Fr. Tom's July 2003 Calavera Report


1. THE DELEGATION Our Sister Community, called Calavera, is five
settlements in the one
of the most impoverished areas of El Salvador. It is in the northern
section of the Department of Morazan, next to the Honduran border. The
settlements are Gimilile, El Salamo, El Rusio, San Miguelito and
Guachipilin. St. Mary began its sister relationship with Calavera
in 1989. This and other sister relationships between El Salvador and
the United
States are managed through the Christian Base Community Organization of El
Salvador (CEBES-FUNDAHMER). Our parish delegations have been visiting
Calavera each year for
eleven years. Usually these delegations consist of five to seven people.
In the 12 years of delegations, 33 different persons have visited the
settlements, 25 of them from Champaign-Urbana. This year’s delegation
numbered seven, three from St. Mary. They were Father Tom Royer, the
pastor of St. Mary, Kathy Fries, an independent piano teacher in
and Dr. Alice Penrose of Urbana. Kathy worked with the teachers in the
schools of the settlements. Alice ran the medical clinic that was held in
each of the settlements. I did pastoral work. Mary Beth Apel, nurse
practitioner, and Katie Roberts, physician
assistant, from the Catholic Worker House in Philadelphia joined the
delegation. This was Mary Beth’s third delegation trip. It was
first. They worked in the medical clinics with Alice. Elizabeth
and David Gandolfo, North Americans living in San Salvador, also
joined the
delegation. Elizabeth was working for CEBES. David was there writing his
doctoral dissertation on the writings of Father Ignacio Ellacuria, one of
the six Jesuit faculty members of the University of Central America,
murdered by a military death squad in 1989. Elizabeth and David were
translators and worked in the clinics. The delegation represented
St. Mary Church and also St. Boniface
Church, Seymour. These two parishes and many other friends of Calavera
support the delegation with their prayers, financial contributions and in
other ways. Provena Covenant Medical Center has also been a partner in
this sister relationship for several years. Provena provides all the
medical supplies used in the clinics.


On our first visit the people of Calavera asked us to accompany
them and to tell their story. So we have accompanied them on their
mountain paths and in our hearts, and we have listened to the story of
their struggles. This year the story of the suffering Salvadoran people
was told us through a mural painted on a wall in San Salvador.
As is our custom, we began our journey in that city by visiting the
small three-room home of Archbishop Oscar Romero at the Divine Providence
Hospital and the chapel close by where he was assassinated in 1980 while
saying Mass. Along the street just outside the entrance to the hospital
there is a huge mural (18’x37’). It tells the story the suffering
poor of El Salvador in a remarkable way.

The dominant figure in the mural is a huge cross. Draped on
it is a white stole. White is the liturgical color of resurrection.
The empty cross with the white stole says that Jesus, the Crucified One,
has risen from death.
In the background are mountains typical of the country. The large
cornstalks tell of a land where ordinary people depend on corn for their
daily tortillas. The mountains and cornstalks symbolize El Salvador.
The tree of the cross is deeply rooted in this land. This symbolizes the
people’s faith in Jesus, the Crucified and Risen One. At the center
of the mural sitting in front of the cross is a life-sized portrait
of Romero. The artist wants us to take note of people’s hands.

On the right are the powerful who have oppressed the people.
These include soldiers, a churchman and people wearing jewelry (the
wealthy). These people are holding their hands over their eyes and
ears in denial of the truth. Two hands are pointing at the people in
the rest of the mural in an accusing, domineering manner.
Four figures represent the ancient indigenous peoples. One is
kneeling in servitude, a woman is huddled in fear, and two are pushing
futilely against the bow of a ship. The ship represents the arrival of
the invaders who came in 1522 to take their lands and enslave the people.
On the left are the poor of El Salvador, to whom Romero is the
pastor. They all show us their hands and bare feet. Their hands are
marked with
the open wound of the nail print of the Crucified One. Their feet
are also
marked with the nail wound of crucifixion.

In the late 1970s, military forces were crushing the people’s
efforts to organize and protest the oppressive policies of the government.
75,000 were killed and two million were displaced by official violence
against the people during the 15 year war that ended in 1992.
When Romero called the suffering poor “the crucified people,”
he joined them with the Suffering Saviour (El Salvador). In the mural
Jesus, the Crucified One, is gone from his cross. These many humble
people have taken his place. Christ’s Cross is theirs. Christ is
suffering with them.

In Romero’s tiny home is a glass cabinet that contains the bloody
vestments in which Romero was martyred. You can see his clerical shirt
with the bullet hole next to the left pocket. The assassin was an expert
marksman who shot him through the heart.
In the mural you can see that bullet hole at Romero’s heart.
All of Romero’s people and the indigenous of old also have the bullet
hole at their heart. They share in Romero’s martyrdom. Romero’s hand
is raised in a gesture of reconciliation toward the oppressors.
The mural tells the story of a crucified and martyred people.
Their story is given meaning by the Cross of Jesus in their midst.
They are joined with Jesus in dying, so that they may rise to glory
with him.

