, to sacrifice, struggle, and even to death. And whether their life span is 16 years, 60, or 90—for them, their life has had a purpose. In many ways, they are fortunate people.

Brooklyn is not passing through the drama of El Salvador, but some things hold true wherever one is, and at whatever age. What I’m saying is, I hope you come to find that which gives life a deep meaning for you—something worth living for, maybe even worth dying for—something that energizes you, enthuses you, enables you to keep moving ahead. I can’t tell you what that might be—that’s for you to find, to choose, to love. I can just encourage you to start looking, and support you in the search. 

Sister Ita Ford was a Maryknoll missionary in El Salvador when she wrote this letter in August 1980 to her 16-year-old niece, who lived in Brooklyn. Ford was killed three months later by a right-wing death squad.

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From the Archives: September 1984

EL SALVADOR'S war has already claimed 40,000 lives. But our government has taken the stance that Salvadoran “illegals” are economic, not political, refugees, and therefore have no right to be here. Despite stories and statistics to the contrary, our government doesn’t believe they have a “well-founded fear of persecution” that would entitle them to political asylum here. Meanwhile refugees keep coming with the same story of their government’s organized killing and repression. Where are our ears to hear and to respond? ...

It’s an upside-down world these days. But a right-side-up world happens when I lay down my life, risk myself out of love for my brothers and sisters. I am not to close my heart to them, or to anyone. This earth is a sacred place—it and all the life it contains. We have created refuges to protect the life that we in our blindness destroy: bird refuges, endangered species lists, houses for battered women, places safe from violence. At one time this country was a refuge for people fleeing persecution. Where now is the refuge for those people?

“You shall treat the alien who resides with you no differently than the natives born among you; have the same love for them as for yourself; for you too were once aliens in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:33-34).

Stacey Merkt was a lay worker at Casa Romero, a halfway house for refugees in San Benito, Texas, when this article appeared.

Image: refugee word cloud, Mattz90 / Shutterstock

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Vatican Says No Movement (Yet) on Sainthood for Oscar Romero

An icon shows the late Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, who was assassinated in 1980. Religion News Service file photo

Despite fevered speculation in the media and across Latin America, the Vatican says Pope Francis has not advanced slain Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero toward sainthood — at least, not yet.

Romero, the archbishop of San Salvador, was shot dead on March 24, 1980, while celebrating Mass only a day after he delivered a homily calling on Salvadoran soldiers to stop enforcing government repression and human rights violations.

Pope John Paul II gave him the title “servant of God” in 1997 and the case for his canonization began. But the case stalled under the papacy of Benedict XVI over concerns that Romero was too close to the liberation theology that John Paul and Benedict spent years trying to repress.

Francis revived the cause soon after he was elected last year, and recent reports in several languages have suggested that church officials were poised to beatify Romero, putting him one step short of sainthood.

Prophetic Preaching: 'One of The Priests is Receiving Death Threats'

Photo: Jacek Orzechowski
a Franciscan young adult group at St. Camillus created a large mural about Easter. Photo: Jacek Orzechowski

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.

Romero's Glasses

Alex Bowie/Getty Images
Archbishop Oscar Romero (1917 - 1980) at home in San Salvador, 20th November 1979. Alex Bowie/Getty Images

Editor's Note: The following is a poem written by Trevor Scott Barton following reading The Violence of Love by Archbiship Oscar Romero, who was assassinated in El Salvador in 1980.

Children
longing for a hero,
living love, peace and hope,
protecting ordinary people from extraordinary hatred and violence,
peaceful hero,
dying for the cause but not killing for it,
denying guns and bombs their power,
risking the violence of love.
Conserving tradition at first for the greatest,
seeing through your glasses at last for the least,
feeling the hunger of underpaid workers,
knowing the poverty of farmers,
hearing the warning, "Here's what happens to priests who get involved in politics,
holding tears of the disappeared.
Challenging,
calling all to view the liberating body of a slain priest,
serving the poor,
using words to build up humanity and tear down injustice,
"In the name of God, stop killing ..."
offering crucifixion,
discovering resurrection.

