Pilgrimage Retreat to El Salvador

The following is an account of the experiences, discoveries, and my revelations while on a mission exposure trip to El Salvador with Maryknoll’s own missioners, Matt Rousso and Bill Donnelly as our guides.

Before leaving for the pilgrimage, I reflected on what grace I hoped to receive from God. It was the grace to forget myself, to lose myself in the experience, to let the spirit of the Salvadoran people mingle with my own spirit. God gave me that grace and more.

June 1, 2009

Travel to El Salvador was mostly uneventful but tedious as air travel usually is. After spending several hours in an air-conditioned plane and airport, stepping outside for the first time in the Salvadoran air was quite a shock. The temperature at the airport was the high 90s and the humidity near 98%. I remember thinking, “God, give me strength to do this.” Looking around, I noticed several presidential airplanes that brought various Heads of State from Latin American countries and the U.S. I learned that Hillary Clinton was attending the inauguration which had commenced at 8am that morning.

The first president from a leftist party (FMLN) had been elected, Mauricio Funes and like Americans for the U.S. President Barak Obama, his constituents are holding out great hope for change in their country. Driving from the airport to San Salvador we passed the stadium where the inauguration was still taking place. Brightly colored busses with all sorts of graphics lined the streets for blocks...no two busses were alike. I would soon learn those are the city busses, many with Bible scriptures and images of Christ adorning the sides and windows.
Once in San Salvador, the temperature dropped into the high 80s but the humidity was just as high. We stayed at a nice little Bed and Breakfast called Casa Clementina. Lunch was ready for us when we arrived—bologna and cheese sandwiches on white bread with chips, papaya, cantaloupe, and lemonade. We would sample many varieties of delicious juices in the next 8 days. Our hosts were very gracious and for dinner we were treated to Italian style spaghetti. We teased our hosts about being more Italian than Salvadoran!
Prayer and reflection followed dinner and off to bed!

June 2, 2009

After breakfast—cantaloupe, pineapple, toast, juice, and coffee, we met with a free lance reporter named Eugene. He asked us not to share his photo and spoke freely about the history of El Salvador, the many long years of oppression and exploitation.

Following a lunch of tortillas and cheese with guacamole and beans and we parted ways with Eugene and headed off for the Cathedral in San Salvador to visit the tomb of Archbishop Oscar Romero. The sacristan was not around and as we made our way down to the basement below the sanctuary we realized she was the only one capable of turning on the lights! Having just entered near total darkness from bright sunlight, most of us were blind. We could faintly see there were 2 small candles at the very far end of what seemed like a black cavern. Moving very slowly and all holding onto each other, we began to creep towards the small flickering light, the bravest of the group taking the lead. Midway into the space, the leaders discovered steps going down, then going up, then down again. I still couldn’t make out anything around me, just darkness and was quite anxious that I would manage to trip over something or fall into something that I couldn’t see. By sticking close to each other, and trusting one another, we were able to make our way up and down steps and around large columns to Romero’s tomb.

There we lighted another candle and were able to hold the candles close and see the red stone in the brass tomb representing Romero’s heart and the 4 angels standing at each of the corners. We read in turn passages from some of Romero’s homilies. We prayed, sang the refrain to “The Lord hears the cry of the poor” , knelt, and touched the tomb, hoping to invoke his spirit and the spirits of all the martyrs we had come to visit to fill our hearts and make us one. By the end of our time with Romero, everyone’s eyes had adjusted to the darkness and we could see clearly our surroundings. Where I had feared that objects lay in my path, or pits I risked falling into were no longer there. Everyone was able to walk out on their own and we reflected on how our eyes had literally “been opened.” The darkness had been pushed away and we could see clearly. It was to be my metaphor for the pilgrimage.
Exiting the Cathedral, we gathered in the Plaza across the street. This is the place where in the movie “Romero” a Mass is being celebrated and the government soldiers, stood along the top of the National Palace with automatic rifles and opened fire on the men, women, and children worshipping in the Plaza below. As I stood there remembering the scene as it was depicted in the movie, I looked at the faces of the people sitting around on the benches sleeping, reading, or listening to music and tried to imagine the fear and terror that must have filled the space that night and the blood of innocents spilled on the very stones on which I stood.

We visited the Dominican Hospital where Romero had a casita (a tiny house). It was in the hospital chapel where he was shot on March 24, 1980 by a lone gunman after completing the prayers of the faithful. A soft spoken and humble nun, not 5 feet tall, named Sr. Bernadette told us the story of what happened that fateful day in March and showed us photos taken immediately after the murder. Romero's casita has been made into a museum and everything he owned is preserved, his driver's license, photos, typewriter, and most chilling, the alb he was wearing during Mass, with the blood stain now brown with age and still bearing the hole made by the gunman's bullet. Outside his little car is still parked under the carport. In his rosegarden stands a small grotto with a statue of the Virgin Mary and beneath the statue lie his internal organs wrapped in a plastic bag. They had originally been buried with him but were exhumed when his body was moved to beneath the cathedral 3 years post death and had not deteriorated!

