Category Archives: Central America

Subversive women feeding the poor

On December 2, 1980, four US women missionaries were killed in El Salvador by government forces.

The only crime of Maryknoll Sisters Maura Clark and Ita Ford, Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel, and lay missionary Jean Donovan was to have worked with the poor.

But theirs was not a work done from a distance, distributing goods to the poor – though they did provide material assistance to the many Salvadorans displaced by governmental repression in the face of an impending civil war.

As Jesus fed the crowds (Matthew 15: 29-37) and Isaiah revealed God’s promise of rich food and choice wines (Isaiah 25: 6-10), these women lived among the poor, served them, and sat at their tables – sharing the rich food of tortillas and beans.

But to give food to the poor can be a crime. It can awaken in them the vision of a world where all can sit down together at the table of the Lord.

But these women were not political activists, as some US government officials said in an effort to undermine their witness and to support military aid to the repressive Salvadoran government.

No. Their work was based in their faith, in their love of a God who had compassion on the crowds and fed them.

When the Peace Corps was withdrawn from El Salvador, Jean Donovan reiterated her decision to stay and be with the people:

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.

She, as the other women, had accompanied the people and been converted to the God who takes the side of the poor.

They worshipped a God who became flesh, not in the palace of a king but in a humble manger.

They worshipped a God who had no place to lay his head – and who was killed for offering the people real life in God’s Reign, not the substitute kingdoms of wealth, power, influence.

They worshipped a God who is Love.

And that love is subversive.

 

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Laying down one’s life

A good shepherd lays down his life
for the sheep.
John 10: 11

Pope Francis has spoken often of the importance of sharing the “smell of the sheep.” As he wrote in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium – the Joy of the Gospel, ¶ 24:

An evangelizing community gets involved by word and deed in people’s daily lives; it bridges distances, it is willing to abase itself if necessary, and it embraces human life, touching the suffering flesh of Christ in others. Evangelizers thus take on the “smell of the sheep” and the sheep are willing to hear their voice.

Next month the world will celebrate the beatification of a Salvadoran bishop who took on the smell of the sheep and gave his life for them. As Monseñor Oscar Romero said in his July 22, 1979 homily:

 I want to repeat to you what I said once before:
the shepherd does not want security
while they give no security to his flock.

Today is the anniversary of the martyrdom  in 1998 of another shepherd, Monseñor Juan Gerardi, the Guatemalan bishop, who was killed days after the office he led had released a report – “Nunca Mas – Never Again” – on the many killings in his country.

He, like Romero, knew the risks of what he was doing. Years before he had fled his diocese because of the violence and death threats. As he said when the report was released,

We want to contribute to the building of a country different than the one we have now. For that reason we are recovering the memory of our people. This path has been and continues to be full of risks, but the construction of the Reign of God has risks and can only be built by those that have the strength to confront those risks.

How can we who serve in the Christian community share the mission and courage of martyrs like Romero and Gerardi? How do we lay down our lives for others?

It’s not merely a question of martyrdom, but a question of laying down our lives, our agendas, every day, for others, especially the poor and suffering – even when we’d rather be sitting at home writing or reading about the poor.

To do this we must not be afraid to go out and smell like the sheep.

We must listen to them, hear their joys and sorrows, and accompany them on their journey.

We can do this best, I believe, when we are deeply connected with the Good Shepherd, Jesus, who gave His life for the sheep and promises us life.

Doing this can give us life.

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The Black Christ

Black Christ of Esquipulas

Black Christ of Esquipulas

Today we in this part of Latin America celebrate the feast of Nuestro Señor de los Misericordias, Our Lord of Mercy. But it is commonly known as the feast of the Black Christ, specifically the Black Christ of Esquipulas.

Pilgrims throng the church in Esquipulas, Guatemala, to pay reverence to the cross dating from 1594. Over the years, the crucified image turned dark – and began to be called el Cristo Negro.

Cristo negro de Intibucá

Cristo negro de Intibucá

There are other Black Christs throughout the region, including one in Quezalica, Copán, which I haven’t yet visited. There is also one in church in the center of the town of  Intibucá.

