I concentrate now more on the IMMERSION. That submersion into the culture, history, very lives of the people. I wanted to go “down, and deep into”
I recall the participating in an outdoor mass at the University of Central America to commemorate the 21st anniversary of the deaths of the six Jesuit priests, and their housekeeper, and her 15 yr old daughter. The Archbishop celebrated the Mass along with eight other priests. Hundreds of us worshipped together. Later in the week we saw the actual sites where they were killed, that holy ground where they where shot to death. These priests had continued to call for justice for the poor and wanted the war to end. These priests would not leave despite the death threats. The house-keeper and her daughter had asked to stay for shelter in the guest room. Today there is a garden of red roses where the priests died. And the room that the women were killed in has become a chapel….the couch, drapes and furniture remain…..but there is a cross and a tabernacle there now also. I sang “Pie Jesu” there and felt so humbled. The woman’s husband planted the roses, he was their gardner.
A museum has the personal belongings of the priests, with their bloodstained clothes that they died in, hanging in full view. There is also a photo album containing the photos of the massacre. And it was indeed a massacre.
One bullet not enough, the soldiers wanted to blame the guerillas. Machine guns, flame –throwers, destroyed computers, offices, a painting of Arch-bishop Oscar Romero., and destroyed the library. Hundreds of bullet shells were found. The photos are explicit and most difficult to look at, even for me, a nurse who has worked in an Emergency Room for 17 yrs and has seen much blood and disfigured bodies. But it was important for me to look at them, really look, not rushing through.
We visited the place also where Archbishop Romero had been shot while celebrating Mass. It was a small, beautiful chapel next to the hospice for cancer patients, and nearby the small apartment that he lived in. No large fancy building for this humble man. The doors to the chapel were open as he offered Mass. When he got to the Minor Elevation of the Precious Body and Blood of Jesus, a lone gunman, a soldier, a doctor, shot him in the
chest , near his heart. It hit a major blood vessel and he died right there at the altar, his blood mixing with the Blood of Jesus. I stood at that altar, I touched it, I looked at those doors, and I knelt there in prayer, feeling so very humbled and ‘close’ to that holy priest. A few days later we went to the crypt where he is buried, beneath the cathedral. The Mass was crowded and people attentive. We then got to visit his tomb. The priest was a Dominican and he gave me a special, Maryknoll blessing. We are officially the Maryknoll sisters of St Dominic. I felt that was a special blessing in that holy place.. I interceded with Archbishop Romero to talk to the Lord for me also…and for all Maryknollers.
One afternoon on our way home there was a fatal accident ahead of us. A man had been killed on his motorcycle, no helmet obviously. His body lay on the street….his head was swollen, crushed, and very bloody. It was an awful sight to see . And yet, here he lay uncovered . In the US we seem to always rush to cover up anything ugly.!. in more ways than one. But here, no one made any attempt to cover up, to disguise the reality, the reality of death, Violent and bloody deaths are common here. The Salvadoran people know what massacres are, their martyrs blood is in much of the soil in their country. So even if this man’s death was an accident it was to be looked at .it is part of reality, no matter how much it hurts. They know they need to see it and in the seeing, learn something from it.
There were happier times in my IMMERSION experience. One small community up the mountain has a delightful building that is part kitchen, part library, part place to learn how to make jewelry.. part place where people can meet and pray. There is a clinic next to it where doctors come regularly . Outside there is a place for playing soccer…and the beginning of a sliding board. …. All they need is the slide itself. A member of our team got soccer balls of appropriate sizes for the children. Much hope and laughter permeated the place. … a place where I ate yucca for the first time. And it was not a YUCK experience…it was good….
We also visited an AIDS clinic , run by a Maryknoll Sister/Doctor. It is called CONTRASIDA (against AIDS) , Pts receive HIV medication, proper food and vitamins, and education …..most important!. A volunteer had just arrived to give massages. The country actually has a program to help those who are vision impaired….they teach them to give massages. Imagine how great their touch must be! Part of the clinic teaching , done in various ways of workshops and theater, is to help change the prevailing MACHO attitude of the men. It seems that men are expected to have many women in their lives , even if they are married. The spread of HIV is multiplied over and over.. The AIDS orphans will have a special Christmas party this year because of our visit., and contribution to their joy.
