Today marks the thirty first anniversary of the martyrdom of Oscar Romero, the archbishop of El Salvador. He was shot dead while saying Mass for speaking out on behalf of the poor and oppressed against a brutal regime.
Throughout this week the annual Romero lectures are being held across the country, and on Saturday the 26th a Salesian group will attending the ecumenical service and the Romero lecture at St. Martin-in-the-Fields, in London and then the March for the Alternative. Now seems a good time to reread James Trewby’s article about his visit to El Salvador to organise BOVA placements.
El Salvador, through laughter and tears
I was fortunate enough to spend Christmas a couple years ago in El Salvador. For just over two weeks I explored this beautiful country, visiting a British friend who teaches in an international school, learning a little about the history, visiting sites connected to the life of the martyred Archbishop, Oscar Romero, having a holiday and arranging a possible volunteer placement.
It was a time filled with great contrasts. My friend’s school caters for the elite – I played basketball with children who had their own personal drivers – while poverty can be found only minutes away in the slum areas. This disparity between rich and poor, and particularly that of land ownership, was one of the many causes behind the civil war which finished in the early 1990s (without truly resolving the differences between ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’). The Government’s heavy handed attempts to prevent the poor from organising and protesting resulted in a guerrilla struggle and violence from both sides.
Our trip to the village of El Mozote was full of contrasting emotions. During the war, Government forces massacred over 800 innocent people here, including all the children, in a calculated attempt to stop other villages from supporting the guerrillas. We visited a monument and garden created in memory of them. My friend and I were shown around by an ex-guerrilla, his young daughter and a lady who was politically more right wing. In stark contrast to the sadness and horror of the day, we spent the car journey back to the city singing; all four adults belting out Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ while the little girl made growling noises in all the gaps!
Before the war, a number of priests and sisters were involved in supporting the peasants’ attempts to organise. This led to propaganda and eventually violence being used against them. Most famous among the martyrs is Oscar Romero,
who spoke out against wrongdoing from both sides of the political spectrum and was eventually killed while saying mass. As part of my stay I visited various memorials to him, including his tomb. During his life he bravely questioned injustice, even within the Church. I find the following words from a sermon he gave in 1977 especially challenging, due to their relevance to my work with the Salesians promoting campaigns for social justice: “A religion of Sunday Mass but unjust weeks does not please the Lord”.
The Salesian project I visited was called ‘Ciudad de los Ninos’ (City of children) and will make an excellent host community for British volunteers wishing to live and work alongside the Salesians in their work for the young and the poor. It includes a school and vocational training centre (mechanics, carpentry, electrics, tailoring, soldering etc) as well as various sports and music clubs. These are used by around 200 young people residentially and a further 500 day students, providing a comprehensive centre for children with limited access to education, escaping from gangs in the cities or from poverty. I was amused to see that the priest in charge had a Shakira poster in his office – he assured me it was OK because she was looking at a picture of Santa Anna, the patron of the community!