In 1981 the settlement of Guachipilin was destroyed by 500-pound
bombs. The bombs destroyed the church and seriously damaged the school.
You can still see the huge craters made by these enormous bombs.
In 1994 while examining the ruins of this settlement, Dr. David
Smith picked up an ugly piece of shrapnel amid the debris of a bomb
dropped between the church and the school. He brought it back with him.
Recently David gave the shrapnel to me.
One day I had it on my desk next to a picture of the mural.
The hands in the mural helped me notice the shrapnel in a new way.
In it I saw the shape of a hand. In the middle of the hand was a jagged
opening, like the scar of crucifixion.
I see in this piece of lethal debris the hand of the Crucified
Christ, a sign of Christ’s accompaniment of the people suffering under
the bombs.


The visit of our delegation to the five settlements in the mountains
of El Salvador each year is a big event. It is obvious that the people
are very happy to have us visit them.
They have spent weeks organizing the welcome at each settlement.
The school children prepare special posters for us. They sing for us
and prepare special dances for us.
The band, where there is one, also welcomes us and serenades
us at our meals and plays at the Mass. Community leaders offer an
official welcome. When these are persons who have not spoken before a
group before, their words are very brief.
In turn, we introduce ourselves, thank them for their gracious
hospitality and tell them that we represent the people of St. Mary, St.
Boniface and Provena Hospital.

Our delegations have observed some progress in the development
of the settlements over the twelve years of our visits. The most
encouraging signs of progress have been in the schools, which began
with very primitive school houses in the aftermath of the war in 1992.
Now there are several newly built schools with properly trained teachers.
Since our return we have sent a letter to the Salvadoran Ministry of
Education asking that a new school be built in El Rusio, where till now,
school is still held in a primitive structure consisting of a dirt floor
and wooden posts holding up a plastic laminated roof.
Kathy is always welcomed by the teachers and the students who
are excited by the classes she teaches. Deb Murphy, a Calavera alum,
and her committee prepare the education materials we bring each year.
Thanks to the generosity of Calavera supporters, these materials include
much needed school supplies: books, pencils, crayolas and scissors as
well as fun things like puppets and classroom games.

We are happy to report that substantial progress has been made
in the water system. At San Miguelito a series of large new concrete
containers have been constructed at their community springs to collect
the water for their use. This is the single most important effort made
to improve the water system in the settlements. Hopefully it will provide
an example that other settlements will be able to follow. Guachipilin is
planning to pipe water out from Joateca. Another notable development.

The clinics we set up in each settlement provide a much-needed
medical service to the area. This is the only time that the people
can receive a free consultation with a medical team. Besides the
medicines used by in the clinics, we are able to provide vitamins for
all the children and some basic things, like Tylenol for many of the
patients to take home. All these are provided by Provena. About 500
were treated this year in the five days of clinics. In addition, as
we walked between the settlements, house calls were made to visit those
too old or too sick to travel. It takes between one to three-and-a-half
hours to hike from one settlement to the next.
In each of the settlements the medical staff in the clinics
continue to notice many patients who suffer malnutrition. It is easy
for us outsiders from the U.S. to forget this, especially since they give
us ample food at each meal. Often behind the smiling faces and singing
children and happy welcomes given to us there are empty stomachs. Most of
us can only imagine hunger; they know it first hand. The fact is that
most of the people on this earth know hunger from personal experience.

Over the years we have become more sensitive to the serious
malnutrition in these settlements. We more readily notice the symptoms:
the lack of energy of some children in school, gaunt faces, rarely a
chubby person. When I lifted up old Celestina Martinez from her hammock
to drink a bit of water after I had given her Communion, she weighed so
little and I could feel the bones of her back.
Several years ago we began the Emergency Food Program to provide
basic food for the most needy in Calavera. We budgeted $5,000 per year
for this program. Hardly enough, but a start. With our funding CEBES-
FUNDAHMER developed an Early Childhood Nutrition Project, supervised
by a doctor, to treat 150 of the most malnourished children in the
five settlements. Last year our funding could support this project for
only four months. Since our return, the increase in donations for this
project has allowed us to fund this program throughout the year.
We also budget $5,000 for the Emergency Medical Fund, which pays
for medical services for the poor at nearby clinics or a hospital in a
distant city. We hope to increase this funding as well. Without this
fund many would be unable to receive any treatment at all. A School Fund
pays for basic materials that the teachers need throughout the year.
In addition there is a Sports and Games Fund that buys soccer balls,
jump ropes and other things for children’s games. In these ways we
accompany the people in their struggle to improve their lives.
In recent months we have sent money to CEBES-FUNDAHMER for several
additional projects in the settlements. These include new doors for
the newly constructed capilla (church) in Gimilile, roof repairs for the
capilla in San Miguelito, the purchase of a soccer field for El Salamo
and the repair of the cable which carries people across the Torola River.

