THREE DELEGATIONS TO CALAVERA, EL SALVADOR

THREE DELEGATIONS TO CALAVERA, EL SALVADOR
A REPORT BY FATHER TOM ROYER

JULY 2-11, 2005

This delegation included seven who traveled from the U.S., and another two Northamericans, working at CEBES in San Salvador, who joined us there.
Mary Beth Appel, a nurse practitioner from Philadelphia, Kathryn Waldyke, a doctor from Champaign, and Sheila Gillette, a nurse practitioner from Champaign ran the medical clinics. Abel Montoya from Urbana, who works in the Office of Admissions at the University, Josie Beavers, a recent graduate from the University of Illinois, and Andrea Drew, a teacher from Chicago were our interpreters. Joining us from CEBES were Karen McClendon Sikic, an interpreter who is a student at the University of Chicago, and Richie Carter, a recent graduate from Boston College. This was Mary Beth’s fourth delegation. Father Tom Royer did pastoral work.

This was an important year for the solidarity movement in El Salvador because it was the 25th anniversary of Archbishop Oscar Romero’s assassination. Special observances had been going on since the anniversary date of his assassination on March 24. The memory of the long violent struggle is still alive. The heroes, like Romero, are still a presence with them.
For example, when we visited the Church of the Holy Rosary near the cathedral in downtown San Salvador, we found a memorial marker inside the front entrance of the church for the 30 young people killed by the military in that church in 1980. The students had occupied the church to protest the injustice, the poverty and the government violence used against the people. Whereas demonstrations in the street had been met with brutal violence, perhaps the military government would respect the sanctuary of a beautiful church. It was a false hope. Instead of negotiating with the students, the soldiers forced their way into the church and killed all the protesters. That was the way protesters were treated.
After visiting the Holy Rosary Church, we attended Sunday Mass in the cathedral a few blocks away. All the Masses were being held in the crypt (basement) because the main church upstairs was being occupied by 30 government workers who had been fired from their jobs without any benefits. They hoped that their hunger strike in the cathedral would create publicity for their cause and induce government leaders to negotiate with them. This is just one example of the continuing struggle for justice by the people. This time the demonstrators in a church are not shot by soldiers. It seems that the 25 years of struggle have brought at least that much improvement.

The efforts by the people to reform an unjust system in El Salvador had always been met with paralyzing military force. Historically, the fundamental cause of injustice has been the extremely unequal distribution of resources, especially the land. The indigenous farmers were pushed off their lands by the powerful elites (Spaniards) who turned most of the land into large plantations for export crops like coffee, sugarcane and cotton.
The force that controlled this system was terrorism. Torture, death squads and massacres by the military kept the poor in line. The U.S. turned a blind eye, or even cooperated in the system of repression in El Savador and in other of it “colonies” in Central and South America.
During the 70s and 80s there was an effort by the people to engage in pubic discourse about government policies that gave the power and the profits to the few and left the majority powerless and poor. The people organized huge rallies to call for much needed reform, much like the Latinos who have been demonstrating recently about immigration policies in the U.S. In El Salvador the leaders were targeted by the death squads. Joining the popular movement in calling for reform were Church workers and leaders, including Archbishop Oscar Romero. He like the others were assassinated.
The UN-brokered peace accords ended the war in 1992. The results have been mixed. The people’s demands for justice have been largely ignored, but there have been some changes that give the people a place in the political process and a bit of hope. It’s a beginning, but there is a long way to go to offer real democracy and justice to the people. The sit-in at the cathedral is an example of the present policies. While the system is still tilted in favor of the elites and the legitimate complaints of the common people are mostly ignored, at least, the fired workers can have a sit-in at a public place without fierce reprisals.

The Summer ‘05 Delegation was a happy group that managed to survive some trying circumstances with style. The most challenging was getting caught in a heavy downpour in El Rusio as we dashed from the school to the home where we had supper and slept. It was about a quarter-of-mile of getting thoroughly soaked while walking along slippery mud and rock trails and wading through gullies several inches deep in a torrent of rain water. It rained again the next afternoon as we were going to another home for the Mass.
At that Mass the room was very dark and crowded. There was a wedding and four baptisms at the Mass. This celebration was done by candlelight while the rain pounded on the roof as we stood shoulder to shoulder in our damp clothes.
Since the people had been hearing my homilies at the Masses in the settlements year after year, I asked Mary Beth to offer her reflections at the Mass in El Rusio. She gave an excellent homily that was well received by the people. Why had I not done this earlier in our delegations. The delegations always include articulate, thoughtful, truly spiritual people who can give better homilies than me. This was obvious from Mary Beth’s reflection. I asked Karen to do the same at San Miguelito. Hers was also wonderful. When she gave her reflection again in Guachipilin, the people at the Mass applauded in appreciation. Karen’s homily is included in this report.

