|Omaha, November 6, 1999
I have long admired Archbishop Oscar Romero and the men and women
Martyrs of El Salvador: The Jesuits and Ita Ford, Jean Donovan, Dorothy
Kazel and Maura Clarke- their giving of themselves totally to Christ, and
necessarily, then, to others. Their willingness to live a radical life
for Christ has always captured my heart and my imagination. In many ways,
because of them and many others, I have dreamed of doing oversees missionary/service
work. For now, that is not an option. But, if it is God's will, it will
happen someday. For now, though, I'm grateful for this opportunity to go
for five days and walk with people who have suffered and continue to grieve.
A large part of my spirituality is believing that Christianity is not about
carving a safe niche in the world where there are no hurting and suffering
people anywhere near me. It is important to me that my heart is changed
and moved to be more compassionate, and I don't know how to do that except
to be with hurting and struggling people, and see what they go through.
I guess it sounds very selfish- to go to El Salvador so I can be changed
and moved. It is. I don't pretend to be able to give a thing.
I have a stack of papers to read. Everyone has been giving me stuff to read about El Salvador. I can't seem to get to it. Good airplane reading, I guess. But, it has struck me today that, while I really want to have a sense of the history of the civil war and of the country since the war ended, that is not the most important preparation I can do. It struck me today that in my prayer time yesterday morning, I didn't say one word to God about this trip. How did I get to the point where it seemed more important to intellectually prepare than to spiritually prepare? How can I expect to walk with the people of El Salvador with only a head full of info and an empty soul?
My friend Rob was in Des Moines last night on business. He had driven in from Illinois where we are both from and went to junior high and high school together. He called to let me know he was coming and I made the decision to drive to Des Moines, have dinner with him, and drive back to Omaha. While I was concerned about the lack of sleep I would get by going, especially right before this big trip, I can never pass up an opportunity to spend time with Rob. We have had conversations that lasted for hours, literally. Last night was no different.
I was astounded to learn last night that when Rob when into the Army,
active duty, immediately after college, 1987, he was stationed at Ft. Benning,
Georgia. More surprising was that this didn't come up when I was talking
to him about my trip to El Salvador. But later, when talking about something
totally unrelated to our pilmigrage, Rob mentioned, just in passing, being
at Ft. Benning. I grilled him. We had an intense, provoking conversation
about his time there and our government's role in El Salvador. I got the
feeling that he didn't want to talk much about the specifics of his time
at Ft. Benning, so I eased up on the questions a bit.
And on and on we talked. That conversation has provoked more feelings about this upcoming trip than anything else has thus far. I now have a personal connection, a window, a friend who was a part of all that went on at Ft. Benning in the late '80's. He's not completely comfortable with it all. I have the story and feelings from someone who struggles with having been there. There is a lot more movement in my heart now. I'll come back with a lot more connections- from the other side. I wonder what my heart will feel?
Just as I was thinking to myself last night at dinner that he helped
me feel more connected to the story of El Salvador and even surer of my
conviction to go and stand for justice, if only for myself, Rob said, "You're
doing a good thing."
November 13, 1999, En Route to El Salvador
Before we stepped foot in El Salvador, I am moved by the faith of a few El Salvadorans. Halfway through our flight to El Salvador, we had to turn back due to potential problems with the landing gear. They didn't think we should go on to El Salvador because they wouldn't have the maintenance capabilities that Houston has. It was a little harrowing as we all realized that our landing gear could fail. Our pilot was trying to burn the extra fuel in case of a fire or explosion if we landed with no landing gear. As we began our final descent into Houston, an El Salvadoran woman in front of me put a white knit scarf on her head. After we were safely landed, she removed it. I asked Maria Teresa if prayer shawls are customary in El Salvador. She doesn't know.
As we reboard the second time for El Salvador, another woman in front of us began to sing in Spanish. I looked at Maria Teresa and she told me that the woman was singing a song asking for God's protection. Finally, as we were getting ready to take off, a third woman in front of us placed a red and black lace scarf on her head. It remained during the entire flight. I don't know if they were indeed prayer shawls. I like to think so. There was no mistaking the faith of the woman singing a song to God, though.
We're finally in El Salvador! The airport is very nice. Nicer than the one in the D.R. Jon Cortina, Jon Guiliano and family, and Bert met us at the airport. It was a joy to see them. We drove to the convent where we are staying, unloaded, and then on to Jon and Michael's home in the San Antonio Abbad. On the way up the road there was a bus parked on the street and underneath, three pairs of legs… a family sleeping under the bus. As we neared Jon's home, one of our colleagues observed out loud, "This is solidarity."
Sat for an hour listening to Jon Cortina tell stories from his experiences
of Rutillo Grande and Archbishop Romero. He shared a little, too, about
his upbringing and the circumstances that led to his coming to El Salvador
in September 1955. One story that touched me was how he escaped from Spain
to France and when Spanish ships threatened to stop their journey, English
battle ships intercepted and accompanied them to France. Jon says to Michael
Campbell-Johnson, originally from England, "I never told you this story?"