Many of the world’s poor and hungry look with hope to people
of faith. A recent Maryknoll magazine told a story about a pastor in
rural Chile
beginning the baptismal ceremony with usual question of the parents:
do you ask of the church?” The correct answer is “Faith.” Instead
the poor
illiterate father of the child answered: “A little food and a pair of
shoes.” The gospel urges us to answer his request. I am very proud
of the
communities of St. Mary, St. Boniface and Provena Hospital and other
friends who have been showing great compassion in responding so generously
to the people of Calavera. The response over the dozen years of
delegations has been a
multiplication of loaves and fishes. For that first delegation we
collected about $500. In years that followed, this amount continued to
increase substantially. In each of the past several years the response
averaged between $20,000 - $30,000 for food, medicines, and school
for the delegations and other essentials in times of drought, hurricane
earthquakes for the people who needed them.

4. BLESSINGS About a half dozen years ago in one of the settlements,
after I had
anointed an old dying woman in her small dirt floor home, I asked her to
give me her blessing. A sort of farewell to me as she was about to
go home
to God. A couple of years ago I asked Celestina Martinez, an old
blind woman,
to bless me after I had given her the sacrament of the anointing of the
sick in her simple home. I told her that I wanted to bring her
blessing to
the people who would be at the Mass I was to say at Archbishop Romero’s
tomb at the cathedral in San Salvador the following Sunday. I wanted also
to bring her blessing to the communities at St. Mary and St. Boniface.
And so Celestina, who had learned to see through her sense of touch,
put her old hands on my head for a couple of minutes. She was
“seeing” me
with her hands. I could feel her sense of recognition in her gentle
on of hands. The following year I once again asked old Celestina for her
blessing to bring back to you.

This practice of receiving blessings and bringing the blessings
to others seems the right thing to do. On this most recent delegation
to Calavera I decided to ask the whole community for their blessing,
one that I would bring back to our community in the U.S.
I did it in this way. I singled out someone in each of the
five settlements to lay hands on my head so that I could bring that
community’s blessing back with us.
At the Mass in Gimilile, I asked Natividad Ortiz in whose home
we were staying to lay her hands on my head and give me a blessing.
The Mass was being said for her husband, Fermin, who had died a few
weeks earlier. Also, at the Mass in El Salamo I had Andres Aguilar,
the head teacher at the school, to give the blessing.

On our way to El Rusio we visited Santos Martinez (his photo is
in the Profiles), a man in his mid-50s who is in the latter stages of
Parkinson’s disease, to bless me. When I placed his hand on my head,
he gave out an indiscernible screech, which his wife said is what he
does when he is excited.
In El Rusio I gave the anointing of the sick to old 86-year-old
Alejandro Ventura who was lying in his hammock. When I bent low to
receive his blessing, he put his arms around me and gave me a hug.
A joyful blessing.
At the Mass in Guachipilin I asked Francisco Perez Garcia and
his wife, Maria Leonarda Ortiz, for their blessing. Together they laid
their hands on my head while Francisco said the Our Father and Hail Mary.
(Their photo is in the Profiles)

I think I surprised them with this request. Some felt a bit
embarrassed to be blessing the priest. Others felt okay about it.
I do this to express a truth that I think needs to be said. That truth
is that the priest is not the only connection to God’s blessings.
In prayers and touching we ought to confer blessings on each other.
Another important truth is expressed in these blessings. And that is
that there is blessedness in all of us.
In the first letter of John (3:1-2) we read: “See what love
the Father has bestowed on us in letting us be called children of God.
Yet so we are.” This is the source of our blessedness. We are the
kinfolk of God.

These people of the mountain settlements, are among the most
impoverished in all of El Salvador, living in ways that we can hardly
imagine, most of them are barely able to read. Many are still emotionally
broken by a horrible war that raged through their settlements back in
the 80s.
They had to run for their lives to escape the bombs from
U.S. planes. Specially trained elite battalions came and massacred
their neighbors. While their homes were being burned, these people were
left with only the clothes on their backs. When people are hated and
hunted down to be killed, it does something to their sense of self.