Everyone worked together to make the delegation a great success. The clinics took in all who came for medical consultations. They were given professional care by Kathryn, Mary Beth and Sheila while Abel, Josie and Karen translated. Through the generosity of Provena Hospital we had plenty of meds for use in the clinics and enough extra to send people home with a baggie of vitamins and aspirin and other things needed till we would return next summer. Also at the clinics, about 40 people were fitted with glasses that we had collected and brought along. These are new and used reading and prescription glasses.
Andrea worked in the schools, teaching the students and coordinating with the teachers. Through the generosity of the many supporters of our Calavera projects, we were able once again to leave a large suitcase of school supplies at each of the five schools. The education of the children is an important reason why the families in the settlements have some hope for a better future.
While activities were going on in the clinic and the school, I went out with a translator to visit the elderly and sick shut-ins. I bring them Communion and the Sacrament of the Sick. In Gimilile, Miliana, a community leader, led me down a foot path to visit her mother who is frail with age and sickness. Miliana has never married, but has lived at home to take care of her mother. As we walked along, she talked about her crop of corn and beans that she raises in a rented field near her home. She mentioned that last year’s crop was good enough to feed her mother and her with enough left over to sell in the market. I am always interested to get information about the economic conditions among the people. I asked her if she made much of a profit. She said with her profit she first paid $20 to rent the field and had $60 left over. That’s her annual profit - $60! This was said without bragging or complaint. With this small amount she could buy some basics, but no frills. Miliana’s situation is common. Some have less income than she.

As usual, we enjoyed an enthusiastic welcome and great hospitality in each of the five settlements. They receive our few gifts very gratefully and send us back home with their blessings, prayers, and words of gratitude for all those back in the U.S. who support this sister relationship. We also brought back products from the women’s co-ops to sell in the U.S..
We add our thanks to CEBES, the organization that arranges this relationship. The people at CEBES are truly remarkable for their wisdom, leadership and compassion. The people in the settlements, at CEBES and in the delegation – what a blessing they are!

Two Winter Delegations

We have had a winter delegation in each of the past two years, each one leaving about a week after Christmas. We shall report briefly on each of them. The winter delegations are different from the summer ones. The summer trips have developed into working delegations with medical clinics and projects in the schools. Those involved have had to work each day in the clinics, in the schools, or on field projects as a water engineer or veterinarian. Interpreters are also assisting in each of these areas. Since we have to establish a reasonable limit to the number in each delegation, we have not had enough room for those who do not have the appropriate skills involved in the summer programs with the people.
The winter delegations are open to all. They are simply visiting delegations without clinics or teaching in the schools. We move more quickly through the six settlements, visiting the five settlements in three days. To each settlements we bring two large suitcases of much needed clothing donated by many local friends. We are given great hospitality by the people, visit the nutrition programs, celebrate the Eucharist and visit the sick and elderly shut-ins. We have also given a special Christmas gift to each community.
Besides the trip to the settlements, the winter delegations have had other important experiences. Out in our mountain region, we have visited with Rufina, the sole survivor of the horrendous massacre at El Mozote that killed about 1,000 non-combatants, including four of her own children. We have enjoyed the company of Samuel and Claudia, old friends of our delegations and examples of faith and leadership during the struggle for peace and justice. We have spent time with Padre Rogelio, a great pastor who accompanied the people in these mountains in the midst of the war raging around them.
In San Salvador we have been guests at the women’s coop managed by an old friend, Oti. She visited our parish about ten years ago while touring the sister communities in the U.S. We have also stood at the altar at the Divine Providence Hospital where Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated while saying Mass. We saw his bloodied vestments in his small home nearby. We also prayed at his tomb at the cathedral in the heart of the city. We have been moved by the tombs of the six Jesuit priests in the chapel at the University of Central America and the museum there that tells the story about the people’s painful struggle.
A new and most impressive site in the city is the Memorial Wall in a city park. It is much like the Memorial Wall in Washington, DC, that remembers the dead from the Vietnam War. This one has the names of the dead from the war in El Salvador inscribed on a very long wall of 8-foot-high black marble. 75,000 died during the 15-year conflict that ended in 1992, thousands at the hands of the death squads. Among the tens of thousands named on the wall we could find some that we knew: Romero, Maura, Ita, Dorothy, and Jean (US women religious martyred in 1980), Octavio Ortiz and 15 other priests and countless other pastoral workers. The Salvadoran government did not want this wall built. It is the result of funding from many local and international organizations in solidarity with the people and a determined effort by family and friends of the deceased.
The visiting delegations expressed our solidarity with the people’s continuing struggle and gave them our friendship, prayers and encouragement. We returned home blest with memories of our gracious Salvadoran friends.