We visited Rutillo Grande's grave and the place where he and two others were stopped and killed on the way to Mass in Paisnal. His grave is inside the small church there. Maria Teresa wept. On to Ita Ford and Maura Clark's graves on the way to Guarjila. Jean Donovan is buried in Westport, CT and Dorothy Kazel elsewhere as well. But Maryknoll's tradition is to bury their religious in the place where they worked, thus those two are there. Guiliano shared some insights about the four women martyrs that will stay with me. He said their work and death was significant because it was all about accompanying people- the theology of accompanying. And it speaks volumes about just being with people. It is not about what skills one has; it's just about who one is and sharing that presence with others. I think this is very difficult for North Americans to get a hold of. We don't understand the value of being, of just giving solely based on our presence and who we are. I think we live in a culture that indoctrinates that we must have something tangible to give- skills, talents, material things, etc. The beauty and priceless gift of the women martyrs, among others, was to just BE with the people, to accompany them. And even this was a threat to the government, so they were killed in broad daylight, in a fairly populous area. I am hearing a lot about the theology of accompaniment and about being in solidarity with people.
We saw graphic photos of the executed Jesuits and the two women. These photos are not the ones that we have seen all these years in the media and in books. I'm amazed that anyone could take those photos. My personality and cowardice is such that I would have wanted to avoid seeing the brutality. But the people's foresight was keen, and in a strange way, I am glad that they took the pictures. I think seeing them was very important. I had always carried the image of the six Jesuits face down, their bodies in tact, lying in the garden with trickles of blood running down the sides of their heads and faces. This allowed me to believe that it had been a "decent execution." Not so. The photos at la UCA's museum show the underside of the men, their faces and heads. The soldiers blew the faces of the men, and the tops of some of their heads. There was blood and brains everywhere, on the underside. We were told that this was intentional- to symbolize the destruction of the intellect that was such a threat to the military at that time. This was not a decent execution- it was a brutal, calculated one. I walked the grounds over and over again- around the rose garden and up and down the corridor of the residence. I couldn't get a full grasp on was had taken place in those exact spots ten years ago. I would go back and look at those famous photographs in the museum, see the specifics of what it looked like then, and go back out to the grounds. I couldn't get a hold of it. And the worst reality of all? Understanding that it is easy right now to stand up for justice and mourn the loss of lives from the war, and be in solidarity with these people. It is peacetime. I have nothing to lose. What about back then? I don't know if I would have been brave and faithful enough. So I pray, pray, pray for faith and strength and conviction.
Wonderful, moving stories here about Romero. A beautiful, gentle, gracious nun told us stories about him. Guiliano translated. She walked us to a patch of dirt in the garden right outside his front door and said, "This is a special place." After Monsignor's death, some, again, had the foresight to ask for Romero's internal organs, less his heart which was shattered. They already believed Romero was a saint, and said to those preparing his body, "You cannot discard the remains of a saint!" They placed his remains in plastic and then in a wooden box and buried it right outside his home in the yard, the special place that sister was referring to. Several years later, they dug up the remains in order to bury them in a more permanent place beneath the statue of the Virgin Mary. When they dug up the remains, the wooden box had rotted away, but the organs were completely intact. No decay, no odor.
So disappointing and sad to see the place where this tomb is. It
is the basement of the Cathedral, but the basement is dark, dusty and dirty.
It looks the most decrepit of warehouses or a building that has been abandoned
for years. And in the corner is his tomb and all of the ornaments that
people have placed there. There are workers all around with pick axes working
in the basement, so with the sound of the axes on cement and the traffic
outside, it is very difficult to meditate here- a place that could be so
inspirational and peaceful. This is a strong statement to me about how
Monsignor Romero is viewed by the institutional Church- by everyone except
the people, the peasants whom who died for. A young man stands at the tomb
self-consciously patting the top of the tomb, as a young man might pat
We spoke last night with an El Salvadoran woman, age 22, who speaks perfect English and is a student at la UCA. She was in exile with her family in Canada from 1984-88. A death squad kidnapped her father because he ran an orphanage. He did not care what children were brought to the orphanage, he cared for them all. Because many were peasant children, he was targeted. He is a Baptist Minister. They released him on the condition that he leave the country. They fled to Canada with the help of the Lutheran Church. It was amazing to hear yet another story, firsthand, of the war. The strength of these people is inarticulable.
Listened again to Cortina talk about his work with La Probusqueda - http://www.probusqueda.org.sv - and the scholarship program for young men in Guarjila. He gives himself totally to the people. When he is in Guarjila for the weekends, he has boys over to his house and he teaches math to them. As long as it takes on any given Saturday, he teaches math. It finally began to dawn on me, the day before we depart El Salvador, what an amazing man Jon Cortina is. As he was telling stories, he saw me crying and asked if I have allergies! I chuckled through my tears and said no. He said, "I'm sorry." I cried again when I said goodbye to him. He is an amazing, humble man. I rushed back to the convent tonight to write down in my journal all of the ideas that I have as to how to help Jon Cortina with his many ministries. Maybe I can mobilize some assistance for his work from here in the States. Hopefully I can help in some way. He has given his life.
I am so aware during this trip that I have been able to literally walk the paths of many saints- St. Francis and St. Clare of Assisi, the Jesuits, Archbishop Romero, Dorothy Day- and have spent time with many saints who are still alive and with us- Sr. Helen Prejean, Jon Cortina, Lexi Torres, and many others. My fervent prayer is to give back what I have been given through their wisdom and lives. I don't want to just get fat from all of the spiritual food that I've been given. I want to use it to nourish me to give back and be of service. I pray…