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Please enjoy these blogposts, written between 2011 and 2015. Another blog is on the way.

Friday, April 1, 2011

El Salvador: Oscar Romero


An American introvert travels with a group of Christians to a hot country. Tens of thousands were recently killed there by men trained in or by the United States and armed with American weapons.

 At the embassy, our introvert asks prepared questions and nods politely at the answers, but is inclined to believe instead what radical priests and Marxist labor leaders tell her about what went on, what’s going on, and what might happen next.

 In a village of war survivors, an old woman with a forgiving heart calls the visitors Good Samaritans, and our introvert feels warm inside—until she remembers that the U.S. is wiping its feet with these people’s futures. While that continues, any help that groups like hers can give will count, not for nothing, but for little.  She would like to say this to at least one person in the village. She would like to have a conversation about babies or long-horned cows or Dick Cheney, but she’s too busy following rules she doesn’t entirely understand, and has been made too afraid of breaking, to wrestle out a little decipherable Spanish.

Yet she dreams of sharing the shade of huge trees and of attending black-lace funerals, of the devotion to living and nearness to dying that lends an indelible dignity to slapping tortillas and carrying water. She wants to go home, but when she gets there, she wants to go back, alone, and is afraid to.  She wants to change, to reconstitute her idea of herself.

* * * * *

On Saturday morning as we’re about to leave COO, Blanca asks Greta and me if she can tell us her story.  We know she means her war story, and we say yes.  I don’t catch much of it, but Greta fills me in later. Blanca was an adolescent when she returned to her home in the northern mountains to find her big family shot dead, father and mother and siblings. She herself was shot while running away and lived for some days wounded, hiding in brush. Guerillas found her and took her to their camp, where she was given medical attention, and later trained to be a medic.  The story is worse than this, of course, but that’s the core of it.  In the van, Margaret questions its veracity.

We return to the guesthouse in San Salvador on Saturday afternoon. The next day is Palm Sunday and the twenty-first anniversary of Archbishop Oscar Romero’s 1980 assassination.  We worship at the small church where he was killed while celebrating mass, and tour the apartment he lived in across the street. His bloody cassock still hangs in the closet.  Later we join a march of about 30,000 to the national cathedral downtown.

 Ordained in 1942, Romero remained a conservative Catholic until the mid-seventies. He was opposed to Vatican II and subsequent moves by Latin America clergy to commit the church to a “preferential option for the poor.”  He changed his allegiance in the mid-seventies when government forces began what he called “the repression,” massacring villagers and clergy trying to organize.  Sometimes campesinos were killed, it is said, for nothing more than possessing a Bible.

Romero’s appointment as Archbishop of San Salvador in 1977 intensified the fears of the privileged, as did the radio broadcast of his homilies and his letter asking President Jimmy Carter to stop military aid and promise non-intervention. He anticipated his assassination but continued preaching along these lines: “Those who . . . would save their lives (that is, those who want to get along, who don’t want commitments, who don’t want problems, who want to stay outside of a situation that demands the involvement of all of us) they will lose their lives. What a terrible thing to have lived quite comfortably, with no suffering . . . quite tranquil, quite settled, with good connections. . . . To what good?”

“If they kill me,” he said, “I will be resurrected in the Salvadoran people.”  The war began in earnest after his death.

Director John Duigan’s film “Romero,” made in 1989 and starring Raul Julia, will give you a sense of the love poor Salvadorans felt and continue to feel for this man. (Tom would be sure to tell you that strongman Roberto D’Aubuisson’s men did not gamble for the privilege of shooting Romero. That part, according to Tom, was MADE UP.)

That Sunday, as the march is taking place, Bush II flies in for a total of five hours for CAFTA negotiations with Salvadoran leaders.  Either he doesn’t know what day it is or he doesn’t care.  The nicer posters and graffiti decorating the city square call him a killer. Soldiers of the Bush-friendly government point guns from rooftops at the crowd below.

We visit Romero’s tomb in the basement of the cathedral.  John 12:24 is engraved there on a plaque: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” 

* * * * *

In the spring of 2009, an FMLN candidate is elected president of El Salvador.

On March 23 of 2011, on the eve of the thirty-first anniversary of Romero’s death, President Obama lights a candle at Romero’s tomb.

* * * * *

Am I a Christian? I don't know. There’s very little elbow room in that particular train car. The overhead light is unforgiving yet dim enough that some riders can’t see (or won’t look at) their own hands. The night outside is both terrifying and inviting.

Religion--or Christianity, I guess, since that's all I know--thrives on keeping secrets and telling people what to do.  As far I can see, the liberatory strain that Romero and others stand for doesn't translate well into North American life. We have more to lose. We're addicted to control of all kinds.

I may not have enough courage to be Romero's kind of Christian. I may have too much fellow-feeling to be the North American kind.

I still read Romero. See The Violence of Love by Romero, Brockman, and Nouwen, Orbis Books, 2004.


Divine Providence Chapel, where Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated while serving mass.