Winter Delegation I – January 1-9, 2005

This delegation involved Edith Peabody and her 17-year-old daughter Liila, Dr. David Smith and his 17-year-old son Jordan, Cindy Magsamen and Father Tom. This was Edith’s third delegation as our translator. She is a Salvadoran who came to the U.S. in the 1980s to escape the violence. Edith is especially valuable because she shares lots of insight about the Salvadoran people. In 1994, David had set up our first clinics as the first doctor to visit the settlements. The people were happy to have him return. Cindy is a nurse who works in cardiac rehab at Provena Hospital. The people were pleased to meet our teenagers. Stephanie Neustadter, a CEBES volunteer from California, was our special guide for the delegation. Her sister Raquel and her husband Carlos joined us on the visit to the mountain settlements. They were great company.
If given a chance, the people would have lined up in large numbers to have a consultation with Dr. David. But the shortage of time and meds meant that only important medical emergencies were brought to his attention. He provided consultations to each of the shut-ins that we visited. These were important pastoral visits that also included Communion and the Sacrament of the Sick. It also provided the new members of the delegation the opportunity to visit the poor in their humble homes. We ended our visits by joining hands and praying the Lord’s Prayer in Spanish.
To each settlements we brought a Christmas gift. They were offered the choice of a statue of some saint or a crucifix large enough (about 30 inches high) for use in their community worship services. Two chose a statue of the Blessed Mother and the other three a crucifix. Jose Gomez, the CEBES coordinator in the mountain communities was such a big help in this effort.
Anita Ortiz is one of the leaders of the CEBES office in the city. The year previous (2004) had been the 25th anniversary of her brother, Father Octavio Ortiz’s martyrdom. He had been killed by a military death squad on January 20, 1979. She traveled out to pick us up at the end of our trip through the settlements. From Guachipilin she brought us to a beautiful chapel in nearby Aqua Blanca. This is built to commemorate Father Octavio on the lot where the family home had once been located. The stories of the people’s struggle is brought home to us in a special way in visiting the people themselves and hearing their stories and visiting places like this beautiful chapel.
Another important chapel that keeps the stories alive is the one built in a cow pasture down a dirt road about ten miles from the airport. It was here that four U.S. women religious were assaulted, murdered and left in shallow graves in December 1980. They are Maura Clark, Ita Ford, Dorothy Kazel and Jean Donovan, who were considered dangerous because they gave friendship, support and food to the poor. In the late afternoon of our last day in the country, we prayed in the chapel and visited with another delegation that was also visiting the chapel. There were two Northamericans in this delegation. They were Mercedes Roman-Bamat, a lay Maryknoll missioner and Jennifer Batz from the Office of Global Solidarity in Washington, DC. It was an interesting and inspiring experience for all of us.
We also visited the new parish of San Roque in the city where Father John Spain is pastor assisted by some other Maryknoll pastoral workers. We met with Father John in his humble church that serves a large congregation in a very poor part of the city. The stories of people like the Maryknollers are an important part of our understanding of the Salvadoran people. Like so many who have come to live with the people, John and his staff have fallen in love with the humble poor of that country.

Winter Delegation II: December 29, 2005 -January 5, 2006

There were only four in this delegation. Originally nine intended to go, but it is difficult for many busy adults to schedule a week together. Some who had wanted to go are intending to try again another time. The four were Edith Peabody and Cindy Magsamen (both from last winter’s delegation), Megan Frank, a parishioner at St. Mary, and Father Tom.
Though it was a small group, it did a fine job bringing a Christmas message of solidarity to the people of the mountain settlements. To each of the communities we brought a Christmas gift of a seven-piece nativity set for use in the place where they gather for weekly worship. Three settlements have a simple church, each constructed by the whole community working together. It is obvious that these humble churches have become important centers of their communities. Like many of their homes, the church building is made of adobe blocks made out of clay, mixed with straw and dried in the sun.
We observed such a process of block making at the home where we stayed in El Rusio. Ruperto Perez was hard at work making the blocks for a new house to replace his old one. Ruperto is an intelligent, artistic, and generous man who is very proud of his family. He has offered his home for our hospitality many times. He will be pleased to have us stay in his new house in the future.

