Insecurity and the US women religious martyred in El Salvador

Thirty-two years ago, today, in 1980, four US women missionaries in El Salvador – two Maryknoll sisters, an Ursuline sister, and a lay volunteer – were killed by Salvadoran government forces.

This morning when I read the brief account in Robert Ellsberg’s  All Saints, I was deeply touched by  their courage in the face of death. They knew that their work placed them in danger. The laywoman, Jean Donovan, had regularly baked chocolate chip cookies for Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was killed on March 24, 1980. Maryknoll sister Maura Clarke wrote:

One cries out, “Lord, how long?” And then too what creeps into my mind is the little fear or big, that when it touches me very personally, will I be faithful?

But despite everything, they stayed and continued to serve the poor and to comfort those displaced by the violence of government forces and death squads. Fear did not hold them back.

The Gospel for this first Sunday of Advent is filled with images of fear: “People will faint with fear at the mere thought of what is to come upon the world…” (Luke 21: 26)

I live in the country with the highest murder rate in the world. I hear of deaths and killings. In 2009, a few months before the coup when some US citizens were fearing an invasion (from where, I don’t remember), I was asked if I would leave. No, was my response, since this is where I am called to be.

I am aware of the dangers here and take precautions, but I’m not filled with fear. In fact, I feel secure, especially in the countryside where I find people so willing to help.

Even here in the city of Santa Rosa de Copán, I am amazed at some things that happen to me. Last Thursday when my car broke down near my house, three guys passing by stopped to help. One said he would try to start it and did. Somehow he knew me – though I don’t know where. I have so often depended on the kindness of strangers and friends.

Last night I looked at the recording of the virtual town hall from the US Embassy in Honduras. What a contrast to my experience last Thursday night.

Concerns of security were great among those who e-mailed in questions to the Embassy, but mostly in terms of themselves and groups from the US. I noted no concern expressed for the thousands of Hondurans killed each year, though I don’t doubt that many are concerned.

Our concern for our own security can blind us to the insecurity of the lives of the poor and marginalized.

Will I leave here? Only when I feel God calling me elsewhere.


Jean Donovan said it well, in a letter, shortly after the Peace Corps left El Salvador:

Several times I have decided to leave—I almost could except for the children, the poor bruised victims of adult lunacy…. Whose heart would be so staunch as to favor the reasonable thing in a sea of their tears and loneliness? Not mine, dear friend, not mine.

Honduras today is not like El Salvador of 1980 and in my five years here I have never contemplated leaving. But the children and the people I work with keep me here and give me a great sense of security, because here, in the poor, I have found God present in an extraordinary way.

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