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Solidarity with El Salvador

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Guest Column by Jo Miller

Pastor Matias Rivera came from a poor family of 12. The Salvadoran military carried out a large civilian massacre where he lived in 1979. Rivera saw the military behead a young woman and tear her body apart. His family knew they would be killed, so they left their five acres of crops and fled their town.

During El Salvador’s civil war in the 1980s, he helped large groups of people — in the thousands — escape from the military that was torturing and killing civilians in death squads across the country. As a medic, he took care of many sick children. He and the people with him hid in the mountains and would walk huge distances, with no shelter and no food. They had to eat cats and dogs. He saw only parts of families make it out alive.

The military captured him in 1985. They tied him up, tortured him, and made him sit on a floor full of feces while they interrogated him. They blindfolded him for 20 days straight. When the International Red Cross got him out, he couldn’t see who they were. A bishop sent him to Nicaragua to wait out the rest of the war because the military would certainly kill him if they got him again. Rivera’s oldest and youngest brothers and his nephews were killed during the war.

We sat on wooden pews in Pastor Rivera’s church in El Guaycume, El Salvador as he told us his story through a translator. The Lutheran church named Milagro de Dios (God’s Miracle) is the fulfillment of Rivera’s promise to God when he took an injury to the arm in an explosion during the war. As he hit the ground, he heard the sound of people singing church music in his ears. He told God if he got out of this, he would serve him. He’s been serving God ever since.

After listening to his story, his wife Martina — also an ordained pastor with a similar war story — brought us steaming hot pupusas stuffed with cheese and beans, a pitcher of thin red salsa for dipping, and cabbage curtido for scooping. They hugged each of us, thanking us for coming, and gifted us each a necklace of a small wooden cross with a white dove in the center to remember them by.

Journey to El Salvador

That level of joyous hospitality and openness came from everyone we met in El Salvador. I participated in a delegation of 10 from the Covenant United Methodist Church in north Spokane to visit the country at the end of October. Covenant has a sister church partnership with Iglesia Evangelica Luterana Buenas Nuevas (Good News Evangelical Lutheran Church) in a village called El Paisnal. Through Buenas Nuevas, Covenant supports students’ school fees and university scholarships, as well as funds an English class for kids in the community.

The congregation welcomed us warmly into their small concrete church. A child walked up to each of us — standing sweat-soaked and suitcase-laden at the door of the church — took one of our hands, handed us a small felt angel holding a candy, and led us to a chair. They sang us songs. They opened their homes to us for two nights. They shared with us their dreams and the ways they work tirelessly to help the people of their extremely impoverished community.

Our group also went into San Salvador and other regions to learn about the country’s history. Several nonprofits met with us to show how they currently confront the country’s problems in areas of gang violence, migration, trauma, poverty, and environmental concerns.

An organization called CRISPAZ (Christians for Peace in El Salvador) planned our trip. They put together faith-based delegation experiences, bringing people to El Salvador to learn and to meet Salvadorans to create relationships, emphasizing working side-by-side for justice rather than simply passing down charity.

We listened and became witnesses of their bloody past. We saw their present pain and desperation melded with hope and determination.

Crimes Against Humanity

More than 75,000 civilians died by the hand of government forces during the 12 years of El Salvador’s civil war. In decades prior, tens of thousands more suffered heinous abuses — rape, kidnapping, torture, and brutal murder — perpetrated by the wealthy oligarchy against the poor majority.

Our delegation learned about the many massacres where death squads slaughtered children, women, and men: 600 at Rio Sumpul, 600 at La Quesera, and 1,000 at El Mozote, to name a few.

We visited the university where six Jesuit priests and two women were assassinated and learned about the four U.S. nuns and one Salvadoran nun raped and killed by the military . We visited the memorial to Father Rutilio Grande who was assassinated on the road to El Paisnal. He broke the mold of the often-distant priest-people relationship and immersed himself with the poor and marginalized people. He was the first of many priests murdered by the government.

The municipal building in El Paisnal has a banner celebrating Monsenor Romero’s canonization/Jo Miller

We sat in the church where Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated at the altar during Mass. Romero, who was canonized by the Catholic Church Oct. 14, was a constant and strong voice for the people, calling out the injustice done against them and encouraging them to peacefully fight for their rights. We walked through downtown San Salvador outside the national cathedral where at Romero’s funeral procession, the military fired on the mourners, killing dozens.

“When they killed Monseñor Romero, they wanted to kill the voice of the people,” Pastor Rivera said. “He was the voice of God.”

Read part two of this series here.

Jo Miller
Jo Miller
Jo Miller grew up in Southern California, but came up to the Northwest to attend Whitworth University, where she received a bachelor’s degree in journalism and philosophy.

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