This was the first time we were able to observe the celebration of New Year’s Eve by the Salvadorans. We were in Gimilile, the first settlement, on New Year’s Eve. The people stay up most of the night to welcome in the new year. At midnight there are lots of fireworks. It appears that loud noises are the appropriate way to get the new year going. Edith and Jose, our CEBES guide, joined a party in a nearby home for a happy celebration. The rest of us were awakened by the firecrackers going off far and near. It’s an important family event. Everyone tries to be at home to enjoy good company, special food and the noisy holiday.
It was not a happy time in San Miguelito because their 27-year-old head catechist, Miguel Perez Ortiz, had died on December 30 and was buried on New Year’s Day, the day before we arrived at the settlement. The community, in shock, filled the chapel for the Mass which we offered for Miguel and his grieving wife and small son. After the Mass, we were invited to the widow’s home for a meal that the women of the community had prepared for visitors to the home. I told Maria, the young wife, that I would offer Mass for Miguel with my parish on the 40th day of Miguel’s death. For them, that is an important day to remember the dead. She gave me a small inch-square photo of Miguel from his national ID card to bring back to place on the altar for that Mass. I shall return an enlarged framed photo of Miguel for her when we return in July.
Miguel had died from binge drinking that began on Christmas Day. Drinking is a serious problem in the mountains that afflicts so many families. The homemade whiskey is distilled cheaply and not sold so much for profit, but as the way to provide good times for those who gather at certain “drinking houses.” Their strong mountain liquor seems to offer relief from their harsh life. But there are many sad stories about the effect it has on those caught up in the drinking culture and their families.

Cindy, who did a great job offering medical advice and meds on our visits to the shut-ins, was asked to visit a sick boy in the home next door to Miguel’s home. The little boy was in pain from a swelling at the base of his spine. She gave the mother some pain relief to use until the child could be brought to a clinic in the town of Gotera. Our Emergency Medical Fund provides funds for transportation and clinic costs for emergencies such as this. I hope the family was able to give the little guy some relief soon after our visit. CEBES has an arrangement with a doctor in Gotera to provide consultations cheaply for emergencies like this.
We were also called to make home visits to two young girls in the Colonia, a gathering of about twenty small homes near Guachipilin. Dozens of small children, excited by our visit, followed close around us, and actually tried to squeeze into the small homes with us. When told to stay out, they crowded at the doors and windows peering in. One girl, a teenager, had the flu and was laying in a hammock. Poor hygiene and crowded conditions increases the likelihood of sharing sicknesses.
The second was a more serious case. It was a 21-year-old girl who had delivered her first child, a boy she named Juan Bautista. At two-days-old, the infant became very sick. Accompanied by an uncle, she brought Juan to Cacaopera, a nearby town. Leaving the young mother behind, the child was rushed from there to Bloom Hospital, a special children’s hospital in San Salvador. Alone, confused and frail, the girl became lost and wandered around for two days and nights. The family finally found her lying in a field and brought her home. Meanwhile, her child died and the body was returned. The mother was too weak and disoriented to attend Juan’s funeral. For many days she had lain in a hammock, not eating or speaking, but staring blankly at the wall. Cindy examined the girl and Edith gently talked to her. I gave her Communion and the Sacrament of the Sick.
Many young girls have babies. Often they have to manage as single moms, dependent on their families. It can become an overwhelming challenge for many of them. Without much education or jobs or health care, there is not much opportunity for the young. They feel they don’t have much to look forward to except to have a few children and try to get by like their parents have done. They love their children, but life is such a struggle.

The tears of a young widow, the stunned silence of a grieving mother, the cry of a child being baptized, the joyful songs at the Masses, the gracious words of welcome – all these echo within us as we remember our Salvadoran friends. At times we are saddened by these experiences, mostly we are uplifted by them. All in all, I think our delegations expand our horizons.
Father Jon Sobrino, the 71-year-old Jesuit priest who died in December, was a prestigious professor at the University of Central America in San Salvador, but he was especially known and loved for his dedication to the suffering poor in El Salvador. His was a heroic solidarity with the people through the dangerous war years and the difficult struggles since the Peace Accords. He summed up his ministry: “The most important thing is to accompany the people. Our work is to give them hope and breath.”
The Greek philosophers used to say that people in need are ambassadors of the gods. It is the nobodies of this world who reveal life’s great secrets. They help us to see what is really important. In this sense, in our accompaniment of the campesinos of Calavera, they give us hope and breath.