REPORT : 'A Window of Hope'

If you’re in need of some good news, check out Aaron McCarroll Gallegos’ Sojourners magazine commentary “From ‘Iron Fist’ to Hand of Peace” (from the November 2012 issue). The author tells the story of the remarkable truce between El Salvador’s most notorious gangs, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18.

The Transnational Advisory Group in Support of the Peace Process in El Salvador (TAGSPPES), which helped broker the truce, recently released a report called “A Window of Hope: El Salvador's Opportunity to Address History of Violence.”

According to TAGSPPES, the six-month-long truce has already led to a 70 percent reduction in homicides. While the truce is a precarious peace at best, it provides an opening for growth and healing in El Salvador: “The space opened by the truce is an historic opportunity that cannot be squandered or El Salvador risks maintaining its status as one of the poorest and most violent places in the world into the foreseeable future.”

The report outlines the advisory group’s findings and recommendations to help reduce gang violence and bring reconciliation to El Salvador. Read the full report here.

 

 

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From 'Iron Fist' to Hand of Peace

IN THE TRAGIC, often-hopeless world of gang violence, this year’s truce between two notorious gangs in El Salvador offers reasons for hope and a breakthrough opportunity for change.

Beginning in March, leaders of the infamous gangs Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 called a truce from behind prison walls. The agreement was mediated by Monsignor Fabio Colindres, the Catholic chaplain for the Salvadoran police and military, and Raúl Mijango, a former legislator and, before that, military commander in the FMLN, the onetime guerrilla movement that is now the country’s elected ruling party.

The truce, which was still in effect at press time, immediately reduced violence in El Salvador, which has been among the world’s most deadly countries in recent years. Since early April, said President Mauricio Funes in late August, the murder rate has gone down to around five per day, a decrease of more than 60 percent from the 13.5 per day average of January and February.

The gang violence that has plagued El Salvador and other Central American countries in recent years is an import, brought by youth deported from the United States. MS-13 and Barrio 18 both originated on the streets of Los Angeles—ironically, built by young people whose families were refugees fleeing the U.S.-backed violence of Central American civil wars and death squads in the 1980s.

But just as violence can be moved across national borders, peace can be as well.

In July, the Transnational Advisory Group in Support of the Peace Process in El Salvador, a group of U.S. community workers with gang intervention expertise, sent an 11-member delegation to assess the truce and consult with their Salvadoran counterparts on ways to support it.

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Six Questions for Jose Penate Aceves

1. What led you to start an intentional community ministering to gang members? Gangs have a really strong sense of community: They fight and die for their homies and they support each other. Other programs offer job skills or anger management, but don’t offer community. We offer a community like the community they have. After many years working with them, we realized that was attractive to them—they feel at home.

2. Why is local leadership so important in your work? From the beginning we said that if we really want this ministry to continue, it has to be local, because local leaders have three different qualities. a) They don’t move easily. b) Other people trust them; it takes time, but people believe them. And c) they’re used to handling big challenges—poor or marginalized people have been trained by life to confront really huge challenges.

3. What does it mean to minister “incarnationally”? If someone foreign wants to do some kind of ministry in this community, that person has to become like a baby and learn. Transformation is mutual: At the same time it’s helping others, the biggest transformation is happening in their own life. That is not easy. To submerge incarnationally and empower others sometimes is to fail. But if you look through the eyes of the kingdom of God, well, that is all about love, love, love—until they ask you why you love so much.

4. How have you seen scripture reflected in the communities where you’ve lived? In El Salvador, Luke 4:18-19—Jesus’ commission to free the oppressed—helped me to see my poor community with a different perspective. Our neighborhood was so poor: no electricity, no streets, no water. We thought this was our destiny. But through the gospel we find that, no, God has beautiful promises and we can do it together. Sometimes poor people are so divided, just trying to survive themselves, that we don’t realize that together we can transform the whole community.

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