By Jessica Noyes | St. John the Baptist Episcopal Church, Hardwick
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 Salvadorans, Cristosal staffers, and other North American participants. To follow is a recap featuring Nina Church, who participated in the seminar along with Bishop Thomas C. Ely and several other Vermonters.
HARDWICK, VT – Nina Church, a parishioner and vestry member at St. John the Baptist church in Hardwick had long felt that the way our country meets people at our southern border doesn’t reflect our values. So, when Bishop Thomas Ely announced that he was putting together a study trip to learn about Christian responses on the ground in El Salvador, she decided to join. Sixteen Americans, including six Vermonters—Bishop Ely, Ann Ely, Melanie Combs, the Reverends Kim Hardy and Bob Wilson, and Nina—made the trip.
The host organization was Cristosal, which works in three Central American countries to build environments where victims of terror and crime are supported and where peace is possible. Efforts such as theirs can make it less likely that desperate people will undertake the treacherous journey north.
During the visit, Nina became aware of the indomitable and positive spirit that has buoyed El Salvadorans through their ordeals. Heartfelt art of all types—graffiti, religious paintings, ancient rural scenes, etc.—were ever-present. For example, Nina was stunned by the use of art at the museum and burial place memorializing the six Jesuit priests, and two others, who were murdered by the Salvadoran Military in 1989. On one side of its chapel were colorful folk images by Salvadoran Fernando Llort; directly across from them were large, somber, drawings of people under torture called “Stations of the Cross.”
The national traumas went far beyond the Jesuit murders, and that of the noted Archbishop (now Catholic saint) Oscar Romero; in fact, the Salvadoran Army committed a wide number of massacres, killing thousands. The purpose of the killings was to sow terror in rural areas where civilians were thought to support the opposition during the civil war of 1979-1992. Cristosal has been helping the survivors heal, first by finding the courage to speak of their experiences, and then by seeking justice in the nation’s courts.
Nina says that she was deeply marked by witnessing Cristosal’s faith-based projects. She says, “I am convinced that they are doing the work of Jesus. They achieve their goals not by dumping in money, but rather by transforming the culture.” She explains that deep-rooted change is needed more than ever, as El Salvador is now beset by extreme gang violence. The causes of gang violence are complex, but the resulting system of organized murder and extortion means that average Salvadorans live their lives in well-founded fear. To seek safety, many of them undertake the long and dangerous journey to the United States.
Cristosal attempts to stem the tide of forced migration of people seeking new homes away from gang crimes. It helps them find new homes and livelihoods in safer communities within El Salvador. Then it supports these communities in being open to the newcomers as they make their transition.
Cristosal also works to achieve reconciliation among gang members themselves and provide them with opportunities to change their lives.
Nina could see Cristosal’s organizing work firsthand when she traveled deeper into the country with others and visited a small Episcopal church and its attached preschool. While there, Cristostal staffers advised some local church women on how to turn their thrift shop into a more successful small business.
The group spent the last day of their trip visiting one of El Salvador’s most beautiful locations— a colonial town known for crafts—and enjoying a boat tour on a nearby lake. Since her return, Nina has visited three classes at her local high school in Morrisville, sharing the insights she gathered on her trip.
Want to know more? Read also: “Can We Now Be Part of a Solution? Reflections on Cristosal Introductory Seminar,” April 1, 2019