El Salvador

Primordial Holiness

I greatly appreciated the interview Michelle García conducted with Jon Sobrino (“Goodness Revealed,” January 2008). He is an exceptional servant of the Lord who has dedicated his life to the service of the poor in El Salvador for the past 34 years. He has done this in spite of criticism from the Vatican and physical threats from the national government.

As a former resident of El Sal­vador and member of the board of Christ­ians for Peace in El Salvador for the past 12 years, I have come to believe that Sobrino’s prophetic voice is needed just as much now as during the 1970s and ’80s, when war ravaged the country. Sobrino uses the word “primordial sanctity” to describe the poor who have developed the inexplicable dignity to survive and carry on with heads raised in the midst of tragedy. It is a word I would also apply to Sobrino himself.

William Van Lopik
Shawano, Wisconsi

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Sojourners Magazine March 2008
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School Closing Soon?

An estimated 25,000 people gathered in Novem­ber at the gates of Fort Benning in Georgia as part of the 18th annual School of the Americas protest. The U.S. military asserts that the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, formerly the School of the Americas, strives to promote “peace, democratic values, and respect for human rights through inter-American cooperation.” Many Americans strongly disagree. “We are a better country than what is on display at this school,” Rep. Jim Mc­Govern, a lead investigator of the 1989 SOA-linked murder of six Jesuits and two laywomen in El Salvador, told the crowd.

Critics of the school want it shut down due to the numerous human rights atrocities and massacres associated with many of its graduates. Eleven people, ranging in age from 25 to 76, were arrested for nonviolent civil disobedience, risking up to six months in federal prison. The annual protest’s influence is growing: The 2007 congressional bill to suspend the school’s operations failed by only six votes.

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Sojourners Magazine February 2008
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Hurricane Stan Ignites Churches

When Hurricane Stan hit the Gulf of Mexico last October, it deluged Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Honduras before losing its power. According to most estimates, more than 1,000 people died in the landslides and flooding throughout Central America, and thousands lost their homes and livelihoods. Faith-based organizations are wading in to help with the reconstruction efforts. Javier Rivera, a rural accompaniment coordinator for Christians for Peace in El Salvador (CRISPAZ), said 250 representatives of national and international organizations met in El Salvador in late October to develop a plan for reconstruction. CRISPAZ is partnering with environmental groups, community organizations, and Catholic and Protestant churches in the affected areas and facilitating donations through its Web site. “We haven’t received any support from the government,” Rivera told Sojourners.

—Celeste Kennel-Shank

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Sojourners Magazine January 2006
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Java Justice

In the harvest months of December and January, operators of a coffee processing machine in El Salvador receive trucks full of fresh coffee fruit many times a day, brought from families picking on the mountainsides. In a cascade of red and yellow, the fruit slides from the back of a truck into a reservoir. It is then put through large copper barrels that grate off the pulp.

The coffee beans pass through pipes onto a large brick patio with multiple levels. There they dry in the sun, appearing like mounds of gold on a Mayan temple. When it is dry, a grinder removes the husks, and the coffee is packed in 150-pound bags to be shipped to the United States.

Equal Exchange, a fair trade coffee importer in Massachusetts, works "to develop a more egalitarian, democratic model of trade," said Anna Utech, a member of the interfaith department. Equal Exchange and dozens of other companies committed to fair trade provide a living wage to small farmers, who have been devastated by fluctuations in the price of coffee globally. "Anyone who's ever known a farmer knows you can't survive with such uncertainty," Utech said.

Equal Exchange provides security to farmers through loans given before the harvest, so that if crops are destroyed or damaged members of the cooperatives will not lose their land or go hungry, as happens to many other small farmers. Fair trade buyers pay double the market price of 63 cents per pound, and add a 5-cent-per-pound premium for development projects.

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Sojourners Magazine April 2004
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Jury: Generals "Not Guilty"

The presidential elections weren't the only things casting a long shadow over the Sunshine State this fall. Twenty years after the rape and murder of four U.S. churchwomen in El Salvador, the men who allegedly ordered the murders were tried and found not guilty in a Florida Federal District Court.