On the way home, we observed a very old woman dressed in rags in the middle of a busy 4 lane boulevard begging for money from cars stopped at the light. When the light turned green, she stood amidst cars whizzing all around her! A man on a corner was doing a "fire eating" act and two other men were wearing women's dresses and juggling in the street. Our guide Matt walked up to a man begging and put his hands on both of the man's shoulders and began speaking with him, then gave him a blessing with the sign of the cross on his forehead. Peddlers are literally everywhere and offering everything imaginable for sale, even little boxes of matches and individual sticks of gum. Our group was obviously one of foreigners and we attracted a bit of notice from others which gave us a good feeling for how immigrants must feel in our own country, when people gawk and perhaps make derogatory comments. It was quite a day!
June 3, 2009

We were awakened by the same bird as yesterday morning. Our hostess at the B&B says it is called "dichoso fui" which means "I was happy." That's kind of how we were just before awakened at 5am...happy. Anyway, I'm sure we'll get used to it. After breakfast we headed out to find the AIDS clinic (ContraSida) operated by Sr. Mary Annel, M.D. We drove all over a neighborhood asking people as we went where the clinic was located. Each person had a different answer! Many of the streets do not have posted names so it can be challenging even following directions but if afforded us the opportunity to see the whole neighborhood in one morning. Every home has a steel door, wrought iron fence, and razor wire around the perimeter, left overs from the civil war and protection from the gangs that roam in San Salvador. The only exception were the little 10 x 10 shacks of corregated metal along the railroad tracks...no security system there.

We eventually arrived and brought vitamins and baby blankets. Mary's main challenge is educating people both before they contract AIDS and before those infected spread it to others. Patients receive critical medications, food, and nutrition information to help them fight the virus.

Upstairs is a sewing program run by a woman named "Daisy." She supervises 6-7 women who make blouses, silk screen T-shirts, and embroider just about anything which they sell. A Gender Program helps teach men to treat their wives like equals and to remain faithful, thereby reducing the spread of AIDS.

Leaving the clinic, we piled into the van and while Matt and the driver discussed how to get to the Soy Project, we all noticed we were being watched through their window by 2 little girls in a small store. Purses hung on the wrought iron and glass door and the littlest girl, about 3 years old, was playing peek-a-boo with me. As I was drawn into her game, her older sister was waving at the rest of the group who were waving back and smiling. It was a very special moment and I felt privileged to have been able to spend a few minutes in their presence.

We eventually found the Soy Project operated by Maryknoll Lay Missioner, Anne Griegs and her coworker, Camillo. They have introduced Salvadorenos to soy products like patties, breads, soy milk. A pound of soy powder costs only 80 cents and makes 4 liters of "milk." It's very economical and high in protein.

After dinner, we had reflection time and prayer. The question posed to us: "When I did____I felt____." For me, when I played peek-a-boo with 2 little girls in a shop window, I felt privileged to be allowed into their lives even for a few minutes. We all experienced similar emotions and I will never see things the same way again.

June 4, 2009

I am becoming convinced that the greed of the developed world has created the suffering and death in Latin America. Today we left early, 6:30am, and had breakfast at a pupusa stand. I had hot chocolate that looked like coffee but was really tasty! I bought a pirated CD from a little boy and leather belt from a woman peddling on the street. We drove to the place where the Sisters and lay missioner were murdered. In the chapel erected there, we celebrated Mass and met with dona Clara, the caretaker who joined us. Like Sr. Bernadette, she was soft spoken and humble, loving, and very accommodating. After leaving the chapel, one of our travelling companions became very ill and we left him at the Casa Clementina to rest. We travelled to UCA, the Jesuit University of Central America where the Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter were murdered. We visited the chapel and listened to a brief talk by Dean Bradley, S.J. I was able to find a bit of time to be alone to read a book about Romero written in Spanish I had purchased at the bookstore. After dinner and cold shower, I read a great article on an immigrant raid in Postville, IA by Erik Camayd-Freixas.

June 5, 2009

We had breakfast at 6:30am and headed off to ORMUSA http://www.ormusa.org/ in San Salvador to meet Sylvia (a lawyer), Beatriz, and Blanca. ORMUSA is an organization that promotes labor and human rights for women laborers and professionals. Blanca spoke first. She had worked for years in a maquilla (factory) under poor conditions for very little money. she had no education possiblities and few skills. Now she is 46 years old, no job, and working with ORMUSA to give her confidence and knowledge of her rights in hopes of obtaining a good job.

eatriz worked for several maquillas and described the conditions of low wage, no health benefits, no time off to see a doctor if she could afford it, and forced to work holidays and overtime with no extra pay. Bathroom breaks were by permission only and if the factory owners felt an employee wasn't working hard enough, they would pull her hair or hit her on the head. Because each position received multiple applicants, there is no incentive to keep employees on because there are always more waiting in line for the job. Typically, the youngest, quiet and most humble women are hired as they are less likely to complain. Beatriz was scared and quiet at first. As time went on, she discovered ORMUSA and her rights! So she followed all the rules at the factory and observed the rights violations, reporting to ORMUSA. Eventually the factory pulled up stakes and moved and Beatriz moved on to a series of increasingly better positions. After gaining new skills and confidence at ORMUSA, she has an office job and volunteers to help other women do the same.

In the afternoon, we listened to a presentation by Fr. John Spain, M.M. during which he played some sound byte recordings of Archbishop Romero's homilies. It was great to hear Romero's actual voice! After lunch, we left for Soyaponga, a district of San Salvador to visit two Maryknoll sisters, Marie and Ceci who were delightful. As we sat in their simple livingroom with the door open (it's too hot and humid to ever close a door or a window in El Salvador) several neighborhood children zipped in and out of the doorway, peeking at us...very cute! Sr. Marie took us to the library she developed, Biblioteca de Paz (Library of Peace) and we observed the children playing games and reading books. It was also a "hang out" spot for kids of all ages, just chatting and having fun in a safe environment. Upon returning to Casa Clementina, some of us decided to walk around the neighborhood. The traffic was horrendous and the air pollution quite noticeable...we take relatively clean air (among other things) completely for granted here in the States.