Now parents here are trying to feed and clothe their families
with little income, troubled with sickness and too little food. You can
understand why these people often imagine themselves to be nobodies.
Many go the cities to earn a little by being servants in the
homes of the wealthy or working in the maquillas for a pittance,
or begging in the streets so that they can send a little money back
to their families in the mountains. They don’t expect respect and
they often they don’t get it. Some of them go to the hospital in a
nearby city only to be ignored in spite of serious sickness or injury.
It’s because they have little money. It is also because the government
media so demonized them as subversives and guerillas during the war that
many still look at them in this way.
Now here is this priest who is asking them to lay hands on his
head to give him a blessing. They are surprised, maybe even shocked.
But it’s one way of preaching the truth. The truth is that they
are the much loved children of God. In God’s eyes they are sacred.
They need to recognize that they have a blessedness that they should
share with others. I believe that the priest, as servant leader, should
be blessed by the prayer of the community, anointed by the faith of the
people, and sustained by the embrace and trust of the people.


The walk from El Rusio to San Miguelito is probably the most
challenging of all the walks between the settlements. It entails the
crossing of the Torola River and a long uphill climb. By the time
we reached San Miguelito after about three hours of walking in the
afternoon sun, we were quite tired and sweaty. Each year as we enter
this settlement, the children greet us at the entrance of their school.
This year in a classroom they presented a program of welcome under
the supervision of their teacher, David Benitez Ramirez. He gave us a
very eloquent welcome. (His photo and words of welcome are included in
the Profiles.)
As he looked at us in our sweat-soaked clothes, he asked, “What
motivates your delegation?” This is probably a question that is on
the minds of others. Without doubt the people are pleased to have us
visit them. But they sometimes wonder what impels us to return on this
arduous trip into their mountain settlements each year for eleven years.

The quick answer to David’s question would be that we are
motivated by a sense of solidarity and friendship with the people of
Calavera. To explain this let me describe the journey and the people
making it.
Our journey to San Miguelito has been a long one that began many
years ago. It is more than the several miles across the river and up
into the hills to this small settlement. And it is one that has been
taken by more than the thirty-three different persons who have traveled
in the eleven years of our delegations. It has been taken by all those
who have supported this effort since 1989.
The journey of solidarity began twenty years ago. It began when St.
Mary became an active participant in the Sanctuary program in Champaign-
Urbana in 1983. Through this program we joined with four other local
churches in offering hospitality to political refugees from the violence
of Guatemala and El Salvador and listening to their stories. These
refugees became our friends, and more than that, our family. Their story
became our own as we were drawn into an embrace of solidarity with them.
This experience led the St. Mary community to establish a
sister relationship with Calavera in 1989. Three years later, the
first delegation traveled to meet the people of Calavera in their five
settlements that had been thoroughly thrashed by the war. The U.S.-back
war against the oppressed of El Salvador had swept through this mountain
area like a devastating earthquake. Since 1992 we have been traveling to
their homes where we are embraced by their welcome and friendship. Those
making this journey have been the communities of St. Mary, St. Joseph, St.
Boniface, Provena Hospital and many other friends of Calavera.

The journey must be measured by more than miles. The distance
between our cultures is considerable, but the truly enormous distance is
the gap between citizens of the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the
world and some of the most impoverished and powerless people of the world.
And increasing this wide gap is the fact that these people of Calavera
had been the victims of our nation’s indiscriminate use of power.
Caesar’s use of power is a story that reechoes throughout history.
Seldom does history pay much regard to victims of Caesar’s conquests.
Certainly little notice has been given to the chaos and suffering that
official violence has heaped upon the poor of El Salvador. Some of
us come on delegations seeking reconciliation with the victims of the
U.S. Caesar’s arrogance. Our relationship with Calavera is a commitment
of friendship, solidarity and reconciliation with one small dot on the
map of the victimized poor of the world.

There is also the spiritual aspect of this relationship with the
poor victims whom Romero called “the crucified ones.” Our faith tells
us that the deepest meaning of life is that it is a long journey home
to God. False illusions can detour us from this journey. The illusions
and presumptions that are part of being a superpower can make us forgetful
of our connectedness to the world around us. And none could be more
remote from our concerns than these poor campesinos in the mountains of
rural El Salvador. Archbishop Romero recognized the role of the poor in
rescuing the victims of too much success. The archbishop was convinced
that the poor evangelize us because they awaken us from our illusions.
A walk along the mountain paths of Calavera provides a fresh look beyond
our gated nation. On these delegations we cannot forget the view as we
step out of our tiny world and gain a new perspective about others who
share the larger world.
Our friends in Calavera welcome us into their humble dirt-floor
homes and share their tortillas and beans with us. In simple encounters
with them, we are drawn into a world beyond our own private one.
This is the spiritual journey of conversion that we can experience in
accompanying them on the mountain footpaths and sitting at their tables.
They challenge our illusions. They help us to see the world and God in a
new way. In their company we are led over into the world of the anawim
(God’s beloved poor ones), where we discover Emmanuel, the God who
accompanies the forgotten, struggling poor. Here we recognize that we
too are impoverished.
In response to David’s question, “Why do we go to Calavera?”
My answer is, “To receive their blessing for our long journey home to
God.” These crucified ones bless us.