Former Salvadoran military leaders Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova and Jose Guillermo García (who in the late '80s both packed up their khaki pants and retired to Florida), were serving as director of the National Guard and minister of defense, respectively, in 1980 when Sisters Maura Clarke, Ita Ford, Dorothy Kazel, and lay missioner Jean Donovan were tortured and killed. Both men admitted to knowing about the slaughter of innocent civilians by their troops, but insisted that they had no control over the situation.

The verdict has not been easy for the families, who said they plan to ask for a retrial. "I don't have the privilege of giving up and rejecting my faith," Miriam Ford, Ita's niece, told The New York Times. "We have the same story as so many others who lost family members. We have the burden of paying taxes to a government, so we paid for the guns and the uniforms. I think it is only our faith that is going to get us through."

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 2001
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The Reluctant Conversion of Oscar Romero

Don’t be mistaken. Archbishop Oscar Romero was an ordinary man. When soldiers pointed guns at him or made crude threats, he sweated, he trembled, he looked for where he could hide.

Romero came to be known for his courageous and eloquent public denunciations of the atrocities and injustice committed by the military in the turbulent years before El Salvador’s bitter civil war. But for much of his earlier career, he was politically cautious.

In 1968, the Latin American Catholic bishops gathered at Medellín, Colombia. They spoke of the "institutionalized sin" that afflicted and oppressed the majority of people in Latin America, and they called the whole church to a preferential option for the poor. For a long time Romero wanted nothing to do with this. He squelched community-based pastoral projects that he felt were too radical. He steadfastly protected the status quo.

Romero was named archbishop of the archdiocese of San Salvador on February 10, 1977. On February 28, a major protest of election fraud ended in bloodshed when a crowd of protesters were attacked by soldiers in the town square of the capital. Romero did not intervene or raise his voice.

Then, on March 12, 1977, a radical Jesuit priest, Rutilio Grande, was murdered along with a 72-year-old layman and a young boy. Romero had known Grande. He questioned why there was no official inquiry into the deaths. From that point forward Romero continued to ask questions which revealed that power in El Salvador lay in the hands of the wealthy—many of whom had supported him for archbishop—and that these same people tacitly sanctioned the violence that maintained their positions.

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Sojourners Magazine March-April 2000
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The Faces of Crisis

"THIS IS the face of Maria. She's always in trouble and she has a hard time doing the right thing," the 12-year-old girl mumbles as she displays a sketched self-portrait to the class.

"This is me, Ernesto," an adolescent boy pipes up confidently. "He likes soccer and he's really good at it."

Maria and Ernesto are in the classroom of the Santa Cecilia barrio, a Christian base community in San Salvador, El Salvador, for a session of art therapy offered by the Astac Cultural Center. The teacher concludes the lesson by asking the children to take their pictures with them and search for the positive attributes behind the faces.

El Salvador's youth are suffering from a lack of identification with their roots and culture. Not only do they seldom reflect upon a civil war that ended less than a decade ago, they are living in a country that is more violent now than during that 12-year conflict.

I spent the summer of 1997 working with deported members of Los Angeles street gangs in El Salvador through a program called "Homies Unidos." With the support of Save the Children, Homies Unidos is a group of non-active gang members, mostly from the rival groups "Mara Salvatrucha" and "18th Street," who are working to educate themselves and others on violence prevention and job creation. My project focused mainly on the reintegration of deported gang members into Salvadoran society—a society as foreign to them as to me, since they were refugees in the United States during the war.

EL SALVADOR IS RANKED among the most violent nations in Latin America, with more daily assassinations now than during the war. The tiny nation ties with South Africa for the highest number of murders per capita. An average of 150 people per month deported back to El Salvador (including many gang members with criminal records), combined with overpopulation and economic and environmental strains, fuels El Salvador's spiraling cycle of violence.

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Sojourners Magazine March-April 1998
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A Delicate Balance

I did not expect a great blue heron to visit my neighborhood in northeast Atlanta. While on a walk, I rounded a corner, and she took off from the edge of a fallen tree, her huge wings gracefully lifting her rail-thin body. She may have been lost-or perhaps she had come with a message.

