We Accompanied Them through the Night

by Bridget O’Donnell Muller, Lew Beach, NY, who participated in the Maryknoll Lay Missioner’s Friends Across Borders (FAB) program in El Salvador.

In June of 2016, I participated in a Maryknoll Lay Missioners’ Friends Across Borders trip to El Salvador. On the first night of our arrival, the ten of us – women and men from all across the United States who were journeying for different reasons – sat in a circle in a meeting room at the retreat house of the Sisters of the Asunción, which is located in Planes de Renderos in Panchimalco. The retreat house would be our home for the next ten days. We were an eager collective, restless with curiosity; some travelers held more apprehension than others. Certainly, as a group, we knew little of El Salvador except what we had read or seen in movies. The convent sits at the top of a hill and around us (outside our nondescript classroom-like meeting space), rich gardens of ropy vines, gigantic succulents, and exotic red, orange and yellow flowers cascaded down the slopes surrounding us. The air smelled of gardenias.

Mary Delaney, a dark-haired, Irish-looking woman with a big easy laugh, began to guide us into reflection. In the 1980’s and 90’s, Mary spent six years as a Maryknoll Lay Missioner in Nicaragua working at an orphanage for children with special needs. As we relaxed into our quiet time, people closed their eyes, slowed their breathing. All of that meditative energy froze and became brittle when the crack of gunfire exploded through the open windows. Our backs straightened in our plastic chairs. After what felt like an extremely long silence, Peter Altman, one of our Maryknoll Lay Missioner guides, said (in a dead-pan way which we would all learn to anticipate and treasure), “By the way, those were fireworks.” Our spines released. We all laughed. It would turn out to be Peter who would push us – each night – to question and acknowledge the limitations of our own conclusions.

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The Journey Begins

Over the next ten days, we became more acquainted with the noises and pictures of El Salvador: the ricochet of those celebratory fireworks rocketing through the night and into the early hours; the rain, lashing the convent as we tried to sleep; the tortured sounding screech of the geckos; and—as we woke—the crowing of roosters from patches of land below. We grew acclimated to the rhythmic syllables of Spanish and to the warmth of the El Salvadoran people, Buenos Días, Buenas Tardes, Buenas Noches. Through the windows of our bus, we saw men on the side of the road hoisting assault rifles. We also watched ragged mist hovering over blue-green mountains.

But that first night, we knew nothing except that we were each seeking an answer—either personal or theoretical—that might counter the injustices we anticipated. Rick Dixon, a thin man who carries a stillness with him, was another of our in-country guides. Rick, a Maryknoll Lay Missioner since 2012, is also a writer who recently published a piece in America about his work in El Salvador. Rick promotes family literacy through a number of programs he organizes in a squatter settlement in Cojutepeque; in the tiny gathering space in the settlement he would lead us to a few days later, we’d clear off the altar to read books with children beneath the very grounded gaze of a statue of a pregnant Blessed Mother.

That first night, after we all recovered from our brush with imagined gunfire, Rick shared with us what we would hear repeated by all the Lay Missioners. There is no answer. The changes needed to happen to transform El Salvador towards justice, and towards what we Catholics might call the Kingdom of God, may not come in the missioners’ lifetimes. Perhaps they won’t come in the world’s history. Rick leaned forward. He told us about what allowed him to continue, with hope. It was the theology of accompaniment. Because it is so dangerous in El Salvador (currently because of a gang culture that was nurtured in and then deported from the United States), when one agrees to accompany another in El Salvador, it is one of the strongest statements of support a person can offer another. Maryknoll Lay Missioners accompany the poor by living alongside them and by being in solidarity with them. They accompany by walking beside the powerlessness of the Salvadoran people.

A Journey to Love

On the trip, I was searching to learn more about my own story of accompaniment and I felt closely tied to the four churchwomen (Dorothy Kazel, an Ursuline sister; Maura Clarke, a Maryknoll sister; Ita Ford, a Maryknoll sister; and Jean Donovan, a lay missioner with the Cleveland Diocesan Mission Team) who were raped and murdered execution-style by members of the National Guard on December 2, 1980. I’m challenged by their total commitment to accompanying the Salvadoran people in their struggles.

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In Ita Ford’s reflection to Maryknoll in 1977, when she was still in Chile (before she came to El Salvador in response to Oscar Romero’s plea for pastoral help), this is how she described what I came to understand as this theology of accompaniment:

“In reflecting about it alone and with others, I see Chile deeply experiencing the paschal mystery, with the light of Easter still to come…The challenge that we live daily is to enter into this mystery with faith. Am I willing to suffer with the people here, the suffering of the powerless, the feeling impotent? Can I say to my neighbors—I have no solutions to this situation; I don’t know the answers, but I will walk with you, search with you, be with you. Can I let myself be evangelized by this opportunity? Can I look at and accept my own poorness as I learn it from other ones?”

Early on in the trip, our group visited the memorial dedicated to the murdered churchwomen, which includes a chapel built in their honor. Outside the colorful chapel looms an ancient, royal-looking, matriarch of a tihuilote tree; its gnarled roots and its mammoth trunk are thought to be the final images the women saw before they were killed. The tree, protected forever when the site was designated an historical site, has been described as the only witness to the killing. Accompaniment is deeper than witness; it pushes us out of comfortable bystander mode. It does not allow us to remain mute. Instead, it demands that we somehow participate in the suffering in whatever way our vocation allows.

Can I be that open to Love? We’ll see, as I discern my own path in the coming year. I think everyone on my trip would agree with me when I say that the Maryknoll Lay Missioners we visited have entrusted their lives to Love. On one of our final nights of reflection, Peter Altman, our hard-to-impress Maryknoll Lay Missioner guide said, “Well, we all know how it ends, right? In the end, love wins.”

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When I returned to the United States, I visited Maryknoll in Ossining, New York. On every Maryknoll priest’s grave, flat gray stones, signs of so many lives passed, was this statement, “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God.” At our layover in the Atlanta airport, I got into a discussion with one of my co-travelers, Vince Hand—a passionate student of Spanish and an engineer—about everything we’d experienced and what it meant as we moved towards our own futures.

“But what if everyone accompanied the way the lay missioners do?” I said.
“Well, then, the Kingdom of God would be at hand,” Vince said. And on that point, we both agreed.