We also visited a coffee plantation, 3, 300 feet up the mountain. The roads were “something else”, even necessitating crossing over a river where the place to cross was still under water. Yes, we slid . but just a bit. It is the season for picking. Entire families must go, no school for children. All must pick to make as much money as possible. For some this is the only time of the year they are able to do that. , not all are able to cut the sugar cane with machetes. The people earn one dollar, $1.00/per every 25 pounds of coffee beans they pick. (the beans do not weigh much). As a city girl who had no idea of what the plant even looked like , I wanted to try it. So I did just that, picking the red/ripe ones like I was shown, ,,,putting it into the small basket, that gets dumped into a large bag. After the picking comes the sorting, Families sit on the ground with all the beans dumped out on a large piece of plastic . All the green ones are placed in another basket. I have forgotten what they are used for, but nothing is wasted. Then the good ones are placed in large bags that weigh 150 to 200 pounds, which are borne on their shoulders, with their back almost bent over, and taken to a waiting pick – up truck. The wooden , plank like board, they climb to get it into the truck, bends as they are on it, giving proof of the weight of their load. Oh, how their backs must hurt at night. We need that massage person here for sure. Oh how they would enjoy that treat…
I am learning about the Fair Trade Act and shall do all in my power to inform my friends about how the little man….the one at the bottom …the picker must endure so much for so little income. I have pictures to prove it and memories to share. The day we went there was chosen for our safety. This is a most violent country and powerful gangs seem to roam freely with-any punishment. On the days that the workers get paid, the gangs often surround the bus or the truck, … they show their guns, and demand the money and valuables. They think nothing of shooting someone who resists.
Imagine, all you have worked so hard for, is suddenly taken away.! I have never seen so many men with rifles as in the cities here. All businesses have to hire them for security, and even the wealthier people whose homes we drove by have them. Muggings are common , so one does not travel alone at night for sure.
At the chapel where Archbishop Romero was killed, a young boy of about twelve lay on the steps with a woman bending over him. I found out it was his aunt. His mother was hours away and needed to be there for the family. His name was Angel Alexandre. He had just finished receiving an intravenous in the Divine Providence Hospital, the hospice for the cancer patients. He has leukemia and will be there for a while. Yet he told me that he had to come outside because it is ‘too white inside’ , the walls, the ceiling and the sheets. … all too white. He needed to see the trees, the flowers, the birds. I asked if I could take his picture, I told him I would put it on my refrigerator and pray for him each day. He asked my name and told me he would say a prayer for me. I think that is appropriate. One from him would equal daily ones of mine. Thank you, Lord, for sending me an angel.!
The brochure for the trip included a line:
“We call you to experience the presence of God
in a sacred culture, with graced people”
I think of further definition of IMMERSION as
A state of being deeply engaged, involved in.
A state of total absorption.
I believe that I tried my best to be immersed in El Salvador,
To be immersed in the Saviour
To be immersed in the Body of Christ.
I have tried to be a woman of PRAYER.
Taking that “long, loving look at the REAL
THE LONG I spent time, did not rush, tried to truly BE , BE PRESENT
With the graced people on holy ground.
THE LOVING…How could one not love these people who still smile and
depend on the Lord. Tens of thousands were killed in a
twelve year civil war, with families totally destroyed.
Injustice and poverty permeate the entire country , and
still the people smile and trust the Lord.
THE LOOK With at times tear-filled eyes I did not turn away. I needed
to see their sorrow, their joy, …to look at their history and
their present so that I can help them with their future.
THE REAL All of the above that I have written and so much more are
stored in my memory.
I trust that I may always cherish that definition of PRAYER,
I trust that I may continue my IMMERSION with people, most
especially the poor, the homeless, the hopeless, the hungry, the
hurting, those dying at Hospice. And all of my Haitians who suffer
so. I remember the Maasai in Africa, these Salvadorans, all that
I have had the privilege to meet and share their lives but for a
brief time. I have learned so much from them.
I close with a quotation from Archbishop Romero on March 20, 1979
“It is wrong to be sad. Christians cannot be pessimists. Christians must always nourish in their hearts the fullness of joy. Try it, brothers and sisters: I have tried it many times and in the darkest moments, when slander and persecution were at the worst. (I try) to unite myself intimately with Christ, my friend, and to feel a comfort that all the joys of the earth cannot give; the joy of feeling oneself closer to God, even when humans do not understand. It is the deepest joy the heart can have.”