In the few months that I have lived in Atlanta, we have been ravaged by extremes. During the August week that I arrived, temperatures soared by mid-day up to 115 degrees. Walking, and even breathing, was ponderous outside in the suffocating heat. In other parts of the country, that heat wave claimed more than 800 lives.

October brought Hurricane Opal slamming into the city. Most of Atlanta woke the following morning surrounded by downed tree limbs and without electricity. Or worse-in some cases, whole trees had fallen into housetops. Business as usual ceased while the city went about the process of cleaning up.

Three months later the "Blizzard of '96" passed through. We got only two inches of snow, but it-and the ice that followed-were enough to shut down schools for a week and end Atlanta traffic gridlock for one brief moment in time.

Some people (especially children) headed for the parks to frolic in the white stuff. But many others lamented "I can't wait until summer," in the same tone of voice with which they had said "I can't wait until winter" when the temperature was over 100. Many complained of the grand inconvenience.

Three weeks after the blizzard, during another cold spell, I spoke with several homeless men in a parking lot. They were shrouded in blankets and huddled around a small radio, listening to the Super Bowl. In the weeks before, they had lost friends who had frozen to death on the streets. For them the storm had been more than inconvenience. Across the country it had claimed at least 100 lives.

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Sojourners Magazine March-April 1996
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Companions of Comfort

"The heart of war is rape."

I was in El Salvador on a Project Via Crucis delegation when I first heard these words in 1989. They were shared with me by a friend as assurance that I was not going crazy.

I was frustrated and frightened. The nightmares, headaches, insomnia, difficulty concentrating, and intrusive memory fragments of rape and childhood sexual abuse that I began to experience after my first trip to El Salvador two years before were becoming progressively worse. Thoughts about my mother's suicide a long time ago were on my mind with increasing frequency.

At the same time, I was working hard to help build the Project Via Crucis solidarity network, as well as hold down a full-time job and raise two teen-age sons. I was angry with myself for not having better control over what was happening inside of me. I wanted to direct my energy to the Salvadoran struggle-not focus on my own pain.

Although I did not yet comprehend it, my entry into accompaniment of the Salvadoran poor in the context of war had triggered an activation of the interior conflictive zones that are the inheritance of every untreated survivor of childhood sexual abuse. A child who is sexually abused learns to survive in a war zone. Unprotected, she is subject to psychological, physical, and spiritual destruction-particularly when the abuse occurs within the context of her family.

In 1989, I had conscious memory of being raped when I was 12 by an acquaintance, and of being molested during the course of an entire summer when I was 5 by an older teen-age cousin and two of his friends. I never talked about these experiences, minimizing their significance and impact. I was unaware that other, more profoundly painful memories of sexual abuse at the hands of my mother lay deeply buried behind the walls I built as a child in order to survive.

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Sojourners Magazine July-August 1995
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The Long Shadow of El Mozote

It’s necessary for the people of North America to understand the reality that we live in El Salvador, because in some places it is known but not believed. When I hid as they were looking to kill me, I told God that if I escaped I would tell the story of our people. I took on this commitment before God for my whole life and I think it was accepted.

I feel very emotional because I’ve seen a change in the mentality of the United States toward helping El Salvador. During the years that so much military assistance came, many children also died of hunger. But now we expect help to reconstruct our country for the future of our children who are still alive. After such suffering it is necessary that we live in peace.

I give thanks that my words are heard—a campesina who has lived a life of such exploitation. Previously I didn’t even want to converse. I was a very sad woman and very afraid. Now I reflect about how God has transformed me. I couldn’t even tell you about it without the help of God.

In El Mozote, we were very simple, humble people who were into development. It was a beautiful place, populated on all sides with dwellings. It had coffee, sugar cane, and pineapples, and wood on the outskirts. We worked in the fields. It was quite lovely there, because if you wanted to eat a pineapple, you just ate one. There were days when one would have lunch eating a piece of sugarcane—I’d have all my children there eating cane too. We were very happy.

Now there is no sign of all that. They destroyed everything. This is the impossibility that the exiles feel. How can we ever go back to our place of origin if we don’t have anything there? We would have to plant again, and the energy to do that has been lost. The most difficult thing is that the people know the government does not protect or help us in difficult moments.

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Sojourners Magazine September-October 1994
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