There may be other images of a black Christ throughout the world – most notably in Africa and among African Americans.

There are also black images of Mary throughout  Europe, some like the icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa, but one of the most notable (because of its connections to St. Ignatius of Loyola is Our Lady of Montserrat.

Our Lady of Montserrat, Manresa retreat house, Detroit

Our Lady of Montserrat, Manresa retreat house, Detroit

But what color was Christ?

I think it is clear that he was not blue-eyed and white skinned as many of us grew up with. But that image prevails even here. Note the image of Christ painted by a young Honduran in the Dulce Nombre de María church. (I afterwards told him that Christ was probably not white and showed him a number of alternative images.)

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But how often do we white North Americans make Christ in our image and likeness – not only with blue eyes, blond hair, and white skin? How often do we make Christ according to our prejudices, a supporter of our way of life, our imperial demands, our upward mobility?

What if we thought of Jesus as marginalized – as a person of color?

Christ, painted by a young Palestinian

Christ, painted by a young Palestinian

Wouldn’t that make us a different kind of Christian?

A purpose in life

Maryknoll Sister Ita Ford was one of the four US women killed on December 2, 1980, by the Salvadoran military.

They, like many in Latin America, had taken seriously the preferential option for the poor, sharing in the lives of the poor, accompanying them in their joys and struggles, showing the poor the mercy of God.

For this, they and many others were killed in Latin America, mostly by government forces. To be a Christian committed with the poor meant to put their lives at risk.

But for them it was what gave their lives meaning, partly because we see people living and struggling with a purpose.

Sister Ita Ford explained this in a letter to a sixteen-year niece:

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 are being killed are quite complicated, yet there are some clear, simple strands. One is that people have found a meaning to live, to sacrifice, struggle, and even die. And whether their life spans sixteen years, sixty or ninety, 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 that I hope that you can come to find that which gives life a deep meaning for you, something that energizes you, enthuses you, enables you to keep moving ahead.

The killing of youth by government forces in Latin America doesn’t happen as much as it did in the 1970s and 1980s, but still “a lot of idealism and commitment are getting snuffed out” by the violence, the poverty, the desperation, the political machinations of economic elites.

Yet I too find small signs of hope.

Yesterday I witnessed the entrance of 92 mostly young people into the catechumenate in the parish of Dulce Nombre. It filled me with hope to see so many wanting to journey with Christ, to live as members of the People of God.

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They are finding something that gives their lives a deep meaning.

May all of us find that – in opening ourselves to the workings of God in us and in the poor.

The faithful insecurity of Father Dean Brackley

Two years ago today, Father Dean Brackley, SJ, a friend, died in El Salvador. I had gotten to know him in El Salvador and had found myself inspired by his example and aided by his book on Ignatian spirituality, The Call to Discernment in Troubled Times: New Perspectives on the Transformative Wisdom of Ignatius of Loyola.

In 1990, Dean had volunteered to leave the insecurity of work in the South Bronx and teaching at Fordham University to the insecurity of teaching at the Jesuit University of Central America in San Salvador, where six Jesuits and two women had been killed in November 1989 by government forces. In addition, on the weekends he served in the mountain parish of Jayaque where one of the martyred priests had served.

I live in Honduras, a country which many (including the US State Department) consider “insecure,” in part because of the high murder rate, especially in the major cities and along the north coast. Many, including the US government, see militarization of the police as the answer.

And so these words of Father Dean strike home:

What makes us secure? The “war against terror” demonstrates every day that military force can no longer make us safe, if it ever could. Instead, traditional military action is making everyone, including the U.S., less secure.

… The word of God is eloquent on these matters. Security comes from God, not from Tomahawk missiles or oil. “Trust in Yahweh and you will be secure” (2 Chr 20:20)….

It is important to recall, especially in affluent countries, that the vast majority of people who have ever lived (and all poor people today) have struggled daily to stay alive in the face of dangers: natural disaster, sickness, scarcity and social violence. But the practical  measures people take to address these threats never eliminate insecurity altogether. So, throughout history, people have turned to gods. Gods are supposed to provide security. In Israel, we have a unique situation: the people are to trust in only one God, Yahweh, for all their security needs. Only Yahweh provides real security and prosperity- shalom….

