Cristosal, a leading human rights organization in Central America, offers inter-cultural immersions year-round. From February 17-23 the organization hosted an Introductory Seminar in El Salvador to equip participants with firsthand, experiential knowledge alongside Salvadorians, Cristosal staffers, and other North American participants. To follow are reflections from two Vermonters, the Rev. Kim Hardy and the Rev. Bob Wilson, who participated in the seminar along with our own Bishop Thomas C. Ely, who serves on the Cristosal board, and his wife Ann.
Come, You That Are Blessed
By the Rev. Kim Hardy
“We believe every human being is inherently equal in rights and dignity.”
I had never thought of going to Central America, no less El Salvador. It seemed it was still a troubled and dangerous country since the civil war of ¬the 1980s. I was in my twenties when the unrest was occurring, studying first to be a musician and then a priest. There was no time to be involved with political issues. The United States’ support of El Salvador’s oppressive and murderous regime was complicated. I had heard of nuns and other religious being killed, the most well-known being Archbishop Oscar Romero. Just last October he was canonized a saint by the Roman Catholic Church, though he has long been such in the hearts of Salvadorans.
Late last year, some members of my parish became interested in the troubles regarding the separation of children from their families at the southern border of the United States. The group began meeting with hopes of becoming more informed about the migrant crisis and possibilities for responding. Why are people coming to our borders? What are they experiencing that drives them from their countries? Is it purely economic? Is it violence they flee? Can our country be a place of refuge for them? Are there dangers from those who are coming to the border? Inasmuch as the U.S. has at times been part of the cause of violence in Central America, we must ask: “Can we now be part of a solution?” Bishop Ely joined us for a Migrant Justice event at St. James. Noting my interest in the topic, he asked why I had not signed up to go to El Salvador for a course with Cristosal. I was taken aback and replied…I hadn’t thought about it! That set the stage for my first journey to Central America.
Over the course of a week one can barely scratch the surface of a different culture. There were challenges such as the need to drink only bottled or filtered water (even for brushing teeth) and the unease of seeing armed guards at many places in the city (even r grocery stores). Learning was complicated by the need for translators for English-only speakers such as myself, but the blessing of a multi-cultural experience was participation with people not only from El Salvador, but also Guatemala and Honduras, beautiful hospitable and welcoming people, people wanting to learn more about how to help their countries recover from ravages of past wars, corruption, historic interference from countries such as the U.S., and now prevalent gangs – highly educated and devoted people attempting to find solutions to their countries’ issues: to find justice for past injustices such as mass killings; to bring together local authorities in rural and urban areas to rebuild and find reconciliation; to resettle people whose lives are endangered and upended by gang threats and violence. Cristosal’s work is about finding solutions to these and many more issues. It was inspiring and appropriately challenging to experience so many wonderful people of good will, working in their own cultures to build more just and equal societies…with dignity for all.
I am grateful for this experience. It was eye-opening. I have many lovely images of my time there. I am not sure how God will use this in my life but I will try to remain open. In closing, I would say that the politics may be complicated but the Christian response is quite simple and expressed in these words spoken by Jesus:
“Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” (Matthew 25:34b-36)
The Rev. Kim Hardy is priest-in-partnership at St. James Episcopal Church in Essex Junction and serves on the Standing Committee.
Opening Our Hearts, Breaking Down Walls
By the Rev. Bob Wilson
In boarding my plane traveling south, little did I know how my sense of well-being, grounded in family and in God’s love, would be challenged. I was leaving for El Salvador to join Bishop Ely and other Vermont Episcopalians at Cristosal. Cristosal, which has over 50 employees and is in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, is a group of people advocating for equal human rights and dignity in areas where the rights of the poor have been trampled for decades. The folks at Cristosal are multi-talented including lawyers, accountants, sociologists, experts in the Mara or gang history and experts in the refugee crisis. They work hands on in the community to help families escape living in fear. Everyone I met was bright, educated, caring and unbelievably dedicated. My impression of the people of Central America is that they are a spirited, joyful people, I can see it in their smiles and look of their native dress.
But it quickly became apparent how violent a place El Salvador is. I felt I lost my sense of well-being, not from any personal fear, but because of the clear injustice, lack of human rights and violence that surrounds Salvadorans, especially the poor. My prior knowledge of El Salvador was remote, only gained from reading papers and the Internet. Reality struck on Sunday when a fellow traveler and I took a cab to the Museum of Anthropology. Our cabbie, Javier, was an accountant and had lived in NYC for four years working in a supermarket. However, he was illegal and deported, though a few of years later he moved to Atlanta. He was again deported and ended up back in San Salvador. I asked him why he left his home. He explained that he gave half of what he earned to keep his family safe – gave it to the Mara, the gangs. Everyone has to pay, and it still might not be enough to keep them safe. As we drove into no man’s land between the 13th and 18th Street gangs, Javier pointed out a sidewalk outside the emergency room of a hospital. He explained that two months ago a young mother was taking her sick baby daughter to the ER at night. When she crossed into rival gang territory, she and her baby girl were both shot and killed on the sidewalk right there. A girl in her teens and an infant. He said, “There is no safety.” I could picture that young mother carrying her child along that street to the emergency room. This is the reality of daily life in El Salvador.
At Cristosal, we caught a glimpse of understanding the Salvadoran’s struggle of living with violence and fear. We heard the stories of refugees, listened to lectures, asked questions, did role playing, visited sites of tragedies from the Civil War, and learned about the fear of the gangs, the police, and the armed forces. I was most struck when I learned about Cristosal’s work during the Massacre at El Mozote in December 1981. This massacre was part of a “scorch the earth” tactic employed during the civil war by the government, and was executed by the military. Nine hundred seventy-eight people, mostly the old, women and children were killed in three days in El Mozote; 477 of them were under 12, and 248 of these were under six years of age. A few short years after the war concluded in 1992, a law of amnesty was passed to absolve guilt for the Salvadorian military and government of all atrocities during the war. David Morales presented on El Mozote; he is the head prosecutor representing the victims of El Mozote as well as the head of strategic litigation at Cristosal. For over 20 years, David has dedicated his life to bringing justice to the victims and survivors of El Mozote. His hard work finally paid off last October, when the amnesty law was overturned, allowing David to start trying to bring the government officials responsible for the massacre, to trial. He is astounding. Cristosal is remarkable, and I am so glad and thankful to have attended the Cristosal Global school.
I can see why people must migrate, even if they don’t want to leave home. Being safe is necessary, and fear forces people to leave.
I can see why people must migrate, even if they don’t want to leave home. Being safe is necessary, and fear forces people to leave. This level of fear is not generally known on the streets of America as it is in El Salvador, and is not something I have ever had to experience. One of the staff of Cristosal stated, “To migrate is a human right.” A human right, just like clean air, water, food, and shelter. That struck me – to migrate is a human right! To free oneself and one’s family from massacres, gang violence, assassinations, and extreme poverty is a human right. All I could think was that we Americans are all born lucky, lucky enough to live in America and not have to emigrate. How does being born somewhere safe give us the right to choose who can come to safety? We can’t understand what immigrants have gone through, so how can we deny people the right to come here that want to? It angers me to think that some would rather build walls and keep refugees out, rather than letting them in and helping them. David Morales has dedicated his life to battle injustices in El Salvador, and we can all draw inspiration from him by opening our hearts and breaking down walls – real and of the heart.
The Rev. Bob Wilson is a member of the Local Ministry Support Team at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Newport and serves on the Transition Committee.