Legacies of Faith and War in the Republic of the Savior, El Salvador
"The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there."
L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between
|The Quetzaltepec volcano rises over San Salvador|
This group of students is part of an internship and study program partnering with ENLACE, a non-governmental organization committed to community development and poverty relief throughout El Salvador. There is a Christian element to the work of ENLACE, which gave opportunities to reflect on the role of religion in Latin America as well.
|Archbishop Oscar Romero's Toyota Corona|
The Cold War turned hot in the tropical mountain terrain of El Salvador. U.S. culture wars of the 1980s took place at the same time as a bloody civil war in El Salvador. And these were not merely coinciding conflicts. American Cold War fears of an expanded Communist empire encouraged domestic cultural battles over that borrowed destructive rhetoric of eliminating the enemy. And the rise of Marxism in the West brought true destruction as conflicts escalated in Central America and elsewhere.
|Sister Bernadetta presents |
Oscar Romero's home
(FMLN). FMLN is now a dominant political party, and El Salvador’s president, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, served as a commanding general for the FMLN during the Civil War. Despite the end of the war, poverty dominates the lives of many Salvadorans. According to ENLACE, In rural El Salvador, 46% live in dirt floor homes, 23% of children suffer from chronic malnourishment, 58% lack access to clean water, and 63% live on less than $2 per day. Yet the signs of capitalist Neoliberalism are all around the city of San Salvador.
Religion is inescapable in El Salvador, a nation literally named “Republic of The Savior.” The church in Latin American history is vital to understanding the region, considering the singular hold that Catholicism had over the region for much of its history. Indigenous faith assimilated into Spanish Catholicism to create a unique and powerful religious authority throughout Latin America. Recent decades have seen a more diverse mix with the rapid rise of non-Catholics, including Baptists, Mormons, and especially Pentecostals. Catholicism remains the dominant religious factor, however, both in adherents as well as icons and cultural heroes.
|The altar in the Divina Providencia chapel|
where Archbishop Oscar Romero died
Our class explored San Salvador to find sites connected to Catholic martyrs of the Civil War. The home of slain Archbishop Oscar Romero is a modest, one bedroom building on the grounds of Divina Providencia a hospital for cancer patients. Sister Bernadetta, a small-statured nun with a quiet voice and deliberate steps, opened the gate and walked us slowly through Romero’s home. Inside, we discovered his car—a Toyota Corona—and his books among the preserved living quarters. Just across the street to the hospital parking lot stands the chapel where Romero was shot dead by an assassin as he prayed during mass on March 24, 1980. The chapel is still used regularly, so the altar where the slain Romero died is marked simply by an inscription and plaque. Romero advocated a gospel based on helping the poor, and called for an end to the violence of the Civil War. A petition to beatify Romero as a Catholic saint was on hold for years due to the association of Marxism with liberation theology. But just last month, Pope Francis declared that there were no doctrinal problems with Romero and he would be considered for sainthood.
|The altar and crucifix at the National Cathedral, San Salvador|
|The lawn where the Jesuit martyrs were |
found, today a rose garden
|Bibles torn by machine gun fire |
in the 1989 attack at UCA
The situation today remains desperate for much of El Salvador that is stricken with severe poverty. The guns of guerillas against the army have been quieted. But the desperation of El Salvador has led to a street gang violence that requires all businesses to employ shotgun-bearing security guards. ENLACE and other groups like it are working to equip local church and community leaders with education and tools to assist in building a new El Salvador. Through ENLACE, rural communities gain agriculture projects, clean water and latrines, health care, microloans for small business, roads, and housing. In doing so, the message of Christian faith is matched with actions to assist those in need. Five principles guide the work that ENLACE sponsors in El Salvador communities: Incarnation, Community, Loving One Another, Service, and Justice. This is an effective model for partnering with existing leaders throughout El Salvador. And yet, it is how most Christian outreach—missions—from the U.S. is done today. Without the shadow of the Cold War, this holistic approach to the gospel thrives.
|High above El Salvador|