Jesus demands “total” faith: Do not fear those who can kill the body. Do not worry about what you are to eat or to wear. Do not worry or be afraid of anything. Do not let fear – a normal enough reaction to danger – dominate your lives. Instead, seek first the Reign of God and its justice. The rest will take care of itself….

It is essential to unmask the official lies that would justify imperial conquest and violations of human rights. It is crucial to promote the road of nonviolent peacemaking and to advance in our ethical thinking as a church. However, the present situation suggests to me the fruitfulness of proposing questions like these: Is the war on terror making us more secure or less so? What really can make us secure? What does our faith say to this? Can we be secure if half the world lives in misery? What idols do we rely on for national security? What idolatrous rituals does our nation engage in? How do these idols enslave? What victims are we sacrificing to them as a nation?

In the face of obsession about security, it is important to recognize that the quest for absolute security (an impossibility) can lead us to an idolatry that paralyzes us.

Fear and the pursuit of security can enslave us, but Jesus shows us another way, as Hebrews 2: 14-15 notes:

Now since the children share in blood and flesh, [Jesus] likewise shared in them, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who through fear of death had been subject to slavery all their life.

Will we live in the radical insecurity of the reign of God or rely on the gods of power and might?

 

 

 

 

Guatemala’s Martyred Bishop, Juan Geradi

The history of Central America, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, is bloody. Many know of the violence in El Salvador, partly because of the killings of Archbishop Romero and the four US women missionaries in 1980, partly because of the overt US support of the government and military – in the mid-1980s at a rate of about one million US dollars a day.

The history of Guatemalan oppression is much less known, though it is bloodier and lasted longer. After the war was over, the Guatemalan Archdiocesan Human Rights Office supported the Recovery of Historical Memory Project [REMHI], to investigate the killings. The project released a report that implicated the Guatemalan government and military in 90% of the 200,000 plus killings and disappearances.

Guatemala City auxiliary bishop Juan Gerardi led the investigation and spoke at the release of the report. He had experienced the repression first hand when he was bishop of Santa Cruz de Quiché. The violence got so bad that he and the priests withdrew from the diocese, partly at the urging of the people. He went into exile but later returned.

Two days after the REMHI report was released, Bishop Gerardi was killed on April 26, 1988, fifteen years ago today.

When he reported the findings of the REMHI report on April 24, 1998, he noted the importance of the report and the dangers in releasing such information:

We want to contribute to the building of a country different than the one we have now.  For that reason we are recovering the memory of our people.  This path has been and continues to be full of risks, but the construction of the Reign of God has risks and can only be built by those that have the strength to confront those risks.

Even today there are dangers as can be noted in the trial of former Guatemalan general and president Rios Montt, which was revealing more of the massacres of indigenous peoples. The status of the trial is unsure now. For more information, look at the Central American Politics blog of a friend and University of Scranton professor, Mike Allison.

Impunity for crimes against the poor and indigenous are not uncommon in Latin America.

But that means that we are called even more to practice the virtue of solidarity, that is, as Pope John Paul II in his encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis [On Social Concern], paragraph 28, wrote, the “firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all….”

This is not something political, nor is it merely the social aspect of our faith. Solidarity is, as Gustavo Gutiérrez puts it, “an encounter with God.”

Bishop Gerardi put it more starkly, on March 10, a few weeks before his martyrdom:

We ought to reflect on the suffering of Christ in his Mystical Body. That means, that if the poor person is not part of our life, then, perhaps, Christ is not part of our life.

El sufrimiento de Cristo en su cuerpo místico es algo que nos debe hacer reflexionar. Es decir, si el pobre está fuera de nuestra vida, entonces quizás, Jesús está fuera de nuestra vida.

May Christ – present in the suffering and the poor, in the crucified peoples of this world – become ever more central to our lives.

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.

Why?

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.