“Why in the world would you want to go to a place like El Salvador?” This was a question I had heard more than once from others when I told them where I was traveling. And even if the question wasn’t actually asked, you could see the question in their eyes, or hear it in the pause on the phone.
And, truth be known, I also had been asking myself the same question. But I knew I had to ask myself something too. And it was a matter of spiritual integrity. I am not a fan of heat and humidity. I like the comforts of home, my sense of security and all of the technology that I have become so accustomed to having at my immediate disposal. But I knew in my heart that the Gospel was calling me to step outside of myself. Oh, sure, I knew about Monseñor Oscar Romero and his commitment to the preferential option for the poor and vulnerable, whereby our obligation, as Christians, first and foremost, is to care for those who need it. I knew about the four martyred church women, Sisters Dorothy, Ita, Maura, and Jean , who were murdered in El Salvador in 1980 I also knew about the six Jesuits and the two women who, died in 1989 at the hands of a battalion of El Salvador’s military at the University of Central America.. I was also very aware of the disappearances and murders of so many innocent Salvadoran people during the years of civil strife from the 1970s into the early 1990s.
So then again, why go? Perhaps I went to search for answers to the question about why anyone would freely choose to remain in a situation knowing full well that their lives were at stake. Or perhaps I wanted to understand what motivates the lay missioners who give their time and talent to live in this Third World nation, the smallest of the Central American countries. I just knew there had to be answers, more comprehensive than merely “wanting to do good things”.
During the ten days I spent in El Salvador, the answer to the question, “Why go?” was revealed on a daily basis. Our FAB (Friends Across Borders) group, made up of people from all over the United States, visited the sites where each of the Maryknoll Lay Missioners are stationed. Each time, we were greeted with a warm and gracious welcome. Each site and each MKLM missioner was uniquely different in the work they did.
There was work being done with organic agriculture, helping impoverished families achieve sustainability such as with tilapia farming. Lay missioners were also part of the faith of the locals in their base Christian communities. Here, faith was lived out in prayer and sharing, and caring for the needs of the community so that the basic needs of water and food were met. Substantial work was also done by lay missioners in areas prone to gang violence where the youth are heavily recruited. Another lay missioner is working in a shelter to ensure some measure of safety for those forced to flee their homes due to gang threats.
Efforts are also being made to promote literacy, utilizing education as a means out of poverty. We spoke with several young adults, who are committed to education, rising at 4 AM every day to make the two hour (each way) trip to the University to eventually become teachers and leaders. Another missioner is working to promote financial stability through the formation of a co-op of women. Several of these women had to flee the violence during the 70’s and 80’s, and are now able to create a life of stability for themselves.
As different and unique as each lay missioner’s ministry is, there was clearly a common thread uniting them all. These lay missioners gently weave themselves into the lives of their communities in a way that brings to life the most basic of the tenets of Catholic social teaching: the God-given dignity of every human person. So, in the ordinariness of day-to-day life, it is unmistakably evident that there runs a deep and mutual respect between the missioners and those in their communities. This is the same kind of total acceptance and respect that Jesus embodied. It’s the place where God embraces humanity, and humanity can’t help but respond.
I visited the crypt of Blessed Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was murdered in1980, as he celebrated Mass in a hospital in San Salvador during the country’s civil war. I also visited the site of the four church women’s martyrdom, the Memorial wall of those who were massacred or missing, as well as the site where the six Jesuits and two women were slain. The experience was unforgettable. Our shared prayer and reflection provided the space where one could hear God whisper, “No greater love is there than to lay down one’s life for another”.
So, by being a first-hand witness to the lives of the Salvadoran people, and the Maryknoll lay missioners, I found my answer to the question, “Why go to El Salvador?” Mission activity is so much more than coming into a situation and ”fixing things”. It’s so much more than just teaching your way of doing things. It’s so much more than the sharing of material wealth. It is acquiring, as Pope Francis would say, “the smell of the sheep”, the sweet fragrance of loving service and mutual respect. The Salvadoran “gente” and the Maryknoll lay missioners taught me in the ten days we shared some of the most important lessons I have ever learned in my life.